Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Top Secrets in South America

Top Secrets in South America

Brazil, Argentina and Chile offer the intrepid visitor stunning treasures—and at little or no cost.

Mac Margolis
From the magazine issue dated May 18, 2009

When I first visited Rio De Janeiro back in the early '80s, I did all the touristy things my friends and my Fodor's suggested. I checked out Sugar Loaf, that granite plinth that surges like a diva from the jade curtain of the Atlantic. I danced through a pair of flip-flops at Carnaval and at daybreak soothed my feet in the storied sands of Ipanema, under the gaze of the great art-deco Cristo Redentor, blessing us all from the heights of Corcovado.

But Brazil grows on you. Now that I have lived in the country for 26 years, I've come to appreciate that the most rewarding attractions often are not the ones starred in the guidebooks. The best news about Brazil—and much of South America, in fact—is its wealth of quieter, less obvious pleasures. Not all of them cost a fortune; many can be enjoyed for free, or nearly so. Past the heralded beaches and tony resorts, on to where the tire tracks stop and the noise and neon fade, a world of parks, conservation areas and wilderness awaits. And with pocketbooks pinched and nerves frayed, there is no better time to get out and appreciate the great outdoors.

With jungle-clad hills that tumble into the sea and forests spun in a thousand shades of ocher, green and dun, Brazil has a lot to offer the intrepid, the restless or the merely curious. The biggest dilemma is where to start. Brazil can easily induce traveler's overload. The country's national parks alone cover 28,000 kilometers, the size of Portugal and England together. But with a little guidance from this outdoorsy insider, any tourist can revel in the hidden treasures of Brazil—as well as those of its two southerly neighbors, Argentina and Chile.

The Amazon rainforest, with 720 conservation areas—including parks, national forests, and nature preserves—is a wanderer's horn of plenty. Yet for those on a budget, minding the clock or looking for instant gratification, an Amazon excursion can be tiring and frustrating. Instead I recommend the Pantanal, easily the most spectacular wetlands region in the Western Hemisphere, and possibly the world. A system of marshes, lakes and rivers forms an open-air steam bath that sustains an unbelievable concentration of wildlife: the giant anteater, with its tail as feathery as a boa; the electric-blue hyacinth macaw; and the capybara, a hamster on steroids. During the rainy season, from October to February, this landlocked sea covers 210,000 square kilometers. Getting there requires a two-hour flight from Rio or São Paulo, which isn't cheap, or a cross-country bus, which isn't comfortable. But once you're there, the food and lodging are honest and cheap (except at the odd megastar resort), and exploring the filigree of rivers is a bargain. The sights are unequaled.

There are many ways to tackle the Pantanal. I favor renting a car and heading down the Transpantaneira, a dirt track "highway" that is impassable in many stretches. Starting at the edge of Pocone, a tidy cattle town in southern Mato Grosso, this 145-kilometer track is punctuated by 125 precarious wooden bridges, with sylvan theater at every bend. There sits a cortege of majestic white herons, making thrones of trees and fence posts. Here is a brace of jabiru storks, done up like businessmen in their black collars and white tailcoats. Tiptoe out on a wooden bridge and watch the river caiman, South America's smaller cousin to the alligator, as it lies on a stream bottom, maw agape, waiting for lunch to swim by.

It's an old wetlands tradition for cowhands to sit by the campfire at night and tell jaguar tales. Did you hear about the one that dragged a full-grown steer into the swamp? Do you know they eat caimans'' tails? "Ahn, anh, anh" and "Ssssssss!" the cowpokes mimic the jaguar in a wetlands karaoke. How much of this is true and how much fantasy for gringo ears is hard to say. Either way, it only adds to the mythic pull of the Pantanal.

But it's not necessary to go that far. The Tijuca National Forest is a 15-minute cab ride from Ipanema. This 3,200-hectare expanse of dense rainforest, crosshatched by foot trails and waterfalls, may be the only national forest in the world set in the heart of a megacity. Braided by lianas, colonnades of trees with the musical names ipé, ingá and abricó-de-macaco rise 40 meters from the forest floor. Here and there, bright orange and red bromeliads nestle in their crooks. To the untrained eye, it's a pristine millennial forest, but that's an optical illusion. A century and a half ago, Tijuca was an ailing massif. The original Atlantic rainforest that once draped Rio's shoulder had been stripped away for coffee plantations. But with no roots to hold the soil, every rainy season brought calamity, as tons of soil, stone and debris slid down to silt the riverbeds and drown Rio's streets.

It took a future-minded emperor with a soft spot for tropical flora to rescue the city from itself. Dom Pedro II ordered that seeds be taken from tropical plants and trees from all over the world to replant Rio's balding pate, creating one of Latin America's first mass reforestation campaigns. Reinventing Tijuca took 30 years and 100,000 trees. In time, wildlife came back. Now humming birds, wildcats, armadillos and dozens of species of monkeys make their home in the center of the park. Tourists can wander the many footpaths and sit by waterfalls. Here and there, through the dense brush, a glimpse of the stone and steel skyline of Rio pokes through, a jolting reminder of how flimsy the frontier between the sublime and the hectic can be.

The frontier between countries, of course, is just as flimsy, and perhaps more arbitrary. Argentina is the world's eighth- largest nation and is blessed with a wonderfully diverse geography that includes deserts, forests and waterfalls, as well as glaciers and snowcaps. The strength of the dollar and euro against the peso in recent years has made Argentina one of the globe's most popular travel destinations, allowing many adventure seekers to visit for the first time. Airfare within the country can be pricey, but fortunately Argentina has an excellent bus system that can transport travelers on the cheap, and accommodations run from swank hotels to hostels and campsites. The country's 25 national parks are well maintained and staffed, and admission costs next to nothing when it isn't free.

I suggest starting at the northern border, which is home to the stunning Iguazú Falls, a series of 275 falls that jut into Brazil and are surrounded by a rainforest teeming with hummingbirds, toucans and monkeys. The Brazilians have the panoramic views, but the Argentine side offers a more intimate experience, with a latticework of walkways and observation decks that allow a view of the falls from above and below. The most awesome is the Garganta del Diablo (Devil's Throat), an 82-meter-high free fall that whips up a sea-white mist with a deafening thunder. Don't miss the zodiac boats that pass in and under the falls, delivering a thrilling soak. The park's only lodging, the Sheraton Iguazú Resort & Spa, offers direct views of the falls—for a price. But the sleepy nearby town of Puerto Iguazú provides a variety of inexpensive overnight options, plus plenty of great family-style restaurants that serve tasty local river fish and juicy Argentine steaks and chops.

From Iguazú, head south down the long spine of Argentina to busy San Carlos de Bariloche, the gateway to Patagonia. This bustling city is the jumping-off point for the Lake District, a famous draw for skiers, hikers and boaters. Here the 710,000-hectare Nahuel Huapi National Park—dubbed the "Switzerland of South America"—soars from deep valleys to Andean cliffs peering over the bluest lakes. Some of the best fly-fishing in the world can be found around Nahuel Huapi, and in some spots anglers are even allowed to keep their catch. In-the-know Argentines go a little farther, to San Martin de los Andes and Villa la Angostura, low-key Patagonian villages that have so far eluded the year-round tourist crush of Bariloche.

Farther south is land's end. Ushuaia, located on the island province of Tierra del Fuego, is the southernmost city in the world. Its population and fame have boomed over the past decade as the principal casting-off point for the growing fleet of cruise ships to Antarctica. The pristine Tierra Del Fuego National Park, 21 kilometers west of Ushuaia, offers a wealth of trails for exploring its dense green forests, valleys, streams and lakes, like Lago Roca, surrounded by jagged snowcapped mountain peaks. Tierra del Fuego also offers world-class trout fishing, hunting and mountain biking, and is South America's preeminent region for cross-country skiing.

If the road south runs out, turn west to Chile. Five years ago, Alberto Gana and his partners at the Chilean outdoor tour operator Latitud 90 had an idea. For several years, they had organized camping trips for tourists in Torres del Paine National Park. Located in southern Patagonia, it's one of the best places in the world to see enormous glaciers up close while taking in breathtaking landscapes that abound with exotic wildlife, like the fast-moving camel known as the guanaco, and the flightless South American ostrich, the nandu. But there were never any accommodations suitable for keen nature aficionados who cared about thread count.

Until now. Borrowing from the high-end safari camps common to east and southern Africa, Gana's company created Patagonia Camp. The first of its kind in South America, it's an ecologically minded complex situated just outside the park that is centered around 18 yurts, Mongolian-styled tents made from cloth and wood that come with all the amenities of a five-star hotel room—most important, heat and a stocked modern bathroom. They allow guests to enjoy the royal treatment without being completely removed from the region's legendary gale-force winds and frequent rains. "This has always been one of the continent's best parks," says Gana. "Now its possible to experience the park with all the comforts."

Over the past decade, the flow of visitors to the park has increased by 10 percent per year, the majority coming from all over Europe and North America. Devoted hikers are drawn to the rigorous eight- to 10-day treks that wind through the entire park. In the inverted summer of South America, from December through March, the days are warm and treks can stretch on until midnight, through the light of a glorious Patagonian sunset. But most hikers opt for a shorter—though no less spectacular—five-day trek called the "W." Along the 250 kilometers of well-kept trails, hikers weary of tents and howling winds can find campsites with bathrooms and refugios, or huts. And for those whose pockets aren't deep enough for Patagonia Camp—where a single costs $2,110 for three nights, including meals, transfers and tours—there are plenty of lower priced lodging options within or just outside the park. From there, hikers can take day trips to the main sites, like the Paine massif, the famous spires known as the torres, or towers, that typically crown postcard views of the park. "It's possible to see the park by car, by boat, by foot," says Rodrigo Condeza, owner of the Miralejos tour company. "The best way, without doubt, is by foot." Then there are no barriers between the traveler and the open land.

With Brian Byrnes and Jimmy Langman


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