Friday, 16 October 2015

The Amazing Race 27, Episode 4

San Antonio de Areco (Argentina) - Buenos Aires (Argentina) - Livingstone (Zambia) - Victoria Falls (Zimbabwe)


[The high-rises of Palermo overlook the Beaux-Arts Pista Central of La Rural in Buenos Aires]

This week the teams on The Amazing Race 27 had to make their way by bus from San Antonio de Areco back to Buenos Aires, then through the city somehow to one of the airports (we weren't told which one) for the first of a series of connecting flights that would get them to the small tourist town of Livingstone on the Zambian side of Victoria Falls.

Although "colectivos" (city buses) in Buenos Aires all accept the same SUBE prepaid RFID-chipped farecard, colectivos on each route are operated by a separate company. That makes them harder to incorporate into digital mapping and navigation applications than if they were under common management. In an earlier episode this season, we saw how much trouble the racers had trying to use apps like Google Maps to find their way around Buenos Aires.

The secret to getting around in B.A. is do what the locals do and use the Guia "T". You can get the pocket edition ("Guia "T" de Bolsilla") at most newspaper and magazine stands. Because it's universally used by locals, consulting a copy of the Guia "T" in public doesn't mark you as a tourist. It's organized very differently from the "London A-Z", but serves a similar function and provides comprehensive bus route information that's absent from the "A-Z". The city is divided into squares, with both ranges of street numbers and bus routes indexed by square. Find which colectivo number serves both the map square where you are and the square of your destination and you know which bus to take.There's also a list of colectivos by number, with both their route in each direction and a "bus-spotter's guide" showing the distinctive color scheme and livery of each bus, to help you find the right bus in traffic on a busy street.

The BA Cómo Llego ("How to Go") app has similar information, and works better for these purposes than Google Maps or any of the other apps or Web sites we tried.

The racers, of course, only had time while they were in Argentina to go to the places that they were sent by the TV producers. As I discussed in my previous column, that inevitably denied them the chance to happen upon any of the places that nobody recommends, but that can be at least equally interesting, in part because they are more genuinely "typical" in not being tourist destinations (and where foreign visitors haven;t yet worn out their welcome or come to be seen solely as customers rather than also as guests).

Crossing Argentina by bicycle earlier this year, we spent much of our two months in places that weren't on most lists of must-see's. Even in the major cities we passed through, we had time and made the choice to wander rather than to focus on anyone else's list of recommendations.

We found ourselves in some dumps (although fewer, particularly with respect to small-town lodging, then we had feared), had some bad meals (yes, that's possible, even in Argentina), and wasted some time on wild goose chases and random walks or rides that got us nowhere.

But as I discussed last week, we also had some fascinating and often enjoyable experiences that we wouldn't have had if we let ourselves be guided by even the best of guidebooks.

Here are some of the unexpected highlights of our latest two months in Argentina. places we went, places we stayed: places we ate, and things we visited and did that we found worthwhile.

Few of these were part of our plans, and fewer showed up in any of the lists of highlights or recommendations (even those of experts) we had seen before this trip. Your mileage may vary, and I hope you explore on your own, but for someone with my tastes and interests, any of these would be worth a detour.

Places to go:

  • Merlo and the Comechingones and Traslasierra Valleys on the west side of the Central Sierras: The best bicycling region we found, although its attractions aren't limited to cycling. Scenic with plentiful services, but uncrowded, at least in the off season when we were there. (More.)

  • Rosario, Santa Fe Province: Rosario is actually often recommended (and often described as "underrated"), but oddly few foreign tourists actually seem to heed those recommendations. It's an interesting, attractive, energetic, and prosperous city that is to Buenos Aires in many of the same ways that Chicago is to New York. It's an inland river port accessible to ocean-going ships, and one of the two main gateways (along with Bahía Blanca in the south) for Argentine grain and soybean exports. But unlike the port of Buenos Aires (and like Chicago), Rosario embraces its waterfront with parks and promenades.

  • Victoria, Entre Ríos Province: In 2003, a 60 km chain of bridges and causeways over the ship channel and marshes of the inland delta of the Paraná River opened to traffic, connecting the literally backwater little town of Victoria to one of Argentina's second cities, Rosario. In a few years, I wouldn't be surprised to see Victoria subsumed into greater Roario and/or transformed into an overcrowded tourist trap for Rosarino day-trippers, weekenders, and retirees. For now, though, Victoria remains a remarkably peaceful and self-contained place with a completely different vibe from the big city across the river an hour away by bus.

Places to stay:

  • Solans Hotel Libertador, Rosario: If you want good service and many amenities -- emphasizing functional comforts rather than image and ornamentation -- but in a local style and without paying the price of affiliation with a global brand, locally-owned business hotels are often a good balance. The Solans hotels, for example, are a chain of boutique business hotels that's just beginning to expand from Rosario to other cities in Argentina. We stayed at the Libertador (right next door to the BCR -- see below) because it happened to be the least expensive of the Solans hotels available in Rosario during our visit, but we probably would have been happy at any of their other properties. It's in a part of the financial district that's pretty dead at night, but within walking distance of shopping and restaurant areas. We stayed in similar locally-owned business hotels in several other cities.

  • Posada del Valle, Merlo, San Luis Province: We stayed in several "posadas" (inns) and B&B's, and all were excellent, but this was far and away the best and the best value for the money. A countrified and relaxing "oasis" in the middle of town, with outstanding service even by Argentine standards, which are typically high. The proprietors are welcoming and friendly without being intrusive, a balance that not all B&B's manage. (More.)

  • Park Hyatt Hotel, Mendoza: The most luxurious and best-situated hotel we stayed at on this trip, with some of the most consistently excellent service of any hotel I've ever stayed in anywhere. Yes, this is part of a global chain. But it's clear -- in a good way -- that the management is not merely Argentine but Mendocino. I'm not sure that this hotel is worth the cash price (although it might be, and I've paid to stay here before), but it was outstanding value as a way to redeem credit card points. (I'll have more about that in a future column.) One of the things that, to me, distinguishes a truly first-rate hotel or other business is that it offers the same first-rate service to every customer, no matter what they look like or how much they paid. Here, we were treated impeccably even when we were dressed in bicycling clothes and even by staff who knew that we'd redeemed points rather than paying for our room. That's very different from what I've seen at many (although not all) other hotels, especially some high-end hotels.

Places to eat:

  • Lo Mejor del Centro, Rosario: After the financial crisis in 2001, many business owners who saw no hope of paying off dollar-denominated debts whose value in pesos had multiplied walked away from factories and other businesses. Some of these establishments were "reclaimed" by the former employees and resumed or continued operation as worker cooperatives. In 2007, we ate at the Restaurante Rich, one of Rosario's most renowned restaurants, which in this fashion had come to be a worker coop. Sadly, the creditors of the erstwhile owner repossessed all the fixtures and kitchen equipment in 2008, putting the Rich collective out of business. We were pleasantly surprised, after finding the Rich closed, to happen upon this less fancy but equally good-value worker coop restaurant just a few blocks away. Service was friendly and helpful if a little less attentive than the norm of Argentine professional waiters, but everything we tried was tasty. Ask your "mozo" (waiter) about the catch-of-the-day specials of grilled river fish.

  • Txoko (Restaurante Centro Vasco), Villa Maria: There are people of Basque ancestry and Basque cultural centers throughout Argentina, but Basque food is a surprisingly uncommon "ethnic" specialty in Argentine restaurants. This public restaurant in the Basque social club in Villa Maria is well worth a detour off the RN9 autopista (or the parallel "Old RN9" that goes through town centers) for lunch or dinner mid-way between Córdoba and Rosario. The fact that a minor regional agricultural center like Villa Maria has such an upscale restaurant is a clue to how much of the money from the boom in soybean and grain exports is actually remaining in otherwise undistinguished-looking provincial towns, not all being siphoned off to absentee owners or bankers in the capital or overseas.

  • Dirán, Mercado del Norte, Córdoba: It's not a fluke that Argentina's president in the 1990's was of Syrian heritage: More Argentines trace their ancestry to what is now Syria or Lebanon than to anywhere else outside Europe. "Syrian" restaurants and menu items such as "empanadas arabe" aren't too unusual in Argentina, but genuine Syrian food is rare. Typical "Syrian-Argentine" restaurant cuisine is about as Syrian as chop suey is Chinese. To complicate matters, the Syrians immigrants and their Argentine-born children who operate this hole-in-wall stall in the public market in Córdoba are ethnic Armenians, not Arabs. But that isn't as odd as you might think, either: the Assad dictatorship in Syria is secular, and at least when we visited Syria in 2008 (before the start of the present civil war, foreign interventions, and refugee crisis), there was still a substantial and visible Orthodox Christian ethnic Armenian community. Anyway, the food at Dirán is excellent, prepared with great care, and different from what you are likely to find at any other restaurant in the country.

  • Parilla del Mercado, Mercado Central, Mendoza: This looks like just another stall in the food court ("patio de comidas") of the central produce market in Mendoza. And the steaks and ribs were nothing special, by Argentine standards (although still good value for the prices). But if you think of organ meats and entrails as delicacies, or have never tried them but are open minded, get a plate of the superb mixed grill of assorted "entrañas". In Argentina, offal is usually an appetizer, although an important one. Here, it earns its rightful its place as a main course.

  • Popup restaurants at La Rural: During the Exposición Rural (see below) in late July and early August, a variety of temporary restaurants pop up on the fairgrounds in Palermo. These range from take-out "choripan" (grilled sausage sandwich) stands to extravagantly ornate pavilions showcasing the most elaborate and traditional Argentine banquet food. In between, there are white-tablecloth parilla restaurants in sections of the same barns where the prize cattle are stabled. If you are spending a day at the fair, pick where and when you want to eat and reserve your table as soon as possible to avoid disappointment.


[Rodeo in the city: Barrel racing at La Rural in Buenos Aires]

Things to visit and do:

  • La Rural: Imagine a state fair and agricultural exposition and trade show, on a national scale, in a country whose economy is overwhelmingly dominated by agricultural exports and whose national culture is rooted in the "campo" (the countryside), the "gaucho" (cowboy), and the farm and ranch ("estancia"). Now move it to a permanent home in one of the wealthiest high-rise residential neighborhoods in the capital city -- the equivalent of a site in Central Park in Manhattan -- with acres of purpose-built livestock barns, exhibition halls, rodeo arenas, restaurant pavilions, and arcades of stalls selling everything from artisanal cheese and dulce de leche to hand-tooled saddlery and the finest Patagonian wool. Combine this with a grand gathering of "estancia" owners, managers, and other rural gentry on their annual visits to the big city to meet, greet, eat, dance, make deals, compete for prizes, and shop for agricultural implements and other equipment and supplies as well as luxuries for their homes and families that aren't available in small-town shops. For two weeks each year at the end of July and start of August, this is the scene at the Exposición Rural on the grounds of the Sociedad Rural Argentina. If you can't make it to the provinces, this is your chance to see what it's like when the campo comes to the city.

  • Museo de la Bolsa de Comercio de Rosario (BCR): The BCR (often shortened to simply "la Bolsa") is Argentina's counterpart of the Chicago Board of Trade, on which it has been consciously and explicitly modeled since its founding more than a hundred years ago. In small towns across the pampas, signs at the grain elevators display the current prices of soybeans, wheat, and corn in both Rosario and Chicago. The BCR was especially interesting to me because I once worked as a runner on the trading floor at the Chicago Board Options Exchange, which at the time shared premises and many procedures and customs with the Board of Trade. A major reason that Argentina has survived its ongoing financial crisis is the ongoing boom in soybean and grain exports, especially exports of soy to China. Increasing amounts of land have been converted from pasturage or crop rotation to unsustainable monoculture accompanied by increased use of agricultural chemicals, worrying people we spoke with even in places that have, in the short term, prospered. The center of all this change is the BCR, and a tour of its museum will give you a detailed (if one-sided) view of the history of Argentina's export-oriented agricultural economy and the recent changes to Argentina's agricultural geography.The time-lapse land use maps are especially enlightening. Call or e-mail in advance to arrange a tour. Most visitors are school groups or foreign grain traders, but individual tourists are welcome and some of the guides speak English.

  • Museo de Historia de San Luis (MUHSAL): An unusual and ambitious little museum that focuses on the provincial history of San Luis (from pre-history to the present, geology, ethnography, art, politics, economics, sport, etc.), but does a remarkably good job of putting the case study of one province into the context of Argentine and world affairs. Worth a short detour off the RN7 autopista even if you don't have any special interest in San Luis Province.

  • National Network of Sites of Memory of State Terrorism: As I discussed in another recent column, one of the most significant aspects of this network is that it includes locations throughout the country. So wherever you go in Argentina, you can find opportunities to visit some of these places. You might happen upon them along country roads or on city streets, but you won't find them in most lists or maps of tourist sites. See the online directories of museums and memory spaces and of other marked sites of memory. (More.)

I hope this will give you a hint as to how much more there is to find in any country or area once you abandon the standard or recommended routes of tour. As host Phil Keoghan says at the start of each season of The Amazing Race, "The world is waiting!"

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 16 October 2015, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
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