Saturday, December 31, 2011

Paine Catches Fire

It won’t be a Happy New Year in Torres del Paine. Four days ago, a careless camper – tentatively identified as a 23-year-old Israeli - apparently started a fire that, in dry and windy conditions, has burned some 11,000 hectares in and around Lago Grey. Flaming in the vicinity of Cerro Paine Grande (pictured below), a 3,050-meter peak in the heart of both the week-long Paine Circuit and the shorter “W” route, the fire has not yet reached the size of the 2005 event set off by an equally careless Czech, which scorched 15,470 hectares.
At the same time, the present fire is in an even less accessible area and, unless cooler, wetter weather intervenes, it could get worse. As of yesterday, according to a note from my friend Hernán Jofré, a partner in an adventure travel company in the gateway city of Puerto Natales (pictured below), “all the trekking circuits are closed, the winds are blowing more than 70 km per hour, and there’s no sign of rain.” Structures in danger include Estancia Lazo, Hotel Grey, and the Conaf’s park administration offices.
Crews from Chile and Argentina are fighting the fire but, according to Hernán, the only thing that can really stop it is lots of rain for many hours. It’s encouraging that today’s forecast suggests cooler temperatures, higher humidity, and lighter winds, but tomorrow the weather’s due to clear and the winds may pick up again.
Meanwhile, all tourists have been evacuated from the park and, in Hernán’s words, it’s getting crowded in town: “Natales’s hotel capacity is at its maximum, and the tourists are changing their itineraries to go to El Calafate and El Chaltén,” across the border in Argentina.

While the fire is an environmental disaster, it’s also likely to be an economic disaster for Natales and the entire Magallanes region, despite the current 100 percent hotel occupancy. In all likelihood, may visitors will cancel their reservations or move to the Argentine side, where recreational resources are similar but, even then, this will put pressure on accommodations and other services in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares and vicinity.

Despite the fire’s size, it has only burned about six percent of the park’s surface. That leaves a lot more than hasn’t burned and, until things shake out, it might be wise not to cancel reservations too soon. There’s a great deal to see and do even outside the park boundaries, in one of the world’s wildest and most beautiful regions. Consider, for instance, a catamaran excursion from Natales to the glaciar-filled Fiordo de la Montaña (pictured above).

Meanwhile, Where There’s Smoke…
It won’t be in Buenos Aires bars and restaurants. As of the new year, city legislation will close a loophole that allowed restaurants and bars above a certain size to establish presumably well-ventilated areas in which nicotine junkies could indulge their habit. The sensible rationale is that such areas expose employees to toxic substances, but it will be interesting to see if the legislation includes patio spaces, where smokers have habitually lit up with impunity. Unfortunately, surrounding Buenos Aires province, the largest political entity in the country, lags behind the city in its tobacco-control legislation.

Argentina App Update!
As I wrote earlier, my new Sutro Media iPhone app, Argentina Travel Adventures, is now on sale at the iTunes Store for just $2.99. Also suitable for the iPad and iPod Touch, it’s a suitable post-season gift for someone you may have overlooked – at the same time, keep your eye on this space for a possible special announcement.
Meanwhile, I continue to work on a separate app for Chile, which I hope to finish by February.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Cáncer con Perón?

About a year ago, I briefly mentioned an improbable new trend toward “Peronist” restaurants in Buenos Aires, and the irony of it all. Recently I stumbled upon an article by Uki Goñi, one of Argentina’s most astute political journalists, explaining in clearer detail than I can, the irony of establishing a restaurant called Perón Perón (photograph by Manuel Massolo) in the so-called “Palermo Hollywood” neighborhood.
Peronism, historically, is a populist movement built on fealty to the charismatic late General Juan Domingo Perón and his even more charismatic wife Evita. According to Goñi (with whom I have corresponded but have never met), diehard Peronists are outraged at the appropriation of their symbols in a neighborhood that they consider the domain of “gorillas.” That’s a pejorative that the Peronist throngs traditionally apply to anyone opposed to the General and his policies (although Perón was elected president three times, his truly resolute devotees insist on his military title).
Palermo is not the only “gorilla” neighborhood indulging in Peronist chic. Recently, in the even more upscale Recoleta, my nephew Manuel Massolo took a look at Café con Perón, a thematic bar operated by the Instituto Nacional Juan Domingo Perón de Estudios e Investigaciones Históricas, Sociales y Políticas (yes, that’s the full title, which I cannot finish without taking another breath). Formerly the headquarters of Perón’s aides, the café has a display window full of Peronist souvenirs (photograph below by Manuel Massolo).
On a Sunday, it was closed, but Manuel met a neighbor who was 15 years old when they demolished the Palacio Unzué (the former presidential palace, across the street) after the so-called “Revolución Libertadora” coup that overthrew Perón in 1955. The Biblioteca Nacional (National Library) now occupies that site; some employees claim to have seen Evita’s ghost roaming the stacks.

Meanwhile, in related news, the current Peronist president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner revealed that she has thyroid cancer and will take a leave of absence from the presidency, shortly after her inauguration for her second term. In announcing her health problems at the Casa Rosada, Cristina spoke with a conspicuous image of the martyred Evita – who died of cervical cancer at the age of 33 - as her backdrop. The symbolism was unmistakable, and suggests that nothing is too over the top for Argentine politics. Evita, of course, owned a luxurious apartment in Recoleta and, despite her limited success as a youthful actress, turned Argentina into her own personal Hollywood until her premature death in 1952.

In the "I-couldn't-make-this-up-department," President Hugo Chávez of Venezuela has speculated that the United States has developed cancer-causing technology to use against Latin American leaders. It's true, as Chávez says, that even before Cristina Fernández's announcement, presidents Fernando Lugo of Paraguay, Dilma Rousseff of Brazil (before her election), Lula da Silva of Brazil (after finishing his term) and Chávez himself have come down with cancer. Nevertheless, this stretches the limits of credulity, as only Chávez has really contentious relations with the Colossus of the North, and all of these cancers were very different. I can only guess that Chávez's own unspecified cancer has something to do with his frontal lobes.

Argentina App Update!
As I wrote earlier, my new Sutro Media iPhone app, Argentina Travel Adventures, is now on sale at the iTunes Store for just $2.99. Also suitable for the iPad and iPod Touch, it’s a suitable post-season gift for someone you may have overlooked – at the same time, keep your eye on this space for a possible special announcement.
Meanwhile, I am continuing work on a separate app for Chile, which I hope to finish by February.

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Saturday Sundries: Chaitén, the Carretera Austral, Argentina's At-tax Dogs

Today's entry is a series of items of interest to travelers in Argentina and Chile.

Chaitén & the Carretera Austral
Earlier this week, I exchanged emails with Chaitur’s Nichols LaPenna, the go-to guy for all things Chaitén, about recent developments at the northern gateway to the Carretera Austral (pictured above, south of town). When I was last in Chaitén, almost exactly one year ago, the government had agreed to restore utilities and parts of town were showing some life. Parque Pumalín, the area’s top attraction, had reopened, ferries were functioning, and southbound bus services had resumed on the highway.
The biggest news this year, from a tourist point of view, may be that the BancoEstado has returned to town and, with its ATM once again working (MasterCard only), getting cash should no longer be a problem in a region where services are generally few. Nicholas informs me that he is now doing trips to Pumalín, and hikes around the base of Volcán Chaitén, and even ascents up to the caldera.

According to Nicholas, “The volcano is still steaming, though there are days with no steam or venting taking place.” It’s been more 3-1/2 years since the May 2008 eruption and, he adds, “the surface has cooled off and snow can stays for a few days. But as the rain falls and snow melts, water filters down in the fractures in the volcanic rock; it eventually comes into contact with its hot core and becomes vaporized, so steam is produced and rises to the surface. Theoretically the inner core of the lava dome will take years to cool off.”

That, of course, doesn’t rule out another eruption in this seismically sensitive area. Personally, I would refrain from buying property in Chaitén and even question the wisdom of living there, but I would not hesitate to stay for several nights to explore the area.

Argentina’s At-tax Dogs
Recently I wrote about Argentina’s concern about capital flight, and the increasing complexities of purchasing dollars for travel abroad. This week, though, there’s a new twist – the state tax agency AFIP has enlisted golden retrievers and labradors to prevent Argentines from moving their dollars overseas.

According to Montevideo-based Mercopress, AFIP has acquired 100 specially trained dogs from Norway that are capable of detecting dollars and euros, and will intensify its scrutiny at border crossings into Uruguay, Paraguay and Bolivia in particular. In one case, the dogs detected US$30,000 in the spare tire of a BMW about to cross into Uruguay.

What does this mean for foreign visitors? Aside from the fact that it’s generally inadvisable to carry such large amounts of cash anywhere in the world, AFIP regulations prohibit the entry or export of more than US$10,000 or its equivalent per adult (age 21 or older) with explicit authorization. Certainly, though, in the unlikely event that someone asks you to carry cash across the border, you should politely decline.

The Ideal Seasonal Gift – Argentina Travel Adventures!
As I wrote earlier this week, I have recently completed a new Sutro Media iPhone app, Argentina Travel Adventures, now on sale at the iTunes Store for just $2.99. Also suitable for the iPad and iPod Touch, it’s an ideal last-minute gift, especially for someone living far away.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Malvinas Museum of Argentina

In April of 1982, an Argentine military dictatorship under General Leopoldo Galtieri invaded the British-governed Falkland Islands (known to Argentines as the Malvinas), in pursuit of a longstanding irredentist claim (perhaps more accurately, a grudge). After seventy-four days of global headlines, Argentine forces surrendered to the British counter-invasion in mid-June of that year.

Since then, relations between the two countries over the Islands – whose 3,000 or so residents overwhelmingly prefer the status quo – have ranged from hostile under Argentina’s struggling junta to relatively cordial to contentious under successive civilian governments. At the moment, matters are at the contentious end of the spectrum, as Argentina has applied political pressure on Uruguay to prohibit the entrance of Falklands-flagged vessels into Montevideo and boarded Spanish-flagged vessels fishing under Falklands-issued licenses. Since declaration of an exclusive fishing zone in 1986, fishing royalties have made the Islands a prosperous place.
Meanwhile, as the 30th anniversary of the invasion approaches, Argentina has decided to create a Malvinas war museum at the site of the former Escuela Mecánica de la Armada (ESMA, pictured above), the naval mechanics’ school that saw some of the dictatorship’s most grotesque “Dirty War” crimes. Part of the sprawling ESMA campus, in the Buenos Aires barrio of Núñez, is presently dedicated to an Espacio Para La Memoria detailing the crimes of that regime.

According to reports, however, the museum will not glorify the invasion or even mention Galtieri or any other military official. Rather, it will focus on the experience of the 10,000 soldiers – many of them teen-age conscripts from the subtropical northern provinces – who suffered in the South Atlantic cold under officers who were far more cruel than the weather. The abuse of rank-and-file combatants by their own officers got a vivid depiction in the in the outstanding movie Iluminados por el Fuego, some scenes of which were filmed in the Islands.
That’s good as far as it goes, but it would be even more convincing if the museum if it acknowledged the psychological impact on the Islanders, who were outnumbered five-to-one by Argentine forces – roughly equivalent to a theoretical occupation of Argentina by the entire population of Brazil. The Argentine army laid down land mines that they failed to map accurately and, even today, anti-ordnance units have been unable to remove them entirely.

As I learned from my own experience living in the Islands during 1986-7, the Islanders bitterly resented the Argentine officers, who often threatened them. At the same time, the locals often sympathized with the poorly clad and ill-fed foot soldiers unprepared to resist the weather – and the British. In fact, one Islander even supplied us a diary written by a miserable and barely literate provincial conscript who spent days suffering in a cold, damp rock overhang with little food.

On the other hand, some could make patronizingly inaccurate judgments of those same soldiers – one told me, for instance, that they were kids as young as age 15. In reality, the age of conscription was 18 in Argentina, and not everyone of that age went – my own brother-in-law, who was a 22-year-old conscript in 1982, never left his hometown of Olavarría. In fact, he continued to live with his parents for the duration.

Certainly these facts are part of the story that ought to appear in any museum of the conflict. So should the fact that, when General Galtieri announced the successful invasion of the Islands, hundreds of thousands of cheering Argentines filled Buenos Aires’s Plaza de Mayo – only to turn on him after his ultimate failure to hold onto them.

New from Southern Cone Travel – The iPhone App!
Over the past couple months, I have been working with Sutro Travel of San Francisco to create a new Argentina iPhone app, which also works on the iPod and iPad. For more details, please visit Argentina Travel Adventures at the iTunes Store. At just $2.99, it’s a true bargain.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Patagon Journal Takes Off; Cape Horn's in Dutch

A few months ago, I mentioned the fund-raising efforts of Puerto Varas-based Jimmy Langman to launch a print version of his bilingual Patagon Journal. As I watched the deadline approach and donation pledges appeared to be barely trickling in online, I have to admit that I was pessimistic that he would garner enough funds for this worthwhile project.
I’m delighted to admit that I was wrong. In an email I received a few days, Jimmy reports that he was “happy to report that the magazine is to leave Gráfica Andes printers in Santiago tomorrow and will be on sale at newsstands in Santiago and other cities and towns around Chile this weekend. The magazine will also soon be available at several other outlets in Chile, including the Patagonia and Andesgear stores throughout the country.”

Jimmy’s campaign, organized through, “successfully raised modest funding…including securing a major sponsorship deal with the Quiksilver Foundation. We recently received a small grant from the Weeden Foundation in the United States. That, coupled with a Herculean effort to sell some ads to a new magazine still not yet in print, has finally gotten this effort off the ground.”
I haven’t yet seen a hard copy of the 80-page magazine, but Jimmy has sent me a PDF version that shows the Journal’s promising content. Among the stories are his own extended interview with environmental philanthropist Doug Tompkins (whose wife Kristine I have interviewed and published recently in this blog), Jack Miller’s exploration of the truly remote Cordillera Sarmiento, and Evelyn Pfeiffer’s account of the Paine Circuit’s creation. The video above, narrated in Jimmy’s Spanish, provides an idea of the content.
Other articles include Héctor Kol’s analysis of the salmon industry’s travails and Tim Vandenack’s tale of hitchhiking the Carretera Austral (pictured above). The coverage is not exclusively Chilean – as witness Península Valdés and its great right whales, the new Glaciarium ice museum (pictured below) in El Calafate, and restaurants and book reviews, plus some stunning photography.
All in all, it’s a promising debut that will require dedication to expand its circulation – while the print media are still important in Chile, producing a newsstand magazine remains a demanding task. Readers can do their part by subscribing to Patagon Journal online, or purchasing it at Chilean newsstands.

Disclaimer: I am a member of the Journal’s Editorial Advisory, but have no financial interest whatsoever in it. It is essentially an honorary position.

Cape Horn’s in Dutch
Known as Cabo de Hornos in Spanish, Cape Horn is South America’s southernmost tip, and notorious as a graveyard for sailing ships – to whose crews the wandering albatross sculpture atop Chile’s Isla Hornos pays tribute. The Cape’s original name, though, is Kap Hoorn, named by navigators from the Dutch city of Hoorn in the 17th century.
As the 400th anniversary of Cape Horn’s discovery approaches, Chilean and Dutch authorities are collaborating on a series of events to commemorate the role of sailors such as Willem Schouten and Jacob Le Maire (whose name graces the strait between the big island of Tierra del Fuego and its outlier of Staten Island; the latter was originally a Dutch name, since converted into Spanish as Isla de los Estados). At the moment, only the Chilean operator Cruceros Australis is authorized to put passengers ashore at Isla Hornos, on cruises between Punta Arenas and Ushuaia, but Argentine operators continue to hope for future access – from Ushuaia, it would be just a day trip to stand at the tip of the Americas.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Currency Roulette: Uruguay 2012

It’s the time of year when Argentines start to pack their bags for the beach and, for many of them, the beach means nearby Uruguay. Casinos, such as the one at Punta del Este’s massive Hotel Conrad (pictured below), are a secondary draw, even though everybody knows that the house always wins. Uruguayan officials, though, are a little worried that the whole country will be a casino this summer, and that Uruguay itself will be the loser.

That’s because, especially in summer, this is a country with one official currency, the Uruguayan peso, plus the semi-official US dollar and Argentine peso, which circulate freely alongside local money. Given the recently weakened Argentine currency, whose value that country’s government has managed to maintain by strict exchange controls that may not survive in the long run, Argentines may find that Uruguayan businesses will not accept their pesos at the official rate. This could have the effect of making Uruguay 20 percent more expensive for Argentines this summer.

That’s also a concern for Uruguay’s Banco Central because, at the end of the tourist season, they usually expect Argentina to repurchase those pesos at the official rate. If Argentina declines to do so, Uruguay could be stuck with a gaggle of foreign banknotes whose value is eroding.

Uruguayan-Argentine relations are always a little contentious because, since Uruguay was once part of the Provincias Unidas del Río de la Plata, the former Banda Oriental (“Eastern Shore”) values its autonomy against its far larger neighbor. Argentina has more than ten times Uruguay’s population, and the Argentine capital of Buenos Aires is almost as populous as all of Uruguay. Recently, the Argentine government may have suggested that Uruguay was a de facto haven for tax evaders – in effect, a money-laundering country.

Uruguayan President José Mujica refused to blame Argentina for such accusations, and vigorously denies that Uruguay is a tax haven but, in reality, it is. That’s not in the sense of moving large amounts of illicit cash but, because of its traditionally liberal banking laws, it’s long been the destination of choice for Argentines who want to move their money from under their mattress – sometimes literally – to banks that will respect their deposits. Many middle-class Argentines have bank accounts in Uruguay, which they consider far more secure for their savings.
As summer approaches, though, Argentines at the beach will have to watch their pesos and Uruguayans will have to watch the exchange rate. Fortunately, for non-Argentines who can take advantage of the stable exchange rate between the US dollar and the local peso, this should not be an issue.

Help Support Southern Cone Travel
If you have found this article informative, please consider clicking on one or more of the AdSense ads above - always presuming, of course, that it's product or service that's interests you. Don't overlook the video on travel to Britain (which requires turning up the sound).

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Whales of the Atacama; Plus, Patagonia Winners

Though Chile is one of the world’s most cetacean-friendly countries, the crumbling ruins of an old whaling station on the southern outskirts of Iquique are an historical reminder that commercial whaling continued here as late as 1963. A recent discovery, though, has put all this in perspective – near the coastal city of Caldera, another Atacama desert beach resort, paleontologists have discovered a graveyard of baleen and other whales dating back at least two million years.
Ironically, were it not for the tourist industry, the discovery of these fossils might have taken decades or even centuries more. That’s because Caldera is the beach getaway for the regional capital of Copiapó, about 80 km to the southeast, and has been since 1851, when Chile’s first railroad connected the two towns. The train last ran in 1961, but a project to widen the narrow Ruta 5, the Panamerican highway that replaced it, recently unearthed remains of the whales. So far, according to researchers from Caldera’s own paleontological museum and the Smithsonian Institution, about 75 whale skeletons have been uncovered, more than 20 of them in perfect condition.

Much research remains to be done, but South America’s west coast is one of the world’s most tectonically active areas. So far, speculation is that a landslide or seismic event isolated a shallow lagoon and that, unable to return to the ocean, the animals died in situ. The lagoon then filled with sediments and, eventually, plate tectonics lifted the fossilized remains to their present hilltop location, half a mile inland.

I haven’t visited Caldera since I last updated Moon Handbooks Chile, a couple years ago, but this extraordinary discovery has me looking forward to my return there in March.

We Have Two Winners!
In the spirit of the holiday season, even though I’d rather be in the vastness of the Atacama, I decided to give away two copies, rather than one, of the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia to readers who answered Wednesday’s quiz correctly. I had a couple more correct answers as well, but I had to draw the line somewhere.
Both Suzan Apaydin of San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, and Eric Curtis of Kealakekua, Hawaii, correctly identified the wool industry as the source of Patagonia’s economic boom of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many of the region’s sprawling sheep farms, known as estancias, still exist today, as do the mansions of Punta Arenas, then southernmost Patagonia’s de facto capital during the wool boom.
To families like the Menéndez dynasty, who built their fortunes on exports that built mansions like the one above and tombs like the one below, the international border meant little – just as it may to the residents of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego and Chile’s Magallanes region with the new “free movement of peoples” initiative.
I hope Suzan and Eric will be able to make good use of their books; for those whose answers arrived too late, and other readers, keep an eye for future quizzes.

Help Support Southern Cone Travel
If you have found this article useful or informative, please consider clicking on one or more of the AdSense links that accompany it - always presuming, of course, that it's a product of service that interests you. Also have a look at the Visit Britain video in the sidebar (you have to click the ad to hear, in addition to seeing, Dame Judi Dench's invitation to the UK).

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Bridging the Beagle; Plus, Win This Book!

The European Union may be in economic crisis, but its citizens remain accustomed to crossing borders with few or no bureaucratic barriers. That’s rarely been the case in the Southern Cone countries, especially in southernmost Argentina and Chile, despite the historic links between the Argentine province of Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean region of Magallanes. The San Sebastián crossing between the Chilean and Argentine sides of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego has long been a glacially slow crossing and, with limited exceptions, getting from the Argentine city of Ushuaia to the Chilean town of Puerto Williams, just across the Beagle Channel (pictured below, looking south toward Chile's Isla Navarino), has been almost impossible.
That may be changing. In a recent meeting at Punta Arenas, Argentina’s ambassador to Chile, Ginés González García, announced his government’s support for a measure that would make the Southern Cone’s southernmost extremes an area of “free movement of peoples.” There is no designated date for implementing the measure, but it seems to be a priority for both governments. Chile’s ambassador to Buenos Aires, Adolfo Zaldívar, was also present at the meeting.

Given the physical isolation of Magallanes from the rest of Chile, and the need for Argentines to travel overland through Chile to reach their side of the Isla Grande, any measure that improves communications in this region is a welcome one. According to Montevideo-based Mercopress, which reported the story, authorities were considering extended border hours of 24/7 during the peak season, and increasing personnel to handle the number of people crossing at that time.
What’s unclear is whether the ‘free movement” between Magallanes and Tierra del Fuego will extend to foreign visitors but, even if not, expedited services for Argentines and Chileans should speed things up significantly. The agreement may also expedite the creation of ferry service between Ushuaia (actually Puerto Almanza, about an hour east) and Puerto Williams (pictured above and below), which Mercopress suggests has already begun. My Ushuaia contact Alejandro Galeazzi, who runs a B&B in the city, informs me that “they are in negotiations to approve the crossing from Almanza to Puerto Williams, but the issue is still very fresh.”
Win This Book!
In honor of Argentine and Chilean efforts to improve communications between their most remote territories, I have decided to award a copy of the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia to the first person who can answer what I, at least, believe is a fairly simple question. What was the industry that first brought economic integration between the two countries in the Fuegian region, creating enormous fortunes in the late 19th and early 20th centuries?
Please send your answer to the following email address: southerncone (at) If you have won in the past year, please stand aside and let someone else have a chance.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Torture Tours, Part 4

Yesterday, December 1, was the 35th anniversary of the disappearance of María Eugenia Sanllorenti de Massolo, my brother-in-law’s first wife, about whom I wrote briefly in a blog item last July. In 1976, in the university city of La Plata (pictured above), “Maru” fell into the hands of unknown kidnappers; her whereabouts remained unknown until early this year, when the Equipo Argentino de Antropología Forense (Argentine Forensic Anthropology Team) identified her remains in a mass grave in the northern suburbs of Buenos Aires.
The EAAF, to go by its Spanish-language acronym, is a group of forensic anthropologists who have worked to identify the victims of state-sponsored violence not just in Argentina, but nearly 30 other countries around the world – ranging from Angola and Bosnia to El Salvador, Guatemala, and even Iraqi Kurdistan. Its work is accessible not just to jurists and professionals but, in a sense, also to tourists: the EAAF was responsible, for instance, for excavating and identifying remains at the so-called Club Atlético (pictured above and below) in the Buenos Aires barrio of San Telmo. It’s not a conventional tourist attraction, but if one goal of travel is to learn, the Club Atlético is an eloquent reminder of clandestine atrocities that often take place just out of sight, but in our names, and sometimes just beneath our feet.
Readers of this blog, and my guidebooks to Argentina and Buenos Aires, can meet at least one member of the EAAF team. Patricia Bernardi (pictured below, at right) is a partner in La Demorada, a stylish B&B cum art space in the village of San Antonio de Areco, the “gaucho capital” of Buenos Aires province, less than two hours from the Argentine capital.
One of the prime movers in creating the EAAF was U.S. forensic anthropologist Clyde Snow, whose work brought about several convictions in Argentina and elsewhere (in Iraq, he testified against Saddam Hussein’s crimes). Snow also participated in the ultimately unsuccessful attempt to identify the remains of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in San Vicente, Bolivia, as detailed in Anne Meadows’s Digging Up Butch and Sundance.

Meanwhile, the University of Oklahoma’s Center for Social Justice is creating the Clyde Snow Social Justice Award to honor his human rights legacy, and is seeking donations to create a permanent endowment. Snow himself will receive the first award but, in the coming years, it will go to “individuals or organizations around the world whose work contributes to the re-humanization of victims of human rights abuses.”

In a better Argentina, perhaps, Maru might have survived to be my concuñada – a Spanish-language term meaning my brother-in-law’s wife – but I was not part of the family until five years later. I do know her son, now my nephew, who has grown up to be a remarkably well-adjusted professional despite losing his mother as a newborn. In October, my wife flew to Argentina for a small family ceremony in the city of Tandil, Maru’s birthplace, that included both him and Maru’s own mother.

My wife says that the identification and burial of Maru’s remains has provided some sense of “closure,” to use a widely abused word. Real closure, though, would come from identifying, trying, convicting and sentencing the individual(s) who abducted, tortured and murdered her. Of course, 35 years later, it’s no longer certain that those responsible are still alive themselves.

For what it’s worth, our own daughter is a third-year anthropology student at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and is presently taking a class in forensic anthropology there.

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

From the Falklands: A 2011 Perspective

The wildlife-rich Falkland Islands get extensive coverage in my new third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, which has recently appeared on the shelves. To get a further update for upcoming season, I conducted an email interview with Paul Trowell, the Falkland Islands Tourist Board’s general manager. I was particularly interested in developments for independent travelers, rather than the cruise ship passengers who constitute the bulk of the Islands’ visitors. The interview has been condensed and edited for continuity.

WBB: What is new for the Falklands this season?

PT: The Falkland Islands are going through a strong period of growth in 2010/2011, in fact forecasting a 16 percent increase in numbers. This has resulted in the creation of a new National Tourism Strategy that caters for increased infrastructure and marketing initiatives to cope with the growing demand. Unfortunately, due to confidentiality, I cannot disclose the initiatives in the plan but as soon as I can I will update you.

WBB: Are the international flights looking full for this year?

PT: I suggest contacting International Tours & Travel (, the local LAN agents, for flights from Chile, and the Falkland Islands Company Limited ( for details about the [Ministry of Defence] air link from Brize Norton [the Royal Air Force’s Oxfordshire base]. At present, flights leave Brize Norton on Sunday and Wednesday. We do not have access to forward bookings for release to the public but last year’s statistics show an increase in LAN, decrease on MOD.

WBB: Are there any new accommodations this year? What does demand look like for this season? Is the oil boom affecting the availability of accommodations and other services for tourists, in Stanley and in Camp (as the countryside is known here)?

PT: There has always been a shortage in peak time, November to February. We encourage travellers if they are coming in this time to book in advance. There is an additional cottage on Bleaker Island.
Oil exploration is affecting the availability of accommodations in Stanley (pictured above), where there is a total of about 220 beds, but not in Camp, though we’re conducting some research now.

WBB:  Of all visitors to the Falklands, what is the percentage of or approximate numbers of independent travelers (as opposed to cruise ship passengers, pictured below on Stanley's tourist jetty)? What sort of contribution do they make to the local economy?
PT: The 2010/11 cruise season closed with a total of 42,000 passenger arrivals. Compared to the 2009/10, the number of cancellations has been few (only four vessels with a total of 2,659 passengers), however, the numbers are still down compared to 2009/10 when 48,359 cruise ship passengers arrived in the Falklands.

Average spend per passenger is up however, to £34.50 from £32.82 last season. This means that almost £1.4 million was spent on the Islands by cruise passengers, with 43 percent of this being spent on tours, 38 percent on shopping, and 16 percent on food and drink.

The FITB Cruise Passenger Survey showed that 50% of visitors had visited the islands before, and almost one quarter (24 percent) stated that the Falkland Islands were “essential” or “very essential” factor in their cruise itinerary decision. Over one quarter (27 percent) said that they would like to return to the islands on a land-based tour.

Land-based arrivals grew 14.8 percent, totaling 6,739, and the average spending per head increased by 20 percent (or £100) to £595 in 2010. In total for 2010/11 overall, visitor arrivals by inbound overnight tourists, cruise passengers and domestic tourists resulted in 61,563 tourists, spending £5.41 million, an 8.4 percent increase over 2009/10.

WBB: Is there an abundance of local flights?
PT: There are no problems booking FIGAS flights that we are aware of but we suggest contacting FIGAS ( directly.

WBB: What percentage of independent travelers come from the United States?

PT: Thirteen percent from the USA.

WBB: Of all independent travelers, what percentage of them return to the Islands? Do you have any idea whether many cruise ship passengers return independently?

PT: Our stats from January 1, 2000, to date suggest that 13 percent of travellers are on a second visit, 2.1 percent are on a third visit, 4.1 percent are on a fourth visit and 15.1 percent have been more than four times. [On the latter stats,] you may have to contact the local shipping companies who deal direct with the cruise lines.

WBB: What are the most popular destinations in terms of visitors?
PT: We do not have this breakdown in our stats but Sea Lion Island (pictured above), Pebble Island, Carcass Island, Saunders Island, and Bleaker Island (pictured below) would all rank highly.
Moon Patagonia – On the Road Again!
Well, just down the road, really. Earlier this month, an attack of bronchitis caused me to postpone an appearance at REI Fremont43962 Fremont Blvd., Fremont, CA 94538, tel. 510/651-0305. We have rescheduled the event for tonight, November 29, at 7 p.m. It’s free of charge, but this is a small venue, so attendees should make reservations online or by telephone with REI.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Rocky Roads, Ashy Skies & Fuegian Kings

Due to circumstances beyond my control, I won’t return to South America until late January or early February, but that doesn’t mean a lack about Argentina, Chile, and the rest of the Southern Cone. Álvaro Jaramillo, whose birding guide to Chile I recently reviewed, has passed on some very useful information from his recent trip there.

The Road to Lauca

Most of Álvaro's updated information comes from Parque Nacional Lauca (pictured above) and vicinity, where I spent most of a year doing my M.A. fieldwork in the 1980s. This is an area where, unfortunately, the mining industry also has a major presence; in gateway village of Putre (pictured below), the Hotel Las Vicuñas is now open only to mining personnel. That said, Álvaro reports, “[T]here are two new hotels in town: Hotel Q'antati (which I stayed in), great rooms, heating, breakfast but no lunch/dinner. The Chakana Mountain Lodge I saw from a distance and it looked nice, but I did not see it up close. “

The route up to Lauca, though, “is a mess. There is road construction going on from the army base [near Putre] to Chucuyo, with many delays, dust, trucks. The experience there was a nightmare this year. The company that is doing it (Kodama) is clueless unfortunately, and they are being critiqued from all sides on their work. While we were there, a head-on collision occurred on a one-lane stretch they were working on; one man died. Much of this road construction is to get it up to the level that it can take heavy truck traffic, which is expected to increase greatly from mining operations in the area.” Barbara Knapton of Alto Andino Nature Tours, who lives in Putre, says the delays have made it difficult to reach and return from the park; I will have more on the topic in the near future.

The Kings of Tierra del Fuego

For birders, the big news comes from Tierra del Fuego (on the right half of the NASA image above). On the Chilean side of the island, just across the Strait of Magellan from the city of Punta Arenas, “[T]here is now an area on Bahía Inútil [“Useless Bay,” in English], where it is possible to see a flock of loafing king penguins. I have not been there yet, but am excited at the possibility to see this superb creature at such an accessible location.” While this would still mean a full-day excursion from Punta Arenas, kings rarely appear so close to significant population centers – I myself have seen many on the Falkland Islands (the one below occupies part of a mixed colony with gentoos), but never on the South American continent or Tierra del Fuego.

Flying the Ashy Skies

Finally, Álvaro adds a word for those flying south from Santiago or Buenos Aires. His flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas “had to skip the traditional stop over at Puerto Montt because of the smoking Puyehue (Caulle) Volcano, and then farther south on the flight we could see smoking Hudson doing its thing! Two smoking volcanoes on one flight was a first for me; on that day (early November) Puyehue was definitely more active than Hudson. I would advise tourists to think about backup plans if they are planning on flying to Puerto Montt during this season if Puyehue increases activity once again. I heard of flight cancellations to Temuco in late October as well. The wind direction is prevailing from the West, creating a greater problem in Argentina, but there are enough local wind shifts that one is not always in the safe zone in Chile.” The NASA satellite image above, taken in July, indicates the pattern of ash distribution.

Moon Patagonia – On the Road Again!

Well, just down the road, really. Earlier this month, an attack of bronchitis caused me to postpone a promotional digital slide presentation at REI Fremont43962 Fremont Blvd., Fremont, CA 94538, tel. 510/651-0305. We have rescheduled the event, for this coming Tuesday, November 29, at 7 p.m. According to my doctor, I am longer contagious.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Conservation Conversation: Kris Tompkins's Patagonia, Part 2

Last week, I published the first part of a lengthy interview with environmental philanthropist Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, wife and partner of Doug Tompkins, about Chile’s proposed new Parque Nacional Patagonia, conducted during my visit to Estancia Valle Chacabuco earlier this year. Today I’m publishing part two, which starts with a couple questions about Parque Nacional Corcovado, near the town of Chaitén. We also touched briefly upon the Esteros del Iberá, the wildlife-rich subtropical wetlands in Argentina’s northwestern province of Corrientes.
WBB: I don’t know much about Corcovado (pictured above). Are there any facilities open to the public?

KMT: Corcovado is not inaccessible, but it’s accessible by sea. You can see it from the highway, but you can’t get in from there. I mean, I guess you can if you’re Robert Scott
WBB: With regard to [Estancia Valle Chacabuco, pictured above], I’ve been looking at the style – it’s very different from the traditional sheep estancia.

KMT: It comes more from the Argentine Patagonian style, from the English…
WBB: Well, you see similar details at the big house at Monte León (pictured above, now a guest house). Some of those resemble the little details here, though the cladding is very different…

KMT: This came about, we have a series of photographs we’ve been taking for years of classic and beautiful houses we found in Argentine Patagonia, and when we started here because we have all this rock, which comes out of the valley, this is what we decided to use here. It’s emblematic of the Patagonian, not the Chilean necessarily, because the English weren’t here.

WBB: Actually, the English were a little farther north. Lucas Bridges was here.

KMT: Yes, he was here, his house is up on the border.

WBB: Are you going to preserve any of the existing buildings?

KMT: Well, his house is preserved as an historical monument. It’s on the Entrada Baker, as you go across Paso Roballos [toward Argentina] up there.

WBB: I did not know that. Is it visible?

KMT: Yes, you can drive in there. We’re going to fix it up and there’ll be a sign that says “homesite of Lucas Bridges.”

WBB: What about any of the existing buildings here?

KMT: No. These were not really classic estancia buildings. I mean, we’ve painted them, we’ve fixed them up. It was an army barracks here.

WBB: I look at things like, say, the wool shed, which is something that is sort of typical in both Argentina and Chile.

KMT: No, people will see that up on the border, where we have an historical site, but not down here.

WBB: But you will have something about its legacy as a sheep farm?

KMT: There will be an information center here.

WBB: Who were the original owners of this property?

KMT: It was leased to some people, but there was no kind of title on the land until…I think the De Smets were granted the first actual titles, not to the current outline. The reason that Reserva Nacional Tamango exists is that the De Smets family had to cede that out of the ranch to get titles. I don’t pretend to be the storyteller on this one, but it was very complex getting the titles to this property for that family.

WBB: How long were the De Smets here, do you know?

KMT: Well, they came down from Chile Chico, that’s where all the Belgians landed. His father, I’m going to say 45 or 50 years ago, but that was not the whole ranch, that was their presence here.

WBB: So not that long ago?

KMT: Well, for one family, down here, pretty far from everything, that’s quite a bit actually. Lucas Bridges was here long before the De Smets, there were people ranching here before the De Smets came. Anywhere there was grass, people were ranching. There weren’t many fences in those days. There were shepherds and sheep all over the place, that’s why the place is so beat up.

WBB: Have all the fences been removed now? Is work still proceeding?

KMT: No, that’s going to be a long job. We’ve gotten most of the easy ones. We probably 200 miles left to go, probably more, maybe 250.

WBB: That’s one of the big volunteer jobs? How many volunteers do you have coming down here?

KMT: Well, this year we cut it back. We have about a hundred. We had over 500 people.

WBB: What are the terms that they come on?

KMT: You have to stay a minimum of three weeks, pay US$15 per day for food, you have to get yourself to the crossroads down below [on the Carretera Austral], and then we pick you up and drop you off. Some people stay three weeks, some people stay two months, some people stay six months. It depends on what their personal plans are.

WBB: So it sounds, given all the land you have, that it’s a selective process?

KMT: We’re running two different sorts of programs. There’s sort of an internship where you are actually coming here for a specific job. Like the guys here in the lodge, they came to work in the lodge, so you’re more selective with them because you’re looking for certain types of experience and skills. But the bulk of the volunteers is more physical labor; we have a pretty extensive volunteer site on our website and people go in there.

WBB: How many people are here at any given time, then?

KMT: About a hundred. It depends how many construction guys are here. Right now we’re starting the new information center and museum and so, once they get that cracked open the number will go up significantly.

WBB: One of the new buildings I saw going up across the creek here, what’s that?

KMT: That’s all housing for employees, they’re apartments.

WBB: That would be permanent full-time staff? Presumably there would also be seasonal employees? Are those mostly foreigners?

KMT: Yes, for people who will be here after it’s a national park. Everybody is Chilean. Everybody. The only foreigners are Doug, myself, Nadine [Lehner, Conservación Patagónica’s publicist], the guys in San Francisco [CP’s US office], that’s it. Obviously there are foreign volunteers, but in terms of employees our policy is everybody is Chilean or everybody is Argentine. We have one exception in Argentina, at Iberá, Ignacio Jiménez is a Spaniard and he’s one of the top wildlife guys around.

WBB: For what it’s worth, this is an opinion of my own, but I’ve been to Iberá at least half a dozen times and it always astonishes me. It’s such an extraordinary place and I’m always telling people that if you really want to see something interesting in that part of the country, skip Iguazú and go to Iberá. I think it’s so much more interesting.

KMT: I don’t know, I’m pretty addicted to those falls but I agree, you see the falls and then you go to Iberá immediately.

WBB: Iguazú is an impressive sight, but I don’t like what they’ve done with it, it’s become Disneyfied and just overrun with people. Iberá gets not even one percent of the visits that Iguazú gets. It’s become a mass experience, Iberá is so much more intimate.
KMT: Have you been to Rincón del Socorro [pictured above]?

WBB: Yes, I have, it almost sounds like stalking, but I was there last year about the time your plane landed, just shortly after. I coincidentally happened to be coming through and spoke with Leslie Cook, whom I’ve known for quite a few years. I’ve visited the place before, though I’ve never stayed there. I had come from Iguazú, just when it started raining and the road turned to crap.

KMT: Yes, it’s quite bad, sounds familiar.

WBB: Do you have anything else you want to tell me?

KMT: I think it’s important that people know that one of the reasons we’re here is we have between Tamango and this property a little over or under 10 percent of the remaining huemul [Andean deer, pictured below] population. We’re working very hard, along with Conaf, to try to see these numbers go up. We’re doing a lot of support of studies that are going on here, to find out what the threats are. This area has all its species intact, another reason that it’s a real conservation priority, and also it has every kind of ecosystem found in the Patagonian Southern Cone in one place.
WBB: What are the threats to the huemul in this area?

KMT: Primarily, livestock everywhere, loss of habitat. Hunting and poaching, dogs coming up from Cochrane that are feral and don’t get fed down there, so they’re hunting. That’s a big problem here in this population, probably the most critical. So it’s the same thing everywhere, and the thing is there are only an estimated 1,500 of them left.

WBB: In the country? In this area?

KMT: No, everywhere. That’s the world population, both the Argentine and Chilean sides. This is one of the largest grassland restoration projects in the world today.

WBB: We’re right on the edge between the forest and the steppe.
KMT: That’s what I mean when I say all the Patagonian ecotones that exist from rock and ice down to arid, though this is mostly semi-arid. You don’t see the kind of landscape that you see out on the coast, you don’t see those severe arid areas like you find around Monte León, but everything else is here. The water systems here are pure, there are no trout in this lake system and river system other than the Chacabuco, and the upper lakes have not been stocked with trout. So you have a pure water system, and it’s a significant system, especially considering the Patagonian region, there are lakes, streams, lagoons, and wetlands, it’s very unusual. That’s why Conaf and Conama have wanted to put this into conservation for decades, but they never could. So there are a lot of reasons why we’re here.

WBB: So the huemul is the signature species for this area, but are there any others?
KMT: Well, guanacos of course, but they’re abundant. The mountain vizcacha is also red-listed, and we have populations of them all around here.

WBB: I haven’t seen vizcachas here, are these the same as in the Norte Grande or are they a different subspecies?

KMT: I can’t answer that. But they’re not the same as the ones in Iberá.

Author’s note: Related to the chinchilla, the mountain vizcacha to which Kris refers is the same species as occurs farther north, in Bolivia and Peru as well as Argentina, but it is not on the IUCN Red List of threatened species. In Argentina, there are two endangered species of vizcacha rats, a totally different rodent, with very limited ranges.
Custom Search