Having originally planned to spend Saturday night in Chile Chico, I finished updating its entry for the new edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia by late afternoon and decided that, rather than face immigration and customs bureaucracies on Sunday morning, I would cross into Argentina and spend Saturday night in the town of Los Antiguos - best known for January’s Fiesta de la Cereza (Cherry Festival), which I missed by just a few days.
As it happened, the Cherry Festival was something of a chaos because the crowds who flocked to town found Banco Santa Cruz’s two ATMs ran out of cash - a topic to which I referred in my previous post. When I arrived, though, the tourist office informed me that the situation had resolved itself and, in fact, the access door to the cash machines bore a window sign that said “Cajeros Automáticos con Efectivo” (Cash Available from ATMs). With that reassurance, I paid my hotel bill and ordered an excellent leg of lamb dinner with the Argentine cash I had obtained in Villa O’Higgins a few days earlier. Confident in my ability to withdraw money, I didn’t even bother to hit the ATM before going to sleep.
Perhaps I should have. When I tried the machines Sunday morning, both were out of service and I had spent about a third of the 780 pesos (roughly US$200) I had brought from Chile. Fortunately I was able to purchase gasoline by credit card but, as I contemplated a southbound odyssey on Ruta 40 (“La Cuarenta”), where credit cards are unheard of, I was facing a choice between feeding my face and feeding my internal combustion engine (I could always sleep in my tent instead of a hotel).
When I got to the town of Perito Moreno, about 60 km east of Los Antiguos on the south shore of Lago Buenos Aires, I didn’t bother visiting the Banco Santa Cruz ATM. Instead, I went to the local branch of Banco de la Nación and, after sliding my debit card into the machine, crossed my fingers that it would be more successful this time. In fact, it coughed up 950 pesos (about US$240); though I’m not a gambler, I threw my fists in the air as if I had won the lottery.
Meanwhile, after arriving late yesterday afternoon in El Chaltén, I soon learned the situation has not alleviated here. According to the tourist office, the ATM has once again run out of cash and, though bills are supposedly due to arrive today, one wonders how long they’ll last. In 20 years of coming here, I have never seen so many people - accommodation is hard to find, restaurants are packed with diners lined up outside at 10 p.m., and the newly paved streets are full of pedestrians.
Chile’s Southern Border Crisis
Since last week, when Chilean president Sebastián Piñera decreed a 17 percent increase in natural gas prices, the southernmost Chilean region of Magallanes and Tierra del Fuego has been in an uproar. In this cool climate, its capital city of Punta Arenas and the rest of the region rely on natural gas for home heating and, in response, protestors have blocked access routes in and out of the city, and from the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego to the Chilean side, as well as mainland border crossings to Argentina.
This has meant major problems for tourists in Torres del Paine, who have had trouble getting back to Punta Arenas for their flights home or across the border to El Calafate, and the park has closed for the time being. It's also a problem for many Argentines and others wanting to return overland from Ushuaia, on the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego - there’s no way to do so except through Chile, and the ferries from the island to the mainland (pictured above) have also been interrupted.
In a truly ironic gesture, the Argentine government has requested its Chilean counterpart to intervene so that its citizens can return home overland. While I would agree that allowing demonstrators to close an international border is irresponsible, this is exactly what Argentina has ignored for the past several years at the crossing from Gualeguaychú to the Uruguayan city of Fray Bentos. In one sense, the Argentina-Uruguay situation is even worse, as the Argentines abdicated control of who may pass - or not - to the demonstrators.
Breaking News, Wednesday morning: As of Tuesday night, the government and the protestors had tentatively settled the dispute, and roadblocks were being dismantled. Everything, including the various border crossings and access to Torres del Paine, should be back to normal very soon, if it isn't already.