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").
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