Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Lining Up for Cash and Gas

In southernmost Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, it’s been a disorderly summer, what with the natural gas pricing protests shutting down the Chilean city of Punta Arenas and effectively closing the borders with Argentina for most of a week in mid-January. According to Mercopress Noticias, the Magallanes region’s hotels suffered a 60 percent cancellation rate, with a loss of US$6 million in revenue; at one point there were only 70 people in Torres del Paine (pictured above), a park that averages 3,500 visitors a day at this time of year.

Meanwhile, across the border in Argentina’s southwestern Santa Cruz province, visitors are learning to live with lines. When I arrived in El Chaltén last week, there was no cash in the town’s only ATM but, a couple days later, lines formed when an armored car appeared outside the new bus terminal (site of the ATM) in mid-afternoon. In fact, they sat and waited in vain for hours as nothing happened until later that evening; by the time I went the next morning, lines were shorter and my wait was only a few minutes.

Throughout Argentina, the shortage of banknotes has been a problem this summer, but it’s a recurring issue in El Chaltén. That’s because this town of about 1,000 residents gets overrun with Argentine and foreign visitors who come to enjoy its spectacular natural attractions but fail to bring enough cash to pay for their services, putting pressure on the only source in town. Local merchants are happy to accept US dollars, euros, Chilean pesos and Brazilian reais, at fair exchange rates, but credit card services are still uncommon here. Bills to fill the machine come from the provincial capital Río Gallegos, which is more than 450 km, about a six-hour drive, to the southeast. This is not something on which Banco Santa Cruz places the highest priority.

Meanwhile, in El Calafate, the ATM lines are shorter, perhaps because credit cards are more widely accepted, but the two service stations have experienced gasoline shortages because of heavy demand - unlike end-of-the-road El Chaltén, where walking is the principal means of getting out of town and into the backcountry, sights such as the Moreno Glacier (pictured above )are more spread out and require motorized transportation. Long lines of automobiles and buses - directed by municipal traffic wardens in the congested streets around the YPF station (pictured below) - have been commonplace even though tankers are arriving everyday. That said, those lines appear to have shortened since I arrived here last Friday.

The situation in Chile is returning to normal, and I’ll have more to say about this after Wednesday, when I cross to Puerto Natales. I will add, though, that my cousin’s husband Sebastián Bruna, a guide in El Calafate, worries that winning the faceoff with Chile’s government could make pickets and roadblocks the first resort, rather than the last, the next time there’s any dispute. He also worries that the success of Chile’s pickets could encourage the same on the Argentine side of the line in some future conflict, in a region where cross-border traffic is critical to the tourism sector.

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