Monday, July 25, 2016

Open(ing?) Skies of South America

Those of us who live in North America often resent the “legacy airlines” – I’ll refrain from mentioning any names – because of their arbitrary rules, rigidity and, of course, astronomical fares. Fortunately for me, I fly only rarely in the United States, and am usually able to use a more reasonable regional airline, but I have a bit more experience in southernmost South America.
In some ways, the situation is similar. Both Argentina and Chile have legacy airlines – Aerolíneas Argentinas and LATAM (formerly LAN), respectively – that dominate domestic air services in those countries. Both began as state-run airlines that underwent privatization in the late 20th century (Aerolíneas is once again state-run), and competitors have had a hard time of it. In Argentina, LATAM’s local affiliate runs a distant second and the state-run LADE (the air force’s Patagonia passenger service) a very distant third. In Chile, Sky Airline occupies a secondary role and there have been some small regional carriers, such as Aerovías DAP in the southernmost Patagonian region of Magallanes.
Both Argentina and Chile need extensive air services – Argentina is the world’s eighth-largest country and Chile stretches from the tropics to the sub-Antarctic – but most secondary and tertiary airlines have failed. It doesn’t help that, in both countries, nearly all long-distance flights are routed through the capital cities – because of this, flying from the Argentine coastal city of Puerto Madryn to the Andean resort of Bariloche (a distance of 928 km) takes nearly as long as the bus. Flying is also more expensive and, in addition, foreign passengers in Argentina pay a penalty (described as a discount for Argentine nationals).

Things may be changing, though. According to several reports, the low-cost airlines Ryanair and Avianca are due to start Argentina operations early next year. This is an encouraging development, but it comes with caveats: as the Buenos Aires daily La Nación has noted, there are numerous obstacles to be overcome – most notably, government-set minimum fares, the lack of secondary airports, the absence of night flights, and strong labor unions. In Europe, for instance, Ryanair personnel clean the cabins, but Argentina’s powerful unions will surely raise objections to that.

Meanwhile, across the Andes, the ironically named Chilean Airwaysfinanced by Bolivian capital, despite diplomatic distance between the two countries over lingering border disputes – has begun services from Santiago to northern domestic destinations including La Serena, Antofagasta, Calama, Iquique and Arica, and international routes that include Buenos Aires, Asunción (Paraguay), and Bolivian cities. If it lasts, this would supplement the northern Chilean services of LATAM and Sky Airline (currently reinventing itself as a budget airline).
Farther south, in Chilean Patagonia, DAP (seen above landing in Antarctica) has recently announced that it will fly twice weekly between the southern Patagonian city of Punta Arenas and the northern Patagonian airport of Balmaceda (pictured below, near the Aisén regional capital of Coyhaique). This would make it easier for Patagonian travelers to visit both Torres del Paine and do the Carretera Austral – Patagonia’s greatest road trip.
No less importantly, DAP will also start flying between Punta Arenas and the Argentine city of Ushuaia (pictured below) – helping travelers avoid the tiresome full-day bus trip between the two cities. This will be a particular boon to those who take the Cruceros Australis cruise between the two cities, but don’t wish to travel both ways by sea.

Saturday, July 16, 2016

Natales Gourmet?

When I first saw Puerto Natales, more than three decades ago, it was primarily a wool-industry service center, and a stopover for backpackers headed to Torres del Paine – and, at that time, only a relative handful of people visited this part of Patagonia. Accommodations were mostly basic (I stayed at the Residencial Magallanes, pictured below), and the supplies themselves limited – the plainest groceries. You usually had to overnight and, if you found a restaurant, the standard would be grilled lamb or mutton, plus the occasional fried fish. The 1982 edition of The South American Handbook (the only guidebook then available) mentions no specific restaurants, though a handful of hotels and other accommodations offered food.
The Handbook’s editors would hardly recognize today’s Natales, where an attractive waterfront and downtown now teem with hotels, hostels, outdoor gear franchises – and plenty of fine restaurants. Recently, in a week in town, I chose a different and distinctive option every evening, and here are three of my favorites.
What is Afrigonia (pictured above)? Improbably, figuratively and literally, it’s a gastronomic marriage between Zambia and Chile, in the persons of chef Kamal Nawaz and his wife Nathalie Reffer. Yesterday’s mutton has become tender lamb on a skewer, with a side of saffron rice, and the seafood masala (shrimp and scallop curry, pictured below) adds an unaccustomed spice to the local scene. Afrigonia’s prices may be on the high side but, after trekking around Torres del Paine, you deserve something unique and special.
A more recent appearance, Santolla is a seafood restaurant – part of the adjacent IF Patagonia Hotel – whose design indulges contemporary container chic (as pictured below). The bar and dining rooms consist of three ground-level containers, joined together, with the kitchen perched above them. From the outside it looks utilitarian, but the interior is cozy (even rustic) and king crab – it takes its name from the Latin term for Spanish-language centolla - is the specialty here.

Afrigonia and Santolla are both upscale options, but Mesita Grande appeals to the backpacker in me with its thin-crusted pizzas, all served at two long communal tables. My twenty-something daughter called it the best pizza ever, but I also like Mesita’s pastas, particularly the ñoquis (gnocchi), and exceptional ice cream. If it’s not the best restaurant in Natales, it may be the best value – and that’s saying a lot in a town whose dining options continue to improve. Given its success here, Mesita has also opened a branch in the provincial capital of Punta Arenas.


Thursday, June 30, 2016

Can Argentina (Make) Change? Are Thinner Wallets Better?

This week, many Argentines will find their wallets a big lighter – and that may be a good thing. It’s because a new 500-peso banknote (pictured above), with a value of roughly US$33 has just gone into circulation, and it solves a whole bunch of problems – at least temporarily.

That’s largely thanks to mismanagement by Argentina’s previous government, which refused to issue any banknote larger than 100 pesos (less than US$7) even as the peso plunged in value against the US dollar and other foreign currencies. It was part of their effort to deny an inflation that reached upwards of 40 per cent per annum (though it never got to the level of the 1970s and 1980s when, if Argentine governments spoke hopefully of 50 percent inflation, they meant per month).

From my own perspective, traveling extensively every year in Argentina and Chile – crossing the border with some frequency – it’s meant a wallet uncomfortably thick with Argentine currency. It was also bad for banks, though - ATM machines, obviously, do not have an infinite storage capacity and, if demand was high, they could empty quickly.

Not only that, the armored cars that refilled those ATMs had limited capacity as well, and restocking the machines required more frequent visits. This was especially troublesome in popular tourist destinations like El Chaltén, which received infrequent service from banks in the provincial capital of Río Gallegos (ironically enough, the political home base of former president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her husband/predecessor, the late Néstor Kirchner).
However necessary the larger bills may be, they’re no miracle cure for Argentina’s economic malaise – larger bills might, in fact, fuel the fear of inflation that’s always latent in Argentina. I still remember, more than 30 years ago, the fact of million-peso banknotes that became barely worth the paper they were printed on; more pragmatically, I wonder whether, in the none-too-distant future, today’s shiny new banknotes might fill my wallet as uncomfortably as their lower-value predecessors.


For the time being, though, I welcome the new bills as a contribution to easing economic problems that still need longer-term solutions, but there could be glitches. It’s quite possible that, as one sardonic Argentine journalist tweeted, “I come from the future. The taxi driver has no change for a 500-peso note.”

Saturday, June 25, 2016

Buenos Aires Is Not A Zoo, Literally...

Whenever I’m in Buenos Aires, I always pass by the Jardín Zoológico Eduardo Ladislao Holmberg, the historic zoo that is almost within sight of our apartment and often on my walking routes to sights, restaurants and other attractions of our Palermo neighborhood. The zoo occupies a prime property, and has some memorable architecture – for example, the Hindu motifs of the elephant house (pictured above).
The zoo has always been popular for families with children, but things have been changing in recent years. Mainly, it’s suffered considerable criticism for the conditions in which the animals were kept – not least for the death of a polar bear in the city’s suffocating summer. Thus, there have been calls to close the zoo and, when I walked by last month, small groups of picketers left visible demands for its closure, as pictured above (in previous years, I had seen even larger groups).
Then, earlier this week, city mayor Horacio Rodríguez Larreta announced the facility’s definitive closure, though it will reopen later this year as a vaguely defined “ecopark” that will rehabilitate animals rescued from illegal trafficking. Some native birds will be released into the riverfront wetlands of the Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur (pictured above); the remaining zoo specimens will be distributed among “nature reserves” elsewhere in the country, except for those too old or infirm to be moved (they will remain on the zoo grounds, but kept from public view).

In the absence of greater detail, there remain some questions – how, for instance, can large non-native species such as elephants, hippos and rhinoceri be relocated to a suitable environment elsewhere? Also, I wonder, will they necessarily remove thriving native species such as the capybara and Patagonian mara (cavy, pictured above), the latter of which roams freely through the zoo grounds? Traditional zoos may be questionable, but I’m not sure it’s completely wrong to acquaint city children with some of the wildlife of their vast countryside.
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