Sunday, 19 February 2012

The Amazing Race 20, Episode 1

Santa Ynez, CA (USA) - Los Angeles, CA (USA) - Salta (Argentina) - Cafayate (Argentine)

The route of the first episode of season 20 of The Amazing Race this week was billed by CBS as being from “Santa Barbara, California, to Santa Barbara, Argentina”. In reality, the race started in Santa Ynez (in Santa Barbara County, but miles away and inland on the other side of a range of mountains from the coastal city of Santa Barbara) and finished in Cafayate in Salta Province, Argentina.

To confuse matters further, the cast of this season of the race was introduced while they were shown bicycling through vineyards in the Santa Ynez Valley. That’s a significant secondary center of California winemaking, but wine plays a minor role in the experience for most visitors of Santa Barbara. And if you are in Santa Barbara and want to tour the Santa Ynez wineries, you’ll need to be a strong bicyclist: it’s a metric century (100km/65 miles) round-trip from the center of Santa Barbara to the winery where the race began, over a pass more than 2,000 feet high reached by a 5 1/2 mile climb at a steady grade of more than 7%. That’s not something you’re going to want to do on your way back to your hotel after sampling too many wines!

Cafayate, on the other hand, is known more for wine than anything else — it’s the second most important wine center in Argentina after Mendoza — and a large proportion of the tourists in Cafayate, most of whom are domestic tourists from other parts of Argentina, come there because of the wine. Cafayate is located in a valley surrounded by steep rocky hills that resemble portions of the California Coast Ranges around Santa Ynez. But many of the Cafayate wineries are located in or near town, rather than further out in the vineyards. The valley itself is flat, the distances between wineries are short, and renting a one-speed bike for a leisurely day of wine tasting is one of the standard tourist experiences in Cafayate.

Although many varieties of wine are produced in Cafayate, the region is best-known for Torrontés, a variety of grape grown almost nowhere in the world except in Argentina. Torrontés is probably the best known and certainly the most distinctive of Argentine white wines. My friend Wayne Bernhardson, who introduced me to Torrontés in Buenos Aires almost a decade ago when it was still almost unobtainable in the USA (we brought back several bottles from that trip in our luggage), described its uniquely bright, fruity taste and smell as, “like drinking fresh grapes”, and it’s come to be one of my favorite wines with seafood, especially crab and other shellfish. It’s also delightful in a delicacy every visitor to Cafayate should sample, Torrontés sorbet. Like Argentine Malbec, Torrontés has skyrocketed in price as it’s become internationally known, but remains excellent value.

The Amazing Race has visited Argentina more times than any country except China and India. You can’t really say you’ve “see the world” without visiting both China and India. But why Argentina? Its prominence in the races’ itineraries reflects its popularity and explosive growth as an international tourism destination, including for visitors from the USA, over the decade since the collapse of the Argentine peso transformed the country from South America’s most expensive country to one with almost (but not quite) First World infrastructure and safety at almost (but not quite, and gradually creeping up with post-devaluation inflation) Third World prices.

The pattern of the races’ travels in Argentina over 20 seasons also mirrors the larger pattern of Argentina’s “maturation” as an international tourism destination. Most first-time visitors spend most of their time in Buenos Aires, where almost all international flights arrive, with perhaps a short side trip to Iguazu Falls. If they stay longer, or come back for more, they are likely to go next to the far south of Patagonia, and then perhaps to the wine capital of Mendoza more or less due west from Bs.As. across the pampas. Despite being a major destination for domestic Argentine tourists, northwestern Argentina — the hilly area from the plains of the “chaco” up through the canyon country to the crest of the Andes and the borders with Chile and Bolivia, often abbreviated “NOA” for “noroeste argentino” — is typically the last region of the country reached by most foreign tourists, perhaps only after several return visits.

The only international visitors for whom northwestern Argentina has a higher profile are those traveling overland through South America, since the only good north-south land route between the northern and central Andean countries and the Southern Cone passes through this area along the gradual slope of the Quebrada (Canyon) de Humahuaca en route to and from the border crossing between La Quiaca (Argentina) and Villazón (Boliva). Improvements in the main roads in southern Bolivia (“Evo cumple!” say the billboards, meaning “Evo Morales delivers” on his campaign promises to bring infrastructure and services to the indigenous people of the highlands previously neglected by the white Spanish-speaking lowland elite) make it easier to extend an Argentina trip north. There are now reasonably comfortable buses (full of Bolivian “guest-workers” returning home from Argentina) as far as Potosí.

Most international visitors to Argentina, however, fly into Buenos Aires, as did the racers. The racers were then required to fly from Bs. As. to Salta. If you aren’t in so much of a hurry, alternative routes from the capital to the country’s northwest include a wide array of extremely comfortable overnight buses, or the obscure but intriguing possibility of a 24 hour journey on Argentina’s sole remaining long-distance sleeping car train, maintained (like many Amtrak routes underwritten by US states) by a subsidy from the Tucumán provincial government.

I would recommend the train from Bs. As. to Tucumán over the bus, if (1) you are travelling in a couple or with a friend, and get a compartment in the sleeping car, (2) you aren’t in a hurry (the train operates only twice a week in each direction, and the better buses are substantially faster, 16 hours versus 24 hours journey time for the train, and more likely to arrive on time), (3) you are able to buy your tickets far enough in advance to get a compartment (fortunately, seats in the chair cars typically sell out much further in advance than the sleeping-car compartments, which even most Argentines don’t know exist), and (4) you have at least some liking for train travel for its own sake.

Argentine buses are as good as they get, some with 180-degree reclining flat-bed sleeper seats, but a private two-person compartment in a sleeping car, on a train with a decent dining car, is even more comfortable. When I rode on it in 2007 (I believe it’s still about the same today), the train to Tucumán reminded me of Amtrak in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s. Argentina used to have the largest railway network in South America, and the operator of the train to Tucumán had their pick of a vast inventory of older cars to renovate. As with Amtrak’s “legacy” cars, they’ve done the best they could, despite some older mechanical systems.

The chair cars aren’t much better than “hard seat” class on a Chinese train, but the compartments and berths in the sleeping car are large (Argentina railways use a wider gauge than the US standard) and quite comfortable. The onboard crew is mostly young, friendly, and enthusiastically helpful. The train left Retiro station in Buenos Aires about half an hour late (giving us time to linger over coffee and pastries in the grand old Retiro Cafe off the waiting room near the long-distance platform, as shown in the photo at the top of this article — yes, that’s a piano on a wooden turntable in the middle of the room), and arrived in Tucumán about an hour late. Food in the dining car was good if not elegant: coffee and empanadas at all hours, and a reasonable fixed-price set menu at lunch and dinner. Unlike a bus, there’s room to move around, and a chance to hang out and talk with other passengers.

The final kicker is that a private 2-person compartment (“camarote”) on the train costs significantly less than 2 tickets on a first-class (“coche cama ejecutivo” or “coche cama suite”) bus. This is the only sleeping-car service still in operation anywhere in Argentina, and I think most negative reviews of Argentine train travel are either from people who haven’t taken this particular train, or were in the chair cars. Wayne Bernhardson (whose advice I usually heed, but who hasn’t ridden this train himself) cautions that it sometimes breaks down, in which case (as with Amtrak) passengers are transferred to buses to complete their journey. But my feeling is that even then, you’re no worse off (although later arriving) than if you had paid more to take the bus all the way in the first place.

The journey has much in common with a trip from Chicago to Denver, leaving the skyscrapers of the big city:

for the long crossing of the level grasslands:

ending at the front range of the Andes, where the land changes abrubtly from horizeontal to vertical and green to gray, and the vegetation changes to cactus and other plants reminiscent of the Mojave Desert:

Empanadas are ubiquitous in Argentina, not just in the dining car on the train. In the USA, you can get pizza delivered almost anywhere, and Chinese food in most cities. In Argentina, pizza and empanadas are the two types of prepared food most often available for home delivery, followed by ice cream. You can judge the popularity of a pizza, empanada, or ice cream parlour (“heladeria) by how many “motos” with logo-emblazoned insulated cargo boxes on the back are parked outside for their fleet of “cadetes”.

Especially in highrise districts in the cities, many Argentine supermarkets also offer home delivery, often for free, to serve customers without cars — or where the one family car is in use when another family member goes shopping — who want to buy more than they can carry home by themselves. Most people still go to the store in person to pick out what they want. But after you check out, instead of bagging your groceries and taking them to your car as in the US, an Argentine supermarket loads them into standardized stacking plastic crates to be delivered by their mini-truck or van to your house or apartment later that day or the next morning.

Labor is cheap in the current economic crisis in Argentina, and many other urban businesses provide free or cheap home delivery. I’ve even seen newspaper ads for competing sex-toy shops that guarantee “envios a domicilio” within an hour anywhere in Buenos Aires (“Capital Federal”), 2 hours anywhere in the metropolitan area (“Gran Bs. As.”) (Caution: Links NSFW, not safe for work!) They promise “discreet” delivery, but how can the arrival at your door of a motorcycle messenger be “discreet”? And how does the dildo delivery “boy” announce his business to the doorman of your building, so that they can call you to get permission to send him up to your apartment with your your newly-purchased “consoladore”? New York didn’t get a service like this until four or five years after Buenos Aires, and it’s still on a much smaller scale. So much for stereotypes about all of Latin America, except perhaps Brazil, consisting of “sexually-repressed Catholic” countries.

But I digress. Back to the empanadas, and “The Amazing Race”.

Whether baked (“al horno” — my preference) or fried, empanadas are made by wrapping a circle of pastry around a spoonful of filling, folding it in half, and pinching the pastry together along the half-circular edge. They are generally priced by the dozen, even when you mix-and-match those with different types of fillings. The problem comes when your assorted order arrives, and you want to figure out which are which.

The traditional solution is to pinch the rim in a distinctive pattern for each type of filling. Standard empanada menus in Argentina, and even some in the USA, include a set of sketches showing the edge-crimp pattern for each variety the shop offers. (I’m partial to “humita” or “choclo” — creamed corn and cheese.)

The racers had to assemble 60 of each of two types of empanadas. Since they weren’t familiar with the significance of the crimping patterns, it took a long time for some of the teams to figure out that they were different for the two types, and needed to be matched carefully lest a diner who wanted a meat empanada bite into a vegetable one instead, or vice versa.

Next week we’ll find out what, if anything, the racers do — and I’ll talk about some of the things you can do — to explore the surrounding region before returning to Buenos Aires.

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 19 February 2012, 23:59 (11:59 PM)


You forgot to mention the Train Patagonico linking Bariloche to Viedma in the Rio Negro Province, Argentina. They also have a Pullman [sleeping car, "camarote" in Spanish] service.

A few weeks ago service was suspended because of a landslide, but it should start again later this year.

Their website is not working but you can check on:


Auguste Kaisercamarote

Posted by: Auguste Kaiser, 26 February 2012, 14:58 ( 2:58 PM)
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