It won’t be a Happy New Year in Torres del Paine. Four days ago, a careless camper – tentatively identified as a 23-year-old Israeli - apparently started a fire that, in dry and windy conditions, has burned some 11,000 hectares in and around Lago Grey. Flaming in the vicinity of Cerro Paine Grande (pictured below), a 3,050-meter peak in the heart of both the week-long Paine Circuit and the shorter “W” route, the fire has not yet reached the size of the 2005 event set off by an equally careless Czech, which scorched 15,470 hectares.
At the same time, the present fire is in an even less accessible area and, unless cooler, wetter weather intervenes, it could get worse. As of yesterday, according to a note from my friend Hernán Jofré, a partner in an adventure travel company in the gateway city of Puerto Natales (pictured below), “all the trekking circuits are closed, the winds are blowing more than 70 km per hour, and there’s no sign of rain.” Structures in danger include Estancia Lazo, Hotel Grey, and the Conaf’s park administration offices.
Crews from Chile and Argentina are fighting the fire but, according to Hernán, the only thing that can really stop it is lots of rain for many hours. It’s encouraging that today’s forecast suggests cooler temperatures, higher humidity, and lighter winds, but tomorrow the weather’s due to clear and the winds may pick up again.
Meanwhile, all tourists have been evacuated from the park and, in Hernán’s words, it’s getting crowded in town: “Natales’s hotel capacity is at its maximum, and the tourists are changing their itineraries to go to El Calafate and El Chaltén,” across the border in Argentina.
While the fire is an environmental disaster, it’s also likely to be an economic disaster for Natales and the entire Magallanes region, despite the current 100 percent hotel occupancy. In all likelihood, may visitors will cancel their reservations or move to the Argentine side, where recreational resources are similar but, even then, this will put pressure on accommodations and other services in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and vicinity.
Despite the fire’s size, it has only burned about six percent of the park’s surface. That leaves a lot more than hasn’t burned and, until things shake out, it might be wise not to cancel reservations too soon. There’s a great deal to see and do even outside the park boundaries, in one of the world’s wildest and most beautiful regions. Consider, for instance, a catamaran excursion from Natales to the glaciar-filled Fiordo de la Montaña (pictured above).
It won’t be in Buenos Aires bars and restaurants. As of the new year, city legislation will close a loophole that allowed restaurants and bars above a certain size to establish presumably well-ventilated areas in which nicotine junkies could indulge their habit. The sensible rationale is that such areas expose employees to toxic substances, but it will be interesting to see if the legislation includes patio spaces, where smokers have habitually lit up with impunity. Unfortunately, surrounding Buenos Aires province, the largest political entity in the country, lags behind the city in its tobacco-control legislation.
Argentina App Update!
As I wrote earlier, my new Sutro Media iPhone app, Argentina Travel Adventures, is now on sale at the iTunes Store for just $2.99. Also suitable for the iPad and iPod Touch, it’s a suitable post-season gift for someone you may have overlooked – at the same time, keep your eye on this space for a possible special announcement.
Meanwhile, I continue to work on a separate app for Chile, which I hope to finish by February.