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Islander columnist shares tour of South America

By Staff | May 8, 2009

The first observation I made during a trip to South America is how chauvinistic each country is when it comes to soccer.

When you’re in Argentina, never, NEVER say the name Pele, the great Brazilian soccer player… And when in Brazil the same prohibition is true for the great Argentinean soccer player Maradona.

Both soccer legends are worshiped in their respective countries and the soccer rivalry between Argentina and Brazil is so intense that violence is not unusual among rowdy fans.

My wife and I had never been to Chile, Argentina and Brazil and we just came back from a two-week tour of these countries. We flew from the U.S. to Santiago, the capital of Chile. Chile is on the west coast of South

America with a population of around 16 million. It borders the Pacific Ocean on the west and the Andes Mountains on the east. The contour of the country is unusual because it is 2700 miles long and a little more than a 100 miles from east to west.

There seem to be ongoing and historic border disputes between Chile and Argentina. Both accuse each other of constantly rewriting each other’s maps.

Santiago is a very cosmopolitan city with a population of around 5.7 million and upscale buildings everywhere. About 40 percent of the total population of Chile lives in the greater Santiago area. It was good to go right to the source of Chilean sea bass, a delicacy found on the menus of restaurants throughout the U.S.

We went to one of Chile’s leading wineries just on the outskirts of= Santiago. Chilean wine has become honored in the world wine marketplace and we had an opportunity to see just how it’s made. Chilean wine goes back to the 16th century when the Spanish conquistadors brought “Vitris vinefera” vines with them as they colonized the region.

There are now more than seventy wineries in Chile today compared to 12 in 1995. Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere are the most common grapes. My personal favorite among the three is Carmenere which tastes like a cross between Cabernet and Syrah.

From Santiago we flew about six hundred miles south to Puerto Montt which is in the Patagonian region. It is an area of lakes, fiords and rain forests.

Even though it is now springtime in Chile, the Patagonian region was cold and constantly drizzly. We were told to wear layered clothing but we didn’t bring enough layers with us. We were constantly chilly in Chile.

But the scenery in southern Chile more than made up for the discomfort.

There was a constant array of “ooh’s” and “aaah’s” as we made our way to the Argentinean border across the Andes by boat through some Chilean lakes.

There were snowcapped mountains in the background along with a flurry of water falls.

We even spotted a much endangered species – the condor – a magnificent bird with extremely wide wings that doesn’t show itself much to tourists. There was also a marked contrast between the busy streets of Santiago and the under populated towns of Puerto Montt, Puerto Varas and Puello. It rains virtually all the time in Puello and we needed to wear ponchos constantly.

We were told by local tour guides that Walt Disney got the idea for his movie “Bambi” by visiting the Patagonian rain forests many years ago.

There’s also an interesting story of a wealthy American by the name of

Douglas Tompkins who visited the area around Puerto Montt some years ago and bought up thousands of acres of land. The locals wondered what he would do with the land and how his plans might affect the local eco-system. But they didn’t have to worry because Tompkins bought the land to preserve it in its natural state.

The border crossing between Chile and Argentina took place just after a short boat ride across one of Chile’s majestic lakes. We boarded a bus and drove a number of miles across unpaved roads to a small shack that was the Chilean customs building.

When we passed through customs we drove another couple of miles to the Argentinean customs building and prepared to drive from there to one of the best kept secrets in the world – Bariloche, an Argentinean resort town where shopping is kind and skiing can be enjoyed almost all year round. We stayed at the Llao Llao Resort (pronounced in Spanish speaking Argentina “djow djow” and not “yow yow” as in other Spanish speaking countries). It has an 18-hole golf course and overlooks a huge lake and snowcapped mountains.

The official name of the town is San Carlos de Bariloche and it is in the province of Rio Negro, situated in the foothills of the Andes. It is within Lake Nahuel Huapi National Park surrounded by larch and cypress forests. Cerro Catedral is one of the most important ski centers in South America.

The name Bariloche comes from the Mapudungun word meaning “people from behind the mountain.” Bariloche made headlines in 1995 when it became known as a haven for former Nazi war criminals. It’s a two-hour flight from Buenos Aires.

As you make your way through the streets of Bariloche, which looks like a typical Alpine village, you can’t help but notice the proliferation of shops selling various brands of locally made chocolate. As you enter each store a willing and polite sales clerk offers you samples of the store’s chocolate specialties. The sampling of chocolate from store to store rapidly replaced any remaining hunger pangs we might have had for our next meal.

It was while in Bariloche that we discovered the narcotic effect of Yerba mate which is a popular local tea blend made from the yerba mate plant, a shrub growing up to fifteen meters tall. Mate (pronounced mat-tay) is prepared by steeping dry leaves and twigs in hot water, rather than in boiling water. Drinking mate with friends from a shared hollow gourd with a metal straw is an extremely common social practice in Argentina and some other South American countries.

The flavor is strongly vegetative, herbal and grassy, reminiscent of some varieties of green tea. The natives swear that imbibing mate is very stimulating both psychologically as well as physiologically. It is said to have a relaxing effect on muscle and heart tissue and an effect on one’s mental state of wakefulness, focus and alertness without the jitters and heart palpitations of caffeine based drinks.

My wife and I brought home a mate set consisting of ground leaves, gourd and silver straw. We will let you know what we experience.

From Bariloche it was on to Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. More about these fabulous cities later.