Friday, February 5, 2016

The Huaso and the Rodeo

Visitors to Argentina expect to see gauchos, but few are even aware of their Chilean counterpart – less publicly celebrated, the huaso resembles his trans-Andean counterpart in many ways but differs in others. Both, of course, are horsemen, but the gaucho arose from a background of fierce independence on the Pampas, while the subservient huaso originated on the landed estates that dominated economic and social life in colonial and republican Chile.
Though the huaso was a hired hand or even a peon attached to the property, on Sundays he and his colleagues could blow off steam by racing their horses, betting, and drinking. As the spontaneous rodeo grew too raucous, though, it drew disapproval from landowners, who responded by organizing competitions that, over time, became more genteel versions of their huaso origins.
Though Chilean rodeo remains popular, it is now, according to historian Richard Slatta, a nostalgic exercise that's "a middle- and upper-class pastime, not a profession," as it has become in North America. Riders wear colorful ponchos, flat-brimmed hats known as chupallas (depicted above), oversized spurs, and elaborately carved wooden stirrups (photograph below).
The signature event is the atajada, in which a pair of jinetes (riders) guide and pin a calf or steer to the padded wall of the medialuna, the semicircular rodeo ring (as depicted at top). Since it's harder to control the steer by the body than the head - the chest is best - the horsemen get more points for this. They lose points if the steer strikes any unpadded part of the wall or escapes between the horses.

There are no cash prizes, though the event ends by acknowledging the champions and other riders with wine and empanadas. Compared to Canada, the United States, and even Mexico, Chilean rodeo is truly machista - women prepare and serve food, dress in costume, and dance the traditional cueca with the men, but they do not ride.

An hour south of Santiago, the city of Rancagua is the capital of Chilean rodeo, drawing thousands of spectators to March's national festival. In the Andean foothills of central Chile and in small settlements along the Carretera Austral, though, rodeo probably comes closest to its historic roots.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Cycling Your Ash Off? Conquering Volcán Osorno

Yesterday, I left the ferry port of Hornopirén in the morning but, instead of continuing toward Puerto Montt – the formal starting point of the Carretera Austral – I left the the highway at Caleta Puelche to turn east on Ruta A-691, a narrow winding gravel road along the Estuario de Reloncaví (pictured above) en route to Petrohué, in Chile’s Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales. It was a slow drive, disrupted by road work in several places, though some northerly parts of it were paved just before and beyond the town of Puelo (where I had been before, approaching from the north).
It took four hours to drive the roughly 200 km from Hornopirén to the town of Ensenada, at the eastern end of Lago Llanquihue, where I had lunch. After that, I headed to Petrohué, the lakeport locality where the Cruce Andino to Argentina starts, and where I would be staying at Petrohué Lodge, with views of Lago Todos los Santos. It took a while to get there, though, because an urban-like traffic jam coincided with the end of the Conquista Volcán Osorno, a 77-km mountain-bike competition, with more than a thousand riders, around its namesake volcano (pictured below).
There were plenty of spectators along the route, and riders sometimes had to dart between automobiles on the gravel road within the national park boundary (outside that boundary, there’s a wide bike lane that goes all the way to Puerto Varas, 65 km to the west). The riders, though, had looped around the north side of the volcano and passed through what is normally a hiking trail before arriving at Petrohué.

I couldn’t speak to any of the participants, but this morning I asked a national park ranger about the wisdom of allowing such a major competition through an environmentally sensitive terrain of mid-latitude rain forest. While this was the 13th such competition, it was the first since the eruption of nearby Volcán Calbuco, which dumped large amounts of ash here last April. According to what he told me, many riders had to dismount because of deep ash, and he implied that this could be the last such event – at other times, bicycles are not permitted on park trails.

I sympathize with cyclists – I’m one myself, though I prefer paved roads – but I would still argue that this is not appropriate to the environmental goals of a national park. I’d hope that the organizers would find a more suitable route in an area that abounds in suitable terrain – though none of that terrain has quite the majesty of Osorno’s Fuji-perfect cone (pictured above, as seen from the eastern shore of Lago Llanquihue).

Monday, January 18, 2016

Undoing Argentina's "Reciprocity" Mess

In late 2009, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration imposed a tourism “reciprocity fee” for passport holders from the United States, Canada and Australia, who can no longer simply arrive at the airport (or other border) and automatically expect a stamp in their documents (as shown below).
On the face of it, this was a just measure - those countries require visas for Argentine citizens, who must pay for the privilege of merely applying to the US (US$160), Australia (US$100) and Canada (US$100). That visa process often involves traveling great distances for a consular interview. My own brother-in-law and his wife, who are presently visiting California, also had to make a special trip to Buenos Aires from their home in northern Patagonia – at additional expense in time and money - for a perfunctory interview at the US consulate in Palermo.

In this context, requiring comparable fees for visitors from the US and countries with similar policies was never unfair. One might even argue that the Argentine policy was relatively liberal, since it never required those visitors to seek an advance visa. Still, I would suggest that the reciprocity fee was (and is) a foolish and counter-productive measure that has made Argentina a less than welcoming destination to many potential visitors.

As the new Argentine administration of Mauricio Macri has taken power, it has already eliminated multiple exchange rates and the “currency clamp,” both of which had caused confusion and problems for visitors who, however, still cannot withdraw money from local ATMs except on disadvantageous terms, and must often carry large amounts of US and Argentine cash. That’s an important step forward for the tourism sector, but it should also eliminate the “reciprocity fee” as soon as possible.

There are many good reasons to eliminate it. In the first place, it adds to the cost of visiting a destination that is already expensive to reach because of distance – for a family of four from the US, it means an extra US$640 diverted to the Argentine treasury rather than circulating in the economy at large. In the second instance, paying the fee requires opening an account with an unfamiliar payment system to which potential visitors may not wish to surrender personal information online. Third, the arriving visitor must show an easily lost or misplaced printout of the transaction.

A Chilean-born friend (with US and Canadian passports), who leads tours into Argentina, described the process and its pitfalls for me as: “cumbersome but doable, it was not always clear what the next step was but I got through it. Largely I succeeded because I have done a lot of payments online, but this one had its slight oddities. I am not sure a little old lady from the Midwest who does not get on the computer a lot will be able to adequately manage this.” He also noted that the English-language version was clumsily unprofessional: “The oddities are mainly some of language, where you have to know to ‘add form’ and ‘print ticket’ instead of ‘upload data’ and ‘print receipt’ or something that makes more sense.”

While none of these may be an insuperable obstacle – visitors from all three countries have not disappeared - they cannot compare with the simplicity of arriving at Ezeiza or a land border and simply having your passport stamped. On the positive side, the fee is valid for ten years, but even that’s not totally positive. In my case, since I travel to Argentina every year, the annual amortization amounts to only US$16, but it does require me to carry the expired passport with proof of payment (at the time, I was able to pay on arrival at Ezeiza, which is no longer possible). My dual passports invariably confuse immigration officers, especially at remote border crossings in Patagonia, because their numbers are different.

Those are short term considerations, but I think the Fernández de Kirchner administration also struck out on a key longer-term perspective. One booming sector of the travel and tourism sector is youth travel, as evidenced by the proliferation of hostels that cater to students and other budget travelers. Their absolute monetary contribution to the economy may be smaller than luxury accommodations and gourmet restaurants, but it often goes to needier providers, such as snack bars, and neighborhood restaurants and grocers. Today’s budget backpackers, though, are tomorrow’s prosperous professionals and, if they have a good experience now, they’re likely to return when their financial resources are far greater. Repeat visitors are better than one-timers.

This, in my opinion, is a missed opportunity. Certainly some of those travelers have made their way to Argentina, but we can speculate that others have bypassed Argentina for, say, Chile – which eliminated its reciprocity fee in 2013. To some degree, of course, Argentina’s reciprocity fee – which I often refer to as a “retaliation fee” - owes its origins to the recent administration’s impulsive politics and awkward relations with the United States, to the detriment of visitors and Argentina’s own future.

Along with the reform of multiple exchange rates, unilateral elimination of the “reciprocity fee” would bring in part of the valuable foreign exchange that the country needs to reactivate its economy. It would be a major step toward improving Argentina’s competitiveness and, in this context, it’s worth noting that Brazil will suspend its advance visa requirements during the upcoming 2016 Olympics.
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