Sandra Bao knows Argentina. For the last ten years, she has traveled extensively throughout the country as one of the lead writers for guidebook publisher Lonely Planet, contributing to the Argentina travel guide, Buenos Aires city guide, and South America on a Shoestring. Born in Buenos Aires to Chinese immigrants, Sandra and her family later moved to the United States, and she now calls the Pacific Northwest home.
She recently breezed through Necochea while conducting research for the latest edition of Lonely Planet Argentina, and I had the opportunity to chat with Sandra about her perspectives on Argentina, travel and writing over a meal at a local restaurant.
Many visitors never venture beyond Buenos Aires on a trip to Argentina, but there's more to this country than the big city. What's your favorite small town in Argentina?
I think that would have to be El Chaltén. It's popular enough as a tourist town to have good travel services but small enough that you can walk everywhere. And its location can't be beat – on a clear day the surrounding scenery is spectacular. Plus, there's all that world-class hiking. El Chaltén is changing quickly, however, so see it while you can.
In your opinion, which destinations in Argentina are currently off the radar for most travelers but are up and coming?
I think northern Argentina has more off-the-beaten-track destinations than Patagonia. Esteros del Iberá has great swampy wildlife. Parque Provincial Ischigualasto has amazing rock formations and dinosaur fossils. The Quebrada de Humahuaca region is worth exploring for its colorful landscapes, and the nearby villages of Iruya and Tilcara are good places to stay.
What would your suggested itinerary be for a traveler with just one week to spend in Argentina?
It depends on what they like. If they like big city life, then just stay in Buenos Aires, perhaps hopping to Colonia or Montevideo as daytrips. If they don't like cities but love hiking, fly to El Chaltén. Nature lovers can fly to Iguazú Falls and to Puerto Madryn (in the right seasons). Like a more hot, dry environment with indigenous culture and desert landscapes? Then go north. Adore wine? Don't miss Mendoza.
Unlike most South American countries, Argentina is – for the most part – a racially homogenous society. What's your take on race relations in Argentina? Do you ever feel discriminated against while traveling in Argentina because of your ethnicity?
Argentines seem fairly tolerant of other races, though they certainly have their stereotypes. Plus, they don't have to deal with them too much – there aren't so many minorities! There are so few local black people that it's hard to get a read on what they think, since few have probably met any. Buenos Aires has many Asians, so they've become fairly accepted. Outside Buenos Aires, however, blacks and Asians are even rarer, and people will stare at them.
I don't often feel discriminated against because I am Asian. I speak fluent Spanish, so Argentines I deal with soon realize I'm on their same cultural level. And I can't say that being from the United States has been bad either. I do think that once Argentines realize I'm an Argentine-born U.S. citizen, they just kind of stop trying to pigeonhole me – it's pretty hard.
Many people have a rather romantic notion of the life of a guidebook writer. What's the realistic side of travel writing?
You're often alone for weeks or even months at a time. You eat meals at restaurants alone. You travel alone. It can get lonely not having someone to talk to. But if you're lucky, your partner or a friend can join you – on their own dime.
You work 10, 12 or more hours per day, from morning to late night (after all, there are those restaurants, bars and nightclubs to check out!).
While some people realize the importance of what you're doing, others don't care, and it's like pulling teeth getting basic information out of them. This depends on the country, however.
Sometimes your schedule is so tight you can't enjoy the museums or sights fully; you have just enough time to get into a town in the morning, check restaurants, hotels and the bus station, then leave in the afternoon. Sometimes you're in such a desolate, boring or ugly city that you wonder what you're doing there, but it's a transport hub, so you have to stay and work.
You get calluses on your feet from all the walking you do!
What are some of the greatest challenges that you face in your quest to gather facts and stories while on assignment?
I have to make sure the information people tell me is true. Often locals want to give me an answer, even if they don't know it. Sometimes it's cultural (like in some Asian countries) – they don't want to lose face. Or they're eager to please. Or they're just wrong. So when in doubt, I have to double or triple check information given to me.
It's also hard to cover a destination during the off-season, such as a beach resort. It's not easy to review a place if it's closed!
What advice do you have for aspiring travel writers looking to break into the field?
Strangely enough, I don't get a whole lot of people asking how they can be guidebook travel writers (which is completely different from the kind of writing Pico Iyer or Paul Theroux do). If anyone does ask, I tell them to find the link on Lonely Planet's website which explains what the company looks for in potential authors. That might stop 90% of them. Speaking foreign languages, having published travel writing experience and expert knowledge on a destination (or having lived there) are a huge help, but even then you're not guaranteed a job. You have to have the right writing style for the right publisher, and each travel publisher has different requirements. Do your homework. And persevere.
And I always tell them this: This job isn't as glamorous as they might think. You're essentially a traveling fact checker. If they really like to write creatively, this isn't for them; it's hard to be creative when writing a restaurant review in 50 words or less. And finally, you're unlikely to get rich writing guidebooks – unless you own the company!