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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