Saturday, August 31, 2013

Chile's Latest Ferry Tales, Plus Hangar Pains at Buenos Aires

Almost every year, when updating my Moon Handbooks to Chile and Patagonia, I eagerly anticipate the four-day ferry trip from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales with Navimag’s M/V Evangelistas (pictured above at anchor in its homeport at Angelmó). In the course of a job where I rarely sleep in the same bed for more than a night or two, the slow but steady pace of sailing through some of South America’s greatest scenery is a true pleasure. It’s an equal pleasure to see the region through the eyes of the first-timers, from around the world, who spend almost every waking moment on the decks, and converse with them then and at mealtimes. It’s a voyage of discovery, but it’s also a social (and sociable) experience.
Unfortunately, this summer, I may not be able to do so. Last Thursday, in a phone conversation with Navimag’s e-Commerce manager Marcelo Puga, I learned that the company has decommissioned the Evangelistas and suspended passenger traffic on the Patagonian fjords route until at least January. At that time, a new vessel should be in service, but in the interim they will return all deposits to those who have purchased tickets.
When, precisely, the new service will commence is not yet certain, and this will affect many passengers who had planned to sail to Puerto Natales and continue to Torres del Paine, or return from Natales after visiting Paine. Until it comes into service, it will probably increase the demand for flights into Punta Arenas (the closest major Chilean airport, though Natales has a smaller one with fewer flights); some travelers may choose to travel via Argentina, by air (to El Calafate or Ushuaia) or overland by bus. Either way, until the new ship is ready, the logistics will be a little more complex this summer.

Hangar Pains at Aeroparque
OK, I borrowed the phrase from the Wall Street Journal’s Buenos Aires correspondent, but it’s such an apt description of the dispute between LAN Argentina and the Argentine government, which wants to abrogate a contract that guarantees the company use of a hangar at the close-in city airport Aeroparque (photograph below from Creative Commons) until 2023. Aerolíneas Argentinas, the state-owned airline that’s hemorrhaging upwards of US$2 million daily, argues that its profitable rival, financed by its Chile-based parent company, engages in unfair competition.
Aerolíneas, which operates under the flagrantly political management of the Peronist youth group La Cámpora, would probably not survive without those subsidies, so it’s appropriate to ask who’s really engaging in “unfair competition,” especially since it’s Aerolíneas’ CEO Mariano Recalde arguing that “LAN had a position of privilege that it didn’t deserve…” It’s also worth noting that the government has refused to allow LAN to import additional planes to expand its service; though Aerolíneas has complained that Chile does not allow it to operate domestic flights within its territory, Aerolíneas already did so for several years under the name Aerolíneas del Sur and, later, Air Comet.

LAN has suggested that, if forced to move its Argentine domestic operations to the less convenient international airport at Ezeiza, it might just leave the country. That’s probably hyperbole, since it would no doubt retain its international services to and from Ezeiza, but the Argentine passengers who count on LAN Argentina’s reliability and the 3,000 employees whose jobs are at risk have genuine cause for concern. For the time being, at least, a judicial injunction has blocked LAN’s eviction from the hangar.

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

An Argentina App Upgrade (Including Uruguay)

As the Southern Cone travel season approaches – though I consider the region is really an all-year destination – I’ve done more than just the new edition of Moon Handbooks Chile, which I featured in a recent post. There is also a new, expanded version of my iPhone/iPad/Android app for Argentina that, I  hope and expect, will be worthy of your attention.
While the cover may be the same, that masks dramatically increased coverage of Buenos Aires in particular, with its arts and entertainment scene, cultural offerings including galleries and museums, the burgeoning restaurant scene, and the best new accommodations (such as the Algodón Mansion, pictured above). As before, there’s a barrio-by-barrio orientation that makes finding your way around the city easy, especially if you’ve done a full download of the maps and photographs (you really don’t want to pay the data charges that can accumulate if you depend on a cellular rather than WiFi connection in Buenos Aires or elsewhere in Argentina, Chile or Uruguay).
Speaking of the Banda Oriental (“Eastern Shore”) of the River Plate, I’ve expanded the app’s coverage to include a “Weekend in Uruguay” itinerary that takes in the nearby World Heritage Site of Colonia (pictured above) – less than an hour from Buenos Aires by ferry – and the capital city of Montevideo before returning to Argentina by the longer ferry. The Montevideo itinerary suggestions include the city’s colorful Mercado del Puerto and its Museo del Carnaval (pictured below) – if you can’t make to Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo’s a good Plan B, though Carnaval is also experiencing a renaissance in Buenos Aires.
As a country, Uruguay flies below the radar, but there are reasons that many Argentines take their vacations there. The biggest reason is the beaches of Punta del Este, whose coverage I have chosen to postpone on the rationale that most long-distance travelers prefer the Caribbean or Brazil for their beach holidays, but there are other unexpected reasons to enjoy Uruguay.
One of those is the wine. Next month, in fact, I will attend the Wines of Uruguay US Trade Tour in San Francisco, which will of course feature the country’s signature varietal of Tannat. There are more than a dozen top wineries within an hour of downtown Montevideo, open for tours and tasting, such as Bodega Bouza (pictured above), and several more in and around Colonia.
Another is Uruguay’s cachilas, or antique automobiles. I’m not car-crazy, but I do enjoy seeing what must be the greatest assemblage of them south of Havana, in a country that (unlike Argentina) never really had its own automobile industry. While there aren’t so many on the street as there used to be, there are still great collections at the Museo del Automóvil (pictured above) in downtown Montevideo and, also, at Bodega Bouza (pictured below).
The new Argentina Travel Adventures app costs just US$2.99, available through iTunes or Google Play. Readers who already own the app can upgrade at no additional charge. If you do purchase or upgrade, please review it on iTunes or Google.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Condé Nast Condescends? Slumming in Argentine Patagonia

In the mid-1970s, when I first traveled to South America, I was a budget backpacker, seeking out bargains for beds and meals along the so-called “Gringo Trail” that started in Mexico and ended at the tip of Tierra del Fuego. My main companion was my trusty South American Handbook, the classic guide to the region since 1921, with its pithy telegraphic descriptions – I recall its referring to one possible accommodations in Colombia as “unsavoury but cheap.”
As it happened, I eventually did a bit of work for the SAH, updating their Falkland Islands coverage at a time when they were considering dropping it entirely, and later updating some parts of their Argentina coverage. By the early 1990s, though, I had a full-time freelancing gig in the Southern Cone countries with a publisher whose name is best left unmentioned and, gradually, my standards evolved to encompass more formal and (occasionally) luxurious options. That said, even though I now travel in my own car instead of hitchhiking or taking chicken buses, ideologically speaking I’m still a backpacker.
Thus, when I saw the cover of the latest issue of Condé Nast Traveler, proclaiming an article on “Argentina, The Real Patagonia,” I was skeptical that I’d read yet another article on a five-star Bariloche hotel, yet I was pleasantly surprised. Rather, it was an article about refugios, rustic shelters on backcountry trails in the mountains surrounding the counter-culture town of El Bolsón (pictured at top), about 120 km south of Bariloche. Instead of all-inclusive resorts for US$1,500 per night, author Christopher Bagley stayed in casual places like the Refugio Cajón del Azul (pictured above), where it costs just US$5 to camp or US$15 to spread your sleeping bag on a mattress on the floor (unfortunately, the piece is not up on CNT’s website yet).
While I’ve never spent the night at Cajón del Azul or any other refugio in the vicinity, I’ve done quite a few day hikes, such as Cerro Piltriquitrón (pictured above), with its exceptional panoramas of El Bolsón and Lago Puelo (pictured below) toward the snow-capped Chilean border. Certainly they’re worth a feature article, but I still find it remarkable that the author would even pitch the piece to Condé Nast, let alone get a positive response – a magazine like Outside would have seemed a likelier choice.
All that said, I applaud Condé Nast for the fact that, despite their moneyed demographic, they chose to commission and publish a piece suitable for a broader audience. I also look forward to returning to the area this summer, in the course of updating the current edition of Moon Patagonia.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

The Changing Geopolitics of Mapping

In the early 1980s, when I was a graduate student researching my M.A. thesis on llama-alpaca herders in Chile’s Parque Nacional Lauca, I was infatuated with maps. In fact, my love of maps was one of the reasons that I entered the Ph.D. program in Geography at Berkeley.

I had been to Lauca before I started grad school but, when I returned on a research grant from the Inter-American Foundation, I found it a little frustrating because of the limited availability of maps in what the Chileans regarded as a strategically significant border area along the Bolivian frontier. In the 19th century, Chile had acquired the area from Bolivia during the War of the Pacific, and it limited access to maps – for the most part, excellent topographic maps were available at a scale of 1:100,000, but areas closest to the border were literally whited out.
Those maps displayed a grid of the areas in question, but with no landmarks or physical features whatsoever – if you were close to the border, as I was in the Aymara village of Parinacota (pictured above), you could see its namesake 6,438-meter (20,827-ft) volcanic peak (pictured below, at right), but it didn’t appear on the map (the village itself sits at roughly 4,392 meters, roughly 14,409 feet, so the peak is a pretty imposing presence). Those areas were whited out, though, because the agency responsible for mapping was the Instituto Geográfico Militar, which reserved the best maps to themselves for ostensible security reasons.
The reason the IGM whited out those areas was that Bolivia claims the area in question, though in fact it was Peruvian territory at the time of the Chilean takeover. Moreover, Chile’s diversion of the Río Lauca for hydroelectricity is a lingering issue (the river’s source is in Chile, but it drains into Bolivia).
The military role in cartography is a remnant of a 19th-century attitude toward geopolitics; it's perhaps worth noting that, in General Augusto Pinochet’s textbook on the topic, he apparently confused Washington State and Washington DC. Traditionally, the Argentine military has taken a similar approach but I was surprised, on a recent web search, to learn that Argentina’s own Instituto Geográfico Militar (pictured above, from Creative Commons) no longer exists as such – in 2009, it became the Instituto Geográfico Nacional which, symbolically at least, would suggest a distancing between geographical information and its military applications. That said, the shift may be more rhetorical than real – small print, on the site, makes it clear that the IGN still depends on the Ministerio de Defensa, the Defense Ministry.
Interestingly, in 1986-7, when I spent 13 months in the Falkland Islands – which Argentina claims as the Malvinas, and invaded and occupied for ten weeks in 1982 – I had my best access ever to official maps. On a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Abroad fellowship, I purchased a full set of 1:50,000 topographic maps by the British Ordnance Survey from the local government Secretariat in the capital of Stanley (pictured above).
In the era of Google Maps, of course, ordinary citizens have access to more and better cartographic information than the official agencies of that time did. Still, given the sensitivity of a conflict that had ended only a few years earlier, it continues to amuse me to look at the salvaged rocket launcher tube I used to ship the maps back to England on the RAF charter flight at the end of my time there.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

A Coastal Road Trip, From Canada to Chile?

Often, on this blog and elsewhere, I’ve pointed out that the west coast of South America is a mirror image of its North American counterpart, with vast deserts comparable to those of Baja California, a Mediterranean heartland resembling California, and mid-latitude forests and fjords in higher latitudes.

One of the comparisons I make, in the course of writing and lecturing, is between British Columbia’s Vancouver Island and Chile’s Isla Grande de Chiloé. Superficially, the comparison is obvious – they’re two large islands slightly separated from the continent, by the Strait of Georgia and the Canal de Chacao, respectively (though Vancouver Island is three times larger).
Both are lush and forested, with temperate rain forests and extensive hiking trails, but they have one thing in common that I learned only recently. My Moon colleague David Stanley, who covers the South Pacific but also overlaps with me in covering Rapa Nui (Easter Island), informs me the village of Lund (pictured above) is (in the words of a local website) “the northern terminus of Highway 101, the Pacific Coastal Highway, a 15,200 km highway along the Pacific Coast extending from Canada to Chile” (photograph courtesy of David Stanley).
I have never been to Lund (named after the Swedish city), though I have been to more southerly parts of Vancouver Island. I have, however, been many times to the port of Quellón (pictured above), the route’s ostensible southern terminus, on the Isla Grande. I had, however, never heard of the “Pacific Coastal Route” as any sort of unified entity – in fact, US 101, which runs through Washington, Oregon and California, often heads inland while California’s State Highway 1 almost invariably sticks to the coast.

To the south, Mexico’s Carretera Federal No. 1 runs the length of the Baja California peninsula, but is not always coastal and, where it is coastal, it’s not always on the Pacific. In the rest of Mexico and Central America, the Pan-American Highway often approaches the coast but, in the words of journalist Jake Silverstein, it’s “a system so vast, so incomplete and so incomprehensible it is not so much a road as it is the idea of Pan-Americanism itself.”

There is, of course, no highway through Panama’s Darien Gap, and roads rarely follow the lush tropical lands along the Pacific coasts of Colombia and Ecuador, where most of the people live in the highlands. Peru and northern Chile are a different matter, but in Chile’s Mediterranean heartland and southern lakes region the main highways bypass the shoreline for the central valley.

I’ve never been to Lund and, though I’ll probably revisit Quellón later this year, I’ll still find it hard to think of it as the end point of any unified route – especially since there are several other ferry crossings I’ve not yet mentioned, including one that continues south to Chile’s own Carretera Austral, arguably the best road trip in all of South America.
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