Thursday, April 23, 2015

Johnny Cash at Calbuco? Chile's Ring of Fire Erupts Again

In my academic field of geography, one of the specialties is natural hazards, a topic which was never central to my own research but which always attracted my attention. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where we felt the massive Alaska earthquake of 1964 and the cataclysmic eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980 (though I had moved away by then, a friend in Seattle, 96 miles to the north, told me that he thought the sound was someone slamming his front door very hard). I’ve lived through many earthquakes in the Bay Area, most notably the 1989 Loma Prieta (World Series) event.
And, of course, I’ve spent plenty of time in Chile, which has given me the opportunity to write about earthquakes, tsunamis, volcanic eruptions and floods (especially in recent weeks). Now, near the southern mainland city of Puerto Varas, one of my favorite Chilean destinations, the 2,003-meter (6,570-ft) Volcán Calbuco (pictured in the BBC video above) has upstaged the more northerly Volcán Villarrica, about which I wrote only recently.
In fact Calbuco (pictured above in quieter times) was one of my backup climbing choices after the recent closure of Villarrica to climbers, but I never actually made it Varas this last summer (though I passed nearby en route to Puerto Montt for the ferry to Puerto Natales). After Calbuco unexpectedly blew yesterday, I wrote my German friend Andreas La Rosé of Puerto Varas’s Casa Azul hostel to ask the effect there, and he seemed unconcerned: “Until now we have south wind and no rain. So no ash! In the moment everything is fine!”

That, however, was not the case for residents of Ensenada, a picturesque town at the east end of Lago Llanquihue. From Puerto Octay, on the north side of the lake, Armin and Nadia Dübendorfer of Hostal Zapato Amarillo wrote me this morning that “the volcano has settled down for the moment. The Ensenada area is seriously affected and was evacuated yesterday afternoon. Last night there were tremors and [a second] eruption was powerful, with thunder and lightning, the column of ash red with reflection from the lava.”

My friend Franz Schirmer, a Swiss-Chilean who owns Petrohué Lodge about 20 km east of Ensenada, sounded almost non-plussed: “Lots of noise, sand, ash and a spectacular lightning storm last night. Everything’s fine and now we’re working on removing the sand…” Interestingly, he referred me to his Twitter account, which included photos of him and his children at Calbuco’s crater two weeks ago; I wonder when – if ever - I’ll get that opportunity to do that hike.


Meanwhile, most of the ash seems headed eastward and, across the Argentine border, the residents of Bariloche are preparing themselves for an ashfall that could might that of the Cordón Caulle eruption of 2011. That could affect the upcoming ski season, as it did then, and air traffic to and from Argentine Patagonia.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Up the Volcano!

This past southern summer, one of my goals was to climb a volcano. The original idea was to strap on crampons to reach the crater of Chile’s Volcán Villarrica (pictured above, it's Rukapillán to the indigenous Mapuche), near the resort town of Pucón, but a seismic alert that culminated in a startling eruption on March 3rd postponed that option.
I returned to Pucón late last month – with the volcano still smoking if not quite threatening – but in the interim I had found an alternative. While driving north on the Carretera Austral, I reached the town of Chaitén, recently resettled since a dramatic eruption of its own namesake volcano (pictured above) in May of 2008. The clouds of ash and a subsequent flood had forced its evacuation then.
When I visited the town a year later, the volcano was still smoking, with cars and houses nearly buried beneath the ash, and the southern beech forests of nearby Parque Pumalín – an audacious private conservation project – were nearly denuded (as pictured above).  This year, though, a lush green understory of ferns, rhubarb-like nalcas and shrubs (pictured below) surrounded the still pallid tree trunks – a handful of which had resprouted - and the park had opened a trail to the rim of the volcano’s crater.
A misleading sign (pictured below) suggested a three-hour round-trip to the rim and back but, on a hot late-summer day in this usually cool damp climate, it took me twice that - especially given the steep staircases that comprised much of the trail, and the blisters I favored after another hike in Torres del Paine. Statistically, the climb was 600 meters in just 2.2 kilometers, a roughly 27 percent gradient, though it seemed even steeper and longer.
There were quite a few other hikers, several of them Argentines taking advantage of a three-day weekend to cross the border from the city of Esquel. Four Chilean hikers included two women, one of whom was wearing heels – not quite exactly stilettos, but more like high-heeled sneakers that could not have been comfortable, and would have been especially awkward on the descent. They didn’t quite make it to the rim, but their husbands did.
Seemingly designed for NBA forwards, the staircases (it's not I in the photo above) made it exhausting but when I reached the rim (pictured below), at the same time as a couple young French sisters, we could see the smoke seeping from the crater and hear a low rumble. Still barren at the top, it was nevertheless not at the point of expelling large clouds of ash, much less volcanic bombs or lava. Still, in late afternoon, we didn’t tarry in returning.

Given the steepness and loose ash, the descent was trickier than the ascent, but less tiring. At the end of the day, I was glad to have done it, and glad that it was over, and I’m still hoping to tackle Villarrica the next time I’m in Pucón – presuming the threat of another eruption continues to recede.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

Rain? In the Atacama? Again?

Early one morning a decade or so ago, I stepped outside my hotel in the northern Chilean port of Antofagasta (pictured above) to notice an unexpected scent – during the night, it had rained in the world’s driest desert. It was barely a sprinkle, with traces of moisture on the pavement, but it reinforced for me the rarity of rain in the Atacama Desert (note the utterly barren hills behind downtown).

There was a far more serious reminder of that last week, as unprecedented storms hit the mid-Atacama region in and around the city of Copiapó, where a normally dry river course overflowed its banks and forced thousands to evacuate. In the coastal city of Chañaral, things were even worse and, in total, there have been 25 deaths and another 125 persons unaccounted for.

It’s been too long since I last visited the Atacama but, three years ago, I did have my own encounter with the lower Río Copiapó and vicinity. That wasn’t nearly so severe as the recent floods, but it did remind me that lack of water is not the desert’s only danger – there's little or nothing to stop or even slow the rare rush down the hillsides and through intermittent streams, which overflow their banks and undercut hillsides to create landslides. Flash floods can wash away houses, let alone vehicles and people, in towns like Taltal (pictured below), which also suffered in the recent floods.
I hope to get back to the Atacama later this year but, in the meantime, I learned that the most heavily-touristed area was relatively unaffected. A Dutch friend who owns a travel agency in San Pedro de Atacama tells me that “The first rains fell in our part of the Atacama, roads disappeared as usual, we were all complaining because of lost business and some leaking roofs. But then images started to come through from [farther south], and [it] all became relative again. I guess in the end we were lucky here: the storm could have hit anywhere between Calama and Copiapó...”

For my part, after spending most of the last two months-plus in Patagonia, I boarded a Sunday-night flight from Santiago bound for Lima, Los Angeles and San Francisco. I arrived early enough at Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez to enjoy a farewell pisco sour, a panino, and a glass of old-vine Carignan at Vinum (pictured above), a welcome new wine bar in the departure area.
By the time the flight left, though, it was dark and there was no possibility of viewing the flood area from the air. I also left behind the forest fires and plumes of volcanic ash I had seen in Argentina and Chile, but at least this time there were no earthquakes in this seismically lively area.


Fortunately, I did not have to change planes in Lima and my connection from LAX to SFO was quick enough that I got home in time to watch opening day of the baseball season. That night, though, we had an unexpected rainstorm in the drought-stricken Bay Area – no floods, fortunately, but at least it left our garden refreshed.

Friday, April 3, 2015

Observations on Chile's "H-Word"

Fifty years ago, in a prescient song titled “Trouble Every Day,” Frank Zappa made the sardonic comment that “You know, people, I’m not black, but there’s a whole lot of times I wish I could say I wasn’t white” (see the video above). The seemingly insoluble issue of racial conflict in the United States, exacerbated in the recent past by incidents like that in Ferguson, Missouri, has not gone away, and the issue arose unexpectedly yesterday while I was walking the streets of Santiago’s Barrio Bellavista to update my photographic library on the city.
Bellavista is Santiago’s self-proclaimed “Bohemian Quarter” and a major nightlife zone, with a mix of scruffy to high-end bars and restaurants, artists and artisans, antique and boutique shops, and vigorous street life. It divides, however, into two somewhat incompatible districts: east of Avenida Pío Nono, Bellavista is part of prosperous Providencia, whose municipal government warns locals and visitors alike of perceived high-crime; the area west of Pío Nono belongs to the municipality of Recoleta (which, although it’s the home of Chile’s landmark Cementerio General, otherwise bears minimal resemblance to its Buenos Aires namesake). It’s getting a makeover, though, as the brightly painted houses above and below suggest (the latter, obviously, is work in progress).
In reality, I’ve never really worried about personal safety in Santiago, though there are marginal neighborhoods I don’t know at all, and I do avoid soccer games (personally, I find the sport boring and, though Chilean soccer has its hooligans, they can’t approach the barrabravas of Buenos Aires). Yesterday, though, I found myself surrounded – in a manner of speaking – by three young Chilean men, dressed in hip-hop style, who addressed me in a mix of English and Spanish on the Recoleta side of the barrio.

On a warm autumn afternoon, even with nobody else on the block, this aging gringo didn’t really feel threatened, but it was a little unusual. As it turned out, they were kids from nearby suburbs who had clearly studied some English (though my Spanish was better), and were spending a free afternoon in the city. They were curious to know where I came from – couldn’t quite decide whether I was American or European – and wanted to know whether I liked Chile.

As I told them, that’s a question I don’t care for, because it begs a positive answer even when matters are not so simple. There are things I really like about both Argentina and Chile, and other things I don’t care for – which is also the case in my own country. Somehow the topic got around to race issues and specifically, they asked why it was OK for US blacks to use the “N-Word” among themselves, but offensive for someone else to use it.

In context, especially, this was a good and honest question – they were genuinely interested in the issue. I’m neither black nor Chilean, but the best explanation I could provide was to analyze a common Chileanism: the word huevón has some crude connotations, stemming from a comparison of eggs and testicles, but Chileans often use it in a friendly manner among themselves, as these three readily acknowledged. If they used it to address a stranger, though, it might be an inappropriate familiarity or even an insult.


That said, as I stressed to them, my analogy is probably an oversimplification, since their own “H-Word” lacks the same historical connotations of racial hatred and implied inferiority that the “N-Word” does in the USA (in Chile, the use of huevón doesn’t even imply class distinctions). At the same time, I hope that my imperfect explanation was at least a step toward satisfying their honest curiosity.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Patagonia Blue(s)? An Exchange-Rate Update

For various reasons – a brief illness and a work assignment that kept me anchored to the computer for about ten days – I’ve spent less time on the Argentine side of Patagonia than I had hoped or anticipated. That said, it’s still given me some insight into the continuing complications of the exchange rates here, both for foreign visitors and for Argentines and their businesses.
Two weeks ago, I crossed the border from Chile’s Torres del Paine to the Argentine tourist town of El Calafate, where I usually stay in my cousin’s house. She was out of town, though, and my other usual contacts (her ex-husband and my nephew) had no available space, so I had to spend money on a hotel. I found a simple but pleasant place for 490 pesos (about US$55 at the official exchange rate).

I had a supply of Argentine pesos that I had purchased at the “blue” rate of roughly 13 to the dollar in December in Buenos Aires, but thought I might need more, so I asked the owner what rate she paid for US dollars. I knew it would be lower here, where the tourist economy puts quite a bit of foreign currency in private hands – my cousin and nephew are guides who often get tips in dollars – but accepted the offer of 11.50 pesos per dollar, which made the effective room rate about US$43. I also got some change in return, augmenting my peso supply.
That wasn’t as good as the Buenos Aires rate and, at dinner with my nephew and my cousin’s ex that night, I learned that Calafate’s only foreign exchange house had closed. That leaves the banks and ATMs, which pay only the official rate, or negotiations with hotels or other businesses, such as tour agencies. En route to El Chaltén, I made a brief stop at the historic roadhouse of La Leona (pictured above), where the rate was 11 pesos (as pictured below). Friends at El Chaltén, who operate a hybrid hostel/B&B, told me they were reluctant to involve themselves in money-changing because of the recent fluctuations in the market (the dollar reached as high as 15 pesos in the not-too-distant past).
As I reported in the previous post, I had to make an unexpected detour to the town of Gobernador Gregores as I drove north on Ruta 40, and there the YPF gas station (pictured below) was offering 10 pesos – not much of a premium on the official rate. I had plenty of pesos to fill the tank, though, so I didn’t have to change money there.
Shortly thereafter, I returned to Chile and, a couple days ago, I crossed the border from Futaleufú to Esquel, where a friend told me the market there had pretty much dried up because of a government crackdown. I proceeded north, with a brief stop for empanadas and ice cream at El Bolsón, before arriving at Villa La Angostura, my last stop before returning to Chile. My pesos were running a little low.

Unfortunately, I arrived too late to visit Cambio Andina (pictured at top), an exchange house that was paying the blue rate last year. I went to find accommodations and learned that, unfortunately, this is the weekend of a big moto-cross event (something I loathe) and rooms would be hard to find. The first place that had a room (which I knew from an earlier visit) would accept dollars at nine pesos, barely above the official rate.

Another place’s prices had skyrocketed – even in dollar terms – since I stayed there last year, but its owner would change dollars at 12 pesos. I decided to try one other place, where an apologetic receptionist told me that Andina would still change at the blue rate for tourists, but only the official rate for locals, so she preferred not to do so. I ended up returning to the previous option, but paying a bit more than I had hoped.

What’s the moral of this story? Argentina continues to be unpredictable, and is likely to be so at least until a new government takes office at year’s end.

MEANWHILE, ACROSS THE ANDES

There’s also news in Chile’s foreign exchange market, where the dollar stood at roughly 620 pesos when I arrived at the end of January, then rose upwards of 640 before recently returning to the 620 level. This contrasts, however, with the rate of 540 pesos a year ago, so that Chile has actually gotten a bit cheaper (unlike in Argentina, inflation remains low). Also, in Chile, there’s no parallel market, so you can withdraw from ATMs without an exchange rate penalty (preferably BancoEstado, with very low user charges).
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