Sunday, February 28, 2010

Quake-Stricken Chile Begins to Bounce Back

After Saturday's historic earthquake, Chile is returning to functionality, if not yet normality. The death toll has risen to more than 700, tens of thousands are homeless, and President Michelle Bachelet has declared a state of catastrophe in the regions of Maule and Bío Bío, south of Santiago. Yet the capital’s Metro has resumed service, and ATMs and credit card systems are up again after a brief shutdown - yesterday in Buenos Aires, I had lunch with a Chilean friend who was able to pay with his bankcard from across the Andes.

Assessing the Damage
From La Serena (about 500 km north of Santiago) to Puerto Varas (about 1,000 km south of the capital), friends have written with mostly encouraging information. According to Ted Stevens, who lives just south of town, “We are fine…woke to pretty good shaking but no damage.”

On the other hand, according to Martin and Lissette Turner of the Valparaíso B&B The Yellow House, “We are fine and after a dreadful shaking The Yellow House survived without problems. The situation here in Valparaiso (pictured above in a pre-quake photo) is difficult, however, as many of the older buildings have structural damage and almost everything is closed. We have no water and no electricity and no internet at the moment, nor do many other parts of the city. It is particularly difficult for the dwindling number of tourists in the city as they cannot leave as there are no flights…” In neighboring Viña del Mar, authorities called off the annual Festival de la Canción (song festival) before its climactic concluding night.

Yerko Ivelic of Santiago’s Cascada Expediciones, which runs adventure travel excursions throughout the country, had similar concerns. In the Andean Maipo river canyon town of San Alfonso where he lives, “There was a lot of movement but no damage. We have no electricity, telephone, cell phone or Internet. This morning I drove down to my office in Santiago to see how to solve the problem of clients who are in Santiago and other cities waiting for planes. We hope the airport opens soon, as that’s the only logistical problem we have.” According to Brian Pearson of Santiago Adventures, however, the airport is due to reopen Wednesday.

Some Santiago neighborhoods have done better than others. In Providencia, writes my longtime friend Hernán Torres, “Our apartment withstood the quake and everything is working (water, power, Internet, etc). Some of our books fell down, and a few kitchen items, but nothing major. The neighborhood did well also, as we have a supermarket with basic supplies.” Likewise, in nearby Ñuñoa, Becca Lee writes that “My friends and I were in my oldish Ñuñoa house that didn't even bat an eyelash. In fact, three of my friends are still here because their apartments are trashed!”

Enzo Paci, of the Pachamama by Bus tour company based in Barrio Brasil’s Casa Roja, says their place is their fine with only a few cracks in the walls, but the nearby Happy House Hostel “lost a wall on the third floor…thank God the wall fell outwards into an adjacent empty plot of land. One Pachamama by Bus group was down in Pucón and we could only get in touch with them a couple of hours ago…We had to cancel a couple of trips until things go back to normal.” Manager Pablo Fernández, of the barrio’s purpose-built Hostelling International facility, says it suffered no damage whatsoever.

In Valdivia, nearly destroyed in the epochal 1960 quake, Lionel Brossi of the Airesbuenos Hostel wrote me that “We felt the quake and it really frightened us, but the hotel is fine and city suffered just a little damage along the riverfront.” That’s not true, though, of the cities of Talca and Concepción, closest to the epicenter, where numbers are still sketchy, and I’ve had no answers from friends to whom I’ve written. Concepción, where most foreigners are exchange students at the highly regarded local university, has seen some deplorable looting, not by people in search of food and water, but rather plasma TVs and similar electronics; there is now a dusk-to-dawn curfew. This, though, is the exception rather than the rule.

Contradicting previous reports, as well, there has been tsunami damage in a few places, such as Talcahuano (the port of Concepción), the village of Dichato (40 km north of Concepción, where one small fishing boat was carried 400 meters inland), and the town of Constitución. That said, the damage has been nowhere remotely close to that wrought by the great Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which killed more than 200,000 people.

The Immediate Future, and Travel to Chile
In the short run, Chile’s challenge is to get basic services running again. In the medium run, it’s to find housing for those displaced by the quake and, in this at least, the weather should cooperate. In central Chile’s Mediterranean climate, this is the dry season, and significant rain is unlikely for the next two months at least.

Fortunately, Chile is a well-governed country and, unlike Haiti, has experience dealing with earthquakes, most recently a 7.8 that hit Santiago in 1985. While it’s an oversimplification to say that this is more an economic than a humanitarian disaster, at least some Chileans would agree with that. According to Becca Lee, “A Chilean friend of mine who was with me during the quake, as he imagined talking to world about it, said ‘Keep sending your money to Haiti, we'll be fine!’"

For those wondering whether or not they should travel to Chile, I personally would suggest postponing it, but not for too long - the prime destinations of Torres del Paine and San Pedro de Atacama, for instance, are well beyond the damage zone, and even Santiago is likely to be up and running pretty soon. As a guidebook author, I’d rather see Chile make headlines because of its geographical beauty and gracious people than for natural disasters, and staying away will not help its recovery.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Massive Earthquake (8.8) Hits Chile

In 1960, the Chilean city of Valdivia, about 800 km south of the capital of Santiago, suffered the greatest magnitude earthquake ever recorded - 9.5 on the Richter scale - and much of the country suffered from a subsequent tsunami. Early this morning, the city of Concepción, about 500 km south of the Chilean capital, came dangerously close to that number, being hit by a temblor measuring as high as 8.8 hit. In this region, where many city inhabitants still use wood for cooking and heating, the danger of fire is as great, or greater, than that of falling buildings.

Fortunately, so far at least, the death toll of 78 is far lower than might be expected in other, more densely populated parts of the world - Santiago, Chile’s only megacity, is distant from the apparent epicenter. Nevertheless, Santiago’s Aeropuerto Internacional Arturo Merino Benítez (pictured above) suffered enough damage in the passenger terminal - fallen walkways and many broken windows - that it’s closed until further notice. Authorities are diverting flights to other Chilean airports and to the Argentine city of Mendoza, just across the Andes from Santiago.

Likewise, several overpasses have collapsed along Ruta 5, the country’s main north-south highway, and other roadways have bent or buckled - the television network TVN has shown cars hitting unexpected bumps at high speed but, to this point, none of them has lost control. Over the past couple decades, the quality of anti-seismic construction here has improved, but there are vulnerable older buildings in neighborhoods such as Barrio Brasil, where the Basílica del Salvador - damaged in a 1986 quake - has been propped up by a bulwark that collapsed yesterday and demolished automobiles parked alongside it.

Apparently the quake has had a lesser impact on tourist-oriented areas such as the southern lakes district, around Puerto Varas and Puerto Montt, though it was felt there. Other major destinations, such as San Pedro de Atacama and Torres del Paine, are well beyond the damage zone.

Because of the epicenter’s depth, there appears to be little chance of a tsunami along the Chilean coast, but the quake could trigger big waves in North America and across the Pacific. On the Juan Fernández archipelago, about 600 km off the Chilean coast, a mini-tsunami has apparently forced the inhabitants of San Juan Bautista, the only town, into the nearby hills.

The United States Geological Survey has just published an online summary of the quake, which has been followed by aftershocks as high as 6.9. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has issued a tsunami advisory for coastal California and Alaska, and a tsunami warning for the state of Hawaii.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Submarines in Southern South America? The Coffee Connection

In the age of Peets and Starbucks, one of the things than most concerns people when they vacation in distant lands is whether or not they can get good coffee. People who go to countries such as Guatemala, Colombia and Brazil, which are tropical coffee producers, count on fresh brewed caffeine, but sometimes they’re not so sure about the Southern Cone countries of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay.

In reality, there’s never been much to worry about in Argentina where with few exceptions, the Italian influence has made espresso the default option even in remote Patagonian hamlets. The simplest “café chico” is a dark thick brew in a tiny cylindrical cup; diluted with milk, it’s a “cortado.” “Café con leche” is a latte or cappuccino, while a “lágrima” (literally a tear, as in crying) is steamed milk with just a little coffee. Uruguay is similar.

Chile is a different animal since, not so long ago, the only thing available was instant Nescafé, and it’s still the default option throughout the country. That started to change in the 1980s, though, with stand-up bars that became famous for “café con piernas” (coffee with legs), with espresso drinks served by long-legged waitresses in very short skirts and low-cut blouses (favored by a mostly male clientele, places such as Santiago’s Café Haití are open to the street, but some others are thinly disguised strip joints). Nevertheless, Starbucks and their Chilean clones now offer genuine coffee to a more general audience.

In both countries, tea is also a common drink at breakfast and throughout the day. The Argentines, of course, also have their signature “yerba mate,” a relative of the common holly that’s an acquired taste - though it has made some headway overseas as an herbal tea. Sipped from a gourd through a metallic straw, the bitter-tasting “mate” is also popular in Uruguay, Brazil, Paraguay, and even some parts of Chile.

Argentines are almost unique, though, in taking hot chocolate in the form of a “submarino,” a small bar of semi-sweet chocolate dissolved in steamed milk from the espresso machine. In the process of dissolving, the one pictured above even sports a periscope.

Meanwhile, in the South Atlantic, real submarines have been in the news, as the British government has been rumored to have ordered one southward to protect an offshore oil drilling rig in the Falkland Islands. Argentina, which claims the Islands as the “Malvinas,” has protested the British action and decreed that any ships proceeding there from Argentine ports must have permission from local authorities.

In reality, there’s not likely to be any military confrontation over this issue, but there could be escalation on a rhetorical level. One sardonic radio commentator in Buenos Aires suggested that “If the Brits send a submarine, we will send a submarine AND a cappuccino!”

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Argentina Pressures South Atlantic Cruise Ships

When I was last in the Falkland Islands, a little over two years ago, several thousand cruise ship passengers disembarked in the capital of Stanley (pictured here) on the day of my departure by air. In summer, when cruises bound for Antarctica or around Cape Horn stop here, the number of visitors can exceed the population of the town, which is about 2,100, and their presence is a major contributor to the Islands’ prosperity.

At present, that sector of the economy is vulnerable because, upset with oil drilling which is due to begin on the Islands’ continental shelf, Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has decreed that all vessels proceeding from Argentine ports to the Falklands will need permits. Argentina, which claims the Islands as the “Malvinas” and briefly occupied them in 1982 before being ejected by a British naval task force, believes that South Atlantic oil rightfully belongs to Buenos Aires.

What directly spurred the president’s decree was the report of a freighter that was supposedly hauling drilling hardware - at least some tubing - from Argentina to the Islands. Its most direct impact, though, could be on the cruise lines that stop in Argentine ports such as Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn and Ushuaia before proceeding to Stanley (or wildlife-rich offshore islands, as local immigration officials sometimes fly to meet arriving vessels there). Argentina's hope is that this will pressure the British to desist from drilling, but it could also ricochet - cruise lines might avoid or reduce their services to some Argentine ports.

At the same time, the president’s plunging popularity, due partly to a clumsy effort to sack the central bank president (though she ultimately prevailed), has convinced some observers that the shipping measure is a distraction. Many Argentine governments have done this, most notably the military dictatorship that invaded in 1982. According to columnist Michael Soltys of the Buenos Aires Herald (link available after 2 p.m. Buenos Aires time daily), the question is whether the permits “merely represent a fresh outburst of gesture politics, or whether the administration will yield to the classic temptation of seeking an overseas distraction from domestic woes in the form of a foreign scapegoat.”

Nobody expects any military action, and in fact Fernández has taken the diplomatic route by seeking support from other Latin American countries at the current Summit of Latin American and Caribbean Unity in Cancún, México. There, 32 countries have unanimously condemned Britain’s drilling, but their support is primarily rhetorical: as in 1982, they are saying “We’re with you all the way, Argentina - good luck.” None of these countries is likely to take any concrete measures against Britain, and even the president’s own decree may be weak - she has already foresworn any sort of blockade.

The great majority of Islanders, for their part, support offshore drilling, especially as declining squid stocks put their prosperity at some risk. Should recoverable oil be found in commercial quantities, it could eclipse both fishing and tourism in the local economy. Still, if it's accompanied by political turmoil and pollution as in many parts of the world, oil can be more a curse than a blessing.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Buenos Aires: Carnaval Meets Chinese New Year's

New Orleans and Rio de Janeiro get all the press, but Argentina too enjoys Carnaval in the weeks before Lent. The biggest celebrations take place in the Mesopotamian cities of Gualeguaychú and Corrientes, but over the past decade or so it’s taken off in Buenos Aires. In fact, as I walked downtown on Monday, the pounding drums that I originally assumed to be part of a political demonstration - I was only a few blocks from the Congreso Nacional and the booming “bombos” are part of every protest - turned out to be murgas (community dance troupes) from the city’s southern and western barrios.

Unlike the spectacle of Rio or the chaos of New Orleans, Carnaval celebrations in Buenos Aires tend to be relatively small, neighborhood-oriented events, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t lively. With leaping dancers directed by whistle-blowing leaders, the advancing parades resemble African-American “stepping” in some ways. In fact, some of the participants are clearly Afro-Argentine, even though that population is less conspicuous than it was in the 19th century - “forgotten, but not gone” in the words of historian George Reid Andrews.

The murgas often bear colorful names - my favorite is Los Mocosos de Liniers (“The Snots of Liniers”) and their costumes are equally colorful even if Carnaval is not so flamboyant as in Brazil, Argentina’s Mesopotamian provinces, or Uruguay for that matter. Uruguay still maintains a fairly large Afro-Uruguayan population, generally estimated at about five percent, and their influence is far more conspicuous in Montevideo and other coastal cities and towns.

Carnaval is not the only celebration in Buenos Aires at this season. Last weekend, tens of thousands of Porteños crowded the barrio of Belgrano, where Chinese New Year’s parades now take place. Last year, in fact, the ambassador of the People’s Republic sponsored construction of a portal to the barrio’s Chinatown, which is most obvious on both sides of Arribeños street.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Catamaran to Carmelo: Whys and Wines of Uruguay

Over the weekend somebody asserted, in my presence, that there were some 40,000 Americans living in Buenos Aires. How exact that figure might be, neither he nor I really knew, but the fact is that many thousands of foreigners, Americans and many other nationalities, have chosen to live in this city as Argentina has rebounded from its political and economic implosion of 2001-2.

Many of those are, if not technically illegal immigrants, at least somewhat irregular. For most nationalities, Argentina does not require an advance visa, though it does limit stays to 90 consecutive days, renewable for another 90 days at immigration offices or the Policía Federal in the provinces (at a cost of about US$80 and the patience to spend a day standing in line). After that, visitors still need only cross the border to a neighboring country - Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay or Uruguay - and return for another 90 days. Some don’t even bother with that, overstaying and paying a fine on departure.

For those based in Buenos Aires, as I am, the easiest escape is Uruguay, as the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Colonia del Sacramento is only an hour across the River Plate by catamaran, making it easy to depart and return in the same day. A day in Colonia is far pleasanter than a day battling the bureaucracy in Buenos Aires, but it can also be cheaper.

Last week, as my visa was expiring, I spent the day in Uruguay but, instead of Colonia, I chose to visit the town of Carmelo, reached by Cacciola catamaran from the northerly Buenos Aires suburb of Tigre. Tigre’s almost 30 km north of Buenos Aires, but Cacciola provides free bus transfers that get you there in time for the 8:30 a.m. departure that gets you to Carmelo (about 75 km west of Colonia) by noon (Uruguayan time, which is an hour later than Argentina). Some years ago, Cacciola operated small launches that navigated the Paraná delta’s scenic channels, but today’s high-speed catamaran gets you there about an hour faster, over open water.

While in Carmelo, I revisited places that appear in the current edition of Moon Buenos Aires, but also visited some new sites, most notably Bodega Irurtia, the area’s most noteworthy winery, for a tour and tasting. Uruguay’s underrated wines, especially its rich red Tannat, are well worth a try; Irurtia’s handsome brick cellars, where local cheeses and snacks accompany a generous tasting, are well worth a stop. By the time my tour was over, around 7 p.m., it was almost time to return to the docks for the catamaran back to Tigre, where Argentine immigration duly stamped my passport for another 90 days.

This post, by the way, does not intend to imply that Uruguay is only worthwhile as a place to renew your visa. After the first of the month, I'll be crossing the river again to spend a couple weeks or so in Colonia, Montevideo, and Punta del Este.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

The "Caves" of Rapa Nui (Easter Island)

According to a recently published book based on research by several Polish scientists, there are more than a thousand caves on Rapa Nui (Easter Island), some 300 of which have been documented in sufficient detail for tourist exploration - as a complement to the moai, the spectacular stone monoliths that are the island’s icons around the world. Some of these, according to the authors, were used as cemeteries and sanctuaries, and some include rock paintings or petroglyphs.

In reality, Rapa Nui has no caves whatsoever, at least in the strictest geological sense - proper caves are created dissolving limestone. According to California archaeologist Georgia Lee, who has decades of experience on the island and has explored most of the “caves” in question, “These are volcanic tubes,” created as underground lava flows cooled, leaving vacant spaces behind them.

On the surface, their openings take the form of grottos such as Ana Te Pahu (pictured here; “ana” is the Rapanui word for the entrances to the tubes). Here, on an island with little topsoil and no surface streams, the natural moisture and soil accumulation make it possible to cultivate sunken gardens known as “manavai,” with traditional Polynesian crops such as bananas and the tuberous taro.

Lacking the spectacular stalactities and stalagmites of true limestone caverns, the tubes are unlikely to match the notoriety of the iconic moai, but they are an underappreciated aspect of what, for its size (only 171 square km or about 62 square miles) may be the world’s most interesting island. By jet, it is about five hours west of the Chilean mainland.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Sex & Food in Buenos Aires (Part 2)

A few years ago, in Buenos Aires, Ámbito Financiero film critic and independent director Diego Curubeto invited me to a shoot for his first film, a hybrid docudrama on actress Isabel Sarli. Finally, this month, “Carne sobre Carne” (Flesh on Meat, Spanish-language trailer at the link) has gone into limited release and has drawn rave reviews in newspapers ranging from the left-of-center Página 12 to the middle-of-the-road Clarín and the conservative La Nación, as well as the English-language Buenos Aires Herald (link available only after 2 p.m. Buenos Aires time, daily).

Curubeto uses the story of Sarli (born 1935), whose films seem tame today but were considered scandalous in her 1958-1979 heyday, as a case study of censorship in an Argentina that was dominated by conservative institutions like the Catholic Church that, in turn, supported some of the continent’s most vicious military dictatorships. In interviewing Sarli at her suburban Buenos Aires home for a BBC documentary, Curubeto noticed a pile of film canisters that, as it happened, contained uncensored versions of her films as they were seen overseas (including in the United States). This inspired the project.

I played my own small part in this - literally so, as Curubeto recruited me, on the spot, to act in the 3 a.m. shoot (the Ministerio de Obras Públicas, a rationalist skyscraper that houses the public works ministry, was unavailable except at that hour). Sitting at a desk, improvising with an ancient dial telephone in my hand, I portrayed Roman Polanski’s Polish-producer-in-London-exile in an argument over distribution rights with Sarli’s director/producer/lover Armando Bó. Unfortunately, my scene didn’t make the final cut, but I’ve been assured it will appear on the DVD version (whenever that might come out) and I at least made the list of credits.

Despite my exclusion, the theatrical version of the film does include major Argentine cinema figures such as Gastón Pauls (who starred in the multiple award-winning Nine Queens). "Carne sobre Carne" is playing every Tuesday and Saturday night this month at the Museo de Arte Latinoamericano de Buenos Aires (MALBA), the continent’s foremost modern art museum.

Meanwhile, on a peripherally related theme, Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, whose plunging popularity perplexes her Peronist loyalists, stuck her foot in her mouth last month. Addressing an audience of pig farmers, and responding to public complaints over falling beef supplies and rising prices, she suggested that pork would not only be cheaper but would also offer an additional advantage: ““I've just been told something I didn't know; that eating pork improves your sex life ... I'd say it's a lot nicer to eat a bit of barbecued piglet than take Viagra.” Certainly, at least, it beats swine flu.

Fernández's words, of course, led to a lot of off-color commentary in the press, the best of which came from the online magazine Planeta Joy, which published a list of the five best places to eat pork in Buenos Aires, plus suggestions for the best nearby telos to “quench your desire.” In a slightly different manner, I addressed this topic in an earlier post with a similar title - thus, the “Part 2” that appears above.

Friday, February 5, 2010

"Authentic Buenos Aires"

Last July, literally the day before I flew to Argentina for a couple weeks to begin updating Moon Buenos Aires, I received an out-of-the-blue phone call from an editor at National Geographic Traveler, asking whether I was interested in writing a piece on “Authentic Buenos Aires.” The idea was to spend a week or so in the city, in the company of local experts (of my choice, with approval from NGT editors) on the topics of food, sights, accommodations, shopping and nightlife in the city. It would be part of a recurring feature that focuses on high-profile world cities - New York and Paris, for instance, have gotten similar treatment.

That occasioned an additional September research trip and, after a rigorous editing process, the results have now appeared in the magazine’s new March issue. It's reached print subscribers already, and the online version of the article is available at the link in the previous paragraph. The magazine photographs are by Bob Krist (though the one above, of a youthful tango orchestra playing in San Telmo, is mine).

Meanwhile, I am finishing up the manuscript of the new edition of Moon Argentina, which is due out this fall, and about to start the bulk of the work on Moon Buenos Aires. I will be in the city until mid-April or so, with a two-week detour to coastal Uruguay (where destinations such as Colonia del Sacramento appear in the book’s excursions chapter); it will be out shortly after the new edition of Argentina.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Freezing Out the Little Guy? Professionalization of Tourism in Chile and Argentina

Last month, the Chilean Congress passed a new tourism law that, according to Sernatur director Oscar Santelices, will give the country a higher international profile - until now, Sernatur (the national tourism service) has been a bureaucratic stepchild with a limited promotional budget, but the new law will turn it into a cabinet-level “Subsecretaría” within two years. This would acknowledge the travel and tourism sector’s growing role in the country’s economy - about US$10 billion, comprising 3.5 percent of GDP and employing about 200,000 people.

In addition to increasing the resources for travel and tourism promotion, the new law also stipulates a growing professionalization of tourism operators and their guides, but this raises a number of questions whose answers are yet unclear. Certainly professionalism is desirable - especially with regard to accurate information and safety - but complex and expensive training requirements could benefit larger city-based operators at the expense of smaller ones who may lack the resources to upgrade their staffs to meet certain formal standards. Those standards may or may not be relevant in the specific context of, say, a local horseman who knows thinly populated northern Chilean Patagonia’s backcountry trails. Conceivably, such a law could throw knowledgeable people out of work.

For an example of how such a law might malfunction, one need only look across the Andes to Argentina, where guiding standards are much more highly regulated. In Argentine national parks, for instance, guides must have a university tourism degree, and take an examination for the specific park in question. My Argentine cousin, who works as a guide in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, and leads groups to the famous Moreno Glacier almost every day in the summer season, is adamant that this is only appropriate, but I see real problems with these requirements.

For one, who is to say that a tourism degree is the only possible training for a guide? Many journalists, for instance, have English degrees, and the only genuine requirements for journalism should be writing and research skills. Traditionally, it’s up to an editor to decide who has those, but even that’s open to question - would anybody doubt that Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman has adequate writing and research skills to be a New York Times columnist, although his training is in economics?

In reality, meanwhile, Argentine law would prohibit a glaciologist from serving as a guide to the Moreno Glacier, unless that glaciologist also had a tourism degree. Likewise, it would prohibit a guide qualified for Los Glaciares from leading groups to Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, unless he or she were specifically qualified for that park, which has many similarities with Los Glaciares. This has the effect of reducing the pool of quality guides, especially for some more remote reserves.

That’s not to belittle my cousin’s qualifications and work ethic, as she is highly dedicated and knows a great deal about natural history. But I would hope that the Chileans, at least, would decide that when it comes to professional guides, there’s more than one route to reach the same destination.
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