Monday, March 30, 2009

Che Guevara Slept Here!

For four nights, in 1952, Ernesto Guevara Lynch and his buddy Alberto Granados crashed on hay bales in the national parks barn in the city of San Martín de los Andes, in Neuquén province. This was the trip that led to the book now immortalized in the film The Motorcycle Diaries, during which Guevara and Granados traveled as gasoleros - a modern Argentine slang term that means doing as much as possible as cheaply as possible. The term derives from “gas-oil,” as Argentines call diesel fuel, which is much cheaper than gasoline here.

And that, apparently, is reason enough to turn the barn into an interactive museum, with assistance from Cuba’s Instituto de Estudios Che Guevara, complete with video footage of Che’s career and a shop at which it’s possible to purchase Che souvenirs, including his books and those of his admirers. The museum opened last June, and I visited it just this last Thursday.

In fact, the Museo La Pastera Che Guevara is more a shrine than a museum; neutral biographers, such as Jon Lee Anderson and Jorge Castañeda, are nowhere to be found on the shop’s shelves (you’d be about as likely to find books by Richard Dawkins alongside the Bible at an evangelical church). In fact, if there’s a museum to be founded everywhere Guevara and Granados crashed for the night, we should be prepared for a near infinity of Guevara shrines throughout the Americas. The only really credible museum of Che's life in Argentina occupies his boyhood home at Alta Gracia, in Córdoba province.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Cruising the Falklands

Ever since spending a year in the Falkland Islands in 1986-7, I’ve considered myself privileged to have done so. I was even fortunate enough to circumnavigate the Islands on the freighter Monsunen, which used to pick up the wool clip on offshore farms, and was able to visit some truly remote areas.

In reality, the Islands are a sub-Antarctic Galápagos, with abundant wildlife that’s remarkably tame - sit down near a black-browed albatross colony on Saunders Island, for instance, and the birds will come waddling up to you. Of course, at 52° S latitude, the Falklands lack the species diversity to be found in the tropical Galápagos, but it makes up for that in sheer numbers of Magellanic, Gentoo, king, and rockhopper penguins (pictured here in a mixed colony with king cormorants), steamer ducks, albatrosses, upland geese, and many more birds, not to mention marine mammals such as sea lions and elephant seals. That’s one of the reason the islands have become so popular with cruise ships, and a recent survey carried out by Falkland Islands Tourism supports the economic impact of tourism here.

I’ve seen that myself, as I’ve been in Stanley on a day when 4,000 cruise shippers overwhelmed the 2,000 or so inhabitants of the Falklands’ capital, but the economic statistics are interesting. Over the season, which starts around October and ends in March, the cruisers spent more than £3 million (US$4.35 million), which comes out to roughly US$1,550 for every resident on the islands (this includes those living in camp, as the countryside is known there).

In the recent season, there were about 60,000 visitors. Most of the spending came for tours to destinations such as Gypsy Cove and Bluff Cove, but shopping and food and drink also accounted for substantial expenditures.

Another interesting fact that came up is overwhelming visitor satisfaction with the Islands. More than half the 377 interviewees said they would be interesting in returning to the Islands for a land-based trip, which would mean longer stays but would probably also require more flights from mainland South America. At present there is only one weekly flight from Punta Arenas, Chile, with LAN Airlines, as Argentina prohibits any additional flights over its airspace.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Patagonia's Kelp Capital, a New National Park

In a recent post, I wrote about Argentina’s proposed Parque Nacional Isla Pingüinos, but I didn’t have time to add anything about the brand new Parque Nacional Patagonia Austral, recently declared along the shoreline of Chubut province south of the town of Camarones and Reserva Provincial Cabo Dos Bahías. It’s an unusual park, in the sense that it comprises only a strip of Argentina’s South Atlantic coastline, exactly one nautical mile out to sea and 1.5 km (nearly one statute mile) inland.

It also subsumes private property, and I recently visited one of those properties in the unique Bahía Bustamante, a sort of company town based not on mining, but on seaweed! Dating from about 1952, it once had 500 residents - most of them employees - but now has only about 40 or so. Many of them gather kelp along the shoreline; it is then dried in the sun and trucked to the Welsh-Argentine town of Gaiman, where a factory processes it into food additives.

All of the streets in Bahía Bustamante are named for species of seaweed; only a handful of the houses along them are occupied, but some of those - the former administrators’ houses - have been transformed into stylishly retrofitted guesthouses at premium prices. At the same time, there are rather cheaper accommodations with private baths and kitchens, and even some hostel facilities. In fact, it’s even possible to camp nearby, and Bustamante’s restaurant serves intriguing meals that often use seaweed as a condiment or even part of a main dish.

From Bahía Bustamante, it’s possible to take multiple excursions, including one to offshore islands that are part of the new national park and home to thousands of Magellanic penguins, cormorants, dolphin gulls, and large colonies of southern sea lions. This is possible only at high tide, though, as the five-meter tidal range makes it impossible for the flat bottom launch to navigate at low tide.

At low tide, though, there are other options: beyond the limits of the new national park Bustamante possesses a remarkable badlands that features a sprawling petrified forest that’s at least the equivalent of Santa Cruz province’s Monumento Nacional Bosques Petrificados (recently upgraded to national park status, but that’s not yet reflected on the park service’s site) and Chubut’s own Reserva Provincial Bosque Petrificado José Ormachea.

Accommodations at Bustamante’s guesthouses are all-inclusive; those staying at the cheaper accommodations pay extra for tours to the offshore islands and the petrified forest, on a space-available basis.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Chaitén Versus the Volcano

For the first time since the eruption of Volcán Chaitén in May 2008, I was able to visit the Chilean town of Chaitén - or what remains of it - this past Wednesday. While I stayed in Futaleufú, the renowned whitewater kayaking and rafting mecca on its namesake Río Futaleufú near the Argentine border, I drove the roughly 160 km (100 miles) to Chaitén and spent about three hours in town before returning to Futaleufú. At El Amarillo, about 25 km south of Chaitén, the Carabineros police check passports and ask where you’re going and what you’re doing, but there are no restrictions on travel to town, and several hotels and simpler lodgings remain open. Ferry services continue to operate to Quellón and Puerto Montt.

I had seen photos of the town since the eruption and the subsequent flood that deposited more than a meter of soggy ash in some parts of town - and the volcano is still steaming ominously only ten km (six miles) to the north - but the reality is a little more complex than most of the reports I’ve read would suggest. Some parts of town suffered relatively little damage, and a handful of residents have returned and cleaned them up.

According to the 2002 census, the town had slightly more than 4,000 residents; I’ve heard that anywhere from 50 to 200 have returned. Nicholas La Penna, who operates the travel agency Chaitur and also runs the bus terminal, tells me that it’s hard to estimate, because people come and go; many of them have second houses or cabins in the surrounding countryside.

These are the people the Chilean press are calling rebeldes (rebels), who refuse to honor the government’s edict to abandon town (there are tentative plans to rebuild in a more secure location about ten km to the northwest). The government did a brilliant job of evacuating the town without fatalities - compare it to the U.S. government’s mishandling of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina - but its post-eruption response has been more controversial. There’s been little official effort to clean things up, and signs around town complain of abandonment. The sign on the car window here in front of the tidy Cabañas Brisas del Mar (which is open for business) says “Chaitén Zone Zero - Zero Light, Zero Water, Zero Assistance.”

That’s not quite fair. There is no running water, but the government has, for instance, placed several large tanks of potable water that residents can also use for washing clothes, as the women in the photograph here are doing. Yet it’s true that there’s no public electricity, and the government has applied pressure to get everyone to leave. Those who’ve remained are finding it difficult to get fuel for their generators since, after another eruption last month, the gas station was shut down.

It’s hard not to sympathize with displaced residents who want to return home, yet if the government did provide services to those who’ve restored their properties, they’d probably be faced with demands to rebuild the rest of the town on such a precarious site. And the volcano is still smoldering just beyond the town limits.

It’s worth adding, meanwhile, that the town of Futaleufú and its world-class river have remained completely open for business. Ash fell on the town during the original eruption, but to my eyes there’s been little lingering effect except on the tributary Río Espolón, a starter river that received a much larger ash fall. Unfortunately, the publicity from the Chaitén eruption appears to have deterred some long-distance paddlers from spending the summer on the “Fu.”

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Perón Plays Patagonia!

Argentine literary great Jorge Luis Borges, who detested Juan Domingo Perón, famously said that “Peronists are neither good nor bad, but incorrigible.” I tend to agree with Borges’ assessment of a political party whose leaders’ motto always seems to be “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” At the same time I’ll admit to being impressed with the new Museo de la Familia Perón, which I visited last Thursday, in the Patagonian town of Camarones.

There are, to my knowledge, two other Perón museums in Argentina: at Juan Perón’s birthplace in the Buenos Aires province town of Lobos, and the Museo Evita in the Buenos Aires city neighborhood of Palermo (barely two blocks from our apartment). The former is surprisingly bland, while the latter is an uncritical homage to Perón’s first lady that’s more interesting for where it is (a mansion that Evita turned into a home for unwed mothers from the provinces, scandalizing the neighbors in what was then an elite neighborhood).

Camarones’ Perón museum occupies a shiny new replica of the caudillo’s boyhood home - his father, Tomás Perón, ran a sheep estancia on the town’s western outskirts in the early years of the 20th century (Juan Domingo Perón was born in 1895). It differs from the other Perón museums not in that it’s professionally organized - so is the Evita museum - but in that it admits that Perón was a controversial and contradictory figure whose loyalists even engaged each other in firefights in the 1970s (right- and left-wing factions were each convinced the general was on their side).

While the museum leans toward the interpretations of Argentina’s current left-of-center Peronists, it avoids the polemics so common in Argentine politics. Not only that, the English translations that accompany the exhibits are well above average. For anyone visiting the wildlife routes of coastal Chubut province - Camarones is only a short distance from the Cabo Dos Bahías reserve - the Perón museum deserves a stopover.

Friday, March 13, 2009

A Patagonian Penguin Park

When I first visited Argentina in 1979, the country had only one coastal national park, Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. Thanks to a donation from environmental philanthropist Doug Tompkins, Parque Nacional Monte León came into being in 2004, but it’s since added a new maritime coastal park in Patagonia and is due to add another that, last Monday, I managed to visit for the first time from Puerto Deseado.

The proposed Parque Nacional Isla Pingüino comprises an archipelago of small islands some 25 km off the coast, but two Deseado companies offer excursions with rigid inflatables that land their passengers on the small (one square km) main island (pictured above) for hikes past Magellanic penguin colonies to an abandoned lighthouse, but the real delight is the world’s northernmost rockhopper penguin colony (see the accompanying portrait), about 500 breeding pairs on the side facing the open South Atlantic. The next nearest rockhopper colonies, to my knowledge, are those in the Falkland Islands, several hundred miles to the southeast.

In addition to its rockhoppers, Isla Pingüinos has about ten to twelve thousands pairs of Magellanics and, here and on smaller offshore islands and rocks, some 2,000 southern sea lions. The Magellanics are a particularly interesting case because on the mainland they breed in burrows, but on rocky Isla Pingüinos there’s little soil that they can excavate for their nests. Thus their nests are in the open, and this means high mortality rates, as predators such as great skuas can pick off eggs and even small chicks.

En route to the island, we also saw a vagrant group of southern fur seals camped out on a rock. On the way back to Puerto Deseado, we witnessed, up close, a feeding frenzy by black-browed albatrosses, several species of cormorants, skuas, sea lions, and Commerson’s dolphins as a bright silver school of sardines moved through the water like an oil slick.

I went to Isla Pingüinos with Expediciones Darwin, but Los Vikingos also offers trips to the island between September (when the birds start to arrive) and April (when the last stragglers head out to sea). Both companies offer more info and photos on their websites.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Vikings in Patagonia?

To Argentines, all Scandinavians are vikingos (Vikings), and the term is not always descriptive - it’s sometimes a synonym for “slob,” presumably for the historic Vikings’ dubious table manners. As a vikingo myself, with three Swedish grandparents and one Norwegian, I’m well aware of this, as my Argentine wife uses the term - only semi-facetiously - when she’s upset with me.

In reality, though, Scandinavians have played a notable, if small, role in Argentine history. Two of the most distinctive churches in Buenos Aires are San Telmo’s Dansk Kirke (Danish Church) and Svenska Kyrkan (Swedish Church), and both the Danish and Swedish clubs have their own restaurants in the city. In southern Buenos Aires province, the beach resort of Necochea has its own Danish consul, and many vehicles sport “DK” decals on their bumpers.

In 1902, the Argentine navy’s corvette Uruguay (now docked at Buenos Aires’s Puerto Madero and converted into a museum) rescued stranded Swedish Antarctic explorer Otto Nordenskjöld and his crew, who spent two years stranded on the frozen continent. Nordenskjöld also explored Patagonia, including the area around Chile’s Torres del Paine, where one of the park’s largest lakes (pictured above) bears his name.

Last Thursday, utterly coincidentally, while hiking the trail to the scenic overlook at Loma del Pliegue Tumbado near El Chaltén (Argentina), I met Nordenskjöld’s great-grandson Joel (pictured here, with two other Swedes), who is paying a second visit to the region (the first was in 2002, when he went to Antarctica with 16 other Nordenskjölds on the centennial of Otto’s rescue by the Argentines). In the coming days, as his group hikes the “W” route in Paine, Joel Nordenskjöld has pledged to take a swim in the frigid waters of the lake named for his great-grandfather.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Watch Your Language: Mismarketing Mitsubishi in the Southern Cone

It's an apocryphal tale that, when Chevrolet branded a new model the “Nova,” it failed in Latin America because the words “no va” meant “it doesn’t go” in Spanish. In reality, by that standard, it would have flourished in Brazil, where “nova” literally means “new” in Portuguese. In both Spanish and Portuguese, as in English, “nova” also means a star that brightens suddenly before fading.

If Chevrolet’s promotional blunder never really happened, Mitsubishi definitely made one in marketing its SUV “Pajero” in southern South America. Presumably Mitsubishi meant to market a 4WD vehicle that could conquer the Pampas and the Patagonian steppe - the Spanish word “paja” means a type of coarse bunch grass - but it didn't quite work out that way. In regional slang, “pajero” means “jerkoff” or its British equivalent “wanker.”

Several years ago, in fact, I wrecked a rented Pajero on Chile’s Carretera Austral and, despite mitigating circumstances (a blown tire), I certainly felt as if the term described me. Other Patagonian drivers are not so proud as the one of the vehicle pictured above - I’ve seen similar cars with the offending chrome lettering on the sides removed, or the word painted over or scratched out.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Solving Soccer Violence in Buenos Aires?

From my viewpoint, the most succinct summary ever of soccer came from a Buenos Aires Herald article whose headline is pinned to the bookshelf above my desk: "Another Boring 0-0 Tie." Those of us who grew up with baseball, basketball, and football (sorry, soccer fans) cannot tolerate tie games - especially scoreless ties. At the same, it bewilders me that anybody can get violently upset at a soccer game, unless of course they're furious that they've been scammed with another no-result outcome that they paid presumably good money to watch.

Argentina is particularly infamous for soccer violence, though, and I'm well aware that the situation is more complex than my facetious comments above. For one thing, the country's so-called barras bravas (soccer hooligans, in British terminology) are organized gangs that are often in league with club ownership, who give them free tickets and even pay their travel expenses to road matches.

That's why it was so interesting to read a Reuter's dispatch of a proposal by the Asociación de Fútbol Argentina (AFA, Argentina Soccer Association) to create a high-tech deterrent to soccer thugs that will include biometric scanners and electronic cards with personal information as a requirement to attend a soccer match. According to the Reuter’s translation of the AFA's proposal, "Anyone who wants to go to a soccer stadium must be registered on a database and possess a magnetic card which includes their name, photo, document number, and fingerprints." The article also points out that, given the crumbling state of many Argentine soccer stadiums, it's hard to imagine teams implementing such a high-tech solution with any success.

What goes unmentioned is how this might affect foreign soccer fans, many of whom come to enjoy what, by acclaim, is some of the world's best soccer. How is, say, a French or German visitor supposed to obtain the obligatory ID simply to watch the latest Boca-River "superclásico" during a short stay in Buenos Aires en route to Patagonia?

Certainly improved security is essential for Argentine soccer, but one should be skeptical that the AFA's efforts will be any more productive than those of the notoriously inept Department of Homeland Security.
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