(photo credit:Paul Rockower)
BARILOCHE, Patagonia - "Have you been to 'Israeloche?'" came the question from an Israeli backpacker. It didn't seem that off the mark given that the Argentine city of Bariloche was indeed overrun with Israeli travelers.
For that matter, all of Patagonia is chock-full of Israelis. Drawn by the rugged landscape, numerous trekking opportunities and the relative bargain that Argentina has become in the wake of the 2001 financial crisis, Israelis are pouring into Patagonia.
As noted by a worker at a tourist information booth in Ushuaia in Tierra del Fuego, "the most steady stream of travelers that we receive throughout the year are Israelis."
For all intents and purposes, Bariloche is the hub of Jewish life in Patagonia, a geographic region at the southernmost portion of South America.
In Bariloche, there is a permanent Jewish community of nearly 150 people, and that number is buoyed by a tremendous influx of Israeli travelers passing through.
Bariloche is also home to one of the most southerly Beit Chabads on the planet, and I stopped by for Shabbat and squeezed my way into a packed service.
Following services, the synagogue reconvened in a convention hall for Shabbat dinner, and we were joined by scores of Israeli travelers; in total, nearly 150 people were there for Shabbat dinner.
As good as Argentine empanadas are, they still can't compete with fresh halla and matbuha.
While most Israeli travelers are post-army backpackers, I have also encountered a considerable number of older Israelis on vacation here. One Israeli remarked that he was visiting Patagonia because his son had been backpacking here the previous year and recommended it so highly that he had to come himself.
Similar sentiments were echoed by other older travelers, not to mention a scattered number of Israeli families traveling in Patagonia.
Every city and hiking refuge in this land of midnight summer sun is filled with Israelis. So much so, it seems Hebrew is practically a second language in Patagonia.
Hostels are buzzing with the sound of Hebrew, and Hebrew sections on menus are fairly common.
I even saw flyers hawking hostels and trekking services written in Hebrew. Meanwhile, while I was on a glacier tour in El Chalten, I was the only native English speaker on the English tour: all the rest were Israelis.
But the most telling anecdote of the Israeli presence in Patagonia came while I was crossing the Straits of Magellan.
As our bus was crossing the Straits on a ferry, Ehud Banai started playing over the bus speakers.
I figured the music was the property of one of the many Israeli passengers, but it turned out to be a CD of the Argentine driver, who got it after an Israeli had previously played him the music.
Patagonia has clearly become a major spot on the radar for itinerant Israelis, and their presence here is quickly changing the tourist landscape.
The promise of austral adventures will surely continue to draw the Israeli backpacker crowd, but the slowly forming nucleus of a Patagonian tourist industry that caters to a broader segment of Israeli society may be something on the rugged horizon, as a wider range of Israeli tourists arrive annually in this majestic territory.
Paul Rockower served as the press officer for the Israeli consulate in Houston from 2003 to 2006. He has been trekking around Patagonia for the last month. You can read his 'Tales of a Wandering Jew' series at http://talesofawanderingjew.blogspot.com
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