Friday, February 25, 2011

Lemonade at Tantauco

A short time ago, I received the news that my photograph of Laguna San Rafael will grace the cover of the upcoming third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, whose manuscript I am in the process of finishing up. I’m pleased partly for ego reasons - I’m proud of the photograph - and partly because it means an extra paycheck (most Moon authors, by contract, provide their own photographs for the books, but there is no additional payment unless the publisher chooses one of your shots for the cover).

I’m also disheartened, though, because most if not all of that paycheck will go to pay for the blown head gasket on my otherwise trusty Nissan Terrano, which I use to explore the Southern Cone countries as I update Patagonia and my other books. It happened, fortunately, within the city limits of Quellón, on the Isla Grande de Chiloé, and I was able to get a well-equipped mechanic to look at it immediately.

That said, it will take at least four and perhaps seven days to get me back on the road - part of the machine work has to be done in the city of Castro, an hour to the north, and the upcoming weekend means an unavoidable delay. I’m not particularly fond of Quellón as a city but, that said, I will use my lemons to make lemonade by boating out to Sebastián Piñera’s 118,000-hectare (456 square mile) Parque Tantauco, the Chilean president’s own Pumalín-ish conservation project on the southwestern shores of archipelago’s big island.

Thursday afternoon I met Tantauco’s Quellón-based administrator Alán Bannister (despite the name, he’s 100 percent Chilean, but with English and German grandparents) and arranged an excursion that will let me spend the weekend at Inío, the park headquarters in the most southwesterly part of the park. In mostly roadless Tantauco, it’s three to four hours away, depending on the speed of the launch used to get there. There are a guesthouse, campgrounds and hiking trails throughout the park, but limited access has kept the number of visitors down.

I spent about an hour in conversation with Bannister, talking about the park’s origins and legal status, its conservation and educational initiatives, its natural and cultural history, and its future as an eco-tourism destination. As with my interview with Kris McDivitt Tompkins, I won’t have time to transcribe and edit it until later this year, when I return to California. Still, I should have more to say about the park after my return on Monday (presuming the fine weather here on Chiloé continues - part of the route crosses the open Pacific, where rough seas can delay departures and returns.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

From the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco

Last August, I wrote about the new Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, part of the audacious new conservation project in Chile’s Aisén region, just northeast of the town of Cochrane. Estancia Valle Chacabuco is in the process of being turned into Parque Nacional Patagonia, which would incorporate the existing protected areas of Reserva Nacional Laguna Jeinimeni and Reserva Nacional Tamango, with its key huemul (Andean deer) habitat. This would create a nearly unbroken swath of protected areas totaling roughly 380,000 hectares, stretching almost from the town of Chile Chico, on Lago General Carrera, south to Lago Cochrane.

Estancia Valle Chacabuco is a former sheep ranch (now home to abundant herds of guanacos), acquired by conservationist Kris McDivitt Tompkins (pictured below, center, at the lodge) and the foundation Conservación Patagónica, who outbid Chilean interests concerned - or obsessed - with the Patagonian property acquisitions of McDivitt’s husband Doug Tompkins, creator of Parque Pumalín. The plan is to donate the land as a national park and they have already opened the shining new lodge, with a visitor center, campgrounds and a restaurant all under construction (all of these should be ready for the next austral summer). All facilities will, in the long run, be leased to concessionaires under the new national park regime.

I had visited the property a couple times before, once inauspiciuosly when a reckless employee of the former estancia hit my own car nearly head-on as I drove toward the Argentine border. The second time was a couple years ago, before any construction was underway. This was the first time, though, that I had a chance to see the lodge in person and spend a night there.

In its exterior style, the custom-built lodge is appropriate to a mountainous park on the cusp between the Patagonian steppe and the forested western Andes. Its interior resembles its counterpart at Estancia Rincón del Socorro, where the Tompkinses have employed Argentine architects and designers to transform an existing building at the Esteros del Iberá. Valle Chacabuco’s six rooms employ an understated rustic elegance, each with its own theme - mine (pictured above) displayed photographs from Parque Nacional Monte León, a wildlife-rich coastal reserve that the Tompkinses donated to Argentina’s national park system through the Fundación Vida Silvestre.

Having seen the changes in Valle Chacabuco, I’m impressed with the thought and effort put into the project, but I disagree with one aspect of it. In the long run, Conservación Patagónica plans to tear down all the existing buildings, including the woolshed (pictured above) and the houses (pictured below) that lodged the former estancia’s employees. While these buildings may be nondescript, and there may be numerous similar buildings scattered on both sides of the Andes, visitors to the park are not likely to see buildings on other estancias. Preserving the woolshed and at least one of the houses, furnished as it would have been when the ranch was still a wool producer, makes sense to me. Presumably, the visitor center will present this material, but that's not the same as seeing it on the ground.

In the course of my recent stay, I interviewed Kris McDivitt for about an hour. Unfortunately, because I’ve had my hands full with updating Moon Handbooks Patagonia, I’ve lacked the time to transcribe and edit the interview, which will likely have to wait until I return to California in April, or perhaps even a bit later.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

¿Mañana es San Néstor?

Personality politics and demagogic spectacle have long played major roles in Argentine public life. The epitome of this, of course, was the way Juan Domingo Perón and his wife Eva Duarte summoned their partisans to the Plaza de Mayo, promoting a populist agenda that made them objects of reverence to a large segment of the public. It’s no accident that the late journalist and novelist Tomás Eloy Martínez titled his fictional biography Santa Evita. In a similar vein, Mariano Ben Plotkin chose Mañana es San Perón for his cultural history of Peronist Argentina.

In English, Plotkin’s title means “Tomorrow is Saint Perón’s Day,” and the book deals with the way in which Peronism transformed Argentina’s political culture - or, rather, how it advanced already existing authoritarian trends in the country through its manipulation of cultural symbols. According to a summary in the American Historical Review, Plotkin “aims to describe the development of the mechanisms used by the regime to promote political consensus and mobilization: the myths, symbols, and rituals employed to strengthen its legitimacy; and the techniques of Peronist bureaucrats to invest the persons of Perón and his wife with charisma…”

Martínez, (who also wrote The Perón Novel, a fictional memoir of the caudillo), once referred to his fellow Argentines as “cadaver cultists” who honored their most famous figures not on the day of their birth, but of their death. That was apparent when, in July of 2002, adoring Peronists thronged the Cementerio de la Recoleta on the 50th anniversary of Evita’s death (pictured above), even as the Museo Evita opened its doors simultaneously in Palermo (only about two blocks from the apartment we had just purchased).

The latest figure in the parade of Peronist symbols may be former President Néstor Kirchner, who died suddenly of heart failure last October 27th. Less than two months after his death, the main street of his hometown of Río Gallegos was renamed in his honor and, on passing through Río Gallegos a few days ago, curiosity prompted me to visit his family crypt in the local cemetery.

Nearly surrounded by tributes, with a guard always on duty, Kirchner’s tomb (pictured at top) has already become something of a pilgrimage site, and the municipal tourist office readily marked it on the map for me. With its banners, testimonials and floral wreaths, it’s dominantly a political tribute at present, but that doesn’t mean that at some point Kirchner won’t acquire the same secular sainthood that the Peróns now enjoy. Certainly Kirchner and his wife, the current president Cristina Fernández, considered themselves heirs of the Perón legacy, however complex and contradictory that legacy may be.

Certainly the Peronist government of Buenos Aires province thinks the same way: recently, it introduced a measure that makes disorderly street politics part of civic education: graffiti, picketing (blocking roads and highways), and escraches (public shamings) are to become part of secondary school curricula. Meanwhile, as I passed through the coastal town of Piedra Buena, I photographed a campaign billboard asserting that mayor Pepe Bodlovic would be “always with Néstor.” Perhaps he’s so distraught at his ally's demise as to want to join him? Or could this indicate an early step toward sainthood?

That said, according to Nicolás Kugler, my assistant in updating the current edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, not everybody in Río Gallegos is enthusiastic about the renaming of the former Avenida General Roca. For what it’s worth, on the updated city map that the municipal tourism office proudly showed me, it’s still Avenida Roca.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Chile to Chile: a Motoring Marathon

On Sunday morning, around 9 a.m., I began a long solo drive that began in Punta Arenas (Chile) and took me to and across the Argentine border at Monte Aymond, proceeded north on coastal RN 3 to Comodoro Rivadavia, and then cut across northwest to the northern Patagonian lakes district. Finally, around 9 p.m. last night, I crossed the Andes from Villa la Angostura via the Paso Cardenal Samoré to spend the night at the nondescript lakeside town of Entre Lagos - a distance of roughly 2,070 km (about 1,280 miles) - in some 60 hours.

Because I was unable to snag a berth on the ferry from Puerto Natales back to Puerto Montt, I had no alternative but to return via Argentina. That may not sound like a great distance to anyone accustomed to driving four-lane freeways in the United States, but two-lane roads in the Southern Cone can be a different matter entirely.

I chose the route in question primarily because it consisted of paved roads, except for the odd bit of construction. That’s a little misleading as to driving conditions, though - RN 3 is pretty good, but segments of Chubut province’s RP 20 are badly grooved and potholed, as are some more northerly sections of RN 40 (I have written about RN 40’s southernmost parts many times).

For almost the entire trip, powerful headwinds and sidewinds that I would estimate at 50 knots with even higher gusts, didn’t much slow my progress. They did, however, eat into my gas mileage and, at the same time, they made it a challenge to stay on the road. With even stronger gusts every time an 18-wheeler passed in the opposite direction, it was all I could do to stay on the pavement, and I can only imagine how motorcyclists and bicyclists might feel simply trying to stay upright.

All that said, this was not the most irksome part of the trip - rather, it was the Argentine police. They’re my longstanding pet peeve, not because of overzealous enforcement (for what it’s worth, I have never seen an Argentine patrol car stop anybody for speeding; for that matter, I’ve rarely ever seen a patrol car on the highway, as opposed to parked alongside the road). It’s not even because they’re notorious for soliciting bribes for minor equipment violations, such as burnt-out brake lights, at roadside checkpoints (that’s not happened to me for a long time). Rather, it’s the time-wasting stops as 20-year-old rookies armed with a clipboards detain dozens of vehicles to write down number plates, check driver’s licenses, and ask each driver where he or she is coming from, and where they are heading.

Apart from the fact that it’s not their business whether I or any other non-felon might be Bariloche-bound, the police have no way of knowing whether or not our answers are truthful. Outside Río Gallegos, I told them I was driving to Alaska; at Sarmiento, I merely said “north” and, when asked if that meant the province of Formosa, I said it meant Canada. In reality, multiplied by the tens of thousands of times it must happen every day throughout the country, this is a pointless waste of resources; cumulatively, the lost time - not to mention the fossil fuels wasted by idling vehicles - is a burden on the Argentine economy.

That said, it’s been worse. In 1979, when I hitchhiked through an Argentine Patagonia then under a vicious military dictatorship, the police outside Puerto San Julián stopped a driver who had graciously given me and another young man a lift north from Río Gallegos. On learning that the other passenger was Israeli, the police took us all to the local station (pictured above) where, for more than an hour, they interrogated him with me as the default interpreter.

Aside from the fact that my Spanish language skills then were inferior to my current fluency, it was not easy to translate the combative Israeli’s “Tell these [expletives deleted] to go [expletive deleted] themselves.” At least, it was difficult to do so in any remotely delicate form, at a time when people often "disappeared" in such circumstances. That sort of flagrant anti-Semitism is thankfully rare in today’s Argentina, but I can never pass Puerto San Julián’s police station without being reminded of that time.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

By Sea or by Land?

Less than two weeks ago, I anticipated sailing north from Puerto Natales to Puerto Montt, a voyage that I’ve done at least half a dozen times in the opposite direction. Northbound, the thought of returning from, rather than heading toward, the exhilarating scenery of Chile’s virtually uninhabited Pacific fjords promised to be a different experience. I wondered whether my return to the Chilean lakes region wouldn’t be a letdown after the thrill of wild Patagonia.

In fact, I’ve suffered a different sort of letdown. After the grounding of the Navimag ferry Evangelistas for at least a month, I won’t be seeing Chile’s Patagonian fjords at all this time, as there’s no room for me on the smaller Puerto Edén. Instead of a leisurely sail through the inland seas and among the forested islands of the fjords (as pictured above in the vessel's namesake hamlet of Puerto Edén, I face a tiring three-day drive along Argentina’s arid Atlantic coast, across the patchy steppes and through the northern Patagonian lakes district to return to Chile. I will then head to the Chiloé archipelago, the last major destination to revisit as I update Moon Handbooks Patagonia.

It’s a drive I hadn’t wanted to do, despite my affinity for this part of the world, but it has two major compensations. First, as far as the town of El Bolsón (pictured above) in southern Río Negro province, I will be able to fill up on gas at Patagonian discount prices. Second, when I reach El Bolsón, I will also be able to fill up on the bittersweet chocolate, calafate with sheep’s milk, and mate cocido flavors at Helados Jauja, one of the country’s top ice creameries.

Of course, I did have the additional compensation of a week on the new Stella Australis, cruising from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia and back in the comfort of a private cabin with enormous picture window views of the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel’s "Avenue of the Glaciers," and the southernmost tip of the Americas at Cape Horn (where I went ashore on Thursday, in calm seas with a light drizzle). It’s also given me hours of peace and quiet in the late stages of writing up the book (the fact that the Stella has no Internet access has reduced that distraction but, on the other hand, I also got recruited to give a talk on Patagonia to a group from National Geographic Expeditions).

I wasn’t the only one affected by ships running aground in the region. While paying a visit to a friend’s B&B in Ushuaia on Wednesday, I met a Turkish tourist who had been aboard the Canadian vessel Polar Star when it hit a rock in Antarctica. Pictured above, it’s now docked awaiting repairs at Ushuaia; what was intended to be a 12-day cruise became a six-day trip instead, but the company gave him what he said was a generous refund.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Update from Ushuaia: the Uttermost of the Uttermost

Lucas Bridges, the son of Anglican missionaries via the Falkland Islands, was one of the earliest European settlers in Argentine Tierra del Fuego and he titled his memoirs The Uttermost Part of the Earth. In fact, as I began writing this Tuesday morning, the Chilean cruise ship Stella Australis was anchored off the north side of Cape Horn - arguably, the uttermost of the uttermost.

Tierra del Fuego is not a single island but rather an archipelago divided, unequally, between Argentina and Chile. Most of Argentine Tierra del Fuego consists of its sector of the Isla Grande, the big island. In fact, it’s South America’s biggest single island, and the port of Ushuaia (population about 65,000) dwarfs any settlement on the Chilean side (where Porvenir has only about 8,000 inhabitants).

Isla Hornos, though, is the stuff of legend, a verdant but rugged rock where the Chilean navy keeps a lighthouse and countless shipwrecked sailors died trying to “round the Horn.” In fact, this was the third time I’ve been to Cape Horn; the first time, with the Stella’s sister ship Via Australis in 2006, the seas were so calm that the captain circled Isla Hornos - giving us all the opportunity to say we had rounded the Horn. The second time, in 2009, the seas were choppier but we still managed to go ashore, landing in the rocky cove and climbing some 160 steps to the windswept plateau. There, a boardwalk leads to a flat metal sculpture that silhouettes an albatross memorializing victims of the numerous shipwrecks here.

Most of the Stella’s 200-plus passengers eagerly awaited the opportunity to land here - one retired English couple chose the cruise, despite the dent it put in the budget of their round-the-world adventure, specifically because it meant the chance to go ashore at Cape Horn. The most concerned, perhaps, were the four-person crew from the PBS series TravelScope (pictured below), filming a program in which the landing at Hornos and exploration of the island would be a highlight.

Producer Julie Rosendo told me they had two scripts - Plan A with a landing on Hornos and Plan B without. As we approached the island, the seas were choppy, visibility was limited, and a steady rain fell. Fortunately, the seas were calmer in the lee of the island, the rain relented, and the skies lifted to provide reasonably good visibility - not nearly so good as my previous visits, however.

In fact, I was one of a handful who chose not to go ashore, partly because I had writing to catch up on but also because I thought, under the conditions, I could not get photos any better than those taken on previous trips. In addition, I will make my fourth visit to Cape Horn very soon - tomorrow morning, in fact, as the Stella begins her return itinerary to Punta Arenas this evening. I will hope for better weather yet.

Unlike me (at least in this instance), most Australis passengers do only one leg of the trip, but the return to Punta Arenas is not exactly a reverse itinerary. It makes some stops - the Isla Magdalena penguin colony in the Strait of Magellan, for instance - that the Ushuaia-bound leg does not.

We were not the only vessel at Hornos. A Chilean patrol boat was there, delivering supplies to the lighthouse, and Celebrity Cruises’ massive Infinity (capacity upwards of 2,000) was also at anchor. Passengers on the latter, though, could only watch with envy from their cabins and decks - Cruceros Australis is the only operator allowed to land here. As the Infinity lumbered off toward Antarctica for another distant drive-by, the Stella’s captain chose to circle the Horn, to the delight of all aboard.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Natales and the Ferry

In Puerto Natales, a town of about 18,000 (pictured below), the arrival of the weekly ferry from Puerto Montt is a big deal. Not only does it bring passengers to fill the city’s hotels, B&Bs, and hostels before their departure for Torres del Paine and other points, but it also carries freight, including perishables that let local restaurants and households supplement their menus in a region whose climate limits the amount of fresh produce that can be grown here.

Thus, when the Navimag ferry Evangelistas struck an islet in the Canal Sarmiento on the last leg of its most recent southbound voyage, it had major repercussions in Natales. There will be no boat this week but, according to an email I received from Navimag management in Santiago, the Puerto Edén will replace the Evangelistas on the voyage scheduled to leave Natales on Tuesday the 15th. This would mean that the Puerto Edén will sail from Puerto Montt on Friday the 11th, arriving here on the Monday the 14th.

The Puerto Edén, unfortunately, is a much smaller vessel that carries only about 160 passengers and far less cargo, so it may not be able to accommodate everyone who had a reservation either northbound or southbound. While not so comfortable as the Evangelistas, which can carry around 300 passengers and has expansive common areas, it’s still an acceptable alternative for those whose primary goal is to see the scenic fjords of the south.

Meanwhile, according to personnel I spoke with at the Natales pier yesterday, the Evangelistas will remain here for a week as a crew comes in to replace a damaged propeller that made one motor inoperable, and to make emergency repairs to the hull (pictured above) that will let it return safely to Puerto Montt or perhaps even Valparaíso. Later this afternoon, a trucker who's been waiting patiently told me he heard the ship will sail north on Tuesday, with freight but without passengers (he will have to fly to Puerto Montt to meet it there). How long it will remain on the disabled list remains to be seen.

To the Fjords of Fuegia
From tomorrow, I will be semi-incomunicado as I take a week-long semi-breather on the new Stella Australis, a 210-passenger cruise ship that recently made its debut on the route from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia and back. While I’ve done this route several times before, I’m looking forward to the new ship and, with some luck, yet another landing at Cape Horn. The weather forecast is a little iffy but, in any event, I will also be spending an unfortunate amount of time in my cabin, starting to put the final touches on the manuscript of the new edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia. On a free day in Ushuaia, I should have a chance to make another post.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Navimag's Rocky Voyage; Chilean ATMs

At least half a dozen times, I’ve taken the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt south to Puerto Natales, and every time I’ve experienced the same sense of eager anticipation about departing “civilization” for the wilds of Patagonia - despite the fact that I first visited the region in 1980, and have traveled there almost annually since 1990. Despite my familiarity with it, Patagonia never ceases to thrill me.

Yesterday, I was scheduled to take the ferry from Puerto Natales north to Puerto Montt - reversing my usual pattern. From my hotel overlooking Seno Última Esperanza (“Last Hope Sound”), I could see the snow-topped summits of nearby mountains and, on a clear day, parts of Torres del Paine, while waiting for Navimag’s ferry Evangelistas to arrive. Unfortunately, an email informed me that the vessel would limp in late to Natales, and would require repairs that would postpone the next sailing for two weeks.

On arising this morning, I went to the Natales pier (pictured above), where passengers were disembarking after spending the night on board; as the ship arrived around midnight, it would have been senseless to send them to hotels and hostels at that hour. There are numerous rumors about what happened, but the only apparent facts are that the vessel struck an islet and, as a consequence, had damage to the bow and one disabled engine. Two Swedish passengers told me they felt the hit, but that the crew handled everything professionally and there was no panic aboard.

At the moment, divers are inspecting the damage, but it appears that the ship will sail back to Puerto Montt, with freight but without passengers, and that the repairs will be undertaken there. Puerto Natales lacks a shipyard to deal with anything but minor repairs, though Punta Arenas (the home port for Navimag’s sister company Cruceros Australis) would conceivably be able to handle bigger jobs.

In any event I, and more than a few other travelers, were sorely disappointed. In my case, I had no desire to return to Chile through Argentina on RN 40, which I had driven so recently, but I managed to turn lemons into lemonade by arranging a week on the new Cruceros vessel Stella Australis, from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia and back, for this coming Saturday. I will then return to Puerto Natales for the ferry's scheduled sailing on the 15th.

A Chilean ATM Glitch
I’ve written several times about Argentine ATM problems recently, but maybe it’s not just Argentina. Sunday afternoon, when I was ran short of cash and headed to BancoEstado in Puerto Natales, I tried to withdraw 200,000 pesos (about US$400) from the ATM, but without success. Wondering whether I had run up against an unprecedented withdrawal limit, I reduced the amount to 150,000 pesos, then to 100,000 pesos, then to 50,000 pesos - with no more success. Then, in desperation, I took one last chance at 40,000 pesos - at which point the machine coughed up 40 crisp new 1,000-peso notes (worth about US$2 each).

I can only conclude that, by Sunday afternoon, the bigger bills in the machine had run out and it was programmed to limit withdrawals - fortunately, plenty enough for pay for my lunch and a bit more. By Monday afternoon, service was back to normal and, though I anticipate no further problems, visitors to relatively small towns such as Natales might make preemptory withdrawals on Friday or Saturday if there’s any chance the money might run out over the weekend.
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