Lifestyle

Argentina — and then some: the Far Pavilions

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Argentina is more than Buenos Aires, and Mercer Islanders traveling to Pampas Country have been hitting those “far pavilions” lately and happily.

Islanders Fred and Tana Reed took their adult children, Darby and Trevor, to experience an “estancia” over the recent December holidays. The grand grasslands of the Pampas fan out to the north, west and south of Buenos Aires, and within an hour of the outskirts of Argentina’s massive capital.

The estancia that the Reeds chose was only 90 minutes north of Buenos Aires. “El Rosario de Areco,” chosen from a number of Internet options, is owned by the gracious and well-heeled de Guevera family, the same family that give the world one of the great “rock star” revolutionaries of all time: Che Guevera. Guevera was trained as a physician before he hit the road on a motorcycle and came to discover that not everybody in Latin America shared his easy life and gifts of family affluence. While his efforts to change the economic inequities that have plagued Latin America since colonial times didn’t result in the continental revolution that he hoped for, his photos are omnipresent in Argentina these days.

Fred and Tana enjoyed the bucolic and unhurried daze of El Rosario, knowing that no one in Seattle would be enjoying afternoons in the warm outdoor shade with cool drinks in hand. El Rosario is a working ranch, but also a center for polo. The Gueveras’ twin sons, in their early 20s, had been raised on horses and enjoy their turns as professional polo players. Incidentally, Argentina consistently wins the world’s polo championships.

Being a world-class polo player means frequent trips to Europe and especially to Britain, where the twins invited a couple of other famous scions to their parents’ Pampas estancia — Prince William and Prince Harry, Princess Diana’s boys. The story is told that one of Diana’s boys was particularly impressed with one of the Guevera’s polo-trained ponies and asked if he could have it.

“Well, I suppose it might be for sale,” the Argentines replied.

Apparently, the princes were not accustomed to the notion of paying for anything and were disappointed that the $40,000 horse had not been freely given. The subject failed to come up again.

Iguacu

(Iguazu) Falls

The Reed family also took a day trip up the Parana River to Argentina’s northeast corner, where Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina collide at Iguacu Falls. Tana couldn’t get over the thrill of the largest, mightiest waterfall on the planet, which comprised over 750 separate falls.

To travel to Iguacu is difficult overland, but Chile’s LAN airlines operates several flights daily from Buenos Aires. There are a number of packages of one, two, three or more days, but Fred and Tana found their own hotel (the Iguacu Grand Hotel) and enjoyed walking on the well-constructed three-quarter mile elevated rain forest walkways to the many falls’ scenic vistas, spotting ring-tailed lemurs, colorful toucans, turtles, lizards and fish-spearing birds along the paths and walkways.

On their second day, Fred and Tana took one of the raft tours into Iguacu Falls’ “Devils Throat.” The National Park that governs Iguacu Falls is served by a rail system along with extensive trails. For those who enjoy hiking, accessible upper and lower trails take visitors to awesome scenic lookouts.

Colonia and Carmelo, Uruguay

An easy one-day visit from Buenos Aires that we expanded for more is the ferry trip across the Rio de la Plata to the village of Colonia in Uruguay, a UNESCO Heritage Site. For $80 (round-trip), you can reserve a seat on the modern “Buquebus” ferry that speeds passengers across the non-scenic muddy brown river to Uruguay. Don’t worry about getting a window seat as there is nothing to see going or coming.

The landing is in the heart of old Colonia, where we spent several hours exploring the gaily pastel-painted several hundred-year-old buildings and cobblestone streets on foot and also on rented golf carts. Other ferry travelers chose to board waiting buses at the Colonia terminal and head for Montevideo, Uruguay’s capital and largest city 75 minutes away. Another popular choice is to board a bus that takes weekenders directly past Montevideo to Punta del Este, which is South America’s counterpart to Europe’s Monaco, an additional 90 minutes beyond the capital.

Judy and I had a better idea. We hopped a local bus, also at the Colonia ferry terminal location, for the hour-long ride northwest in the other direction to the farm country around Carmelo: a small, pleasant farming center and home to the Four Seasons’ famous Carmelo Resort, Four Seasons’ only “country” resort in South America.

A couple of days at the Four Seasons Carmelo was perfect tonic after the noise and rush of Buenos Aires’ 12 million people. The theme at Carmelo is Balinese. Never having been to Bali, I can’t testify to its authenticity, but the pools, spa, rooms and grounds captured an Asian minimalism and tranquility that made us feel a thousand miles away from Buenos Aires rather than just 100 miles. The Four Seasons’ rooms here are extra large and the casita suites are simply huge and first class from private outdoor showers to teak and caning details, buttery soft linens and indoor and outdoor snoozing sofas.

More active guests can choose to play the 18-hole, par 72 golf course, rated as one of South America’s best. There are tennis courts, horses for riding, canoes and exhibition polo matches on the Hotel’s polo field.

The countryside around Carmelo features rolling hills of grape vineyards, corn fields, dairy cows and truck farms. On the bus, we met two Wyoming ranchers who keep a ranch in the United States and a second one outside of Carmelo so that they would “never have to deal with a Wyoming winter again.”

Mendoza and Argentina’s wines

Another Mercer Island traveler spending part of his winter in Argentina, Frank Mandarano, introduced us to some excellent Malbec wines and to the “must visit” wine town of Mendoza on the eastern flank of the Andes, which separates Chile and Argentina. Mendoza has the soft, dry weather of Yakima in the summertime. Although it is four times Yakima’s size, Mendoza has many urban parks, city squares, tree-lined streets and superb restaurants and wine stores that make it a sunny, pleasant alternative to muggy, noisy Buenos Aires.

With wine touring climbing to a high plane around Mendoza, its vineyard resorts and guest houses are exploding along with its good and affordable hotels in downtown Mendoza. Our friend Frank recommended Villaggio Boutique Hotel, next to shady Independence Square. The hotel is techno-modern, hip, very clean, includes a good-sized buffet breakfast, has large rooms with king beds and is within a three-minute walk to 15 of Mendoza’s best sidewalk caf/ restaurants.

While it is possible to drive from Buenos Aires to Mendoza, the distances across Argentina are great and apparently the views are not worth the 20 or so hours on the road. We asked several people, including Argentines, about getting from Buenos Aires to Mendoza’s wine area and the Lake District to the south, and everyone recommended flying to Mendoza and driving south from there. Apparently seeing the Pampas is not that different from seeing Kansas, Iowa and Indiana.

Argentina’s Lake District

San Carlos De Bariloche (“Bariloche” to locals) is the largest town in Argentina’s Patagonia Lake District, and during our 12-hour drive from Mendoza to Bariloche, we saw flocks of emus, the South American cousin to the ostrich, armadillos and a fox. As we neared the Lake District and left the dry plateaus and deserts of northern Patagonia, pine trees appeared on the horizon and then the blue lakes of the region.

Instead of using Bariloche as our touchstone, we drove an hour north to Villa la Angostura, the village which is home to the resort that won this year’s Johansen’s Conde’ Nast Travelers Award as the “Best resort in South America” — Correntoso Lake and River Hotel. The Correntoso property has 33 suite rooms, and is a member of the independent Small, Luxury Hotels of the World Association.

Correntoso sits about 100 feet above and back from Lake Nahuel Huapi, and at a strategic corner, known to fishermen worldwide as one of the great brown and rainbow trout fisheries in the world. The Correntoso River is only 140 meters in length and no more than 15 meters across, and it connects Lake Correntoso and Nahuel Huapi with its 15-foot drop of whitewater. During the last two weeks of April and the first two weeks of November, the trout run here is simply fabulous.

We found the Correntoso’s heated outdoor swimming pool with its lake views simply fabulous too. The sun-filled log-lodge architecture, the fly-fishing clinics, the boating and rafting, the voluminous complimentary breakfasts, the grassy grounds all work to make this another must if you are heading to Argentina. One more reason to go: the lack of populations centers here make the night stars the most brilliant I’ve ever witnessed — from the Southern Cross to the Milky Way.

Today’s Correntoso Lake and River Hotel was the vision of Mr. Alejandro Laurence, a banker in the first half of his life, who decided that he wanted to discover a new path in his second half. Taking the derelict fishing lodge and bringing it into the 21st Century in an era of pristine, green development and under the strictures of the demanding new National Park administration has not been easy. But Mr. Laurence feels so strongly about the richness of the area’s history and the importance of providing excellent hospitality in Argentina’s most beautiful Patagonian corner that he has loved every second of his project. The morning when I met him was the morning when he learned of the Conde Nast honor. We were very happy for him and his well-trained staff.

Chile: The Lakes, wines and beach

Six days is not a fair opportunity for Chile to show her stuff. But that is all the time we had on this trip. The border on one of the very few paved roads crossing between Argentina and Chile was within 30 minutes of Correntoso, and the crossing was easy, especially on the Chilean side. As we came down the pass, our first impressions of Chile were very positive: intelligent, efficient border guards, well-engineered and well-built highways, and 30 minutes on the Chilean side was a wonderful hot springs hotel with a full luncheon buffet — a good stop for day travelers at Puyehue.

Instead of going south this trip to Michael Darland’s famous Yan-Kee-Way Fishing Resort on Lake Llanquihue, we drove north and spent an afternoon and evening at Lake Villarica and Pucon. These are famous hiking and boating areas, with an active volcano, Mt. Villarica, that is walkable for most people.

As we drove north on our second day in Chile, we started observing some patterns that made Chile distinct from Argentina. Chileans are industrious. Their manufacturing plants and distribution centers are newer, cleaner. Their fields look better tended. There appear to be more workers in the fields and on the roads, driving tractors and trucks, hustling about their day.

Chile’s roads are better, with one exception. Apparently, their highway budget included nothing, zero, for signage. The lack of road signs or directional pointers suggests to us that Chile is not ready for prime time as a destination for tourism.

It has wonderful wines. Beautiful vineyards. And some resorts associated with some of the larger wineries. But no signs to direct you there. Bottom line: if you are going somewhere in Chile, you’d better have Mapquest or speak Spanish well.

The other sad reality is that while Argentina is cheap, cheap, cheap, Chile’s peso has followed the euro, making Chile the most expensive of South American countries.

Finally, we spent two and a half days in the twin Pacific Coast towns of Valparaiso and Vina del Mar near Santiago. Santiago, Chile’s capital and by far its largest city, is smoggy and polluted, and without many significant architectural or cultural sites. Travelers avoid it.

Old Valparaiso and swinging new Vina are an hour and a half to the west of Santiago, and the Pacific Coast breezes keep these twin cities, adjacent and only four miles from center to center, bright and fresh. With their latitude at 33 degrees south, they are the mirror image of San Diego, both weather-wise and in their spirit. Valparaiso is old, historic and so multi-colored cute that its ancient quarter is protected by UNESCO’s Heritage status. Lovers of culture and design, or working ports, will be drawn to Valparaiso’s cobblestone alleyways, funicular outside elevators and hillside views.

Vina del Mar is the La Jolla of the two, with sandy beaches everywhere, promenades for morning power walks and romantic sunset strolls, and tree-lined boulevards with chic Italian, Mexican and Japanese restaurants, bars and nightclubs on many corners.

Bill Morton can be reached at www.secondhalf.net.

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