Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Buenos Aires Fixer

In early 2002, when I was preparing the first edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires, the Argentine government had just collapsed, and the economy was in free fall. At that time, my Argentine wife and I had been considering a kitchen remodel on our California home as we had an inheritance from my mother, but as I wandered the city and looked at realtors' offerings, I realized we could consider our dream of an apartment in the city - for about the same price as our California kitchen remodel. A few months later, we purchased a two-bedroom unit in Palermo, near the Jardín Botánico Carlos Thays, from a dentist who needed the cash to purchase his partner's share of their practice. In fact, he got a pretty good deal - nearly three times the price he had paid in pesos - but had he sold a few months earlier, when the peso was at par with the dollar, he would have done even better.

The Buenos Aires real estate market has since rebounded, and bargains such as the one we got are hard to find except in outlying barrios that, unlike Palermo, have yet to become fashionable. Those with a little cash to spare, though, can consider the 14th-floor apartment in Retiro's iconic Kavanagh building (pictured here). Originally built for Corina Kavanagh, with five bedrooms in more than 700 square meters (around 7,000 square feet) , it's now owned by British Lord Alain Levenfiche and on the market for a modest US$5.9 million - possibly the city's single most expensive apartment.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Not an Xmas Tree

As a guidebook writer, traveling in the Southern Cone countries, I work seven days a week from breakfast to bedtime, and my most frustrating time of the year is the "holidays" between Christmas and New Year's, when the closure of tourist offices and other services make it harder to do my job. Last night in the Chilean city of Concepción, for instance, nearly all the restaurants were closed, and I had to settle for a mediocre Chinese dinner in a restaurant that won't make the new edition of Moon Handbooks Chile that I am presently researching. More often than not, for me, holidays are obstacles.

In reality, Concepción isn't much of an attraction in its own right, but I had to time my visit for Friday - a work day - to be able to consult with the regional office of Sernatur, the Chilean government tourism agency. I'd sooner be in another part of the region, such as Parque Nacional Nahuelbuta (pictured here), where I spent one of my most memorable Xmases - as the only visitor in a beautiful national park that's one of the few places where the Araucaria (monkey puzzle tree) survives in the Chilean coast range.

While I'll be glad when the "holidays" are over, I was nevertheless partly responsible for providing a big Xmas gift for Kirby Johnstone of Vancouver B.C. In the course of my September-October book tour to promote the new edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, Kirby attended my talk at the city's Travel Bug bookstore, and won the raffle drawing for a free round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Santiago or Buenos Aires, courtesy of LAN Airlines.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

The Southern Cone - On Fire!

Every year, as I update my Moon Handbooks to Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia, I revisit the cities, towns, and countryside that I've been covering for nearly two decades and, when I can't visit something in person, I always have to verify that the places I cover still exist. Of course, landmarks such as the Casa Rosada presidential palace in Buenos Aires, or its Palacio de la Moneda counterpart in Santiago, are constants, but that doesn't mean that someday they won't be damaged or destroyed by fire, earthquake (likelier in Chile), or some civil disturbance (perhaps likelier in Argentina). As a guidebook writer, I have to doublecheck everything and, even then, there's no guarantee something won't disappear or shut down the day after I leave.

Even as I've been wandering through the Atacama desert for the last several weeks, some lesser landmarks in Chile and Argentina have suffered serious damage that will affect visitors in the short term. Early this month, in Puerto Natales, a fire rendered the Hotel Costa Australis (pictured here) unusable for the peak summer season. While all the guests were safely evacuated, the loss of the city's largest hotel - with 72 rooms - makes it likely that quality accommodations will be at a premium for travelers en route to Torres del Paine National Park.

For example, Hernán Jofré, part-owner of the nearby boutique Hotel Indigo, writes me that "we reached a percentage of occupation we never imagined before." Costa Australis executive Marco Vergara, meanwhile, assured me that reconstruction is proceeding and the building may be ready as early as March - after the January-February peak.

On the Argentine side of the border, in the city of Mendoza, the landmark Bodegas Escorihuela winery (pictured here) has also suffered a serious fire that may end tours and tasting for the foreseeable future. Fortunately for gourmets, celebrity chef Francis Mallman's 1884 Restaurant - widely considered one of the country's best - escaped damage.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Tourist Capital of the Atacama

In 1979, when I first visited San Pedro de Atacama, its only guidebook coverage consisted of a few lines of telegraphic succinctness in the South American Handbook - the Belgian priest Gustavo Le Paige had organized an archaeological museum of the local Atacameño heritage, and there were two places to stay: the Hostería de San Pedro (beyond my backpacker budget) and the modest Residencial Florida (pictured here, now known as "Your Hostal Florida"). I opted for the latter and, at dinnertime, conversed with its only other guest, a Japanese backpacker, in my then rudimentary Spanish.

At that time, excursions such as El Tatio, perhaps the world's highest geyser field, were next to impossible because, simply, you needed your own 4WD vehicle to travel the appallingly bad roads and, on a backpacker budget, this was impossible. I settled for walkable nearby sights such as the Pukará de Quitor, a 12th-century fortifications, and the Tambo de Catarpe, and Incaic administrative center. It was more than a decade later, after Chile's return to representative government, that San Pedro began to become the Atacama desert's premium destination for backpackers and, increasingly, upscale foreign tourists.

I visit San Pedro at least every third year, and the changes are ever more breathtaking. The main street, Caracoles, now consists of almost wall-to-wall restaurants and travel agencies that arrange visits to El Tatio and other sights. And, according to an information file provided me by the local office of Sernatur, San Pedro now has at least 72 accommodations options, ranging from campgrounds to five-star hotels. Since the installation of the controversial Explora chain about a decade ago, there has been a proliferation of all-inclusive resorts, many of whose staff are Explora alumni. These range from the intimate Hotel Awasi (only eight rooms, and just a short walk from the town square) to the outlying Tierra Atacama and Alto Atacama (pictured here, near the Pukará de Quitor). Many people feel ambivalent about San Pedro's transformation to a tourist economy but, at the same time, it's hard to imagine that things would be better here - economically, at least - without the investment that has taken place. Whether the area's resources, especially its limited water, can handle the growth is another question.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Out of the Closet and into the Wine Cellar?

Anyone who's been to Buenos Aires since the political and economic meltdown of 2002 is aware that the city has become the THE top gay travel destination in all of South America, and one of the most important in the world. This week's Economist provides a good summary of BA's gay appeal, with its vigorous nightlife (including a gay milonga or tango dance club), Latin America's most liberal domestic partnership laws, and even the five-star "hetero-friendly" Axel Hotel on the edge of San Telmo.

Another of Argentina's attractions, for all sexual orientations, is the country's wine. As far as I know, though, Buenos Aires is the only city in the world with an openly Gay Wine Store, near Plaza San Martín in the upscale barrio of Retiro. Personally, though, I'm bewildered as to what constitutes gay wine, and would appreciate it if anybody could clue me in. Red, white, or rosé?

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Skies of the Atacama

Early Sunday morning, I left the tiny Chilean fishing port of Taltal, with its dilapidated but atmospheric heritage of wooden buildings from the nitrate era, and headed into the coastal range of the Atacama desert - the shortest route north toward the city of Antofagasta and my ultimate goal of San Pedro de Atacama. The coastal road north from Taltal turns to gravel after about 20 km and then, at the fishing village of Paposo, swerves up a steep canyon known as Quebrada del Despoblado - so called because nobody lives there and, given its stark aridity, that's not surprising.

Emerging on the high coast range, though, the road becomes smoothly paved and, about halfway to Antofagasta, a short paved lateral climbs west to the European Space Organization's Cerro Paranal Observatory (pictured here). I've been past it several times and had always wanted to visit the facility, but unfortunately they only offer public tours the last two weekends of each month (except December). This, however, was the last Sunday of the month and, although theoretically you need to make reservations well in advance, I figured I had nothing to lose by storming the gates, so to speak. It was also around 10:30 a.m., nearly four hours before the first scheduled tour but, in one of those occasional miracles that can make travel so memorable, a special tour was leaving almost as I arrived and I was able to talk my way onto it.

Cerro Paranal is one of the world's most sophisticated observatories, and each of the four buildings depicted above - very different from the traditional dome-style architecture - contains an eight-meter mirror lens; the four sometimes pool their efforts to increase the light and literally magnify the images they get from distant space. Visitors get to enter one of the buildings, accompanied by highly professional guides who handle both English and Spanish, and also get to visit the control room (which was extremely quiet on this Sunday). The highlight for many visitors, though, is the so-called "Perla de las Dunas," the astronomers' hotel that ostensibly went up in flames in the latest James Bond saga, Quantum of Solace. The photograph here is not the corridors where 007 and his companion fought off the bad guys, but rather the central dome garden - which looks unreal compared to the desert outside, where not a blade of grass grows. As it happened, when the guide learned that I was press and that we had a mutual friend from La Serena, I got special treatment to get a closer look where the rest of group - mostly students from an Antofagasta high school - couldn't go.

All in all, a remarkable stroke of good luck that left me in a great mood on the rest of the long day's drive to San Pedro (about which I'll write more in the coming days). Meanwhile, en route, I stopped in the village of Baquedano, whose vintage train station (pictured here), about which I wrote more in an earlier post, was also a location for Quantum of Solace. That, though, was enough Bonding for the day, and I got back on the road to San Pedro, arriving around 7 p.m.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Back to Step One? The Peruvian Pisco Sour

As I wrote in a post earlier this year, Chile and Peru dispute the origin of the addictive aperitif known as the pisco sour, the welcome drink at nearly every hotel in both countries. I enjoy both the Chilean and Peruvian versions, but I never expected to read, as I did in yesterday's Huffington Post, that George W. Bush had broken his personal prohibition pledge at the recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Lima, Peru, with a pisco sour.

Tonight, my last in Santiago de Chile before heading north into the Atacama desert for several weeks, I enjoyed a fish dinner at Ostras Azócar, one of the city's classic seafood restaurants. In tribute to Mr. Bush's rare indulgence of good taste - and his imminent departure from the U.S. presidency - I ordered a Peruvian pisco sour (pictured here). I'll have at least one more on January 20th, unless of course he has the good sense to resign before then, and I'll hope that his long overdue backsliding allows him to enjoy many more in the coming years. Had he continued on this course in his early forties, instead of becoming a 12-stepper (or equivalent), the world might well have been a better place. Too little, too late?

By the way, despite what the Huffington Post piece suggests, there is no such thing as non-alcoholic pisco, which is at least 30 to 35 percent (60 to 70 proof) alcohol.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Overpopulation of What? The Horses of Easter Island

In his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Survive, UCLA geographer Jared Diamond uses Rapa Nui (Easter Island) as an example of environmental disaster brought on, at least in part, by overpopulation. In a 2006 interview with Geographical Magazine, Diamond describes the abandoned quarry of moai (the island's iconic statues) at Rano Raraku (pictured here) as suggesting that "You get the sense that you've walked into a factory, and at 11.59 a.m. the whistle blew, everyone dropped their tools, went for lunch and never came back." This he attributes to environmental degradation on an island of only 171 square km (66 sq miles) ,with a population of 15,000 that denuded once dense forests. Diamond makes a strong case for his thesis, though it's arguable that the island's dysfunctional politics - a priestly class that demanded the construction of the moai and their platforms, and used timber to move them into place - keeps this from being an issue of population alone.

Today the island has only about 4,000 residents, whose livelihood depends on tourism and subsidies from the Chilean government, and it still has environmental problems. In the 2007 calendar year, according to statistics provided me by the Chilean tourism agency Sernatur, more than 50,000 visitors landed at the local airport - more 12 times the island's population. In this context, Chilean and local authorities have begun to monitor visits to archaeological sites such as Rano Raraku ever more closely, but one thing remains out of control: this subtropical oceanic island has, according to numbers I heard, as many as 10,000 horses - more than two per resident - further denuding the island's already impoverished flora.

Whether or not those figures are accurate, the accompanying photograph, also taken at Rano Raraku, suggests how destructive the horses have been. They are also devouring the reeds in Rano Raraku's crater lake and, as they gallop through the moai "nursery," are likely to do far more damage to the statues in situ than any well-monitored tourists are.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Stranded in Natales

It’s not me, as I’ve just returned from Rapa Nui (Easter Island, about which I’ll write more in the coming days) to Santiago de Chile. My 20-year-old daughter Clio, though, has written me from southernmost Patagonia, where her progress has been slowed partly by her learning the ropes on her first major trip to southern South America, partly because public transport connections are less than perfect (she spent a night sleeping in the bus terminal at Río Gallegos, Argentina), and partly because public workers’ strikes have slowed the crossings on the Chilean side of the border (in one instance, she had to wait five hours to cross from Chile into Argentina).

It’s also because the buses from Puerto Natales (Chile, pictured above) to El Calafate (Argentina) have been so full that she had to wait several days in town to get a seat - which suggests that, despite the global economic crisis, Patagonia remains a hot destination.

For my part, I’ll soon be heading north into the Atacama desert, as I prepare the upcoming third edition of Moon Handbooks Chile. The southern summer is approaching - temperatures in Santiago reached the eighties today and, after midnight, it’s still warm here. Because of the cool Humboldt current, though, coastal Atacama remains relatively mild, and other key destinations, such as San Pedro de Atacama, are high enough that they cool off at night, even though the days can be warm.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Hanging Out in Hanga Roa

At 9:10 a.m. this morning, Santiago time, LAN Airlines flight 841 lifted off for Rapa Nui (better known to English speakers as Easter Island), and a little after 1 p.m. (local time), I walked down the gangplank (yes, they still use gangplanks here) at Hanga Roa’s Aeropuerto Mataveri for, if I remember correctly, the sixth time in nearly 20 years as a guidebook writer. For most people, this is a once-in-a-lifetime trip, but I feel privileged to be able to return at least every third year.

Over a distance roughly equal to that from Boston to San Francisco, the flight west from the mainland takes nearly six hours, but there is a two-hour time difference with the Chilean mainland. After a brief rest at my hotel, set out to walk around the verdant Pacific island village (pictured above), update the map in my book, and get some lunch on a pleasantly cool, slightly breezy day.

LAN is the only airline serving Rapa Nui, though there have long been rumors of competition. Just a few years ago, there were perhaps three flights per week from mainland Chile here, en route to Tahiti, but now there are nine, some of which turn around immediately - that is, Rapa Nui, with its famous moai monuments, has become a destination in itself, rather than just a refueling stop en route to the South Pacific. According to official statistics, more than 32,000 visitors came to the island between January and August of last year - about eight times the population of Hanga Roa (the only significant settlement on the island).

Hanga Roa has roughly 600 hotel rooms and 1,300 beds, so the island lives and dies with tourism with increasingly upscale options - most notably Explora’s new, all-inclusive Posada de Mike Rapu on the outskirts of town. The traditional Hotel Hanga Roa is a construction site in the process of reinventing itself as a spa resort. Yet by the standards of South Pacific islands, accommodations here are remarkably affordable - as little as US$20 per person for a plain but decent double room, and even less for tent camping.

Yet the price of food has risen dramatically - a quick look around town tells me restaurant prices have nearly doubled since my last trip in 2005, and it's hard to find a good restaurant entree for less than about US$15. Nearly everything must be imported, and pressure on local services has risen as well - in fact, one local hotel manager told me, health, education, and other social services are near collapse despite the tourism boom.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Bond v. Reality in the Atacama

Two nights ago, I went to see the new James Bond flick, Quantum of Solace, and in fact it's not a very good movie. It's excessively violent, the plot is full of holes, and Daniel Craig is no Sean Connery or even Pierce Brosnan - the ironic humor of their efforts is almost totally absent. That's not to say it isnt' worth seeing - though I might recommend waiting until it appears on DVD - but that's because of my own interest in the film's portrayal of Chile, where substantial parts of it were shot.

When director Marc Forster was filming in and around Antofagasta earlier this year, he drew protests from some sectors of Chilean society because Chile was used as a stand-in for Bolivia (in the late 19th century, in fact, this was part of Bolivia until Chile's victory in the War of the Pacific). This is still a touchy topic, especially among strident Bolivian and Chilean nationalists.

As I wrote in the earlier post referenced above, the main Chilean locations were the Cerro Paranal observatory, the coastal ghost town of Cobija, and the aging rail junction of Baquedano (pictured here), along the Pan-American Highway. The mayor of Baquedano was in fact arrested when he drove onto the set to protest the fact that Baquedano was being used to represent Bolivia (anybody mistaking a Bond film for reality perhaps should be in custody, or even in a straitjacket). I have heard of no such protests in Panama, which the film used as a stand-in for Haiti.

What I found more interesting was that the film's villain, Dominic Greene (portrayed by French actor Mathieu Amalric), is a gangster posing as an environmental philanthropist. Most Chileans, I'm sure, will take the movie in stride as fiction. A certain sector, though, is likely to see it as a confirmation of their suspicions of their own foreign environmental philanthropist, Doug Tompkins, who has created a private national park, open to the public, in northern Chilean Patagonia. That would be unfortunate, but unsurprising.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

From California to Chile

Yesterday, around 2:30 p.m., my LAN Airlines flight from Los Angeles lifted off for an 11-hour non-stop - it actually arrived a little early - to Santiago de Chile. If you didn't know any better, though, you might think that the landscape depicted here - the Río Maipo canyon just outside the Chilean capital - could just as easily be parts of Southern California. As I've often remarked, and covered in some detail in other posts, Chile's central valley is a mirror image of California, and the warm autumn Saturday in Los Angeles was almost identical to the mild spring Sunday in Santiago. The sun set much later in Santiago, though.

Since I was last here in April, though, other things have changed for American travelers, who can expect to encounter a friendly curiosity for the foreseeable future. Chileans have rarely acted overtly anti-American - even those who were would usually be far too polite to say so - but my cab driver from the airport couldn't wait to ask me what I thought about Barack Obama's election victory. At 6:30 a.m. (1:30 a.m. California time), I was too disoriented to offer anything but platitudes about an event that I'm certain to be asked much more about in the coming days and months.

Meanwhile, I'm off shortly to see the new James Bond movie, part of which was filmed in Chile. At this point, I'm more intrigued by seeing Chilean response to a film that depicts parts of Chile as Bolivia; while nobody could ever suggest a Bond film was anything other than fiction, it did raise some local hackles during the filming, as I covered in an earlier post.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Patagonian Candidate

The winner of yesterday's quiz was Colin Bennett of Santiago, who correctly identified John McCain as having visited Chilean dictator August Pinochet in December of 1985. According to journalist John Dinges, McCain (then a Congressman; he was elected to the Senate in 1986) spent several days fishing in southern Chile before returning to Santiago (pictured here) for a meeting with Pinochet. Dinges's article was based in part on a State Department document, which says, among other things, that McCain compared a conversation with Pinochet as "similar to talking with the head of the John Birch Society," a right-wing extremist organization in the United States.

As I'm off to Chile this weekend, I expect to be able to deliver Colin's copy of Moon Handbooks Patagonia to him in person.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

November Surprise: A Patagonia Quiz

In anticipation of Tuesday's U.S. election, I am offering one of my periodic quizzes, for which the prize will be a copy of the new edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, which came out last month. It will not be difficult - in fact, it should be pretty obvious - so I expect to have a winner soon. It will have to be soon, as I'm due to leave to fly to Santiago to begin updating Moon Handbooks Chile by next weekend.

The question is this: which current U.S. presidential candidate paid a visit to Chile's then-dictator General Augusto Pinochet in 1985? The individual in question also visited the farm of Marco Cariola, a former right-wing Senator, in Parque Nacional Puyehue. The trail to Volcán Puyehue, whose lush temperate rainforests were devastated by a spectacular 1960 eruption that left a desert of fumaroles (depicted here) on its shoulder, passes through Cariola's property. Cariola collects a toll for the privilege of accessing the volcano via his farm.

Please send your answer to the quiz to the email address in the header above. The first correct answer received will win the book, but previous quiz winners are ineligible.

I might add that some people might consider the title of this post misleading, as Parque Nacional Puyehue is part of the "lakes district," rather than Patagonia proper, but there's room for debate as to what constitutes Patagonia. In any event, for purely pragmatic purposes, Moon Handbooks Patagonia includes the lakes district, also known colloquially as the "Sur Chico" ("Lesser South").

Friday, October 31, 2008

Your Patagonian Hideaway

Six years ago, in the aftermath of Argentina's unprecedented economic collapse and a dramatically devalued peso, my wife and I bought an apartment in Palermo, one of Buenos Aires's finest neighborhoods. At the time, we thought it was a stretch for us but, with an inheritance and some equity in our California house, it was not out of reach. I don't want to broadcast what we paid for it but, in retrospect, we regret we didn't buy two.

Given the depressed peso, quite a few foreigners have bought into the Argentine real estate market since then, with greater or lesser success. I analyzed some of the rewards and pitfalls in Buenos Aires in an earlier post, but that dealt with existing housing. Getting something built can be another issue entirely, as my friend Patrick Symmes, author of Chasing Che, found when he set out to build his dream fishing cabin near the Patagonian town of Trevelin, in Chubut province.

In the course of researching his book on Che Guevara's 1950s motorcycle trip through the Americas, Patrick became enamored of the region - and who wouldn't, given landscapes like those of nearby Parque Nacional Los Alerces (pictured above)? The reality of getting his cabin built, though, was a real challenge, as he details in the October issue of Outside Magazine. Anybody considering a similarly adventurous project would do well to read his good-natured, but ultimately serious, account of his experience.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Mendoza's No. 10!

The November issue of National Geographic Traveler - for whom I am currently writing a new guidebook to Argentina that will come out next year - has just published its annual "destination scorecard" of historic places around the world. This index rates 109 places according to half a dozen criteria: 1) environmental and ecological quality; 2) social and cultural integrity; 3) condition of historic buildings and archaeological sites; 4) aesthetic appeal; 5) quality of tourism management; and 6) outlook for the future.

By these standards, Traveler places Argentina's "Mendoza Wine Estancias" as the tenth-best-rated of 109 destinations, "in excellent shape, relatively unspoiled, and likely to remain so." It describes the city of Mendoza, whose Plaza España is pictured here, as "a pleasant walking city with lots of cultural activities and nice parks," and notes an "amazing number of first-rate restaurants in both the city and countryside."

The wineries, meanwhile, come in for similar praise: "The green of the wine estates in the middle of the arid desert is moving. The people are very welcoming, excellent tourist information is available, accommodations range from boutique hotels to simple posadas." At the same time, the "View of the Andes is a great background to the wineries," as pictured here from Bodega Ruca Malén. For a more detailed description of an individual winery, see my Moon Handbooks account of Bodegas Salentein.

It's odd, though, that Traveler would describe these institutions as "wine estancias," when in fact they are wineries and vineyards. Widespread throughout Argentina, the estancia is normally a livestock ranch, for beef cattle in the Pampas heartland, and sheep for wool and meat in the Patagonian south. Aside from this odd use of the terminology, though, I concur with Traveler's opinion of Mendoza.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Air Antarctica

In 2004, I made my only visit ever to Antarctica with the Chilean operator Antarctica XXI. This was a "fly-cruise," including a three-hour flight from the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas, in which passengers landed at the Chilean base at King George Island (pictured here). We then walked from the airstrip to the shoreline to board the chartered Russian vessel Grigoriy Mikheev for a week exploring the Antarctic Peninsula and vicinity. For the 45 or so passengers, this saved a potentially gut-wrenching two-day crossing of the Drake Passage and, instead, let them enjoy sailing through the Peninsula's relatively sheltered waters.

According to Mercopress, citing the Punta Arenas daily La Prensa Austral, Chile will soon spend US$9 million to build a new Antarctic terminal at the city's international airport to "confirm Punta Arenas as the real door of access to Antarctica, a condition it disputes with neighbouring Ushuaia in Argentine Tierra del Fuego." While this might sound appealing, Ushuaia is likely to remain Antarctica's "home port" - according to my friend Jeff Rubin, editor of The Polar Times, upwards of 95 percent of Antarctic cruises now leave from Ushuaia. As Ushuaia's a day's sailing closer to Antarctica, Punta Arenas is unlikely to replace it, except for emergency services and the niche market of Antarctic air visitors.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Travel v. Crisis

Yesterday I got a note from the operator of a small tourist lodge in Tierra del Fuego asking me what I thought the impact of the current global economic crisis might be on this summer's season. On the surface, of course, it makes sense that people whose mutual funds have lost a third of their value might be reluctant to spend money traveling great distances but, at the same time, there's a certain logic in going against the grain. I'd never suggest that people should throw away their retirement funds on a two weeks' vacation but, just as investor Warren Buffett recently said he's moving his money into U.S. stocks because of the financial meltdown, international travelers may find they'll get more for their money in traveling to the Southern Cone countries.

That's partly because, against all odds, the U.S. dollar is actually strengthening against the currencies of Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, and there are other favorable signals as well. When I was last in Chile in April, the peso was at roughly 430 per dollar, and the 2000-peso banknote illustrated here was worth about US$4.65; last Friday, with the peso at 617 per dollar, that same banknote was only worth US$3.24. As in the stock market, there have been some fluctuations, but the bottom line is that the dollar is worth 30 percent more than in April.

The case is slightly different in Argentina. When I last wrote about the topic about a month ago, the Argentine peso was only slightly above three per dollar, but now it's above 3.2 per dollar. That's a devaluation of roughly seven percent, but inflation - official figures are unreliable - is likely to eat up most of those gains. In neighboring Uruguay, meanwhile, the peso has lost about 15 percent against the dollar since early September.

Another favorable circumstance is that foreign travelers do not pay Chile's 19 percent IVA (Value Added Tax, or VAT) on accommodations - thus reducing the cost of a US$100 hotel room to US$81, for instance. Uruguay already offers a partial IVA refund to foreign visitors who pay their restaurant bills with credit cards, and is considering expanding the measure.

Argentina, however, does not do this - in fact, as I mentioned in a recent post, foreigners often end up paying more than Argentines in many cases. In this regard, Argentina's pending imposition of reciprocity fees is a further step in the wrong direction unless accompanied by an IVA policy similar to Chile's that could cancel out the negative aspects. Otherwise, as a US correspondent noted in yesterday's Buenos Aires Herald, "even if tourism levels were unaffected, I would expect that aggregate visitor spending on restaurants, entertainment, hotels, etc. would decline by an amount approximating any visa fee increase."

I would go even further in suggesting that, if Argentina persists in its "reciprocity" folly, it might undercut the future for far longer than the current economic crisis. Many of today's backpackers, though their low budgets may make only a minor contribution to the travel and tourism sector at the moment, will eventually be affluent job holders. If a visa fee discourages them from visiting the country now, it'll never occur to them to think about coming back when they're prosperous heads of families.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Welcome to Argentina? The "Reciprocity" Conundrum

Nearly thirty years ago, when I first visited Argentina during the "Proceso" military dictatorship, an apparently drunken policeman in the Patagonian town of Puerto San Julián insisted in telling me how much he loved Americans. In those days, any such attention from an official figure made you uncomfortable and, as it turned out, the policeman in question was heavily medicated - having literally shot himself in the foot the day before.

Fortunately, Argentina is a stable democracy now, but that doesn’t mean the country doesn’t shoot itself in the foot sometimes. Earlier this week, interior minister Florencio Randazzo announced that the country would institute a “reciprocity fee” - similar to the one collected by neighboring Chile - on foreign tourists whose governments impose visa fees on Argentine citizens. This would mean, for instance, that US citizens entering Argentina would have to pay US$131 per person for the right to enter Argentina, while Canadians would pay even more. Australians and Mexicans will pay correspondingly less.

This is not unfair, of course. Not only do Argentines seeking tourist visas for the US need to pay the said fee, but they also have to provide bank statements and other supporting documentation to prove they have stable employment and resources for their trip, and that they will not overstay their welcome. An applicant from, say, the southern city of Ushuaia will have to fly four hours to Buenos Aires and then back for a perfunctory personal interview at the US consulate. If the visa is not granted, there is no refund. It’s no surprise that Argentines (and other foreigners) resent the expensive, laborious and almost humiliating process, and many of them consider the new measure long overdue.

On the other hand, Argentine tourism operators are up in arms, and rightly so. Their sector has boomed since the 2002 economic collapse made Argentina an affordable destination, but rising international airfares, high domestic inflation, and the deteriorating international economic environment have put their livelihoods - and that of all Argentines directly and indirectly involved in tourism - in peril. Today's Buenos Aires Herald editorializes that the government "now risks discouraging tourism during a global crisis when few enough people feel inclined to travel." The measure, adds the Herald, "is jeopardizing a tourist revenue of potentially billions for the sake of 40 million dollars," the estimated amount of revenue that it would raise.

A US family of four would thus pay more than US$500 additional in “reciprocity fees” for a two-week Argentine holiday, and may well decide to go elsewhere in the current economic crisis. According to Ricardo Roza, president of the Asociación Argentina de Agencias de Viajes y Turismo (Argentine Association of Travel and Tourism Agencies), “In addition to being inconvenient, [the measure] seems dubious and difficult to apply. The world economic crisis is already affecting the arrival of tourists. There’s no reason to impose any more obstacles. In reality, this will limit the country’s foreign exchange earnings.” Another private tourism official added that “This charge is punitive, a very inhospitable measure.”

Originally, it was announced that the measure would take effect on January 1, 2009, but there are rumors it may be postponed until March - which would at least give operators one less worry for the upcoming summer high season. The details are yet unclear as well - who will collect the fees and how? Chile, for instance, collects its reciprocity fee only at Santiago’s international airport, as it’s utterly impractical at some remote border posts, so that overland travelers are de facto exempt. Nor is the Argentine measure’s term of validity clear - in Chile, again, it’s valid for the lifetime of the passport, up to ten years.

Meanwhile, an apparently impulsive government decision threatens to undermine one of the Argentine economy’s most dynamic sectors. It's fair enough to open fire on a threatening enemy, but it's foolish to shoot your ally, and even more foolish to shoot yourself in the foot.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Mismarketing Argentina - the Disaster of Discriminatory Pricing

Six years ago, in 2002, I was preparing the first edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires in the midst of Argentina's dramatic economic and political meltdown. In the course of doing so, I paid a visit to a downtown hotel that had had the misfortune to reopen, at this worst possible time, as part of an international chain (not the Sheraton, pictured here). Given its location, barely a block from the chaos of the Plaza de Mayo, and the fact that tourism and business travel had come to a virtual halt, the hotel in question was nearly empty.

My story was that I was looking for a place to house my elderly parents, who were coming to visit, and that my small apartment did not have sufficient room for them, but my real purpose was to inspect the hotel anonymously. Normally I would expect the bellman to show me a room or two, and the hotel's common areas, but in this case I was asked to wait a few minutes as the concierge made a phone call. Imagine my surprise when the hotel manager emerged from her office to give me an exhaustive tour of the spectacularly recycled building, a neighborhood classic. Business was so slow that they had to put out every effort to attract even a single guest.

When I asked the price, the manager told me it was normally US$100 - in fairness, not an unreasonable price for a hotel of this standard in almost any country in the world - but, she added, "because you're living here, I can offer it for the 'local price'" of 100 pesos - closer to US$30. Today, following Argentina's recovery and persistent high inflation, rates at that same hotel start at US$150 plus taxes, and most rooms go for more.

This, however, was the first experience I had with "differential prices" which, over the last several years have become a plague and an excuse to rip off foreign tourists even as Argentine prices return to their pre-crisis levels, when the dollar and peso were one to one (at present, the dollar is slowly regaining strength against the Argentine currency). In March, the federal government finally acknowledged the problem by passing a Defensa del Consumidor (Defense of the Consumer) law that prohibits differential rates in hotels and other services, but the problem has not gone away. According to the Buenos Aires daily Clarín, in hotels, restaurants and taxis, services often continue to cost more to the client who's obviously foreign. In some extreme cases, advertised peso prices are claimed to be dollars or even euros - three or four times the true cost (Argentines also use the "$" symbol to denote pesos in everyday transactions).

One Recoleta artisan quoted by Clarín summed up the problem: "I charge whatever I want, because I'm the one who fixes the value of my labor." Caught giving a discount to an Argentine customer, though, he retorted that "The foreigner has more money than I do." In some cases, it's a little more subtle - when I went to dinner with my Argentine cousin and her husband in the Patagonian resort of El Calafate, for instance, a top restaurant gave us a 20 percent discount because they were locals (even though they're doing very well as freelance guides in Calafate's flourishing tourist economy).

The danger of all this, of course, is that foreigners will start to view Argentines as shameless opportunists who will do anything for a peso, dollar, or euro, and decide never to return - and to tell their friends not to bother going. For an individual or a business, overcharging a foreigner has short-term advantages; for the country as a whole, it could be disastrous. In general, prices are still reasonable, but Argentina doesn't need anything that would further erode its competitive advantage in the travel and tourism sector.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Planning for Patagonia

Usually, around this time time of year, I go on the road to help promote new editions of my guidebooks, and this year is no exception. Over the next month, I will be giving ten slide lectures to promote the new edition on Moon Handbooks Patagonia and, simultaneously, Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires (which includes excursions into the surrounding Pampas and coastal Uruguay). Attendees will be able to participate in a raffle for one free ticket to Santiago or Buenos Aires from any LAN Airlines gateway (New York, Miami, Los Angeles) in the U.S. or, presumably, Canada, as LAN has recently begun flights from Toronto to Santiago. Details are yet to be determined, but I will have more information soon and will explain them in person as well.

All talks will be followed by a question-and-answer period, plus some time to socialize with the author, bookstore priorities permitting. The dates are as follows (check each website for the exact time):

Thursday, October 2: Get Lost Books, San Francisco

Sunday, October 5: Village Books, Bellingham, Washington

Monday, October 6: Travel Bug, Vancouver BC

Tuesday, October 7: Wide World Books, Seattle

Thursday, October 9: REI, Saratoga, California

Tuesday, October 14: Idlewild Books, New York City

Wednesday, October 15: Geographical Society of Philadelphia

Thursday, October 16: Globe Corner Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts (note: event is not at the store itself, but at the nearby First Parish Church)

Tuesday, October 21: REI, Fremont, California

Monday, October 27: Distant Lands, Pasadena, California

Please also note that a few of these events are not yet up on their websites, but all of them are confirmed. Hope to see you there!

Friday, September 26, 2008

Tourism in a Very Small Place

Relatively few people have ever been to Easter Island - Rapa Nui to its indigenous Polynesian residents - but almost everybody knows something about it. Its enigmatic stone statues, made famous by Thor Heyerdahl (who asked big questions but got almost all the answers wrong), have become global icons. While the numbers who have seen them remain fairly small, tourism is growing every year as it gets easier to reach the island - in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, five hours from Santiago by jet - and the infrastructure mushrooms on a triangular land mass of only 171 square km (66 square miles), with a population of only about 4,000.

If the Chilean government has its druthers, the number of visitors (50,000 last year) may increase dramatically. According to the online Santiago Times, summarizing the Spanish-language original article in the Santiago daily El Mercurio, private investors and government are dedicating US$17 million to modernize the hospital, improve the airport, increase flights, and build even more hotel rooms (the island has about 1,500 beds in accommodations that range from simple B&Bs to Explora's all inclusive Posada de Mike Rapu). This amounts to more than US$4,000 for every man, woman, and child.

What's really startling is that an island that as recently as 2004 received only 24,000 visitors may get 200,000 by the year 2020. This could seriously stress natural resources - Rapa Nui has no potable surface water, for instance, and no easy options for solid waste disposal - on an island whose history has proven its vulnerability to environmental disruption.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The Pesos of Summer

Last April, as I flew from Santiago back to California, the Chilean peso stood at roughly 430 pesos per dollar, as tourism operators, fruit exporters, wine producers and others moaned that that the strong currency was undercutting their export-oriented industries. Around that time, I noted, UCLA economist Sebastián Edwards was predicting that the overvalued peso would reach an equilibrium of about 535 to 545 per dollar, thanks in part to central bank purchases. In turns out that Edwards was almost spot on - even after the US financial bailout crisis caused a 13-peso drop from last Friday's rate, this morning's peso stood at exactly 535.

Meanwhile, last week, Argentina's central bank had to sell off dollars to keep their peso from plunging against US currency, but the exchange rate has still fallen from 3.05 to 3.13 per dollar, even as the Buenos Aires Herald notes, in an editorial today, that "it is a supreme irony that so many people are flocking to buy dollars when they are the currency of crisis." In such a volatile international economic environment, it's hard to make any predictions but, given Argentina's inflation problems, about which I wrote in an earlier post, it's a good bet that Argentine prices will continue to rise - even though President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner appears to have finally acknowledged that a weak peso fuels inflation.

For the moment, Chile seems to have gained some competitive advantage with its devaluation but, given Argentina's volatile economic history, anything could happen there. The question is whether, in the aftermath of the US financial meltdown, many travelers will feel able to take advantage of two countries that, by most standards, are still affordable destinations for the upcoming southern summer.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Argentina's Red Deserts

Nearly two weeks ago, in the New York Times, there was a brief mention of northwestern Argentina, an area that gets plenty of European visitors but relatively few North Americans - despite its remarkable resemblance to the Four Corners area of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. The author of the article actually consults with Ian Mount, a U.S. journalist who writes the excellent Buenos Aires blog Good Airs. Ian, whom I've never met though he lives only a few blocks from me in Buenos Aires - somehow our schedules have never meshed - has some good suggestions including a visit to Estancia Colomé (pictured here) near the town of Molinos, in Salta province. If staying at Colomé is beyond your budget, it's still worth a detour to sample their outstanding wines.

Ian also mentions, as I would, that travel in this region is far more reliable by overnight buses than by air, as Aerolíneas Argentinas is still going through an awkward transition to state ownership. Flights are few to the northwest, so if you miss you'll likely have to wait an entire day for the next.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Chaitén Update

The other day, without concrete information, I speculated that the northernmost stretch of the Carretera Austral, from Chaitén south perhaps to the Futaleuf´turnoff, might be closed for upcoming season after the massive ashfall on Chaitén. This would have necessitated long detours through Argentina or a ferry to Puerto Chacabuco for travelers on the Carretera Austral, but a reader from Punta Arenas has informed me that ferries are presently operating from Puerto Montt to Chaitén. I had tried to verify this with Naviera Austral by phone, but was unable to contact them until today, when they informed me that ferries are sailing Tuesday, Thursday and Friday from Puerto Montt.

That does not mean, however, that travelers will be able to stay in Chaitén, which is still under tons of ash (as pictured here). Motorists will have to continue immediately and carry enough fuel to reach the town of La Junta, about 150 km (90 miles) south (where the next gas station is). According to my Punta Arenas reader, cyclists and pedestrians will not be permitted on the ferry, but the Naviera Austral office told me they would be. In any event, it looks as if disruptions along the highway will be minimal for the upcoming season.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Rebuilding Chaitén, Rescuing the Fu

As the southern hemisphere spring approaches, the Chilean town of Chaitén remains off limits after the eruption of its namesake volcano in May, and that is likely to affect travel along the northern Carretera Austral for the entire season. Still under tons of ash, most of its buildings severely damaged by flood (as pictured here), the town seems unlikely to be rebuilt at its present location.

Under normal circumstances, Chaitén is the port for auto/passenger ferries from Puerto Montt and the island of Chiloé but, given the volcano's continuing activity and the massive cleanup still necessary, it seems equally improbable that ferry service will be available this season except for the Navimag ferries from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco. This, of course, deposits travelers at the highway's approximate midpoint, so that it will be impossible to travel the length of the Carretera Austral without backtracking or, alternatively, entering via the Argentine province of Chubut to Futaleufú.

Futaleufú, of course, has its own problems. While not so directly affected by the volcano, it lay in the path of prevailing westerlies that deposited huge amounts of ash even though the town was not completely evacuated. A recent photo essay in the Buenos Aires daily Clarín depicts the accumulations of ash, the need for masks and even respirators to venture outside, and the impact on domestic animals, whose feed and water have been contaminated.

Futaleufú, of course, takes its name from the Río Futaleufú, one of the world's top whitewater rivers, and several international adventure travel companies have camps for rafters and kayakers in the vicinity. In last month's National Geographic Adventure, Jon Bowermaster summarizes the situation in an ecological and economic context in which Chile, a country dependent on mining and desperate for non-petroleum sources of energy, could use the image of a destroyed ecosystem to justify a huge hydroelectric project - similar to the one that drowned the legendary Río Biobío in the 1990s.

Ecosystems, though, can be resilient, and recovery from the 1994 eruption of Volcán Hudson, near the town of Chile Chico south of Coyhaique, was surprisingly quick. Bowermaster quotes whitewater operator Eric Hertz, of Earth River Expeditions, to the effect that if the 4,000 anticipated rafters and kayakers don't show, the "confusion over the river’s actual condition 'will have done a lot more damage to the area than the volcano.'"

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

The Tango Report

Last February, I wrote about the shifting of Buenos Aires's Festival de Tango to August, creating a "tango month" if you will, with the Mundial de Tango (World Tango Championships) following almost immediately. I wasn't able to go to Buenos Aires this month, but my friend Patricia Thaxter, who lives in BA and brings tango enthusiasts to the city through her Infusions Travel, has sent me a short report from which I will quote liberally.

According to Patricia, Sunday (August 31) "was the last day of the Campeonato; this year they had the two events back to back and at the same place...the exhibits and most activities were at Harrod's, the old department store building on Florida. It was actually a very nice venue, with wooden dance floors. All events there were free. Ariana and I got there just in time to watch an old 40´s movie (b&w) called El Tango Vuelve a Paris, with a famous singer, Rinaldi, and a famous bandoneon player, Anibal Troilo, who later formed his own, very famous tango orchestra. One of our friends who had a booth there said more people attended the festival week than the campeonato week. When we got there about 3pm it wasn´t crowded at all, but by 7pm when we came out of the movie, the place was packed!! There was tango dancing everywhere, in every spot where there was a wooden floor, and then a tango orchestra began playing and they had two couples dancing, the campeonato winners of tango salon of last year and then the ones that won this year! It was too crowded however to properly watch, so I only caught a few glimpses."

Patricia is mistaken about the tango singer, as an Argentine movie data base I consulted shows him to be Alberto Castillo (1914-2002). She is correct about Troilo, however.

Personally, I have been to the Festival de Tango several times and enjoy the diversity of both its participatory and spectator events. It's always struck me as odd, though, to have tango championships - as if they were like a soccer match, even if we acknowledge that some dancers are better than others. In my opinion, the festival should move back to February - when outdoor events are much easier to stage - to spread the tango wealth around the year. I like seeing performers like the casual street orchestra La Furca (pictured above).

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Flying to Santiago - and Onward?

We have a winner in the giveaway for the two LAN tickets to Santiago in September, but I had been slow to post it because the original quiz winner was unable to fit his schedule to the limited time frame we had. The runner-up was Gabriel Brammer, an astronomy student presently in Santiago, who is using the tickets to fly his father and uncle to Chile. I will be holding more quizzes in the future, but there's no guarantee I'll be able to offer such a generous prize very often - more than likely it'll be one of my guidebooks.

Many Chileans, meanwhile, may be spending their September patriotic holidays on the other side of the Andes. In today's El Mercurio, Buenos Aires-based Chilean journalist Juan Carlos Meneses offers a guide on what to see and do in BA over the four-day Chilean weekend - and suggests that this new tradition, dating from Argentina's 2001 collapse, "is not antipatriotic." For more on the topic of Chileans spending their holidays in Argentina, see my earlier post on the border city of Mendoza.

Tango, theater, soccer, and cinema are all among the highlights, but it's a safe bet that many Chileans - notorious power shoppers - will spend much of their time malls like the recycled Galerías Pacífico. Here, at least, they'll be able to absorb some culture with their shopping, through the landmark murals that cover its central cupola (pictured here).

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Buenos Aires is Cheap?

According to the international consultancy group Mercer, as quoted in Mercopress Noticias, Buenos Aires is getting more expensive for foreigners. That's no surprise - anyone who's spent any time in town the last couple years can tell you that hotels, restaurants, taxis, fuel prices, and other services are all rising rapidly. What's surprising is that Mercer, whose annual cost of living survey for expatriates around the world appears only in part on their website, says that Buenos Aires still ranks 138th out of 143 cities worldwide, making it nearly the cheapest major city in the world (Asunción, in neighboring Paraguay, is the cheapest). The most expensive is Moscow, and São Paulo (25th) is the most expensive in South America.

According to Mercer, the weak dollar partially accounts for increasing costs, but the dollar has been holding its own against the Argentine currency, at just over three pesos per dollar. In reality, domestic inflation that most independent economists calculate around 20 percent (as opposed to government statistics that insist on six or seven percent) is the major factor here. And that makes it hard to believe that Buenos Aires - despite Mercer's assertions - ranks where it does. Having spent extended periods in both Santiago (Chile) and Montevideo (Uruguay) earlier this year, I find it implausible that either of those cities is significantly more expensive than Buenos Aires.

Friday, August 29, 2008

Puerto Madero's Bridge to the Future

One highlight of the Buenos Aires revival has been the reclamation of Puerto Madero, the riverside docklands that was shuttered by the military dictatorship of 1976-83. Since the 1990s, the red brick warehouses that stood empty for decades have come to house lofts, restaurants, shops and offices, its waterfront promenade is a favorite with pedestrians (part of the highly entertaining con-man film Nine Queens was shot here), and a former rubbish dump has become a haven for hikers, cyclists, and wildlife.

New high-rises are also making Puerto Madero one of the costliest and exclusive barrios in the city, but its open spaces make it an inviting destination for porteños of all social and economic classes. One of its welcoming symbols is Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava's Puente de la Mujer, a pedestrian suspension bridge that swings open to allow the passage of yachts and other vessels between the northernmost basins of the old port area. This week's New Yorker magazine contains a lengthy profile of Calatrava that's must reading for anyone interested in its background, though the bridge itself gets only a brief mention.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

It's the Huaso

At Chile's mid-September independence days, the huaso - Chile's rough equivalent of the Argentine gaucho - is a presence even on metropolitan Santiago's Plaza de Armas, as pictured here. Like the gaucho, today's huaso is more symbol than reality, but still a cornerstone of Chilean identity.

In response to Monday's quiz, I had half a dozen correct responses and, unfortunately, the first correct answerer was unable to take advantage of the trip to Santiago. Thus I've kept a list of runners-up and, if the second person I've contacted can't take advantage of the free flights to Santiago, I'll move on to the next one. It would be a shame if the tickets had to go to waste so, if you answered the quiz, check your mailbox regularly to see if your position has improved.

Monday, August 25, 2008

September in Chile Could Be Yours

Thursday September 18 is Chile's independence day, Friday the 19th is Armed Forces Day, and with the ensuing weekend this will mean a four-day celebration of Chile's nationhood in anticipation of the 2010 bicentennial. For most Chileans it will mean dancing cueca, gobbling empanadas at free-standing fondas in the parks, sipping non-alcoholic mote con huesillo (a drink of barleycorns and dried peaches) , and quaffing chicha (a mildly alcoholic drink fermented from apples or grapes). Symbols of Chilean identity are everywhere.

Being There! - or, Your Chance to Attend
As it happens, I have two standby tickets to Santiago on LAN Airlines, expiring at the end of September, that I will be unable to use. Thus I am holding a contest in which the prize is greater than the guidebooks I've offered before - the winner will get two round-trip tickets from any of LAN's U.S. gateways (New York, Miami, or Los Angeles) to Santiago.

There are some conditions: the principal one is that round-trip travel must be completed by the end of September. Second, it also depends on space available, so the winner may need some flexibility in travel dates. Third, it does not include airport taxes or the Chilean arrival tax. If you can meet those conditions, please answer the question in the following section.

Question of the Day!
In neighboring Argentina, the gaucho is a national symbol, but Chile has its own iconic horseman (two of whom are pictured here at a rodeo in the southern town of Palena). The question is simple: what is the Spanish word for Chile's counterpart to the gaucho?

The first correct answer sent to my email in the header above will win the tickets. In this case, previous quiz winners are eligible, as I want a winner as quickly as possible. If nobody uses them, the tickets simply expire.

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Rebuilding Chaitén, Rescuing the Fu

As the southern hemisphere spring approaches, the Chilean town of Chaitén remains off limits after the eruption of its namesake volcano in May, and that is likely to affect travel along the northern Carretera Austral for the entire season. Still under tons of ash, most of its buildings severely damaged by flood (as pictured here), the town seems unlikely to be rebuilt at its present location.

Under normal circumstances, Chaitén is the port for auto/passenger ferries from Puerto Montt and the island of Chiloé but, given the volcano's continuing activity and the massive cleanup still necessary, it seems equally improbable that ferry service will be available this season except for the Navimag ferries from Puerto Montt to Puerto Chacabuco. This, of course, deposits travelers at the highway's approximate midpoint, so that it will be impossible to travel the length of the Carretera Austral without backtracking or, alternatively, entering via the Argentine province of Chubut to Futaleufú.

Futaleufú, of course, has its own problems. While not so directly affected by the volcano, it lay in the path of prevailing westerlies that deposited huge amounts of ash even though the town was not completely evacuated. A recent photo essay in the Buenos Aires daily Clarín depicts the accumulations of ash, the need for masks and even respirators to venture outside, and the impact on domestic animals, whose feed and water have been contaminated.

Futaleufú, of course, takes its name from the Río Futaleufú, one of the world's top whitewater rivers, and several international adventure travel companies have camps for rafters and kayakers in the vicinity. In last month's National Geographic Adventure, Jon Bowermaster summarizes the situation in an ecological and economic context in which Chile, a country dependent on mining and desperate for non-petroleum sources of energy, could use the image of a destroyed ecosystem to justify a huge hydroelectric project - similar to the one that drowned the legendary Río Biobío in the 1990s.

Ecosystems, though, can be resilient, and recovery from the 1994 eruption of Volcán Hudson, near the town of Chile Chico south of Coyhaique, was surprisingly quick. Bowermaster quotes whitewater operator Eric Hertz, of Earth River Expeditions, to the effect that if the 4,000 anticipated rafters and kayakers don't show, the "confusion over the river’s actual condition 'will have done a lot more damage to the area than the volcano.'"
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