- The Washington Times - Friday, March 12, 2004

With the euro commanding a premium over the dollar of more than 20 percent, there have to be destinations where the exchange rate is more favorable to Americans. There are. Argentina is one.

My wife, Ann Louise, and I went there in mid-November and stayed into December. Not only did our dollar buy almost 3 pesos, but as winter arrived in the United States, we enjoyed the Southern Hemisphere’s spring temperatures — the 70s in Buenos Aires and 80s in Cordoba, the second largest city, and Mendoza, in the heart of Argentina’s wine country. Even warmer temperatures arrive in January, February and March.

After our initial sojourn in Buenos Aires (101/2 hours nonstop from Washington), we headed westward toward the Andes, the part of Argentina that gets less attention from tourists than Iguazu Falls, up by Brazil, or the coastal beach resorts. We were well-rewarded.

But first Buenos Aires, the sprawling capital city with a cosmopolitan, bustling center (El Centro) and architecture that reminds one of France, Italy and Spain. We loved the Teatro Colon, an opera house that seats 2,500 in an orchestra and seven tiers. The stage is enormous: 110 feet wide and 110 feet deep. Our tour with an English-speaking guide cost $2.25 and took us several levels below the stage, where we saw scenery being painted and peeked at the opera’s enormous inventory of 17,000 costumes, 10,000 wigs and countless boots and shoes.

An orchestra seat for us foreigners to see Mozart’s “Idomeneo” would have cost $35 if the house had not been sold out. Argentines pay less, as is true for air and bus fares, admission to wildlife reserves and other charges. This system of frank discrimination amounts to government subsidy for Argentines, not for visitors.

Eager to try Argentina’s fabled steak, we went to La Estancia, where we paid about $4 for strip steaks of 14 or 15 ounces, plus a la carte orders of fried potatoes, salad and apple crepes, flamed at the table. The steak was delicious — 11/4 inches thick, juicy, salty, dark outside, pink inside, and tender without having been tenderized.

We enjoyed this spacious, lively establishment with its hustling, amiable waiters who speak some English. We arrived at 9:30 p.m. and found many tables vacant. When we left at 11:15, most were occupied. Argentines eat late. In all, we spent less than $40, including a bottle of red wine.

As an Argentine explained, the fat of the grilled meats drips out into the fire, and so there is no problem with cholesterol. (You could check with your cardiologist.) Lamb and pork were also tasty and tender.

We found parrillas like La Estancia everywhere in the country, and their prices were similar to those in Buenos Aires (and foreigners don’t pay more). If you want your steak rare, order it “jugoso” (hoo-GO-so) or juicy.

CORDOBA

From Buenos Aires, we flew to Cordoba, from where we sortied out on half-day trips to visit Jesuit estancias, or missions, that date to the 1600s, when Spain ruled. An army led by Gen. Jose de San Martin achieved independence for Argentina in 1816. (San Martin is Argentina’s George Washington, and every city has a major artery named for him.)

A half-hour from Cordoba is Alta Gracia, where we saw another Jesuit mission and two homes that have become museums: the boyhood home of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, who became a leader with Fidel Castro of Cuba’s 1959 revolution, and the last residence of Spain’s 20th-century composer Manuel de Falla. Each home is open to visitors for a charge of 1 or 2 pesos.

MENDOZA

We flew on to Mendoza, a one-hour hop. At the Mendoza terminal, a taxi hustler told us in English that the fare to our hotel, barely six miles away, would be 110 pesos ($38). After I barked, in English, something about a “rip-off,” he made us a second offer, 10 pesos. Off we went.

(Incidentally, we paid a travel agent cash for one air ticket because she wanted a 5 percent surcharge if we used a credit card. She also cautioned that some hotels would impose a surcharge. Our hotels did not. Nor did Aerolineas Argentinas for tickets purchased at its office. It is best to inquire in advance. We had no trouble getting cash from bank ATMs.)

Mendoza, a small city of elegant squares and leafy streets lined with poplars and elms, is more relaxed, although traffic is noisy and one wonders whether motorists and the bus company know about mufflers. Many intersections are uncontrolled, and pedestrians must be quick to exploit breaks in the traffic. Drivers did yield to us when we crossed the street but rarely slowed down if we waited tamely on the curb.

Mendoza’s pace is slower. It is a place for travelers to catch their breath, stroll, leisurely sip coffees at outdoor cafes, examine and buy leather goods — wallets, belts, handbags, possibly shoes — and do some organized sightseeing.

On the circuito chico, or short tour of Mendoza (three hours), we visited a heroic statue memorializing San Martin and the army of liberation and a huge 1995 church, Iglesia del Challao, with green-tinted glass, a steeply ramped, semicircular sanctuary and a V-shaped ceiling supported by steel trusses. On another half-day tour, we visited two wineries, where we saw how wine is made and did a little sampling in the retail room.

We also took the daylong alte montana (high mountain) tour to the foothills of the Andes and the Chilean border. Carry a sweater. It’s cooler and windy at the higher elevations. Our route ran alongside the muddy Mendoza River, which delivers to the vineyards the water that irrigates the grapes.

The country on this trip resembled Utah or Arizona — ochre buttes and barren but multicolored hillsides with scrub brush and the last, graying streaks of snow. We saw an expedition of several rubber boats being paddled furiously through rapids by travelers wearing helmets and flotation gear. For those who like a strenuous holiday, much rafting, hiking and mountain biking is available.

Housekeeping note: Before leaving Mendoza, we had a bundle of laundry, including two shirts to be ironed, done in a local lavanderia for $2.70.

BARILOCHE

An 18-hour bus ride (more of that below) took us to breezy Bariloche, where the snow-covered peaks of the Andes create an alpine landscape. In winter — June, July, August — Bariloche is a ski center. In summer, the ski lifts give sightseers a view of the lake district, which extends out of sight westward into Chile. Scottish broom grows everywhere, its yellow blossoms brightening the landscape on an overcast day.

Bariloche is a resort town on the shore of Lake Nahuel Huapi, more than 2,100 feet above sea level. Compact and laid out on a sloped grid, it is full of small hotels — many rooms afford at least an oblique view of the lake and white peaks — restaurants, ski-wear shops and a profusion of chocolate shops, which we dutifully patronized. It’s tough duty, but someone has to do it.

The Museo de la Patagonia is worth a visit for its stuffed animals. The admission ticket (about 85 cents) will let you re-enter if you cannot take it all in the first time.

An all-day tour took us west of Bariloche on narrow gravel roads to Monte Tronador. Beneath its jagged, snowy peaks, at our feet lay a dead glacier, Glacier Negro, or Black Glacier. It looked unearthly, like something one might expect to find on the moon, if the moon had water. Imagine an expanse of dark, muddy water about 200 yards wide, murky, cold, gray and black, with sediment floating on its surface. Sticking up in the water are boulders of fantastical shapes, remnants of the glacier, which collapsed. The glacial pool looks as if it hides something sinister. Above us, nine snowmelt waterfalls cascaded down the mountain. High overhead, possibly more than 2,000 feet up, three condors circled, their broad, black wings silhouetted against the sky.

In Bariloche, reputed to have many good places to eat, we had excellent dinners in two restaurants, Jauja, a quiet place where we had a cream-based (non-French) onion soup and lamb, and El Boliche de Alberto, a noisy, packed parrilla populated with energetic young adults where we each had a thick steak. With wine, we spent, as my credit-card statement shows, $24.29 in the first restaurant and $18.14 in the second.

PUERTOMADRYN

From Bariloche, we flew to Puerto Madryn on the Atlantic coast, about 600 miles south of Buenos Aires. Puerto Madryn is a point of departure for excursions by road and boat to see huge southern right whales, which obligingly leap out of the waters of Golfo Nuevo, elephant seals, Magellanic penguins and, ambling over the countryside, guanacos, four-legged creatures that are larger than deer and smaller than elk.

In all, we spent three weeks in this, the second-most-populous country in South America (population 37 million), a country that is slowly recovering from a brutal financial crisis that toppled the peso from parity with the dollar (an equality some economists had said was unrealistic), saw a carousel of presidents come and go, and led to a freeze on bank deposits, which caused widespread distress and demonstrations. Middle-class people, such as teachers, the owners of small businesses, civil servants and professionals, say their circumstances are reduced.

We encountered no street disturbances, although they do occur occasionally, but there were other signs of continuing economic disruption. After dark in Buenos Aires and Cordoba, we saw men and sometimes families that included children and toddlers sorting through trash, scavenging for materials that could be sold to recyclers.

We were told such desperate scratching for income did not occur before the crisis of 2001. We also saw many street beggars. Distressingly, many were children who looked wan and listless. We understand that begging cannot be ascribed solely to the 2001 financial crisis and ensuing economic recession.

Overall, a visitor finds a country that seems to be going about its business in a normal way. The streets are crowded when they should be, early in the morning, after the midafternoon siesta and in the evening, as the homeward-bound queue for buses.

ICECREAM

On a Sunday evening in Mendoza, which may be the ice-cream-eating-est city in a country of ice cream lovers, the ice cream shops are jammed with families and couples, young and old. Large waffle cones with three big scoops cost less than a dollar. On Monday evening, the shops were empty.

Our hotels, three- and four-star establishments, are more spacious and modern than are three-stars in Europe and, thanks to the exchange rate, inexpensive — usually $40 or $45, including tax and breakfast. A standard breakfast in Argentina includes a glass of thin orange juice; small croissants or media lunas (half-moons) and toast, invariably cold, but with good butter and ordinary jam; and coffee or tea. However, in the touristic towns of Mendoza and Bariloche, our hotel breakfast included a buffet with cold cereal, milk, ham and cheese, bananas, oranges, pound cake and pastries.

Stretching 2,200 miles from the north, where it touches Bolivia, southward to the town of Ushuaia, the point of departure for cruises to Antarctica, Argentina has a variety of environments, from semitropical in the north to chilly in the far south. The northern countryside is arable, and from the air, one sees the squares and long rows of farms. Farther south, the Pampas turns dry and scrubby and flat.

On our flight from Bariloche to the Atlantic coast, we saw few towns, farms or people. Similarly, on our bus ride from Mendoza to Bariloche, we went for miles and miles across a flat and then rolling desert of scrub brush, no water, no towns and occasional horses grazing.

Many Argentines travel by bus because it’s cheap and the buses are comfortable. Our fare was $25. Had we gone by air, we would have had to fly east to Buenos Aires, change planes, fly southwest to Bariloche, and pay close to $200. (Internal air tickets are much cheaper if purchased in Argentina instead of the United States.)

We boarded a double-decker at 8 p.m. and found ourselves with more hip room and legroom than in an airplane. Our semicama bus (a cama is a bed) had leg boards that enabled one to elevate one’s legs into something like a recumbent posture. I slept better than on any red-eye flight.

BUSLUNCH

However, the meals, served by a steward, were inferior to airplane food. Dinner consisted of tepid chicken and rice, a roll, custard and 7-Up. Breakfast was instant coffee and crackers. Lunch was a cold cutlet (chicken?) on a sub roll with packets of mayonnaise and 7-Up. We had brought a 2-liter bottle of water and wished we had brought fruit, cheese and the crunchy rolls offered in bakeries.

Our bus was equipped with a lavatory. As our trip started, the steward announced twice, for emphasis, that it was for “liquid waste only.” And at our 8 a.m. stop at Neuquen’s bus terminal, we were reminded of the first rule of foreign travel: Carry toilet paper.

Eventually, the countryside turned hilly and then lakes appeared. We rolled into Bariloche at 2:40 p.m., on time. We were mildly fatigued but in better shape than after trans-Atlantic red-eye flights. Later, we learned from other travelers that some long bus rides are not in semicama models and that passengers must sit up all night. It pays to check in advance.

A word about reservations and travel agents: Traveling in the shoulder season, we had little trouble getting accommodations a day or two in advance. The exceptions were in the far south, Ushuaia (the southernmost city in the world) and Calafate, where the travel agent said there was a chronic shortage of rooms in the austral summer.

We discovered that in Argentina the agents work through an operator, a specialist for a particular city who, in turn, works only with certain hotels, presumably those that pay the biggest commissions. This system is more limiting than if a traveler inquires of hotels directly, by e-mail or telephone, which is what we will do next time, when we plan to visit the far south and possibly Antarctica.

Edward Cowan, a retired New York Times correspondent, is a Washington writer and editor.

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