By Ron Kapon, Contributing Travel Editor
Part One: The Adventure Begins
New York, NY -
Leaving for a three week trip to South America necessitated some serious preparations, studying, planning and coordinating a sleep pattern that included six hours of rest on my Aerolineas Argentinas flight. The nice thing about heading for the Southern Hemisphere was that all of the countries on my itinerary were at, or near, the time zone in New York. Quite a bit different than heading out to Tokyo, Moscow or other distant venues. Also, with an unusually stable economy and over 5 million visitors in the past year, Argentina was a bargain for U.S. dollars. For example, the taxi ride from the airport to my first stop was $20, the driver carried my bag and did not expect a tip. Nice.
True enough, not everyone has family or friends at the locale to which they are headed but, in this case, I was able to prevail upon an old friend, Steve Maggi, a Georgetown Law graduate who practiced in Miami, moved to Argentina several years ago, and is now in the real estate business. That brought with it accommodations in his 20th floor three bedroom building, complete with doorman, and located, happily, in a very nice neighborhood. My thrifty excursion started off with a steak dinner soon after arrival - four of us, plus two bottles of wine at La Caballeriza Steak House for less than $70. Three weeks lay ahead and we were off and running, economically.
The next day, the subway awaited at a paltry cost of 25 cents to transport me to the newly developing Puerto Madero neighborhood, glittering with marinas, high-rises, boutiques and restaurants. For one that might be into purchasing a distant vacation residence or, possibly, relocating to start anew in Buenos Aires, as Steve did, I visited El Faro, a still incomplete 45-story twin luxury apartment buildings overlooking a nature preserve, with the river on the other side. It includes swimming pools, a gym, tennis courts, private parking etc. The apartments were selling for under a somewhat nominal $600,000 for 2,300 square feet (try $3 million in New York these days) for recent lottery winners. As a point of information the Plaza de Mayo is in front of Puerto Madero and contains the Presidential Palace and most of the government buildings.
The next day Pablo Irigoyen, the head of Gray Line South America, at the ripe old age of 23, was gracious enough to arrange transportation and a guide (one of the benefits of being a travel writer) to show us Buenos Aires. The "Paris of South America" has many parks in the Palermo area and, on weekends, there are even fitness instructors giving free exercise advice. La Boca, at the mouth of the port, was tourist central with its zinc roofed wooden houses painted in very bright colors and street performers everywhere (think Greenwich Village). The San Telmo area is full of antique shops (as well as more tourists) and, on a Sunday, there was a very expansive and busy street fair. At night this becomes Tango Central ("Scent of a Woman" - Hoowah!). The car let us off in the Recolta area where the 19th century Recolta Cemetery is a tourist attraction in itself and most of the wealthy folks are laid to rest. We found Eva Peron?s resting place and then moved on to the nearby BA Design Center featuring the latest in home furnishings. All of this, obviously, is a route and regimen for anyone going to Buenos Aires to follow.
Close your eyes and try to find Uruguay on a map. Now open them and do the same. In either case, not easy. It all began for me with a ferry from Buenos Aires and a three hour ride to Montevideo, not exactly the Staten Island Ferry in NYC or any other where you may be located, if you have one. This is just a smaller version of Queen Mary luxury on a high-speed boat with food, a duty free shop and plenty of room to transport cars. A greater photo opp is waiting as the trip crosses Rio de la Plata, the widest river in the world (200 miles).
We arrived in time for the parade honoring the 175th anniversary of the establishment of the country, half of which is along the coastline from the Rio de la Plata to the Atlantic Ocean. Unless you have business in Montevideo, or are using it as a base for a wine tour, as we were, skip the capitol. It lacks the elegance and beauty of Buenos Aires and it was obvious that no one has paid any attention to, for example, the sidewalks since its founding. Lots of underclass folks fairly impoverished, pan-handlers and horses carrying the worldly belongings of the driver. Opened just one month ago, our hotel, the Four Points by Sheraton, was overstaffed for the few guests staying there. The breakfast buffet was magnificent and a nice start to the day(s) that awaited.
If you are planning a summer trip, theirs being December through March, try Punta Del Este 90 miles east and a bit of a "schlep," or any of the myriad of beach towns. Running along the Plata River, the 20 mile long Rambles is one of the best places to live, eat and exercise. Great seafood lunch at La Casa Violeta with our host/guide for the three day visit, Laura Nervi of INAVI (National Institute of Viti & Viniculture). Tannat is the primary grape grown here (as well as in Madiran in southern France). It is full bodied, oak-aged and goes perfectly with the country?s love of beef. Dinner in the Port Market at El Palenque, the most famous grill restaurant in town, was excellent and highly recommended. Interestingly enough, owner Emilio Bortela indicated that he would be opening a branch in New York this winter.
The next day it was lunch and dinner at wineries. On the last day I drove to Colonia Del Sacramento (3 hours) on the northeast coast along the Rio de la Plata. This UNESCO World Heritage City (think St. Augustine if you've been there) is the oldest city in the country. The city changed hands eleven times from Portugal to Spain to Portugal to Spain etc. Therefore, the Old Town architecture is a blend of both cultures. Many Argentineans purchase second homes here as the short ferry ride (one hour) and many beaches allow for short weekend commutes. After lunch at the funky Height Asbury style El Drugstore in Old Town and a climb to the top of the lighthouse, it was time to board the ferry and return to Buenos Aires.
One hour later I found myself in Mendoza, the heart of the Argentinean wine industry. I had last been there in 1980 when the country was under military rule and there was certainly a comparison to be made. The Grand Hyatt sits smack dab in the center of town and was my "home" for two nights. Most of the activity that centers about the hotel and environs stems from the fact that there is a casino located there. Sebastian Gonzalez of Pro Mendoza (winery rather than tennis) set up some fascinating and extensive winery visits. Smooth as the wines I savored with each winery being gracious enough to have a car transport me to their locale from the previous winery stop. Do they do that for everyone? Probably not but it is an advantage I can speak about and not be certain about passing along, sadly. Considering lunch and dinner at wineries, coupled with obligations to spend significant time at each, the downside of the manner in which I was squired about and greeted was that I never got to see anything else of Argentina?s third largest city.
Editors Note- For reasons too lengthy to list here but, as objectively as possible and fulfilling my obligation to advise of the great, good, bad and/or ugly, one should do what you canto avoid flying Lan Chile. It is a horrific experience. Forewarned is forearmed.
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Part Two: The Adventure Continues
Upon arriving in Santiago, Chile, Brian Pearson, owner of Santiago Adventures, was waiting at the airport to drive me to The San Cristobal Towers, part of the Starwood Luxury Collection (Diplomat, Phoenician, and Gritti Palace etc). Built in 1998 it is attached to the older Sheraton Santiago Hotel. The 21st floor lounge offers visitors a sumptuous breakfast spread and fabulous views of the city so get the camera out. The rooms are very modern, large and with a bathroom the size of a Manhattan studio apartment. A guide and tour awaited for that first introduction to the city, something that is always recommended whenever you are at a destination never visited before. It sets the tone and pace that awaits and makes it easier to consult your Michelin or Frommers. My visit coincided with the winter holiday break, lots of families and locals in the streets and shops. Viewing the Presidential Palace, Plaza de Arms and the luxury estates on San Cristobal hilltop reminded me how much Santiago, with modern buildings, parks, wide streets and the warm winter weather, was like Buenos Aires.
An interesting side note to the Chilean free economy - Micros are the yellow buses that are privately owned, with the drivers working on commission, based on the number of passengers picked up. It is the Indianapolis 500 on the streets, a situation, I am told, that will soon be changed as there are too many accidents. Free enterprise converts to a public transit system. It is worth pointing out that Concessionaire's are private toll roads in and around Santiago as well as the road to Valparaiso and the Pan American Highway (drive from Alaska to Ushuaia at the southern tip of Chile). Private companies will maintain the roads; and collect the tolls, with a 30 year old lease while the free roads tend to be narrow, bumpy and crowded. By the way there is an excellent Metro system.
If God had created a vineyard as, I suppose, many will say He, or She, did, it would have been Errazuriz in the Aconcagua Valley, about an hour from the airport. Having lunch on the terrace with bright sunshine, warm temperatures, the view of the snow-covered Alps and the hillside terraced vineyards confirmed the advantages of being a travel/wine journalist although this is all available to you as well with, hopefully, folks like yours truly leading the way and advising with each step we take. There are wineries north, east and south of Santiago, all within an hour's drive. Brian, whose company organizes wine tours, offered to drive me during my two days in the Colchagua Valley two and a half hours south of Santiago. Alfredo Vidaurre, one of the owners of Montes winery, put us up at the Santa Cruz Hotel overnight. If Argentina is beef, Chile is fresh seafood (think Chilean Sea Bass). Sebastian Lopez of Concha Y Toro hosted me at the Hotel Atton back in Santiago to prepare for a non-recommended 6:50AM flight to Lima despite the fact that the airport was only 15 minutes distant. It was then a TACA 3? hour flight to Lima.
The folks at Viajes Pacifico, the Gray Line agent in Peru, were nice enough to drive me to the Sofitel Royal Park Hotel where, unbelievably, I never saw another guest the day I stayed there. The only explanation available was the it was still the winter holiday vacation time (think Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Years period) and many people were away on holiday Why not here, you ask? Good question. Because it was not the holiday period for those outside of the area and, other than someone like myself on a writing assignment, it was not the time of the year when we would normally visit, and that applied to others from a host of cities and countries.
I walked around the San Isidro neighborhood, very residential but dotted with hotels and restaurants. Then it was the perfunctory and mandatory tour of the city, where I soon learned that Lima had 8 million people, representing 30% of the country and it was founded in 1535 by the Spanish Conqueror, Francisco Pizarro. The next day was a national holiday marking the founding of the country and everything was closed for a very long weekend. Time to rest but basic bummer when on a fast track and a "stranger in their midst."
In what seemed to be somewhat habitual, Uruguay celebrated their national holiday while I visited. Of some note, Lima is a UNESCO World Heritage city due, in the main, to its colonial architecture and is a melting pot of mixed-blood people and cultures, again, like Uruguay. There is the obligatory Plaza Mayor (main square) with its Presidential Palace, City Hall, Cathedral and Archbishop's Palace sitting on its four corners. It was, while I was there, filled with people getting ready for the national holiday the next day - a bit crowded. Nearby are the Iglesia de San Francisco, Iglesia de la Merced and Iglesia de Santo Domingo where San Marco University - the first in South America - was founded in 1551. We visited the ruins of the old wall that once surrounded Lima and glimpsed into Acho, the oldest bullfighting rink in the Americas and the third oldest in the world..a glimpse was more than sufficient unless you are heavily into gore.
When my schedule called for moving into the Swissotel, in the same San Isidro neighborhood where I was scheduled to stay one night, I was given a room on the executive floor with, candidly, the best service I have ever experienced in a hotel. Computers, a full breakfast, lunch snacks, a full dinner and open bar. I had so much fun that I cancelled my stay at another hotel to stay here an extra night. Make that down in your notes. This chain is owned by the Raffles folks, which explains a great deal.
My last day in Lima too, me 19 miles south of town on the Pan American Highway to the Pachacamac Temple, built entirely of clay, including the Temple of the Sun & Moon. After lunch it was off to the Mujico Gold Museum that is world-renowned for its gold, silver and brass collection from the pre-Inca & Inca cultures. A separate part of the museum contains the very large Weapons of the World area.
I spent a day and a half in the Ica, Pisco, Paracas area that is 3 ? hours south by luxury bus from Lima. One of the highlights was an hour and a half flight from Ica over the Nazca Lines (80 miles away). There are over 70 giant figures and 10,000 lines imprinted in the earth (monkeys, spiders etc) dating from 500AD. They are referred to as Geoglyphs by pre-Inca cultures of the Nazca and Paracus Indians. I stayed overnight at the Pacific Ocean seaside resort the Hotel Paracas. Early the next morning I joined a group on a fast boat ride to the Ballestas Islands, which is home to sea lions, monkeys, penguins, otters, dolphins and many birds. It was back on the bus for my return trip to Lima and the end of country number four. And, exhaustion was setting in.
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Part Three: The Adventure Concludes
At least I got to sleep until 6AM (rather than the 3 & 5AM wakeup calls for my other flights,) before my two hour TACA flight from Lima to Quito, Ecuador. I had never actually met Paulo Irigoyen, the 23 year old Gray Line South America head, the young man that made my trip so much better while limiting the wear and tear on my body in Buenos Aires, Lima & Ecuador. Yes, another city tour, dinner with Paulo and his wife, followed by a restful evening at the Grand Hotel Mercure, part of a Galapagos tour package booked through Messrs.. Justin Laycob and Jonathan Borgida, friends of Brian Pearson, whom you might recall from the Chilean portion of my trip. Total professionals, highly recommended, also dealing in tours to Peru, Bolivia and Costa Rica.
Quito is the capitol but not the largest city in Ecuador. Their two million population is topped by Guayaquil with its three million. It is a World Cultural Heritage Site with colonial buildings combined with European Renaissance and indigenous influences. The many churches are mainly in the Old Town area and within walking distance of just about everywhere. Quito is only a ? hour from the equator and there is the obligatory photo opportunity standing on the line between the two hemispheres. At 9,184 feet above sea level it is the second highest capitol in the world (La Paz Bolivia is over 11,900 feet). The center of Old Town is Independence Plaza with the Governor's Palace, Municipal Palace, Archbishop?s Palace and the Cathedral (the same in every major city I visited on this trip) anchoring the four sides. We drove up to El Panecillo with a commanding view of the city and climbed even further inside the statue of the Virgin Mary made from over 7,000 pieces of aluminum. If you anticipate any problems with the altitude, skip the brand new cable car ride up 13,000 feet to an active volcano.
The Baltra airport was still closed for repairs when I arrived so all flights to the Galapagos now were routed through St. Cristobal, a nearby airport where the staff was obviously overburdened by the influx of people now routing through their facility. This also changed the schedule of the Angelique, the ship of choice for me. My flight from Quito to Guayaquil was a swift 30 minutes, followed by another hour before landing in St. Cristobal. Customs and immigration is an arduous and tasking experience (but isn't always in most places?) and then, unlike what you might experience in the U.S., we had to wait for four passengers whose flight was late. The good news is Ecuador uses the good old US dollar as its currency so no more slide rule conversions. Even though the Galapagos is part of Ecuador it is 600 miles off the coast and foreign visitors pay a $100 preservation fee; cash only, no traveler?s checks.
The Angelique is a 96-foot sailing yacht, refurbished in 2001, with 8 double cabins. A word of caution - if using one of those, opting for the top bunk, or being asked to use same, is probably best suited for anyone under the age of 35 or so, which I am not. There is, albeit no larger than a small closet as we know it in the U. .S., a shower and toilet for every cabin, happily not both together in that same small closet. Spartan is an apt and appropriate description but it was only for sleeping and that made it acceptable to a great degree, provided one could sleep...which I was able to do.
An hour after leaving port we arrived at the sheer-rock outcrop of Leon Dormida or "sleeping rock." This tiny island has no landing area and that necessitated floating, as one must refer to what followed, around the sides, allowing our first few of the "boobies" (not what you are thinking)...red, blue and masked (don?t write to me about this as I did not name the birds). Photos are necessitous as opportunities to see these somewhat rare fliers.
Lunch and dinner were excellent and featured Ecuadorian specialties (potato soup, fish, lamb, pork etc). After all, "when in Rome..." or brownbag it, even if "Rome," in this instance, happens to be floating down the river. There is little, if anything, to do on the boat after dinner and our nightly preview of the next day?s islands, so it was a 9PM bedtime and 9 hours sleep or, if that is too much for you, be sure to bring along a good book or travel guide that you will use to further familiarize yourself with what awaits. The Angelique sailed throughout the night, as is the case with most cruises...extensive or short, before arriving at our first stop, Genovese Island, the most northernmost of all the islands. It was a ? hour climb to the top of the cliff, passing by hundreds of sea bird nests on the way. Half a dozen sea lions slept on the sandy beach while we went snorkeling and swimming, oblivious to the visitors in the strange Speedo attire. Later that afternoon we moved across the island to Darwin Bay, where we were greeted by even more marine life.
An eight hour nighttime sail proved that the patch and wristbands intended to qualm the mind and stomach of those of us not exactly nautical did work as I never felt a twinge of discomfort the entire trip. Our first stop was North Seymour Island where we encountered frigate birds, sea lions, marine iguanas, crabs and lots of those now known to us "boobies," many mating or hatching their young. At no time did any of them seem to pay any attention to the human species that was in their midst. Another refreshing swim among the curious and very friendly sea lions and then it was off to South Plaza Island with its rocky trail along the edge of the cliffs abounding with, you guessed it, seal lions and land iguanas.
San Cristobal was where we started, and ended, our Galapagos adventure. Four days and three nights were perfect, giving us an opportunity to see all the marine life we could ever hope to view on any trip. Larger ships offer entertainment and nighttime activities and are, of course, much more expensive but we did just fine aboard our smaller, more economical version of a cruise. Our boat - one should really learn to refer to it as a "ship" lest the crew start to build a plank - continued on a different route, one that took 7 days and was intended to avoid duplicating a visit to any of the islands on the route. It is well to remember the Galapagos is not for people who have trouble walking or navigating among lots of rocks, steep climbs and extensive land excursions. There are many places where one could easily fall, regardless of how careful you are but the balance is in the beautiful oasis of nature that awaits. We packed and were soon ready to go ashore and spend an hour at the San Cristobal Interpretation Center learning all about the history, geology and animal life of the islands. Then, off to the airport and my flight to Guayaquil where I over-nighted at the 5 Star Oro Verde Hotel (again part of my Galapagos package) and finally, after three glorious weeks, heading home.
Guayaquil is the largest city in Ecuador and sits at sea level, unlike Quito which is inland. Once again, the Southern Exploration folks met me at the airport and walked me to the cargo area where I retrieved my spare bag they so graciously had shipped from Quito. As hunger set in, I broke one of my cardinal rules which was not to purchase anything from a street vendor (recalling the last time I did that in France I ended up with food poisoning). In this case, I lucked out and experienced one of the best snacks ever - a deliciously large, juicy grilled hamburger with lettuce and tomato and only $1.50. That was my lunch as I awaited my Gray Line city tour.
I am in love with Guayaquil and learned what a difference the right mayor can make. Once considered one of South America?s most dangerous, dirty and crime- ridden cities Mayor Ab. Jaime Nebot has turned the city around. The Malecon (promenade) stretches two miles along the Guayas River and includes art exhibitions, monuments, botanical gardens, cafes, restaurants, docks and a replica of a pirate ship. The city is named after the indigenous chief, Guaya, and his wife Quil; is located on the Pacific Ocean and is the main port of Ecuador. The central part of the Malecon has a monument to Simon Bolivar & San Martin. Nearby, there are four sculptures that represent the earth?s four elements (water, fire, air and earth). The best viewing point in the city is up 444 steps on Santa Ana Hill (yes, I climbed them, slowly) through Los Penas to the lighthouse, chapel and naval museum. The great fire of 1896 destroyed almost the entire city as the wooden houses were stacked next to each other and the fire easily consumed them. These homes have been rebuilt and repainted by the residents and many have opened shops, restaurants and cafes on their first floors. However, there is no automobile traffic and everything must be carried up the stairs.
Other things worth seeing are: Seminario Park filled with iguanas, fish and birds; the only Imax theatre in South America; The Municipal Palace, the city's architectural jewel; the Cathedral (Ecuador is over 95 % Catholic); the Modern Art Museum; the Genedal Cemetery, the second largest in South America, after the one in Buenos Aires and the nearby flower market. "Congratulations Mr. Mayor; if I had known what a fabulous city you had I would have stayed another day."
American Airlines whisked me to my first stop on the way home, Miami, in four hours, from where I transferred to my LaGuardia flight to NYC. Twenty-one days, perfect weather, only one flight delay, every hotel a gem, each scheduled city tour on time, all the meet and greet folks there for me and every airport or hotel transportation on time. It does not get much better. On a scale of 1-100, this trip was a 98 and I am still trying to find the "2."
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Ron Kapon is seeking wine tasters for the New York Tasters Guild. Please go to www.tastersguildny.com or email him at Ron@tastersguildny.com.