Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Argentina's Amazing Race

I have a natural antipathy to “reality” TV shows which, as most everybody acknowledges, are no such thing – any group of people followed around by a camera crew is acting, whether or not they admit it. That said, I’ll plead guilty to never having watched one, and I don’t mind being castigated for ignorance. I nearly broke my pledge never to watch one this week, though, when The Amazing Race visited northwestern Argentina, one of my favorite parts of the country.
My friend and colleague Edward Hasbrouck – one of the best-traveled people I know, and we share a publisher – is an addict of The Amazing Race. He regularly reviews the show on his own blog, managing to provide serious travel information in the context of a program that might otherwise be considered frivolous. He sent me a link to the episode, which started in the northwestern wine region surrounding the town of Cafayate, and I even opened it, but was stymied by constant buffering on the YouTube page.

Nevertheless, today I received a copy of Edward’s regular newsletter with his critique of the episode, and I have a few comments on his comments, intended in the spirit of constructive criticism. Given his broad knowledge of the travel world, he knows far more than I do about most places, but there were a few items I could not let pass.
Argentina’s Andean Northwest is indeed the most indigenous region of the country and, as Edward notes, “All the people the racers met this week appeared to be of indigenous heritage” (such as the woman above, from the town of Humahuaca). He repeats, however, the oversimplification that “most Argentines are mainly or entirely of European ancestry, with the largest proportion descended from 19th and early 20th century immigrants.” It’s true, of course, that Argentina saw massive European immigration during that period, and it’s particularly noticeable in the cities, but a DNA study a few years ago – to which I don’t have the reference at hand - concluded that nearly half of all Argentines can trace their heritage back to the country’s pre-Columbian peoples. It doesn’t mean, of course, that the indigenous heritage is dominant everywhere, but it is significant.

I enjoyed Edward’s commentary on the outlying stockyards barrio of Mataderos, where the city meets the countryside in the Feria de Mataderos, a weekly street fair. I have to take exception, though, with Edwards statement that the barrio’s Nueva Chicago soccer gang can’t match the violence levels of Britain’s soccer hooligans. Argentina’s barras bravas are a plague on the sport, and often intimidate players on their own team and even management – which timidly gives them free tickets in hopes of maintaining “peace” with them. In fact, it’s not unusual for rival barras of the same team to attack each other, and deaths are not unusual – in a recent case, one barra shot at a bus carrying their rivals, and killed somebody on board. I wholeheartedly agree with Edward, though, that anybody attending a soccer match in Buenos Aires or elsewhere in the country should wear neutral colors – drab is good, drabber is better.
Finally, the grammatical pedant in me has to note that the word “Quilmes” – which describes the pre-Colombian fortress ruins near Cafayate (pictured above), the Buenos Aires suburb that takes its name from the indigenous people marched there by the Spaniards, and the beer that’s manufactured there today – does not have an accent. Likewise, the transport company Buquebus, which operates the ferries between Buenos Aires and Uruguay, has no accent.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Aftermath: Behind the Buenos Aires Train Wreck

This past Wednesday, Buenos Aires made front pages around the world, and not in a good way. At Estación Once de Septiembre, only about three km west of the central Plaza de Mayo, a runaway commuter train crashed into the end of its platform, killing 51 Argentines and injuring 703, according to the latest statistics.
Once de Septiembre – the surrounding neighborhood is known simply as “Once” - is the Buenos Aires terminal for the Línea Sarmiento, the railroad that connects the capital with its poorer western suburbs and a few long distance destinations. Though government-owned, it is under the administration of Trenes de Buenos Aires (TBA, Trains of Buenos Aires). That has been the case since the early 1990s, when then-President Carlos Menem unleashed a privatization deluge but, at the same time, his successors have provided enormous subsidies to keep fares from rising.

I have ridden the Sarmiento line, though not recently, to visit the city of Moreno (no longer included in my guidebooks because its main attraction, the Molina Campos museum, is not open to the public) and the devotional center of Luján. In fact, the last time I took the train to Luján was shortly after another disaster, the Cromañon night club fire – also in the Once neighborhood - took 194 lives in late 2004. On board the train, I saw many T-shirts supporting the Callejeros (literally, “street people,” the punk band that played at the Cromañon that night).

Virtually all of those passengers were poor working-class Argentines for whom the Sarmiento was their main means of transport into town. Some Porteños (residents of Buenos Aires) consider the Sarmiento crime-ridden, but I never felt any threat whatsoever from my fellow passengers. The other side of highly subsidized fares, though, was the lack of attention to maintenance; the doors on the ageing rolling stock, often covered in graffiti, did not always close. Compared with TBA’s northern commuter line, which serves a more prosperous area from Retiro to Tigre on the Línea Mitre, it was downright dilapidated.
Yesterday, to get a better grasp on the scenario, I rode the Subte to Once, which is also home to a thriving Jewish community, with yarmulkes on every block. At the entrance to the terminal, concerned friends and families looked for the names of the injured on a computer printout that listed them by hospitals they were sent to. Film news crews were everywhere and, in the middle of the floor, friends and family of one Lucas Menghini – the last unaccounted-for passenger - were preparing and distributing missing person flyers. The platform and tracks where the crash took place were screened out and guarded by federal police, presumably awaiting forensic examination.
News of the wreck continues on the front page of every newspaper except the sports daily ¡Olé! Meanwhile, the blame game has begun, but it’s a complicated one. The locomotive engineer, who survived the crash, claims the brakes failed. The federal government insists it will take the victims’ side in legal proceedings, but the concessionaire is a triad of Cirigliano brothers, who assumed control during the presidency of Néstor Kirchner, the late husband of current president Cristina Fernández. They, in turn, have ties to transport secretary Juan Pablo Schiavi, who could get thrown under the bus, so to speak - could it be that the government will be prosecuting itself? The victims’ families are skeptical.
Meanwhile, searchers recovered the body of Lucas Menghini last night. For my part, when I next go to Luján, I’ll take the bus.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Buenos Aires with Bronchitis

In the late 1970s, when I was a youthful backpacker in South America, I felt indestructible, not even taking the dangers of the region’s dictatorships very seriously despite some uncomfortable moments that I have recalled elsewhere. On a one-way ticket, pinching my pesos to travel for the longest possible period, I could hardly conceive that I might become ill, injured or even killed. The National Lampoon, in the days when it was a cutting-edge humor magazine, regularly quoted “bus plunge” fillers from Bolivia and Peru from The New York Times in its pages, and it seemed funny at the time.

Fortunately, I never suffered any serious misfortune but, in my maturity, I take more precautions about my health and security, even though southernmost South America is a far safer place to travel than it was then. One of those precautions is a travel insurance policy, a topic my Moon colleague Laura Martone addressed in her own recent blog post.

The wisdom of such a policy became apparent to me this last weekend when, unfortunately, a severe case of bronchitis caused me to miss a family wedding for which I had traveled to Buenos Aires. I’ve had bronchitis before, but this one hit so heavily that my wife and I wondered whether it might be something more serious, like pneumonia.
Clearly, this called for a medical consultation, and I could have gone to the nearby Hospital Fernández, a public hospital just a few blocks from our Palermo apartment. It’s a decent facility, and I would have received treatment at little cost except for prescribed medications, but it’s often crowded with patients who need low-cost services more than I do. Instead, we went to the urgent care department of the Sanatorio Mater Dei, a private hospital that was a short cab ride away in the exclusive residential area of Palermo Chico.

The waiting room seemed crowded but, as it happened, many of those waiting were family members rather than patients. It took less than 15 minutes to see a doctor who tentatively confirmed the bronchitis but, as a precaution, also sent me to radiology department for chest x-rays. After the x-rays proved negative for anything more serious, she prescribed me a combination of antibiotics and decongestants that have accelerated my recovery, though I still have an uncomfortable cough.

The cost for all these services at an elite private hospital? The initial urgent care consultation was 335.17 pesos, augmented by 267.41 pesos for the radiology and 101.39 pesos for my prescriptions, for a total of 703.97 pesos – about US$164 at current exchange rates. At any US hospital, of course, the bill would have been several times that for a walk-in patient.

Shortly before beginning my trip, I purchased a one-year travel insurance policy, which also covers travel delays, loss of property and medical evacuation, among other features, from Allianz Travel Insurance, successor to the Access America company that I formerly used. The cost of this policy was US$249, which is already looking like a pretty good investment.
A note on Argentine pharmaceuticals: many items that are prescription-only in the United States and elsewhere may be purchased over the counter here. One example is Ketoconazol shampoo, which I purchase more cheaply at our neighborhood Farmacia Varela than I can through my own health-care provider in California.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

The Panorama of Santa Lucía de Santiago

Long overshadowed by Buenos Aires, whose reputation for European elegance belies its essential modernity, Santiago de Chile is an underrated city that’s embraced that modernity at the same time that it’s managed to preserve enclaves of its history – despite the seismic uncertainty that’s never far below the surface. That’s especially relevant as the second anniversary of the massive 2010 earthquake approaches at the end of the month, though that quake impacted the Chilean capital less than it did the smaller cities and countryside to the south.
That became apparent as I landed in Santiago Wednesday morning, took the shuttle into town, and spent most of the next two days running a few errands and seeing some sights that I needed to revisit.  Over the past three decades-plus, I’ve been to Santiago dozens of times, watching its transition from the drab days of the dictatorship to an economically and culturally vibrant city.
That’s not to say there aren’t problems: on the trip from the ultra-modern airport (pictured at top), one of the region’s best, first-time visitors can’t help but notice uninspiring concrete block houses and the graffiti that often cover them. In fact, Santiago’s graffiti problem appears to be getting worse rather than better, especially in older neighborhoods.

While I visit Santiago frequently, I recently realized that my photo library of the city needed to be updated, not having visited many key sites since I acquired my digital SLR about six years ago. One of those sites is Cerro Santa Lucía, the promontory where Pedro de Valdivia held out against the Mapuche in the 16th century, and Charles Darwin observed the “impressive and unique” view in 1834. It is now a lushly landscaped public park and, just below the summit, the “Jardín Darwin” commemorates his visit.
Twelve years before Darwin, Scottish immigrant Maria Graham had left a more eloquent description of the view: “From Santa Lucía we discovered the whole plane from Santiago to the Cuesta del Prado [in the coast range], the plain of Maypu [Maipú] stretching even to the horizon, the snowy Cordillera, and beneath our feet the city, its garden, churches, and its magnificent bridge all lit up by the rays of the setting sun…what pen or pencil can impart a thousandth part of the sublime beauty of sunset on the Andes?”
Many things have changed, obviously, since Valdivia, Darwin and Mrs. Graham ascended Santa Lucía’s summit. I have a badly scanned wintertime slide, taken a decade ago, that still shows the snow-capped Andes to the west above a relative paucity of high-rise buildings. On Thursday, though, a photograph I took from a slightly different perspective shows a proliferation of apartments and other high-rises stretching east toward the Andean foothills. At this time of year, of course, there’s no snow on the closest summits, but the sheer density of construction is impressive – even if they haven’t yet obstructed the views from Santa Lucía.
Later in the afternoon, I went to visit Brian Pearson of Santiago Adventures, a US citizen who set up a tour company here partly because of the city’s easy access to the Andes (Brian is a passionate skier, and the slopes of Valle Nevado and its neighboring resorts are less than an hour from downtown). He remarked that, after some cities in China, Santiago has seen the world’s biggest building boom over the past decade. I can’t recall the exact numbers, but that’s certainly plausible.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

An App for Recoleta; An Elevation for Aconcagua

Recently, by email, I got back in touch with Robert Wright, whom I first got to know as he created and guided architectural tours around Buenos Aires. While a relative novice in the city then, Robert had a good background for such work, having spent several years leading trips for Rick Steves in Spain and Portugal, and contributing to Steves’s Europe Through the Back Door guidebook series (It was purely coincidental that Steves’s series and Moon Handbooks, to which I contribute guidebooks including Buenos Aires, are under the umbrella of the same publisher, Avalon Travel Publishing).
Devoted to detail, Robert mapped these same tours and even created the first accurate map of the Cementerio de la Recoleta, one of the world’s elite boneyards - right up there with London’s Highgate and Paris’s Pere Lachaise. While he has retired from leading tours in Buenos Aires, he has continued his research on the city and founded the website Endless Mile to distribute walking tour guides, including the central Plaza de Mayo, the underrated Once neighborhood, and a survey of the city’s domes. These he sells as PDFs but, more recently, he has created an iPhone app for Recoleta that I have just had the pleasure to review.

While it’s not so comprehensive as the PDF version (which covers some 70 tombs), the app plots a walking tour of 25 of the most significant sepulchers, with special attention to Evita. It also deals, though, with lesser known but equally unusual stories such as that of Rufina Cambaceres, a 19-year-old who, legend says, was accidentially buried alive here.

The app, which works equally well on the iPad or iPod Touch, has a portability advantage over the PDF version and, presumably, it will be easy to revise and expand. Since I’ll be in town next week, I’ll have a chance to ask Robert what his plans are before I fly to Santiago to complete work on the next edition of Moon Handbooks Chile.

And Now for Something Not Quite Completely Different
Every year, climbers of greater and lesser ability attempt to climb Cerro Aconcagua, the “Roof the Americas,” in Argentina’s Mendoza province. While it’s a walkup, at least by the conventional northern route, its elevation and unpredictable weather have cost the lives of even experienced mountaineers; the cemetery at Puente del Inka, along the highway to Chile, is a somber reminder of the fact.
But how high is the Roof of the Americas? Most contemporary sources agree on 6,962 meters (22,841 feet), but a recent article in the Buenos Aires daily Clarín asks whether it “measures more than the 6,959 meters [22,831 feet] we learned in school?” The latter number was an official figure dating from 1956 and, with that in mind, a team of Argentine climbers is heading toward the summit to re-measure the peak with the latest technology.

Even in such a tectonically active area as the central Andes, it seems unlikely the peak could have risen so far in such a short time, and my guess is that more recent figures, while unofficial, are more accurate.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Behind the Buenos Aires Transport Reform (Redux)

As yesterday’s deadline for obtaining or applying for Buenos Aires’s new SUBE integrated fare card approached, Argentine transport secretary Juan Pablo Schiavi acknowledged the attendant chaos by extending the deadline to Friday, March 2. Presumably, that will reduce the pressure and length of lines to obtain the card, but many details remain unclear – not least, what new fare structure will be after that date. Speculation ranges up to 10 pesos (about US$2.50), nearly a tenfold increase over current fares, but that seems improbable to me.
As I wrote on Wednesday, I’ll be back in town next weekend to test things myself. In the meantime, I received a series of emails from Dan Perlman of Casa Saltshaker as to his experience, beginning with his observation that “This is just so f'ing Argentine...” for its apparent disorderliness. I have edited his following comments slightly, primarily for punctuation.
According to Dan, “I tweeted your post about the SUBE cards and got hit back with multiple Argentines who follow me with ‘no, no, foreigners can get them, just go to the website and find the place nearest to you or go to any Correo Argentino [Post Office] to get one with your passport.’"

“Fine, went to the [SUBE] site and it gives no information whatsoever about who can apply or what you need to apply, but it does say, ‘go fill out the form at any Centro de Atencion’ and it gives a list of about a dozen in every neighborhood. I go to the one a few blocks from me and they've got signs plastered all over saying ‘we don't have SUBE cards here.’ So I go in and ask about it woman says, ‘the government never distributed the cards or the forms to any of the Centros de Atencion, so none of us have them. You have to go to any Correo Argentino.’"

“I go to the one closest to my house. I ask. ‘Nope, we don't have them, only the big zone branches have them.’ I go to the closest one to my house. Signs all over, ‘we have no system to process SUBE card requests for the moment.’ I ask. "Oh, the processing system has been down for days, it might be back up next week some time.’"

“Meanwhile, the government's been blogging and announcing about how they're so overwhelmed with the quantity of processing requests that they've extended the deadline for obtaining the cards.’"

“Yeah. This is working.”

Another interesting point that Dan brings up is the fact that authorities may be able to track cardholders’ usage even though, as I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, it is customary for multiple riders to use the same ticket on the Subte in particular, since no ticket is required to exit the system. The card, he says, “while tied to your name, probably doesn't show your name on the sensors - they don't have a screen that could do that, just a light to indicate it was processed and a small number readout of the balance. They'd have to replace every sensor in every bus, subway and train in order to have the ID thing make sense.”

“There is, however, an interesting Big Brother component to it all - if you go to the SUBE site, you can click on the link ‘Mis Viajes’ [My Trips], enter your card number and it will show your entire history (no idea back how far) of travels, time-stamped. I imagine the government has full access to that which would be something they could use to track someone down potentially.”

I’m not quite so convinced of that as, even if the card shows where you boarded a train or bus, it can’t show in which direction you were headed or where you got off. To repeat, there is no ticket necessary to exit any Subte train or city bus, and I can’t imagine any practical way to set one up – especially given how inept the system’s implementation has been so far.

In a follow-up message, Dan elaborates that “I'm going to go back on Monday or Tuesday to see if ‘the system’ is back up, so perhaps wait and see with that. Also, one person told me that starting sometime next week there are going to be street processing kiosks setup around the city - presumably, since they need a "system", either the intent is a wi-fi/cell connection to [the] process, or maybe it's just to fill out the paperwork and then wait for the card to arrive in the mail. I did, BTW, try filling out the form online and have heard nothing back, so who knows?”

Late Update
My wife, who's an Argentine citizen, has had better luck with her SUBE application. According to an email she just received, "We wish to notfiy you that your request has arrived at a final stage of validation and is presently being processed by Correo Argentino. We will inform you by another email on the progress of your package. Remember that the proceeding remains active and until its completion, it is not permitted to make another request either by Internet or at any other service point."

We Have a Winner! And, Perhaps, Another
Laurene Dong of Kitchener, Ontario, correctly identified Canada’s Barrick Gold as the company that proposed moving glaciers along the Argentine border in the so-called Pascua Lama project. She adds that “I'm disappointed to learn that the company that tried to remove the glaciers in northern Chile is Barrick Gold, which is Canadian, as am I.” She will be receiving a free copy of Moon Handbooks Patagonia in the mail, and is planning to visit early next year.

Meanwhile, I received another correct answer from a reader named “Randy,” who did not otherwise identify himself, in the comments section of the entry. Randy, if you don’t answer me by Monday with an address to which I can mail the book, I will have to withdraw the prize and hold it for a future contest.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Are Argentines "Enormous Dorks?" Behind the Buenos Aires Transport Reform

For years now, there’s been a shortage of coins in Argentina and especially in Buenos Aires, where they’ve been necessary to purchase bus, subway and train tickets. For that reason, the Porteños of Greater Buenos Aires have hoarded coins, exacerbating the problem, despite the creation of a new integrated fare system called the Sistema Único de Boleto Electrónico (SUBE, Single Electronic Ticket System) in 2009.
It’s been slow to take effect – a similar Monedero card for the Subte has seen limited acceptance  – but after years of dithering, Argentina’s federal government has finally forced the issue. With fares going up on all three systems, the Secretaría de Transporte (Transport Secretariat) recently decreed that, to continue to take advantage of current transport subsidies, riders must obtain or apply for a SUBE card by Friday, February 10. Current Monedero cards will not be eligible for the subsidized rates (the new rates are not yet completely clear).

As my friend Nicolás Kugler has written me, “We have a problem for every solution.” The SUBE card has meant blocks-long lines at the various centers where patrons can obtain them: “Long queues can be seen nowadays at every post office, kiosk, street stand, or parked bus where the SUBE sign is displayed” (The Secretariat even had to open a center in Mar del Plata, where so many Porteños spend their summer vacations).

Given the time-consuming difficulty of getting a card, which is free of charge, the agency opened a website where riders can request one electronically and receive it in the mail (presuming the post office operates more efficiently than the Transport Secretariat does). Riders must submit their name, address and DNI (national identity card) or other form of ID in order to obtain it.

Given that my wife (an Argentine) and I are currently in California – we’ll be flying to Buenos Aires next week – we decided to apply on line. My wife’s application apparently went smoothly, and her card should appear at our Palermo address shortly, but mine was a different matter. Two days after filling out my application, in which I included my passport number, I received the following email notice: “We regret to inform you that your web request for the SUBE card has been refused for inconsistencies in the personal data of the applicant. To obtain your SUBE, you should visit one of the 600 service centers listed in our web site. This notice has been sent automatically. It is unnecessary to respond to this message.”

So, it seems, non-resident foreigners are not eligible for the SUBE card which, on the face of it, appears tied to each individual’s identity card. That, however, raises the (admittedly unlikely) specter of station attendants and bus drivers checking each rider’s ID to assure that nobody was using another’s SUBE card. In practice, though I might not be able to get my own card, I expect to be able to use my wife’s, as I’m usually in town more often than she is. In fact, even when we’re traveling together, there’s no obstacle in using the same Subte ticket by just passing it back across the turnstile (no ticket is necessary to exit the system).

SUBE is an interesting acronym because, in standard Spanish, the word sube (infinitive subir) is a clever pun in that it means “climb aboard” in the second person familiar. It’s not quite correct in the Argentine context, though, because of slightly different verb forms: Argentines would say subí (in the second person familiar), while suba would be the second person formal version in both Argentine and standard Spanish.

Critics of the plan, though, have a different interpretation of the acronym. They note that, when users top up their cards, they are in effect providing the government an interest-free loan – critics might say “slush fund” - that could total up to 500 million pesos (about US$125 million). According to them, it should stand for “Somos Unos Boludos Enormes,” roughly translatable as “We’re a bunch of enormous dorks” for putting up with a bureaucratic maneuver that they see as a money grab.

I’m not quite that critical. While I think SUBE’s implementation is clumsily bureaucratic, something was necessary to integrate the system and, in the long run, it should be a positive. The issue of simply obtaining change aside, it will also mean greater safety because bus drivers, who have been vulnerable to robberies in some of Buenos Aires’s more dubious suburbs, will not have to carry any cash.

An etymological digression: the slang word boludo has off-color origins but, in today’s Argentina, it’s more innocuous than it once was – you can call a friend boludo or bolú, and I’ve even seen it in humorous TV advertisements. It is inappropriate in formal Spanish, though, and if you address a stranger as boludo, "Them could be fightin' words."

Win a Prize from Southern Cone Travel!
I am still waiting on a winner or two from the contest from Saturday on the entry immediately below this one. Please have a look and enter, or I'll have to withdraw the remaining prizes.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Great Patagonian Ice Theft

In Chilean Patagonia, several companies run catamaran excursions or cruises to destinations such as Laguna San Rafael and the fjords of Tierra del Fuego, famous for their tidewater glaciers. Normally, they put their patrons in rigid inflatables or other small boats to see ice more up close and personal, and in the case of Tierra del Fuego, the passengers even get to go ashore. Meanwhile, the crew chips a chunk off a passing iceberg and, when the excursion’s over, everyone – or at least everyone 18 and over – gets a whiskey on the glacial rocks.
A few days ago, in northern Chilean Patagonia, some unlikely "entrepreneurs" decided that, instead of bringing the people to Patagonia, they could bring the Patagonia to the people by hauling five tons of ice – valued at roughly US$6,200 - from the Jorge Montt glacier to Santiago. The idea was to sell custom ice cubes to Santiago bars but, unfortunately for the masterminds of this unusual project, Carabineros police in the town of Cochrane arrested the driver of the refrigerated truck for theft, and he may face additional charges under a law that protects national monuments. In the meantime, police are searching for his accomplices.

On the northern edge of the Southern Patagonian Icefield, just off the Carretera Austral, the Montt glacier is a rapidly receding victim of global warming. What’s surprising is how the ice-robbers thought they would get away with this in a country where the proposed removal of glaciers by a mining company in the northern Andes became a huge political issue nearly a decade ago. On one level, this ice-robbing incident was well below the radar, except that the Montt glacier lies in an uninhabited area where a vehicle of this sort is virtually unheard of (the nearest town, end-of-the-road Villa O’Higgins, is 100 km south and has only 550 residents).
Moreover, the truck would have been especially conspicuous on the Antonio Ronchi ferry (pictured above) from Puerto Yungay (pictured below, on Fiordo Mitchell) south to Río Bravo and back, which it had to take to reach the glacier. Apparently there was a tip from Conaf personnel but, on the way back north, any vehicle of this sort would have suspicion at the Carabineros police checkpoint at the approach to Cochrane. For my part, I’m anticipating the screenplay for what sounds like a great comic caper movie.
Win This Book, Get This App
Since I haven’t had a giveaway for a while, I’ve decided on a twin killing. In the first instance, I will give away copies of Moon Handbooks Patagonia (whose cover shot is Laguna San Rafael) to the first two readers who can identify the mining company that tried to remove the glaciers in northern Chile.
That will require a little research, but the second part of the giveaway will not: the first five readers who ask will receive a copy of the new Argentina Travel Adventures app for the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Obviously, to read it, you’ll need to have one of those devices, but there are no other requirements.

Please send your responses to the following address: southern cone (at)

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

On Wednesday: Around the Southern Cone

Today’s entry covers a diversity of topics from Argentina, Chile and Uruguay.

Fudging the Stats?
For some time, critics have called out the administration of Argentine president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner for meddling in the state statistics bureau INDEC to make inflation figures less alarming than private economists believe they are. Now, across the River Plate, tourism operators in Punta del Este are questioning whether the Uruguayan government is exaggerating the arrivals of visitors – many of them Argentines – in the peak summer season.
According to official stats, the number of foreign arrivals in Uruguay was 26 percent higher in the first fortnight of 2012 than it was last year. Operators in PDE (pictured above), which is Uruguay’s single most important summer destination, say their numbers are actually down than last year’s, with both hotel occupancy and apartment rentals having fallen significantly. One explanation for the discrepancy may be that, according to the Mercopress article, “many Argentines crossed to Uruguay for the day exclusively to purchase US dollars given the restrictions imposed by the government of President Cristina Fernández.”

The Malvinas Blockade?
For more than half a century now, the United States has enforced a political and economic embargo that keeps US companies from trading with Cuba, and vice versa, and restricts US citizens’ right to travel to the island. The strictness of the embargo has varied from time to time, but it’s hard to call it a success. In fact, it’s probably helped keep Fidel Castro and his brother Raúl in power.
Despite that example, Argentina seems determined to enforce an embargo of its own as the 30th anniversary of the Falkland Islands War, instigated by the military dictatorship of General Leopoldo Galtieri, approaches on April 2. President Fernández’s government has lobbied other South American governments to keep Falklands-flagged vessels from visiting mainland ports, primarily in Chile and Uruguay. It has also threatened to cut the air link between the Falklands (pictured above; Argentines, of course, know them as the Malvinas) and Punta Arenas (Chile). LAN Airlines flights from Punta Arenas cannot avoid flying over Argentine air space.

I have no intention here of arguing the rights or wrongs of Argentina’s claim, which can become a black hole of intemperate rhetoric (for a truly sardonic analysis, read James Neilson’s recent column from the Buenos Aires Herald). What I would suggest is that, as with Cuba, blockades can create their own blowback, and reinforce the determination of those against whom they are directed.

Paine Update: Explora to Reopen
I’m not planning any more full-scale post-fire updates on Torres del Paine, but it’s worth mentioning that the luxury Explora chain has announced that its Hotel Salto Chico will reopen on February 23. Located where the Río Paine drains Lago Pehoé, this “hotel with a view” suffered no direct harm from the fire, but some of its custom furnishings, coming from around the world, suffered smoke damage. Given the level of service to which it aspires, it’s not surprising the Salto Chico would postpone its reopening, and that February 23 date might as well mark the park’s own definitive return. That leaves at least a good two months to enjoy the best Paine has to offer this summer, but for a few trail segments still closed to the public.

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