Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Olavarria, Argentina

After a 900-km drive from Neuquén, I am spending Xmas in the city of Olavarría, Buenos Aires Province, before heading to the city of Buenos Aires.

Olavarría is a city of about 100,000 in the humid pampas, about 400 km southwest of the city of Buenos Aires. The main reason I'm here is because it's my wife's hometown, and she and my daughter have flown here to spend the holidays with her extended family. Tonight we take a bus to BA, where I will finish up the new manuscript of Moon Handbooks Patagonia and send it off, with maps and photographs, to the publisher.

Olavarría is not a city I would include in any of my guidebooks, though a couple nearby estancias (guest ranches) do make it in. It's interesting, though, in that its vigorous economy is a reflection of the country's recent economic success, and the café I'm sitting in is a reflection of modern changes. Don Torcuato was formerly a classic general store, where gauchos rode in on horse carts to make months' worth of purchases; recently, though, it's been transformed into a bistro-on-the-pampas, while preserving the building's original features. The high wooden shelves that once held bulk groceries, for instance, now display the large wine inventory.

Unlike many pampas cities, Olavarría has an industrial as well as an agricultural base, thanks to the nearby cement factory at Loma Negra. In fact, for many years, the biggest celebration here was the Fiesta Nacional del Cemento (National Cement Festival), complete with its own Reina del Cemento (Cement Queen!). That may sound quaint, or even silly, but compared with almost any city of comparable size in the US, Olavarría has much to recommend it--at midnight or even later, the streets are full of people in what is a real community--as opposed to any anonymous bedroom town in, say, Kansas, where being out at that hour might be grounds for arrest.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Saving (or Seeing?) Daylight in Argentina

Anticipating energy shortages in the summer of 2008, newly elected Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner has proposed a series of energy measures that include modernizing street lighting, turning off unnecessary lighting in office buildings, and raising the temperature levels in air-conditioned buildings--not to mention the return of daylight savings time. All this is well and good, indeed long overdue, but it's questionable whether those measures will be sufficient as long as Argentine energy prices remain so low, in fact largely frozen since the economic collapse of 2001-2.

As it is, natural gas is so cheap that many Argentines have converted their automobiles to run on it. This has advantages, obviously, in reducing pollution, but it's also meant that Argentina has been unable (or unwilling) to meet supply contract obligations with neighboring Chile because of domestic demand. Heating houses with natural gas also remains very cheap.

In reality, Argentina's energy conservation measures are half-hearted and will probably make no real difference over the coming summer or winter (when gas shortages could mean cold apartments in Buenos Aires). Equalizing supply and demand probably also means higher prices that would encourage exploration and use of resources that are not feasible with the present price structure.

In contrast to the United States, where the current regime makes a fetish of increasing supplies (even when the resources don't exist) and ignores the financial and resource savings to be made by sensible conservation, Argentina hopes that a half-hearted set of conservation measures will overcome all the problems that realistic pricing could help solve. For residents, this could mean blackouts; for visitors, it could affect their ability to get around the country.

There's Gold in Futaleufu?

Just a few years ago, determined opposition in the Argentine city of Esquel stopped an ill-advised gold mining project that might have caused serious cyanide leaching runoff into local streams and rivers. Now, however, a similar proposal has appeared near the Chilean town of Futaleufú, just across the border (and bordering Argentina's Los Alerces National Park. The project is set for the Río Espolón, a nearly pristine recreational river that's a tributary of the mighty Río Futaleufú, by acclamation one of the world's top-ten whitewater rivers (and a top trout stream, to boot). The companies in question are Canada's Kinross Gold Corporation and U.S.-based Geocom Resources Inc.

Unlike Esquel, which is a small city able to project itself nationally, Futaleufú is only a village in an isolated part of Chile difficult to reach by road or air (in fact, communications are much better with the neighboring Argentine province of Chubut, where Esquel is located). Esquel could make noise, but that will be harder for Futaleufú.

International rafting and kayaking companies located in Futaleufú are particularly concerned, but their impact on the economy is relatively small compared to minerals interests in mining-friendly Chile. A new blog, though, analyzes the issues.

Friday, December 21, 2007

The Visa Fee Disincentive

The United States has just raised the fee for a US visa application to US$131. As I believe in encouraging rather than discouraging international travel, I find this reprehensible, but it's not the only obstacle--visa applicants must travel to a US Embassy or consulate for a personal interview. This is no big deal if you live in, say, Buenos Aires, but if you live in Ushuaia (four hours away by plane), it means additional expense and time for what is usually only a token conversation with consular staff. For an applicant with a family, this could mean more than US$500 in visa fees, not to mention the additional travel costs, for someone who wants to bring his wife and kids to Orlando (not my preference, but plenty of South Americans do so).

Some countries, notably Brazil and Chile, have responded to the State Department policy by raising their visa fees for US citizens. Chile, for instance, requires a US$100 "reciprocity fee" (which might be called a "retaliation fee") from every country that imposes visa fees on Chilean nationals (including also Mexico, Australia, and Canada).

This fee (which I expect will now rise) must be paid in US cash on arrival at Santiago's international airport--not the best way to greet a visitor who's just arrived on an all-night flight. I can't say it's unfair, but it often means a bad first impression of the country (even though the Chilean visa is valid for the life of the passport). The photograph above shows my reciprocity fee receipt from December 2000, when the fee was only US$45; it'll last me until late 2010.

My understanding, and I may be mistaken, is that Brazil refunds the fee to unsuccessful visa applicants. For a while, in response to US abuse of Brazilian citizens, Brazilian immigration was also fingerprinting US citizens on arrival (which led an outraged Rio de Janeiro mayor to greet US tourists with T-shirts and other gifts, as his city depends on the tourist trade).

Perhaps refunding the money for successful applicants would encourage legitimate tourists while discouraging stab-in-the-dark visa applicants. I'm presuming the State Department's measure has primarily to do with the cost of processing visas, many of which get rejected.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Chile's Dam(ned) Energy Dilemma

For most of the last two decades, Chile has enjoyed South America's most vigorous economy, not to mention political stability, while countries such as neighboring Argentina (and more distant Venezuela) suffered economic and political meltdowns. There's a threat to Chile's prosperity, though, as world oil prices rise. The country imports almost all of its petroleum, but for a small quantity produced in southernmost Patagonia.

The capital of Santiago, meanwhile, has long suffered from air pollution because of its growing industry, burgeoning car culture, and a location that traps hydrocarbon emissions in the same way as California's Los Angeles basin. It needs energy, though, as does the booming copper-mining industry, based in the northern Atacama desert. Meanwhile, the southerly lakes district is so devoid of energy resources that even mid-sized cities such as Temuco (population about 250,000) and Valdivia rely on firewood for home heating (even some surprisingly large hotels produce their room heat and hot water in this manner). The result is that Temuco has some of Chile's worst air quality indexes.

Chile has been looking for energy alternatives, ranging from nuclear to more alternative technologies such as wind (ideal for much of Patagonia), solar (unlimited potential in the desert north), and steam (Chile's volcanic landscape has huge numbers of hot springs). The conventional solution, though, appears to be hydroelectricity, but that comes with its own problems--a few years back, in a controversial case, the Spanish power company ENDESA dammed the Río Biobío, widely considered one of the world's great recreational rivers.

The problem is that Chile's last remaining wild rivers, particularly the Río Baker, lie in the southern Aisén region, the northern sector of Chilean Patagonia, near the town of Cochrane. ENDESA plans to dam the Baker, flooding more than 5,000 hectares of the stunningly scenic Baker-Nef confluence. In the process, though, it would also have to build up to 2,300 km of transmission lines through nearly pristine temperate rainforest that includes several national parks and other reserves, including the private conservation initiative at Parque Pumalín.

The Baker project would provide clean energy for Santiago and the north, but at great cost. Much of the power would be lost in transmission. Much of the southern forests would be denuded. And, because dams collect sediment, the project might not be sustainable in the long run.

There is a vocal political opposition to damming the Baker, and Chilean highways have sprouted billboards urging a "Patagonia sin Represas" (Patagonia without Dams, website in Spanish only). At the same time, there are signs that it's a done deal--Cochrane's Hotel Wellmann, for example, is undergoing a major expansion to accommodate construction personnel even as a cubbyhole office on the town's central plaza continues to struggle against the project.

Chile has much to do in energy conservation--double-paned windows are becoming common in newer buildings, for instance, but a project to retrofit existing houses and insulate them might reduce the need for imported natural gas and diesel. For the moment, though, the country appears to be concentrating on the supply side of the energy problem, and mostly ignoring a potentially rewarding demand side.

El Chaltén

Recovering from bronchitis, I spent two nights in El Chaltén, but the lingering effects kept me from doing any hiking despite fine warm weather--never before have I seen people in T-shirts around sunset (normally they're wearing parkas and hunkered up against the wind). The day before I arrived, though, there had been a brutal storm that kept almost everybody indoors all day, and the lower mountains had a new dusting of snow (which quickly melted with the sun).

When I first saw El Chaltén, in 1990, it was almost only the hardiest hikers and backpackers who made it there--only the Fitz Roy Inn offered accommodations, and most people camped in the free national park sites in the vicinity. Nowadays there are numerous hostels and the biggest of them, Rancho Grande, is building an even bigger hotel. While it only has about 200 or so permanent residents, there are many more hotel, hostel and cabaña beds than that.

Likewise, in 1990, there were only few places to eat, among them the still existing La Senyera (where campers also lined up to get hot showers, as there was no running water, or even toilets, in the campground; campers had to dig latrines). Now, though, El Chaltén has at least three very fine restaurants--Estepa, Ruca Mahuida, and Fuegia Bistro--and several other above average places. At the end of the day, all that hiking--and the hiking is still great even though many more people are on the trail--requires more than just ordinary refueling.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Waiting for Godot's Gasoline Tanker

Saturday's plans were to drive from El Chaltén, Argentina (more on this destination in another post), to the Chilean town of Cochrane via the remote Paso Roballos border post, the southernmost land border in the Chilean region of Aisén. I left El Chaltén around 9 a.m. and, as much of Ruta 40 (Argentina's loneliest road) is much improved and part of it is paved, I covered the roughly 500 km to Bajo Caracoles in seven hours even with stops for photo ops.

Bajo Caracoles, a desolate desert spot known for its namesake hotel (a handsome stone-block construction dating from the 1940s), has the only gas station in nearly 500 km between Tres Lagos and the town of Perito Moreno. Often, though, it runs out of gasoline (though not diesel)--the last time I wanted to use the Paso Roballos crossing, I had to continue 120 km north to Perito Moreno, another 70 km west to Los Antiguos, and then south to Roballos via the spectacular Monte Zeballos road that parallels the Chilean border. In fact, I'm glad that I was able to take the scenic Zeballos route that time, but I had no desire to do it again.

Bajo Caracoles, though, had run out of gasoline again, and several cars had been waiting since the day before (both the hotel and the nearby hostel were overflowing). I had enough gas (in a 20-liter container that I keep as an emergency supply) to get me to Perito Moreno, but not to Cochrane, so I decided to wait an hour to see if the station's owner was correct that the supply tanker would arrive from Comodoro Rivadavia. When I had just about given up, the tanker pulled up about five minutes before 5 p.m. and, even though it took another hour and a half to discharge the gasoline and get us all filled up, I finally got on the westbound road to Paso Roballos by 6:30 p.m.

Fortunately the border was open until 9 p.m. and, since I was probably the only person to cross all day here, things went quickly with both the Argentine Gendarmería (border guards) and the Chilean Carabineros. After driving the 100 km or so to the border, I emptied nearly all my surplus gas (from the can) into the tank but there remained a few liters; the Chilean official was at first insistent that I could not take Argentine fuel across the border (this is technically illegal, but his Argentine counterpart was not even interested). Finally, though, he graciously relented and I carried my last few liters of cheap Argentine gas into Chile. I arrived at Cochrane around 10:30 p.m., having done much of a spectacular route in fading daylight as we approach the longest day of the year.

For motorists on RN 40, Bajo Caracoles will continue to be a problem spot, even as the road south from Perito Moreno gets paved. When supplies are short, they will sell northbound drivers only enough to get to Perito Moreno, though they'll fill the tank for southbound vehicles headed for Tres Lagos. If they're utterly without gas, though, all bets are off.

A related matter: a Swiss couple who arrived at Bajo Caracoles shortly after I did had taken a 70-km detour to Gobernador Gregores in search of gasoline and found none there, thus wasting time and gasoline. Fortunately, they stayed at Estancia La Oriental, in Parque Nacional Perito Moreno (no relation to the town of Perito Moreno which is much farther north, nor to the Perito Moreno glacier which is much farther south) and the estancia sells gas to its guests in need.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

El Calafate

It's a mild but overcast early summer day in El Calafate, but having contracted bronchitis I'm pretty much spending the day indoors before I head for El Chaltén tomorrow afternoon.

When I first visited El Calafate in 1990, it was known as the gateway to the world-famous Moreno Glacier--it still is, of course--and one of Argentina's worst tourist traps, with particularly shameless merchants who expected to make a year's income in two short months (the January-February high season). At that time, after local banks closed on Friday afternoon, the merchants changed money only at rates highly disadvantageous to visitors--a dollar would buy 10,000 australs (the currency at the time) at the bank, but only 9,000 from any merchant who condescended to change your money. Service was almost unheard of--at one restaurant, the owner wanted to charge me for two beers after I asked him (quietly) to replace one that arrived with a fly in it.

All that's changed over the last 17 years as the town has grown and matured. Of course, the fact that foreigners can get money from ATMs and a formal exchange house helps, but the quality of services here has improved dramatically. There are hostels now that are better than the best hotels were then, and a boom of upscale hotel building has created some of Argentina's top accommodations, both in style and price (of course). An influx of immigrants from Buenos Aires and elsewhere has improved and diversified the dining scene and, although there are still tourist-trap souvenir shops, there's also some sophisticated shopping. That said, there's not much to see in the town itself, and El Chaltén is a better base for active travelers--however spectacular the Moreno Glacier, which some speculate might rupture next year, it's mostly for passive tourists.

While El Calafate may no longer be the ripoff capital it once was--after I had written that the late tourism director Mariano Besio assured me that "we're trying to do better" and indeed they have--it's no longer the cheap destination it was after the 2002 devaluation. Generally, though, you get good value for money.

I'll be heading to El Chaltén tomorrow afternoon, but my bronchitis won't permit me to do the hiking I had hoped. I may not even be able to add to this blog, as Internet access is limited there.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Argentine Energy Prices and the Travel/Tourism Sector

Yesterday I drove from Punta Arenas, Chile, to El Calafate, Argentina, via Río Gallegos, a distance of about 550 km. As a motorist with a 4WD vehicle (which I use while researching my guidebooks), it was a relief to cross the border, but Argentina's low energy prices have their own additional cost.

Filling my tank in Punta Arenas cost nearly US$60, filling it in Río Gallegos cost less than US$20, though it wasn't quite so empty there. In Punta Arenas, the price of a liter of 95-octane gasoline was about 660 Chilean pesos (US$1.33), in Río Gallegos, the same liter cost 1.55 Argentine pesos (about 50 US cents). That makes the price in Punta about US$5.05 per US gallon, versus about US$1.90 per US gallon in Río Gallegos.

Obviously, Argentine prices are below world-market, in a country that is nearly sufficient in oil and satisfies almost 90 percent of its energy needs through hydrocarbons (in the subtropical north and a few other areas there is hydroelectricity, along with some nuclear power). As it affects the Argentine consumer and the booming tourism industry, though, there are additional complications in the matter of petroleum

Chile imports nearly all its petroleum, though the Magallanes region (of which Punta Arenas is capital) does have a small gas-and-oil industry. In Argentina, though, the Patagonia region (primarily Chubut, Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego provinces, plus parts of Río Negro) gets favorable treatment: there is no tax on gasoline, which costs about 2.20 Argentine pesos (95 octane) in most of the rest of the country. This is about US$2.70 per US gallon, still low by world prices.

The rationale for this disparity, apparently, is that sprawling, thinly populated Patagonia needs a subsidy for its well-being, but Patagonia is also one of Argentina's most prosperous regions, as anybody viewing the breakneck construction of hotels here in El Calafate might well conclude. On the other hand, residents of impoverished northern provinces such as Catamarca, La Rioja, and Tucumán pay full energy prices, by Argentine standards at least.

When foreign tourists become involved, though, it's sometimes another matter. Last year the Argentine federal government announced its intention to raise diesel and gasoline prices for vehicles with foreign license plates in "border areas," which it defined very liberally. The province of Mendoza, among others, screamed bloody murder as it's been the beneficiary of huge numbers of Chilean tourists. Eventually, the feds backed down and, for the most part, they limited the tourist penalty to diesel vehicles (which must pay the fuel price of the neighboring country). International truck traffic also pays the penalty, in much larger quantities obviously, because of their ostensible use of "contraband" Argentine fuel in foreign countries (Brazil, Chile, Uruguay).

My vehicle uses gasoline but, earlier this year, I found myself in the city of Colón, near the Uruguayan border. On seeing my Chilean plates, the attendant directed me to a different pump on the rationale that I would have to pay Uruguayan prices for my gasoline. Not wanting to do so, I asked him what would happen if I continued down the road and suddenly ran out of gas, returning with an empty gas can--would he fill it at Argentine prices. Yes, he said, he would, as long as he wasn't pumping it into a vehicle with foreign plates. I drove about 100 meters down the road and returned with a 20-liter gas can, which I filled with enough fuel to take me to Buenos Aires province, where differential pricing did not prevail.

What has happened is that, in its eagerness to eliminate ostensible "contraband" in fuel, Argentina has enlisted 18-year-old pump jockeys as customs officers. It's not surprising that such measures would encourage scofflaws (such as myself in this case, observing the letter of the law but evading its spirit). Because of such distortions, Argentina continues to bewilder foreigners such as myself, who enjoy the country despite its quirks. If it does too much of this, though--differential pricing often occurs in the hotel sector and even in restaurants in tourist areas--the country could be shooting one of its own most flourishing industries in the foot.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Patagonian Energy Alternatives

I've been traveling in Chile and the Falkland Islands, plus a few days in Argentina, for a little more than a month now, as I update Moon Handbooks Patagonia. One thing that has impressed me is how seriously the tourism sector, and in some cases society at large, is taking the conservation of energy. In Puerto Natales, Chile, for instance, new hotels like Indigo Patagonia and Remota are state-of-the-art in their commitments to double-paned windows that permit spectacular views while conserving heat in a region that has frequent inclement weather. The Cascada Ecocamp at Torres del Paine has 24-hour electricity from a combination of solar, wind, and a run-of-stream hydro-turbine except in the tents themselves, where the lamps have rechargeable batteries.

But the champion of them all may be the Falkland Islands' tiny capital of Stanley. Three new wind turbines outside town now produce about 25 percent of Stanley's electricity. Wind speeds in the Falklands average about 14 knots over the year so there's a good chance that, within a few years, additional turbines could make Stanley the first world capital to produce nearly all its electricity from wind power (it'll always be necessary to have a backup system such as the current diesel plant, but one wind-powered West Falkland farm says it now only uses about six percent of the diesel it once needed).

While I've spent little time in Argentina yet on this trip, tomorrow I'll be traveling to Río Gallegos and El Calafate, and will be keeping an eye on this theme as I work my way north toward Buenos Aires (with another detour into the Chilean region of Aisén).

Saturday, December 8, 2007

On the Albatross

The Falkland Islands may be famous for their penguins, but the breeding colonies of black-browed albatrosses are, in my opinion, even more fascinating. In many parts of southern South America, this striking bird glides gracefully over the ocean, but only in the Falklands is it possible to appreciate its near porcelain beauty up close and personal. The first time ever I visited Saunders Island, in the northwestern sector of the archipelago, I sat near a steeply sloping breeding colony near The Neck, the sandy isthmus that links the eastern and western sectors of the island; I marveled as the birds, awkward on land, waddled within range of the normal 50mm lens on my SLR. The resulting photograph, though, was so perfect that some people have thought it was a taxidermy shot.

This time, though, I spent several hours shooting the birds at the Rookery Mountain site, and the closeups of breeding pairs preening each other should prove that these birds are not just stunningly beautiful, but that they are startlingly alive.

I've just flown from the Islands back to Punta Arenas, Chile, so this may be my last post on them for a while. For now, I'll continue to wonder why so many people who marvel at the approachability of wildlife in the Everglades and Galápagos continue to overlook the Falklands.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Five Kinds of Penguins

Twenty years ago I lived in the Falklands for more than a year, but getting to see all the wildlife was a time-consuming process that required taking expensive air taxis from Stanley to offshore islands. Yesterday, though, I paid my first visit to Kidney Cove, only a short distance from Stanley, and in five hours we saw all five species of penguins that breed on the Islands--Magellanics, gentoos, rockhoppers, macaronis and kings. In honesty, we only saw one individual of the latter two species, but it was still a pretty good day.

Kidney Cove Safari Tours, based at Murrell Farm barely ten minutes from Stanley, runs overland tours to the Kidney Cove gentoo/king/Magellanic site and the Berkeley Sound rockhopper/macaroni site. For anyone stuck in Stanley, for any reason, this is an easily arranged excursion except on days when cruise ships are in port.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Stanley, Falkland Islands

When I lived in the Falklands 20 years ago, it was still a close-knit community in which everybody knew almost everybody else, though that had begun to change in the aftermath of the 1982 South Atlantic conflict between Britain and Argentina. In the interim, there have been many dramatic changes, but other things remain the same.

One thing that's developed at warp speed is communications. Cell phone service arrived here only two years ago, and now it seems almost everybody has one--even kids riding bicycles. All this despite the fact that their geographical coverage is limited to selected areas of East Falkland.

Twenty years ago, though, the capital of Stanley had a manual phone exchange and every call went through Eileen Vidal, the switchboard operator, but in its own way this was every bit as efficient as cell phones. If you called asking Eileen to ring Claudette, for instance, Eileen might reply that "she's at her mum's house, would you like me to ring there?"

Other things are unchanged, though. Stanley may be the only capital in the world where there are no car alarms (many people still leave their keys in their cars, in fact), front doors are almost invariably unlocked, and there is no graffiti whatsoever.

Falkland Islands

Having not posted anything since last week, I'll try to catch up on the travels that have taken me to and around the Falkland Islands as "insular Patagonia," with great similarities to southernmost Chile and Argentina, but also dramatic differences which I may not have time to explore in this post.

Twenty years ago, in 1986-87, I spent 13 months in the Islands under a Fulbright-Hays fellowship as I researched my PhD thesis. At that time, the only way to reach the Islands was a twice-weekly Royal Air Force flight from Brize Norton, in Oxfordshire, via Ascension Island. Now, though, there's a regular Saturday flight from Punta Arenas with Chile's highly reliable LAN Airlines. Those flights run extremely full, however, so anyone wanting to visit the Falklands should reserve as far in advance as possible (LAN would like to add flights, but Argentina has vetoed additional flights, which must cross Argentine airspace, because of Argentina's territorial claim over the Islands, which it calls the Malvinas).

Travel and tourism are booming here, though, in the context of a thinly populated archipelago with only about 2,500 permanent residents--but millions of penguins and other seabirds, and large numbers of marine mammals, including elephant seals, sea lions, and fur seals. Hotels are few and logistics are complicated, many of the best wildlife sites are reachable only by air taxis, so the number of land-based travelers is relatively small.

Not so with cruise ships. The day before yesterday, three cruise ships disembarked some 4,000 passengers in Stanley the Islands' "capital village," which has only 2,186 permanent residents. There was concern that the invasion would overwhelm the town, but at the end of the day everything went smoothly even though the big ships can't enter the inner harbor here and have to shuttle passengers to land.

Over the course of this southern summer, the local tourist board anticipates some 80,000 cruise ship passengers will visit Stanley, usually en route to Antarctica or around the tip of South America. As local government collects a £15 landing fee for each one, this means revenue of £1.2 million (US$2.5 million approximately).

I arrived in the Islands last Saturday on the LAN flight and will return to Punta Arenas this coming Saturday. A week isn't much, but I've managed to get to offshore Saunders Island to view rockhopper, gentoo, and Magellanic penguins, and black-browed albatrosses, among other birds, and to Cape Bougainville on East Falkland to view sea lions in addition to more rockies, king cormorants, macaroni penguins, and other birds.

It's worth stressing that anybody intending to visit the Falklands should try to fix an itinerary in advance because of the limited accommodations and the necessity of flying air taxis to many of the most interesting wildlife sites--the government air service's number of planes is limited. Also, unless you have arranged at least your first night's accommodation, immigration may be reluctant to admit you.

It's also worth adding that the Falklands are an expensive destination--the local pound is equivalent to the British pound, and prices are at European levels for accommodations and meals, though there are some budget options. Still, for anyone interested in accessible austral wildlife, it's cheaper than a cruise to Antarctica.

Anyway, more about the Islands in the coming days.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Ushuaia to Antarctica

Time was, just a few years ago, that travelers with flexible itineraries could show up in Ushuaia and, if an Antarctic cruise was about to leave with empty berths, get a bargain tour of the white continent--say for as little as US$1,000. This season, though, even last-minute trips seem to be going for around US$4,000. Still, if you're in a take-it-or-leave-it position, prices could come down, though it's hard to say how much.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Argentina's Iffy Skies

According to today's Buenos Aires Herald, Argentina's four domestic commercial airlines (Aerolíneas Argentinas, LAN Argentina, Andes Líneas Aéreas, and Sol) operate a total of only 48 planes today, compared to 89 in 1998 (Aerolíneas is the only survivor from that time). While the airlines carried 6.5 million passengers in 1998, that annual figure has fallen to about 5.1 million despite a travel and tourism boom following the 2002 devaluation. By their estimates, services in the Patagonia region, a favorite with foreign tourists, fall about 25 percent short of satisfying demand.

The airlines argue that government price controls have limited investment in new equipment. Whether or not they're correct--and they have a strong case--in practical terms it means that visitors to Argentina need to make their flight plans as far in advance as possible, and even then there's always a chance that things will go awry.

Ushuaia Ain't Smokin'

Years ago, I would have considered Argentines among the world's most unrepentant tobacco junkies, but things are changing fast. Overrun with tourists, the city of Ushuaia has responded to the influx of overseas visitors by banning smoking in all restaurants, a measure that is due to be extended to bars and clubs before too long. It's also part of a movement that began with the actions of Argentina's then health minister Ginés González García, and was quickly implemented in Buenos Aires. Argentina, though, has a federal system and thus each province and even locality has a great deal of autonomy in the matter.

Río Grande, the only other substantial city on the Argentine side of Tierra del Fuego, is still a free-fire zone for smokers, in part at least because it doesn't get the tourist trade. Ironically enough, though, the island that tooks its name from fires tended by so-called "Canoe Indians" in colonial times--one souvenir store here is called "Tierra de Humos" (Land of Smoke)--is increasingly free of airborne carcinogens.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007


Yesterday I drove from Puerto Natales, in Chile, to the city of Río Grande in Tierra del Fuego. For the most part, it's a smooth drive over paved roads, but I just missed the ferry from the Chilean mainland to the island, and had to wait an hour and a half for the next one--normally two ferries shuttle frequently back and forth across the Strait of Magellan at Primera Angostura, but in this case there was a special trip for trucks carrying gasoline and compressed natural gas to the town of Cerro Sombrero.

Beyond Cerro Sombrero, the Chilean roads are gravel until the Argentine border crosssing at San Sebastián. I arrived late at Río Grande, a wind-blown city on Argentina's Atlantic coast, and took a mediocre (at best) hotel because of my late arrival. This morning I drove to Ushuaia, the main gateway to Antarctica, in magnificent weather even if it was windy on the north side of the island.

Ushuaia is a homely city in a magnificent setting on the Beagle Channel, and the gateway to Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. If the weather continues fine tomorrow, I may take a hike in the park.

While walking around Ushuaia this afternoon, I stopped at Boutique del Libro, a bookstore that specializes in Patagonia and Antartica. It was gratifying to find that they have 100 copies of Moon Handbooks Patagonia in stock, as well as copies of the first edition of MH Argentina, though a new edition is just out; and MH Buenos Aires. Normally when I visit Ushuaia, I sign all the copies and, when I revisit the next year, I find that at least they've sold all the ones I signed. Today, though, I didn't have time to sign nearly 150 books.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Torres del Paine

Having spent the weekend in Torres del Paine, it was again striking how crowded the accommodations are during what, only a few years ago, was low season. The crunch will ease a bit next week when the refugios at Lago Grey, Lago Dickson, and Los Perros open, as their closure has put greater pressure on the "W" hiking route between Lago Pehoé and Hostería Las Torres, and some people had to start at park headquarters because the Paine Grande Mountain Lodge at Pehoé was so crowded.

Yesterday, driving back from the park, I took the recently opened road from park headquarters back to Puerto Natales. For people who are driving back from the park, this can save time because you don't have to double back to Villa Cerro Castillo, and most day tours of the park are now using it. It's also very scenic, with outstanding views of the Cuernos del Paine.

Regular buses, though, continue to double back because they need to pick up hikers and many people are crossing the border toward El Calafate (Argentina) at Villa Cerro Castillo. While topping off my gas tank there on the way north into the park, an Irish visitor told me that their have been fuel shortages on the Argentine side, though I can't say whether this is a temporary bottleneck or part of a larger problem (as it has been elsewhere in Argentina).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Ferrying from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales

For many travelers to Chile, the Navimag ferry from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales is one of South America's highlights. In my role as a guidebook writer for Lonely Planet and then (more recently and far better) with Moon Handbooks, I've done the trip at least six times over the last 15 years. The trip that started last Monday the 19th, though, was the most spectacular of any of them--the weather and visibility were so good as to be almost beyond belief. It was so good that I suggested first-time travelers on this route ought to have asked for their money back because it wasn't the typical Patagonian experience--even the open-ocean crossing of the Golfo de Penas, where queasy passengers traditionally "feed the fish," was calm.

Many people on the ferry Evangelistas choose more expensive cabins, some of which have interior private baths and others with exterior private baths. You should know, though, that the dorm-style bunks are, in some cases, nearly as private as cabins--some are on cul-de-sacs, for instance, so nobody will be walking past you. The bunks (literas in Spanish) are significantly cheaper, and the only drawback I see is that if the Golfo de Penas crossing is rough, there's more chance of being close to a seasick passenger. Or if by chance there's a seasick infant with an earache that might be even worse. Bunks next to the shared baths (which are separate for men and women) might be unpleasant if people start regurgitating nearby, but I still think the dorm bunks are excellent values.

After arriving at Puerto Natales, of course, nearly everybody plans to visit Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, named for what is arguably the world's most beautiful mountain range. Some have been disappointed, not because of the park's beauty, but because nearly all the park accommodations are running full. My suggestion is that anyone arriving on the ferry should, after dropping off your bags at your Natales hotel or hospedaje, go immediately to make arrangements for park hotels and refugios (shelters, but very comfortable ones). Otherwise, your only option may be camping.

As this is my first blog entry, I don't expect to get much response soon, but I welcome questions about Patagonia, Argentina, Chile, Buenos Aires, and coastal Uruguay, areas all covered in my Moon Handbooks. I will be traveling in Chilean and Argentine Patagonia, as well as the Falkland Islands, throughout November and December, and will spend January and February in Buenos Aires before returning to Chile for the month of March.
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