Thursday, July 31, 2008

Aerolíneas by the Numbers

Everyone knows Aerolíneas Argentinas has serious problems, but now we have statistical confirmation of it. Until yesterday, I had never heard of the Asociación Argentina de Derecho de Turismo (AADETUR, Argentine Association of Tourism Law), a self-described travel consumer advocate, but it's published an interesting study of airline arrivals and departures. Unfortunately for English monolinguals, it's in Spanish only, but its tables are pretty easy to follow.

Not all of the study is online, but other parts appear in an article in yesterday's Clarín. Last year, only 24 percent of Aerolíneas flights departed on time, compared with 73 percent for LAN Argentina, though it's fair to add that Aerolíneas has much more extensive routes. Still, given the fact that Aerolíneas' delays often affect other airlines, it's remarkable that LAN could maintain its schedules in such a timely manner.

So far this year, Aerolíneas has almost doubled its ontime record, but it's barely half the flights and, after a shaky start to the winter holidays, that figure might drop dramatically. On the other hand, AADETUR ranks Aerolíneas and its domestic affiliate Austral as 81st and 82nd of 90 airlines around the world in ontime performance. Only a few airlines ranked worse, and most of those came from countries such Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Libya and Algeria.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Waiting for the Colectivo

Coming from the United States, where public transportation often keeps limited hours even where it's supposedly the best in the country, I've always appreciated that in Buenos Aires, I can walk out onto the street at 3 a.m. or later and, in no more than a few minutes, be riding back to Palermo on a reasonably comfortable colectivo (city bus). Despite late hours, through nearly 30 years I've never felt threatened or even uncomfortable aboard a colectivo (except when they've been so crowded it's almost impossible to move, but that rarely happens at non-peak hours).

These past several days, though, there's been no night bus service since the Thursday stabbing murder of a driver on the No. 96 bus in the provincial suburb of González Catán, a route that starts from the city neighborhood of Constitución. Demanding better security, drivers from the UTA transportation union have stopped service between 10 p.m. and 3:30 p.m., with no suggestion when they may lift the strike.

Bus routes in Buenos Aires, like that of the No. 15 bus pictured here, tend to be very long ones from the central city to the suburbs; in this case, it's a roughly 50-kilometer route that, in heavy city traffic, can take more than two hours in each direction. Unlike in much of North America, though, travel through the prosperous city tends to be safer than in the suburbs, which have many marginal shantytowns. This is what the UTA drivers see as risky, and they are appealing to provincial Governor Daniel Scioli for help.

For my part, I rarely take city buses to distant suburbs, and few other visitors should find it risky once nighttime service resumes. That doesn't mean the city is crime-free, but it won't deter me from taking the bus at any hour.

Meanwhile, as Argentines start their winter vacations, there's chaos at the city airport of Aeroparque and international airport at Ezeiza. According to the daily Clarín, more than 60 percent of flights from Aeroparque have departed late in the last 72 hours; several delays exceeded 12 hours. Most of the problems are with the recently nationalized Aerolíneas Argentinas and its close affiliate Austral, and whether they'll improve by the coming summer season is the looming question.

By then, though, you should at least be able to get a bus to the airport.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Rallying for the Atacama

Last January, organizers of the famous Paris-Dakar Rally canceled their 2008 event after the apparently Al-Qaeda linked murder of a French family in the West African country of Mauritania the month before. The Rally, which was to spend eight days in Mauritania, seemed too vulnerable to terrorist violence, and plans have been made to move the 2009 event to Argentina and Chile.

Thirty years ago, with both countries under stern military dictatorships, this might have seemed improbable, though Argentina did host soccer's 1978 World Cup (and won it, even as political activists and many innocents disappeared off the streets of Buenos Aires and other Argentine cities). But today, southern South America is a safe place to travel, and the Rally will start in Buenos Aires on January 3 and end there January 18.

The route will head south to Puerto Madryn, cross the Patagonian steppe to Ingeniero Jacobacci and Neuquén, then head north to San Rafael and Mendoza before crossing the Andes to Valparaíso. It will then head north to La Serena and Copiapó before recrossing the Andes to the Argentine cities of La Rioja and Córdoba, then back to Buenos Aires.

Not everyone is happy with the Rally, which encourages off-road vehicle travel that can be environmentally devastating. In Chile's far north, for instance, motorcycle vandals have fishtailed up geoglyph-covered hillsides to damage pre-Columbian archaeological sites (similar to the Pintados site, in the Pampa del Tamarugal, pictured here). In that context, some Chilean public officials and environmental advocates have expressed concern about the Atacama Desert's "Flowering Desert," which I described in an earlier post on the Llanos de Challe.

According to the online Santiago Times (subscription only) via Mercopress, the environmental NGO Fundación Terram and several regional politicians have argued that the Rally is a one-time publicity bonanza likely to damage the long-term appeal of the flowering desert, which draws thousands of spontaneous visitors to the area whenever rare rains arouse the dormant seeds that lie beneath its surface. The organizers seem so devoid of environmental awareness that their website suggests that participants will have a chance to see Emperor penguins - which only occupy the remotest parts of Antarctica, several thousand miles to the south.

In a time of declining oil supplies and global warming, any event that promotes fossil fuel wastage is dubious and, if the event must take place, both countries should ensure that it never happens again. If there's a positive side to it, it's that, for once, Argentina and Chile appear to be cooperating in the travel and tourism sector. Both countries can benefit by working to make the region more tourist-friendly, and cross-border services simpler.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Valparaíso Rises to a Challenge

According to the online Santiago Times (subscription only), the World Heritage port of Valparaíso will soon repair and restore five municipal ascensores (funiculars) that still operate in the city. Along with ten privately operated funiculars, they carry three million passengers per annum, with 10,000 regular users, between Valparaíso's commercial/financial sector and the hills neighborhoods.

All the funiculars date from the late 19th or early 20th century. At one time, more than 30 of them carried up to 13 million passengers per annum. Today, most of those are only inconspicuous, weed-covered wrecks, but the surviving ones are also tourist attractions similar to San Francisco's cable cars. Upgrading them will not be cheap: The 40-meter Ascensor Reina Victoria (pictured here, with its 57-degree gradient) will have a budget of US$160,042, with work to be finished in 165 days. The city is encouraging the private owners of the other ten to reinvest some of their earnings in the interests of safety and tourist appeal, but so far only Ascensor Concepción - in a prime tourist neighborhood - has plans to do so. For what it's worth, I've never heard of an accident on any of them.

There is one potential pitfall. It would be a shame if, in the process of preservation, the ascensores became nothing more than mobile museum pieces - like their San Francisco counterparts.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Getting Off the Ground in Argentina

Flying anywhere in Argentina is difficult without passing through Buenos Aires, the hub for almost all air services, so it's often necessary to backtrack to the capital to make connections. There are no direct flights between the provincial capitals of Salta and Mendoza, for instance, so it's obligatory to change planes at Aeroparque Jorge Newbery. This would be roughly comparable to flying between San Francisco and San Diego via Denver.

That's why it was interesting when last Friday morning, at 6:35 a.m., I received an email from the city tourism office of Puerto Madryn, in Argentine Patagonia, that Andes Líneas Aéreas was about to start flights to and from the city of Esquel, that morning. Such a route would make it easy to travel between wildlife-rich Península Valdés, near Madryn, and Parque Nacional Los Alerces, near Esquel (which also has a fine ski area just minutes from town).

Meanwhile, Spanish-controlled Aerolíneas Argentinas, with 80 percent of the domestic air market, is about to be renationalized, though there's speculation it may then be resold to Argentine interests. According to the Buenos Aires Herald, many Aerolíneas difficulties "stem from union mischief and state interference — domestic fares have not been allowed to keep pace with costs and fuel subsidies have faltered despite soaring world oil prices." With a workforce allegedly a third larger than it needs, it's hard to see how the Aerolíneas money-pit might be attractive to serious investors, and how service might possibly improve this coming season.

LAN Argentina, the domestic affiliate of Chile's efficiently run LAN Airlines, has taken up some of Aerolíneas slack, but precariously funded smaller airlines often come and go, with erratic service. At 9:09 a.m. that same morning, I received a followup email from Puerto Madryn stating that "due to circumstances beyond our control," the inaugural flight to Esquel would be suspended until Monday, July 21.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Laughing at Repression

Nearly thirty years ago, when I first visited Chile, most of South America languished under repressive dictatorships, the most notorious of which was General Augusto Pinochet's. It was durable, lasting from 1973 to 1989, and his influence has lasted much longer. The impending publication of The Dictator's Shadow: Life Under Augusto Pinochet, by Chile's United Nations Ambassador Heraldo Muñoz, of which I have a review copy, has me reflecting on my travels then.

Muñoz, who worked in Salvador Allende's government until its overthrow by Pinochet and accomplices, also helped President Ricardo Lagos resist Bush administration pressures to participate in the Iraq debacle. At the same time, Muñoz worked hard to enforce sanctions against Al Qaeda.

At the time I traveled to Chile, in 1979, ideological purists often argued that to do so was tantamount to approval of the dictatorship. Such moral absolutism has a certain appeal - there may be parallels with contemporary Burma - but I finally decided that traveling anywhere involves compromises, and that I would learn more by experiencing Chile than avoiding it, especially as I was about to start grad school in Geography at Berkeley. I later spent most of a year in Chile's far north altiplano while researching my M.A. thesis on traditional llama/alpaca pastoralism in Lauca National Park (pictured here), in the highlands along the Bolivian border. I've never regretted going.

Pinochet also fancied himself a geographer, once taught at Santiago's Escuela Militar (War College), and even wrote a textbook called Geopolítica (Geopolitics), which I have never seen. Thus I had to laugh out loud when I read Muñoz's comment that Pinochet's book "contains a map of the United States...that situates its capital in the Pacific Northwest, revealing the author's apparent confusion between the city of Washington, D.C., and the state of Washington."

In the course of my own time in Pinochet's Chile, I made many friends with whom I am still in frequent contact, and that gave me insights into life under a dictatorship that I might never have otherwise appreciated. Privately, for instance, many Chileans told Pinochet jokes, but the punch line was often at the expense of Carabineros police chief César Mendoza, a junior junta member who was widely regarded as a buffoon. Even in private, Pinochet could be a little too hot to handle directly.

One of my favorites, which says something about Pinochet's character, starts with Mendoza sitting in his office beneath a portrait of Chilean independence hero Bernardo O'Higgins. O'Higgins suddenly comes alive and issues an order: "Mendoza, this country's in bad shape. I want out. Bring me a horse!" Running to Pinochet's office, the stunned Mendoza stutters that "General, O'Higgins s-s-s-spoke to m-m-m-me!" Pinochet tries to brush him off, but the insistent Mendoza finally persuades him to take a look. As they enter Mendoza's office, O'Higgins speaks again: "Ay, Mendoza! I said a horse, not a burro!"

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Sardinia for Lunch

Argentina may be famous for beef, but the millions of Italian immigrants who surged into the country from the late 19th to the mid-20th centuries have left at least as strong an imprint on the cuisine. By some estimates, Buenos Aires has 4,000 pizzerias, and pastas are an almost daily presence on both restaurant and household menus.

Because I am not a specialist food writer who can make multiple visits before writing a review, and because of space limitations in a paperback guidebook, I normally can't give individual restaurants the attention that a newspaper or magazine food writer can. Still, in the course of researching and writing guidebooks, spending five months every year in southern South America, I eat out frequently and am always on the lookout for novelties.

Earlier this year in Palermo, I found an uncommon alternative to standard Italo-Argentine food in the Sardinian restaurant Sa Giara (pictured here), which gets an endorsement in the upcoming third edition of Moon Handbooks Buenos Aires. I also suggested it to Dan Perlman, who operates Barrio Norte's Casa Salt Shaker "closed doors" restaurant and writes an exceptional Buenos Aires food blog in which he reviews Sa Giara today. I was pleased Dan concurred with my recommendation, but I'll defer to him as the most authoritative source on dining out in BA, even if we have occasional differences of opinion.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Ticket to Rise

According to Friday's Clarín, the price of a Buenos Aires taxi ride has once again risen. The basic fare will now be 3.80 pesos (about US$1.25), plus 38 centavos for every 100 meters. By international standards, this is still pretty cheap, so it's not likely to deter tourists from taking cabs around town. Yet it's worth noting that this represents an increase of 46 percent since last November, when the basic fare rose from 2.60 to 3.10 pesos.

In that context, the fare increase is symptomatic of an inflation that the current edition of The Economist suggests is a spreading phenomenon throughout Latin America. In Buenos Aires, employees of the state statistics agency INDEC (pictured here) protested earlier this year against alleged government interference in inflation figures, which many independent economics think are double the nine to ten percent the administration admits.

Whether or not that's the case, taxi fares have clearly risen even more, but some services may have improved. Perhaps, if you're stalled in the city's hellacious traffic, and slowed by political protests, potholes, and malfunctioning traffic signals, you might at least be able to watch the latest cartoons on taxi TV.

You could do a lot worse. Last week we rented the 1998 film Pizza, Birra, Faso, co-directed by Adrián Caetano and Bruno Stagnaro, the story of a pack of unemployed punks who collude with a taxi driver to rob his passengers. This shows the dark side of the city and, while I'm sure this sort of crime is far less frequent than hysterical news reports sometimes suggest, I never neglect to lock the doors after boarding a cab.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Will Argentina Be Grounded?

For domestic flights, Buenos Aires's Aeroparque Jorge Newbery (pictured here) is one of the world's most convenient big city airports, only ten minutes from our Palermo apartment and not much farther from most other parts of the city (its major disadvantage is the noise it generates, though we don't much notice it since installing double-paned windows). But that convenience won't mean much if the disorder within Aerolíneas Argentinas continues or, Darwin forbid, gets even worse.

According to an editorial in today's Buenos Aires Herald, the government is trying to force out the Spanish Marsans group in favor of Argentine investors. Marsans's management certainly deserves criticism, but government price controls (especially given rising fuel costs) and ongoing labor problems (money-losing Aerolíneas owes mid-year bonuses to 9,000 employees) have made the airline an increasingly unprofitable venture. The question is whether any Argentine investors will step up or the airline will be re-nationalized - perhaps the least desirable option of all, given its record under previous state ownership. In such a "survival of the unfittest," both Argentine fliers and foreign tourists could be in for a trying season.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Opportunity on Ice?

Yesterday at 11:20 a.m., Argentine time, the last remnants of the ice bridge connecting the Perito Moreno glacier to the mainland collapsed, and a torrent of ice and water streamed into Lago Argentino. Unfortunately, the website that was to bring the live event to the world seems to have dropped the ball or, worse, taken the ball home and hidden it. For much of yesterday and the day before, a site message said that bad weather prevented live feeds, despite reports of clear skies; since the rupture occurred, the site only links to poor-quality videos of an uncertain age, and they are obviously not of yesterday's event. I've contacted a friend in the provincial tourism office for an explanation, but haven't heard anything back yet.

This sort of situation brings out the cynicism and paranoia in Argentines. On the website of the Buenos Aires daily La Nación, reader comments included speculation that the footage was given exclusively to national government cronies. Admittedly, the right-of-center La Nación is no friend of the government, especially in the current confrontation with farmers over export taxes, but its webmaster deleted so many comments that one can only imagine how intemperate those might have been. One sarcastic commentator said that "The glacier's collapse left the president without any excuse to fly to Calafate - which is what she'd rather do when there are clouds on the horizon." The deleted comments were presumably far harsher, and probably even more personal, than that.

The Santa Cruz province tourism website does post several articles on the glacier's rupture, but does not translate them into English or any other language (though the rest of the site has English, German, Italian and French options). The Secretaría Nacional de Turismo, in charge of promoting Argentina around the world, makes no mention of the event.

This was a spectacular opportunity to promote the Moreno Glacier and Argentina to the world at large. Unfortunately, with everyone seemingly making the worst of a good situation, that opportunity may have been lost.

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Live Ice

As the rupture of the Moreno Glacier approaches, the Santa Cruz provincial government has installed a live web cam so that spectators around the world can watch the event live. According to the daily Clarín, provincial authorities are asking airlines to add flights to El Calafate from the country's principal cities but, given the shaky logistics of Argentine air travel, this seems improbable.

Meanwhile, Wednesday (July 9) is Argentina's Independence Day. After observing the event at Tucumán's Casa de la Independencia (pictured here), President Cristina Fernández is expected to fly to El Calafate to witness the rupture, presuming it hasn't already happened. That's apparently a higher priority than any compromise with Argentine farmers who object to government export duties; her frosty attitude toward them has stalled efforts to repair a different sort of rupture - a political problem that needs a conciliatory solution.

Monday, July 7, 2008

As the Water Rises, the Glacier's Gonna Burst

One of the world's great natural spectacles is the rupture of Argentina's Perito Moreno glacier, which happens after the moving ice blocks the Brazo Rico (Rico Arm) of Lago Argentino, in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. Water builds up behind this natural "dam" until the ice can no longer hold the weight of the water behind it, and it explodes in a rush of ice and water toward the main glacial trough.

This happened 15 times in the 20th century, and most recently in 2004, when I missed it by just a couple days. It's always been a summer event, as optimum seasonal temperatures presumably weaken the ice, but authorities are expecting the glacier's first winter rupture at any time. Today I hope to consult a climatologist friend, who's worked on the glacier, to get his take on any link to global warming.

Only a handful of visitors, about 400, are on the scene, compared with the many thousands who visit the park every summer. There's a good report, with video footage, at the website of the Buenos Aires daily Clarín.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Putting the Gloves On, Taking Them Back Off

Boxing may be a declining sport, but boxers have long been cultural icons in Argentina. It all started with heavyweight Luis Ángel Firpo, the "Wild Bull of the Pampas," who knocked Jack Dempsey out of the Madison Square Garden ring in 1923, as depicted by artist George Bellows at the time. The first reports of Firpo's punch triggered euphoria in the streets of Buenos Aires but, unfortunately for Firpo, Dempsey recovered to score a second-round KO. Firpo still became a legend and, with the help of his wealthy patron Félix Bunge, the working-class kid even managed to finagle a niche in Buenos Aires's elite Recoleta Cemetery.

Other Argentine boxers may have had greater success in the ring, but had worse luck - or self-imposed misfortune - outside it. High-living heavyweight Oscar Bonavena contended for the title against both Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, but died from a gunshot wound at Nevada's notorious Mustang Ranch brothel in 1976. Light heavyweight champion Víctor Galíndez retired from the sport after suffering two detached retinas; switching to stock-car racing, he died in 1980 when struck by another vehicle as he waited in the repair pit. Imprisoned for killing his second wife, former world middleweight champion Carlos Monzón executed his own death sentence in an automobile accident while on furlough in 1995.

Argentine boxing may be making a comeback, though, as the flamboyant U.S. promoter Don King visited Buenos Aires this week to watch Hugo Garay defeat the Ukrainian Yuri Barashian for the light heavyweight title. King, in a TV interview at the first link in this paragraph, spoke highly of Galíndez. As his own career advances, Garay may want to ponder the fate of his predecessors.

Last night's fight took place at Luna Park, a landmark covered stadium seating some 8,000 people. It also hosts an extensive calendar of concerts, basketball games and other events; international performers who have played here include Frank Sinatra, James Brown, Luciano Pavarotti and many others.

At Luna Park, more than 2,500 porteños paid 50 centavos admission each to listen to the Dempsey-Firpo fight - such broadcasts were a novelty in the 1920s. Later, in 1944, Eva Duarte maneuvered to meet Juan Perón at a political meeting here, and the rest is history. "Evita" may not have been a boxer, but she certainly became a fighter.
Custom Search