Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ferry Tales From Petrohué

Over the weekend, I spent a couple nights at Petrohué Lodge (pictured above), at the west end of Lago Todos los Santos, in Chile’s Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales. The Petrohué area, which takes its name from the river that drains the lake, is the lacustrine the starting point for the Cruce Andino, the trans-Andean tourist shuttle to the Argentine city of San Carlos de Bariloche that started precisely a century ago, in 1913. At that time, lake steamers, horses and mules carried the tourists and their baggage, but today it’s a bus-boat relay that reaches its peak in summer but operates all year.

In fact, the service across the Andes started in the mid-19th century to deliver products from bustling Puerto Montt to Bariloche at a time when the Argentine settlement was a precarious frontier hamlet, remote from Buenos Aires. Petrohué Lodge’s owner Franz Schirmer has recently built a tribute to his own family in the Museo Pioneros de la Patagonia, an impressive visual chronology of the area from pre-Columbian times to the present, paying special tribute to his great-grandfather Ricardo Roth and other key figures here.
One interesting fact is that, in 1913, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the earliest tourists to enjoy the scenery of the Cruce Andino (formerly called the Cruce de Lagos, it also navigates Argentina’s Lago Frías and Lago Nahuel Huapi). Roosevelt met Argentine explorer and conservationist Perito Moreno, who had earlier donated part of a land grant to create the Parque Nacional del Sur (now Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi), and his presence undoubtedly contributed to the fact that Todos los Santos and its surroundings became Chile’s first national park in 1926 (the photograph above, from Argentina’s Archivo de la Nación, shows Roosevelt on the Argentine side). Ironically, Pérez Rosales himself was responsible for promoting native forest clearance to establish German colonists in the area.
Another intriguing fact, the Swiss-Chilean Schirmer told me, is that a couple years ago he discovered a photograph proving existence of an aerial tramway intended to replace mules as the means of transport for goods across the Andes – something he had always thought was just a legend. Contacting a German scholar in Leipzig where the tramway was built, he managed to locate the blueprints and, later, he identified the route by overflying the park in a small plane. He and his father found remains of some of the towers, one of which is replicated in the museum (pictured above).

The project, unfortunately, failed because a protectionist Argentine government clamped down on trade from Chile, and it fell into disuse – well, non-use, actually, because it never really got a chance to function. Still, it makes for a good exhibit in a museum that bears visiting, with descriptions in readable English as well as Spanish.

At this time of year, the Cruce Andino is a daily event, with the catamaran Lagos Andinos carrying Argentina-bound passengers to Peulla in the morning and returning with their Chile-bound counterparts in the afternoon. It’s also possible to spend the day in Peulla and return to Petrohué in the afternoon.

Meeting Saturday’s afternoon boat, I was a little surprised to see so many arriving cyclists – who can ride part of the route - because through-paying passengers have priority. For several years, Cruce Andino has been reluctant to carry bicycles but, at present, they’re happy to do at no additional cost, even in the peak summer season. That could change as traffic recovers from the worldwide tourism downturn of 2008, but for now it’s good news for two-wheelers wanting to enjoy what Roosevelt did – always presuming, of course, that the weather holds in this fickle climate.

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