Friday, January 25, 2008

Patagonia´s influx of Israelis

"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 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. 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 challah and matbouhah.

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 visit. 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 filled 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.

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 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 slow 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 to this majestic territory.


Mauricio Kitaigorodzki said...

May I add a minor correction: Barilohe's Jewish population is of about 150 families, not 150 people. There is a small, but flourishing community (

Mauricio Kitaigorodzki

Paul Rockower said...

The number 150 people came from an article in the UK paper The Telegraph from 2004, and I also saw a NYTimes article from the 90s that mentioned 35 families. If the number is not correct, I apologize.

Anonymous said...

One linguistic question if i may -- why is Patagonia called a land of midnight summer sun? I mean it's way beyond the polar circle and there should be no polar days of even 'white nights' in the summer?