Thursday, February 26, 2009

Dewiring Punta Arenas

Chile has only a handful of distinctive cities, most notably the heartland port of Valparaíso (a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its vernacular architecture), the Atacama desert port of Iquique (with its characteristic wooden Victorians), and the Patagonian port of Punta Arenas, the gateway to Torres del Paine (for air passengers) and the fjords of Tierra del Fuego (by sea). Even those cities often have plenty of eyesores including plastic signage and a proliferation of electric and telephone cables that clutter many streets.

That's why it was such a pleasure to read that Punta Arenas mayor Vladimiro Mimica has denounced visual pollution that limits the appreciation of 19th-century wool-boom monuments such as the Sociedad Menéndez-Behety (pictured above). It may be too expensive to underground all the wiring in the city’s historic core, around Plaza Muñoz Gamero, but when the phone and power companies rewire they usually don’t bother to remove old cables that are no longer in use. Just doing that would improve the visibility of details from the city’s architectural heritage.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

The Cruise News from Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego

The other day, nearly 6,000 cruise ship passengers disembarked at the commercial pier of Ushuaia, a city of roughly 65,000 people on the Beagle Channel. That sounds like a lot, and it is a lot, but in December 2007 I was in the Falkland Islands when some 4,000 cruisers descended on the town of Stanley (population 2,186). Most of those passengers are from huge vessels like the Carnival cruise liner in the photo here, at Ushuaia, but the more adventurous arrive on smaller ships.

I arrived myself on a much smaller cruise ship, the Via Australis, which belongs to Cruceros Australis and shuttles between here and Punta Arenas, Chile, every austral summer. Usually these boats are filled to capacity, which is around 120 passengers, but the slowing global economy has apparently meant empty cabins and, because of that, there are some good last minute deals on this route - Ushuaia travel agencies are advertising prices as low as US$900 per person for four days, three nights, to Punta Arenas, and Cruceros’ own web site offers rates as low as US$788 (the usual price is about US$1330 per person). On a luxury cruise with gourmet food and an open bar, that visits locations as remote as Cape Horn, this is a phenomenal bargain, and worth looking into for anyone visiting Ushuaia or Punta Arenas in the next couple months.

The same holds true for Antarctica, though season’s end is approaching there. The standard price for a 10- or 11-day cruise to the frozen continent is US$5,000, but Ushuaia agencies are advertising prices below US$4,000.

Prices could fall even more next year, if the economic scenario does not improve. For the 2010-11 season, Cruceros Australis is commissioning the larger (210-passenger) Stella Australis, which will have additional amenities such as an exercise room and satellite phones in each cabin. Obviously, the project began well before the current crisis, but it could mean that over-capacity in the near future could keep prices low or drive them even lower - a bargain for those whose economic situation still allows them to spare the cash.

On another theme, the ATM conundrum about which I wrote recently in El Calafate is identical in Ushuaia. One Swedish visitor told me he managed to extract 500 pesos from a cash machine here, but all my efforts at various banks yesterday would not yield any more than 300 pesos - so that multiple ATM visits over several days are necessary to have enough cash to get around. Be forewarned.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Chile, at Sea and on the Screen

On both the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales, and the Cruceros Australis cruises through the fjords of Tierra del Fuego, the quality of services is remarkably good. By that I don't mean the food and drink, which are good enough (for the price) on the Evangelistas and well-above-average to exceptional on the (far more expensive) Mare Australis and Via Australis.

Rather, I mean the information and even the entertainment available on board. Unlike many cruise ships, they are not trivial - the guides on both routes present competent to sophisticated accounts of Patagonian natural history, discovery and exploration, and even climate change.

I have done the Navimag trip at least half a dozen times, and the Cruceros Australis route three times. As the former is primarily transportation, through admittedly spectacular scenery, it does not generally include shore excursions - with the exception of an occasional stopover at Puerto Edén. The latter, by contrast, offers one or two shore-based excursions every day by Zodiac shuttle, such as the short but steep hike to the monument to shipwrecked sailors at stormy Cape Horn (pictured here), which I visited just yesterday.

That means the Evangelistas has more time to fill for passengers on board, especially when bad weather limits visibility, and what's interesting is how the entertainment has changed. The Evangelistas has always shown movies, for instance, but they were often conventional Hollywood fare such as the Terminator series. Aboard the Cruceros Australis ships, the films are documentaries such as George Butler’s Endurance (2000), about the epic rescue of British explorer Ernest Shackleton's crew from Elephant Island, off the Antarctic Peninsula.

The content of Navimag's offerings, though, has become more daring, with outstanding Latin American and especially Chilean films with political content. On my most recent voyage, for instance, they showed Brazilian Walter Salles's award-winner The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), about the young Ernesto "Che" Guevara's 1950s overland trip through South America, but it was not the most interesting of the bunch.

Rather, Navimag also chose two Chilean films which, not so many years ago, would have been difficult to make and, until even more recently, unlikely to have been shown aboard ship. Director Andrés Wood's Machuca (2004) tells the 1970s tale of a poor scholarship student at an exclusive Santiago school during Salvador Allende’s chaotic Unidad Popular government and General Augusto Pinochet’s subsequent dictatorship. Set during the near-war of 1978, Alex Bowen's Mi Mejor Enemigo (My Best Enemy) (2005) is the tragicomic story of Argentine and Chilean army patrols uncertain what side of the border they're on in the nearly featureless Patagonian steppe.

While both films are critical of the Argentine and Chilean dictatorships of the period, neither of them backs off from dealing with complexities that defy both left-wing and right-wing clichés and ideology, and that's what makes both of them worth seeing. What's certain, though, is that neither of them would likely have received a screening in this context until 2006, when General Pinochet died at the age of 91. Still, Navimag deserves enormous credit for showing serious films that feature someone other than the Austrian governor of my home state of California.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Tierra del Fuego Has a Winner!

It took longer than I thought, but we finally got a winner from last Thursday’s quiz, whose answer was Tierra del Fuego. I didn’t think it was so difficult that it would take a Caltech postdoc - Kuenley Chiu of Glendale, California - to finally answer it. Even then I had to provide a hint - Kuenley and one other reader who came close were thinking too small, and proposed Isla Gordon and Tucker Islet, both of which are part of the archipelago (the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego is the largest of many islands here). I had to advise them to think big, and I’ll take the blame for making the quiz sound more difficult than it really was, and I’ll try to be clearer the next time around.

Meanwhile, I’m sailing tomorrow (Tuesday) evening from Punta Arenas on the Via Australis, to revisit places such as Cape Horn and Tucker Islet, arriving in Ushuaia (pictured above) Saturday morning. Though it’s been calm and sunny here, the weather forecast calls for 50 to 80 kmh winds, which should make for an interesting crossing of the Strait of Magellan.

Once in Ushuaia I’ll try to figure out how to get back to Punta Arenas and pick up my car-- the bus from Ushuaia only costs about US$50 and goes every day, but takes 12 hours; the plane takes less than an hour but costs more than US$300, and only goes three times weekly.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Darwin vs. the Penguins

For all the faunal observations he made in The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin was strangely silent on penguins. Only off the shores of Uruguay and on the Falkland Islands did he bother to mention the birds that, for so many people, are on the main reasons they visit the Southern Cone countries (though penguins are found as far north as Ecuador’s Galápagos Islands, almost all of them breed in sub-Antarctic and Antarctic shores).

Darwin’s primary penguin sightings came in the Falklands, where he described a confrontation with one of the birds:

“Another day, having placed myself between a penguin and the water, I was much amused by watching its habits. It was a brave bird; and til reaching the sea, it regularly fought and drove me backwards. Nothing less than heavy blows would have stopped him; every inch he gained he firmly kept, standing close before me erect and determined. When thus opposed he continually rolled his head from side to side, in a very odd manner, as if the power of distinct vision lay only in the anterior and basal part of each eye. This bird is commonly called the jackass penguin, from its habit, while on shore, of throwing its head backwards, and making a loud strange noise, very like the braying of an ass; but while at sea, and undisturbed, its note is very deep and solemn, and is often heard in the night-time In diving, its little wings are used as fins; but on the land, as front legs. When crawling, it may be said on four legs through the tussocks or on the side of a grassy cliff, it move so very quickly that it might easily be mistaken for a quadruped. When at sea and fishing, it comes to the surface for the purpose of breathing with such a spring, and dives again so instantaneously, that I defy any one at first sight to be sure that it was not a fish leaping for sport.”

As Darwin noted, penguins are far from passive, as my daughter Clio learned in the process of banding them this summer at Argentina’s Reserva Provincial Punta Tombo (pictured above), where upwards of 200,000 Magellanics - as the jackasses are properly known - breed in burrows on the arid Atlantic shore. When my wife saw her after she left Punta Tombo, she exclaimed “Darling, you’re disfigured!” because of the bites she had suffered, mostly on her hands. In Clio’s words, “I've got a few pretty good ones that I hope will stick around until I get back to the states. Yes, those chicks were very bitey. I also have an adult penguin bite on my shin that I still have a mark from, so that'll tell you how much worse the adults bites are than the chick ones.”

Clio’s internship was part of a long-term research project by University of Washington biologist Dee Boersma, who has UW grad students and a handful of Argentine interns at Punta Tombo every summer. An article on Boersma’s research, and the occasional obstacles to working in a country such as Argentina, appears in the current issue of Wildlife Conservation magazine.

Meanwhile, I have not yet had a correct answer on Thursday’s quiz, which I thought should have been simple enough, at least to anyone who read the piece at all closely. So I’ll leave another clue - go to the Cruceros Australis website and follow the boat’s itinerary to find the name of the archipelago whose waters Darwin described as resembling “a miniature likeness of the Polar Sea.” Please send your answer to me at southerncone (at), and you will win a copy of the new edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Win This Book - for Darwin's Sake!

Today is the bicentennial of the birth of Charles Darwin, history’s greatest scientist and one of its greatest travelers, who changed the way we look at the world. Recalling five years aboard HMS Beagle, Darwin wrote that the part of the landscape that remained longest in his memory was the Patagonian steppe, but he also left a vivid description of some of the world’s wildest terrain at South America’s southern tip:

“The scenery here becomes even grander than before. The lofty mountains on the north side compose the granitic axis, or backbone of the country, and boldly rise to a height of between three and four thousand feet, with one peak above six thousand feet. They are covered by a wide mantle of perpetual snow, and numerous cascades pour their waters, through the woods, into the narrow channel below. In many parts, magnificent glaciers extend from the mountain side to the water's edge. It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-like blue of these glaciers, and especially as contrasted with the dead white of the upper expanse of the snow. The fragments which had fallen from the glacier into the water, were floating away, and the channel with the icebergs presented, for the space of a mile, a miniature likeness of the Polar Sea.”

In honor of Darwin, I’ll be giving away one copy of the new edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia to the first person who can name the island depicted in the photograph above, which Darwin visited aboard the Beagle, and which I will be visiting again next week aboard the small cruise ship Via Australis. Please send your answer to me at the following email address: southerncone (at) Previous quiz winners, please let someone else have a chance (but feel free to send me the answer anyway).

Monday, February 9, 2009

Breaking the Bank in El Calafate

In 1990, when I first visited the Patagonian town of El Calafate, tourists were still a relative novelty. Seven years earlier, Argentina had emerged from the Southern Cone’s nastiest 1970s military dictatorship, but the gateway to the Moreno Glacier was still barely a blip on the international travel map. In the process of writing my initial guidebook to Argentina, for a publisher best left unnamed, I castigated the town as “an oversized encampment of rapacious merchants fixated on making a year's income in a few short months by maintaining high prices rather than increasing sales.”

One reason for that comment was the difficulty, and disadvantages, of changing money here. At that time, Argentina’s currency was the austral and, after years of hyper-inflation, the exchange rate had reached 10,000 to the US dollar. The only place to change money officially was the Banco de la Provincia de Santa Cruz and, after it closed on Friday afternoon, local shops were the only option. There you were lucky to get 9,000 or even 8,500 per dollar, with local merchants reaping a tidy profit at the bank on Monday morning.

The very concept of globalization has taken a hit over the past few months, but one undeniable advantage has been the proliferation of the ATM, which has liberated visitors from the need to visit banks or exchange houses during opening hours, and to go through the laborious process of changing travelers’ checks (a few people still do so). Today, El Calafate has four banks and half a dozen ATMs, and that’s helped make it a more welcoming place (so has the new airport, and a critical mass of quality accommodations and restaurants). Immigrants from elsewhere in Argentina have given it a youthful vitality.

But changing money is still a problem, if not in the way it once was. In fact, it’s an Argentine problem: following a high-profile “express kidnapping” in which the victim - opposition politician Margarita Stolbizer - was forced to attempt to withdraw money from her account at various ATMs in Buenos Aires province, authorities have placed a withdrawal limit of 300 pesos (about US$85) at cash machines throughout the country. In a town like El Calafate, where there is no crime problem whatsoever and it’s easy to spend that much daily, this has meant long lines at ATMs and, on weekends, they often run out of cash until Monday morning.

According to Hostel del Glaciar owner Danny Feldman, who’s vice-president of El Calafate’s Chamber of Commerce and would like to see the policy changed, customers can withdraw money up to three times per day, even consecutively. Still, that slows down the process and keeps the lines long - especially as foreign visitors make multiple efforts before finally realizing they can’t take more than 300 pesos per transaction (it also means multiple ATM fees at many overseas banks). At my suggestion, the Chamber has requested that banks post notices at their ATMs, in various languages, to minimize the confusion.

Unless the policy is reversed or modified, though, it will be a major nuisance for Patagonia travelers in particular. Towns are few and far apart and, northbound along the legendary Ruta 40, it’s more than 600 km to the next ATM, in the town of Perito Moreno. Motorists, in particular, need to insure they have sufficient cash to pay for fuel and repairs.

N.B. After I castigated Calafate’s merchants for their greedy 1990s behavior, I received a handwritten note from the late Mariano Besio, then the Santa Cruz provincial tourism representative in Buenos Aires, suggesting that “We’re trying to do better.” In fact, they have done much better in El Calafate since then, but a situation beyond their control is an obstacle to tourism development here and elsewhere in the country.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

A Desolate Market: Selling - Not Buying - a Car in Argentina or Chile

Last Thurday’s post on purchasing a car in Argentina or Chile drew a couple comments, from Chuck Goolsbee (who came to a talk of mine in Seattle a few months ago) and Bruce Lakin (whom I met recently in Malalcahuello), that deserve a little more elaboration. I’ll deal with Bruce’s questions first, and Chuck’s in the coming days.

Bruce’s question dealt with selling a foreign vehicle - in his case a Subaru registered in Ecuador - in either Argentina or Chile. This is extremely difficult because of customs issues and taxes. I’d go so far as to say it’s almost impossible in Argentina, legally at least, and doing it illegally is risky: he could either lose the vehicle for evasion of taxes and other regulations, or by getting involved in the black market for vehicles. I have no doubt Bruce could sell the vehicle in Paraguay, where just about anything goes, and so-called mau cars, stolen in neighboring countries, are everywhere. This, though, would be even riskier.

I once disposed of a California-licensed vehicle in Santiago, and I mean disposed of it - I literally gave away my 1979 Toyota pickup to the non-profit Ecole environmental cooperative in the town of Pucón, as it would have cost me more to ship it back to the States than it was worth. Nevertheless, it was a laborious process, not for me, but for the recipient - it took them months to work through the Chilean bureaucracy. Selling it would have been impossible.

In Chile, selling a used foreign vehicle can only be done in Region I (Tarapacá, capital Iquique, pictured above) and Region XII (Magallanes, capital Punta Arenas), both of which enjoy zona franca (duty-free zone) status. This means, though, that the purchaser cannot take the vehicle out of the region for more than 60 or 90 days per year (I can’t recall which). This limits the number of potential purchasers and, consequently, depresses the price. Should Bruce decide to sell his vehicle in either city, he’s not likely to get anything close to its worth on the open market in Ecuador, where he bought it.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Coriolis Effect (Photographic Version)

Some years ago, I was flying north from San Francisco to give a slide talk on Chile at the Vancouver, B.C., bookstore Travel Bug. As it happened, I opened Alaska Airlines’ in-flight magazine to find a two-page ad by Crowley Maritime, a West Coast shipping company, proclaiming that “The Key to Working in Alaska is Making It Appear like You Were Never There.”

I did an immediate double take because the image used to represent the grandeur of Alaska (which appears above) was not the 49th state's iconic Brooks Range but rather the Cuernos del Paine (Horns of Paine) in Chilean Patagonia’s Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. My guess is that the culprit was an ignorant photo editor who didn’t know, or didn’t care, that the landscape in question was literally half a world away. Even more amusingly, he or she reversed the image - perhaps believing in the myth that, in the Southern Hemisphere, the water from your bathtub drains in the opposite direction from the Northern Hemisphere (not true, though large weather events are thus deflected).

Meanwhile, I’m in Puerto Natales, preparing for a mid-morning departure to Torres del Paine, virtually an annual event for me in the course of updating my Moon Handbooks to Argentina, Chile, and Patagonia. I’m not going to say Chilean Patagonia is better than Alaska (I’ve never been to Alaska), but it has one undeniable advantage - you can’t see Sarah Palin from here.
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