Thursday, April 20, 2017

Chile Declares New Patagonian Parks Route

Long segments of the Carretera Austral still pass through wild areas with few or no services.
Imagine a highway through the wildest parts of Alaska’s Panhandle—where the terrain allows no continuous roads—and, if you look south, you’ll find the rough equivalent in Chile’s Carretera Austral. It passes through a thinly peopled region of sprawling steppes and craggy volcanic uplands, dense rainforests surrounding soaring summits, powerful whitewater rivers, and deep fjords and navigable channels with countless islands, marine mammals, and even glaciers that reach the sea. It makes a matchless road trip, with world-class adventure options for cycling, trekking, climbing, rafting, and kayaking, along a track that, relatively speaking, is still barely marked—much less beaten.
The Piedra del Gato viaduct bridges a section of the narrow Río Cisnes canyon.

In the early 1990s, the late environmental philanthropist Douglas Tompkins and his widow Kristine McDivitt envisioned a project to preserve Patagonia’s thinly populated Aisén region in an interconnected system of national parks. On a continent where skeptics have traditionally viewed large landholdings, especially those controlled by foreigners, with suspicion, they created the 1,117-square mile Parque Pumalín and the 1,015 square-mile Parque Patagonia—formerly a sheep ranch—with the intention of donating them to the Chilean state.
Kristine McDivitt (center) speaks to a group of potential donors at Parque Patagonia.
In some parts of the region, wire fences still keep sheep from becoming roadkill but, in others, the removal of sheep and fences has allowed native wildlife like guanacos to thrive, restoring a wildness that ranching had diminished but could not destroy. Now, after adding stylish infrastructure to mimic parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite, the Tompkins vision has finally gained approval from the Chilean government, which just announced creation of a Ruta de los Parques—“Route of the Parks”—that will promote a string of wildlands in the country’s southernmost region. Several existing reserves will be upgraded to national park status.
In the new Ruta del los Parques, access should improve to little-visited units like Parque Nacional  Corcovado.
Chile’s national parks will soon occupy a percentage of its territory comparable to that of Costa Rica, a much smaller country. In a Santiago memorial service, Socialist President Michelle Bachelet described Tompkins as a “world-class philanthropist.”
Highway improvements should reduce incidents like my encounter with a bus on a blind curve.
As pavement and other improvements proceed on a highway that’s still mainly gravel (and where I myself have wrecked two 4WD vehicles, with extenuating circumstances), 2018 will be a key year—the coming austral summer will be the first full season for the Ruta de los Parques. Even as the region’s appeal becomes better known and the infrastructure improves—long segments of the highway still have few or no services—the surrounding area should become an ever wilder attraction.
Parque Pumalín from the new trail to the crater of Volcán Chaitén

Friday, March 31, 2017

Argentina Opens Its Skies

One deterrent to travel in Argentina—the world’s eighth-largest country—has been the deplorable state of its air services. Throughout my lifetime, the state-run Aerolíneas Argentinas—occasionally under private ownership—has dominated a Buenos Aires-centric system that, with unavoidable stopovers, sometimes made flights as time-consuming as bus trips. The arrival of Chile’s LAN (now LATAM) improved the scenario, but political obstacles kept it from challenging Aerolíneas’s dominance.
State-run Aerolíneas Argentina now dominates the country air services.
At one level, there’s a logic to this pattern, as roughly a third of the country’s population lives in and around the capital, but it also re-enforces the city’s primacy. Traditionally, even important cities with upwards of a million inhabitants, such as Rosario, Córdoba and Mendoza, can only make connections to other provincial destinations via Buenos Aires. It works against the tourist industry as well, when flights between popular visitor destinations such as Mendoza and Bariloche require lengthy detours via the capital.
Many domestic flights require changing planes at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery, the Buenos Aires city airport.
It’s about to change, though. Earlier this month, the administration of President Mauricio Macri approved 135 new routes by five new or expanded airlines, including the budget carrier AirBondi. Bondi will not begin operations until September, but Neuquén-based American Jet, Córdoba-based Alas del Sur, and the capital-based Andes Líneas Aéreas may begin immediately. Tucumán-based Avian, an affiliate of Colombia’s Avianca, should soon join them.

The idea, according to Macri, is to more than increase the number of flights and more than double the number of passengers by 2019. Given that distances are so great, that long-distance trains barely exist, and that bus services are time-consuming (although the quality is generally high), there’s potential for modernizing Argentina’s transportation system and the tourism sector in particular.
In a perfect world, AirBondi would live up its name by adopting the color scheme of this classic city bus.

Whenever Argentina announces great changes, it’s always advisable to retain a certain level of skepticism, but greater competition in the transportation sector should be a welcome development—even if part of that is a budget airline likely to charge for checked baggage and other “extras.” For what it’s worth, Bondi’s name derives not from the famous Australian beach, but rather from a lunfardo (slang) term for city buses in Buenos Aires.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Biking the Vines

Once upon a time, Santiago was a small city surrounded by farmland, including extensive vineyards. Over the past century-plus, it’s turned most of that farmland into factories, houses and roads. Many of those houses now sport parras, the grape arbors that cover driveways and patios for table grapes, but there remain a handful of vineyards and wineries.
The cellars at Viña Santa Carolina, Santiago's most central winery
The closest of the wineries is Viña Santa Carolina, just a few Metro stops from the central Plaza de Armas, but it has no vines to speak of—all the grapes are trucked into town. A bit farther out, though, in the capital’s Peñalolén district, extensive vineyards still surround the facilities of Viña Cousiño Macul, which has occupied these lands since 1856.
Coal tailings at Lota are still visible from the lovingly landscaped Parque Isidora Cousiño
The Cousiños have been in Chile since 1760, and originally made their fortune from coal near the southern city of Concepción—where the lushly landscaped grounds of Parque Isidora Cousiño contrast with tailings from the mines that gave them their wealth. In downtown Santiago, the Palacio Cousiño—current undergoing restoration after the powerful 2010 earthquake—was the family’s urban gem.
Carlos Cousiño (at left) at the bar of the Grigoriy Mikheev
In 2005, I met winery owner Carlos Cousiño, who brought wine to shared with other passengers on board the Grigoriy Mikheev, a Russian vessel then under charter to the Chilean company Antarctica XXI. I’d paid an earlier visit to the winery but, recently in Santiago, I took the opportunity to do a bike and wine tour with the Santiago operator Bicicleta Verde.
Cousiño Macul's vineyards are on the eastern edge of the city.
The ride doesn’t leave from Bicicleta Verde’s downtown Santiago offices (though the company does offer tours of the city proper). Peñalolén’s a bit distant for that, but it’s still a quick trip on the exemplary Metro to Estación Quilín, despite involving a change of trains.
The bikes await the riders.
From Quilín, it’s a half-hour walk or a short taxi ride to the winery, where wrought-iron gates open onto a tree-shaded road leading to a complex of buildings dating, in some cases, to the mid-19th century. Bicicleta Verde stores its gear in a warehouse here but, on this particular morning, I was the only client on hand (I chose to avoid the hot afternoon sun). The bikes themselves are basic, with baskets, big tires, limited gears, and hand brakes, suitable for terrain that slopes only slightly from the piedmont vineyards toward the city proper. It’s not a strenuous tour, though the return to winery requires a bit more effort (especially after sampling a glass of cool rosé offered by a well-prepared guide).
The Cousiño family's private collection ages in secure subterranean cellars.

After visiting the vines, we toured the atmospheric cellars proper—dating from 1870—where the Cousiño family keeps its private stash and much of the modern equipment resides; there’s also a collection of antique paraphernalia in one museum-like room. Then it was time to conclude the tasting, before catching a cab back to the Metro.
The tasting facilities at Cousiño Macul

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