Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Southern Cone - On Fire!

Every year, as I update my Moon Handbooks to Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia, I revisit the cities, towns, and countryside that I've been covering for nearly two decades and, when I can't visit something in person, I always have to verify that the places I cover still exist. Of course, landmarks such as the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires, or its Palacio de la Moneda counterpart in Santiago, are constants, but that doesn't mean that someday they won't be damaged or destroyed by fire, earthquake (likelier in Chile), or some civil disturbance (perhaps likelier in Argentina). As a guidebook writer, I have to doublecheck everything and, even then, there's no guarantee something won't disappear or shut down the day after I leave.

Even as I've been wandering through the Atacama desert for the last several weeks, some lesser landmarks in Chile and Argentina have suffered serious damage that will affect visitors in the short term. Early this month, in Puerto Natales, a fire rendered the Hotel Costa Australis (pictured here) unusable for the peak summer season. While all the guests were safely evacuated, the loss of the city's largest hotel - with 72 rooms - makes it likely that quality accommodations will be at a premium for travelers en route to Torres del Paine National Park.

For example, Hernán Jofré, part-owner of the nearby boutique Hotel Indigo, writes me that "we reached a percentage of occupation we never imagined before." Costa Australis executive Marco Vergara, meanwhile, assured me that reconstruction is proceeding and the building may be ready as early as March - after the January-February peak.

On the Argentine side of the border, in the city of Mendoza, the landmark Bodegas Escorihuela winery (pictured here) has also suffered a serious fire that may end tours and tasting for the foreseeable future. Fortunately for gourmets, celebrity chef Francis Mallman's 1884 Restaurant - widely considered one of the country's best - escaped damage.

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