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 (se.itt@horizon.co.fk), the local LAN agents, for flights from Chile, and the Falkland Islands Company Limited (fic.travel@horizon.co.fk) 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 (jross@figas.gov.fk) 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.

Friday, November 18, 2011

Tales of Airport Security

In December of 2004, returning from my only visit to Antarctica, I was about to fly from the Patagonian city of Río Gallegos to Buenos Aires, three hours to the north.  Boarding pass in hand, I headed to security at this relatively small airport only to find nobody to check my documents and nobody manning the X-ray machine. At the gate, there was nobody to collect my pass and, until I climbed aboard the Aerolíneas Argentinas jet, nobody even to ask. Fortunately, the flight went on with no further glitches – perhaps a nostalgic reminder of commercial aviation’s gentility in the days before the Miami-Havana hijackings of the 1960s.
Argentine airline security has apparently improved since then; in fact, it appears to be better, and more efficient, than in the United States. According to the Buenos Aires Herald, security at the capital’s Aeropuerto Internacional Ministro Pistarini (pictured above) apprehended Houston resident Steven Lee Burditt about to board a Continental Airlines flight back to Texas - with a loaded Colt .380 and two clips of ammunition in his carry-on baggage.

Burditt claims that he had forgotten the weapon in a secret compartment before boarding his southbound flight from Houston. If he's telling the truth, that means the so-called Transportation Security Administration flat out missed it when they scanned his bag at George Bush Intercontinental Airport. According to a Houston news source, Burditt is no longer in custody, but must remain in Argentina while a judge investigates the case.
In reality, the Southern Cone countries manage to have effective airport security without indulging in the TSA’s heavy-handed ineptitude. Once, as I boarded a flight at Puerto Montt's Aeropuerto El Tepual (pictured above), Chilean security detected a Swiss Army knife in my carry-on and, instead of confiscation and a stern lecture, LanChile simply told me I could recover the item in question at their baggage counter at my destination of Coyhaique. Did I mention that this was in pre-9/11 days? Even then, Chilean oversight was better, but more reasonably administered.

The Falkland Islands, perhaps, display the extremes in security. Their Mount Pleasant International Airport (pictured above) is also a military base, built after Britain defeated Argentina in the 1982 South Atlantic War; security is ineffably polite, but extremely strict. On the other hand, at Stanley Airport (pictured below), the Falkland Islands Government Air Service (FIGAS) will check nothing other than your weight – because the pilot has to seat the passengers for the best possible balance in their ten-seater Britten-Norman Islander aircraft.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Return of the "Mercado Paralelo"

When I visited and lived in Buenos Aires in the early to mid-1980s, changing money was a nightmare, as out-of-control inflation – sometimes exceeding 50 percent per month - undercut the peso ley and its successors, the peso argentino (pictured above) and the austral (pictured below). With their currency depreciating rapidly, Argentines fueled the fire by spending their paychecks immediately on durable goods like automobiles that held their value, and by purchasing dollars.
That lasted until President Carlos Menem’s “convertibility” policy, implemented by Economy Minister Domingo Cavallo, fixed the new peso at par with the dollar in 1991. In the interim, it was a “Wild West” for currency traders who respected official exchange rates in public but made their profits in a behind-the-scenes mercado paralelo, the most common euphemism for the black market.

For Argentines and foreigners, purchasing or selling dollars at the official rate would have been economic suicide, but changing on the black market had its own risks. In the days before ATMs, I carried a relatively small amount of US cash and a larger amount of travelers’ checks (which were a bureaucratic nightmare to cash even at official rates) for safety.

Just about everybody in Buenos Aires knew somebody who knew somebody who had a connection to a backroom moneychanger, but it was hard for foreigners who had few or no Argentine friends. The way it worked, that person gave you a phone number and, when you called, an anonymous voice would ask how much you wanted to change. That person would then give you an address and a time to meet.

At that address, at the time indicated, you would ring the bell and enter an office furnished with nothing more than a table and chair. The meeting was perfunctory – hand over the dollars, sign the travelers’ checks, and take your australes. Obviously, such a situation could have been a setup, and we never felt totally comfortable. In our case at least, we were never even cheated (though they paid less for travelers’ checks than for cash dollars).

The mercado paralelo reappeared after the economic meltdown of 2001, when arbolitos (street changers, so called because they were planted in one spot like a street tree) made their appearance in La City, as the Buenos Aires financial district is known. Despite a massive devaluation, that peso has survived, but the mercado paralelo has once again reappeared, fueled by the exchange controls imposed by the government of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

I probably won’t be back in Buenos Aires until early next year, but my friend Nicolás Kugler has provided an on-the-ground update: “Apparently arbolitos vanished once the government set more strict controls, and a sort of tax police started to wander around the banking district. I guess the mercado paralelo now is physically less obvious than the 80s one, but their rates are shown by some newspapers (not the pro-Kirchner ones) occasionally. I can imagine in the near future a government ban on reporting exchange rates, as they did with inflation.”

“Anyway,” he adds, “this city was built on contraband, so happily the people's will will prevail. As I understand it, for the ordinary citizen (including tourists) there is no other way to exchange dollars other than the official market with all its regulations, unless one knows someone who does that in a cueva (not necessarily a dark room, it could also be a travel agency).”

I had never heard the term cueva (cave) used to describe a place where clandestine exchanges take place, but I find it very evocative. It is not, he says, a traditional lunfardo (local slang) term, but it "has traditionally been referred to as any place for hiding, and with such meaning it adapted very well to the local financial world."

For what it's worth, the official rate stands at 4.29 pesos to the dollar, while the parallel rate recently dropped from five-pesos-plus to 4.75, pleasing the government in its "day to day fight against their axis of evil."

Paine in Winter
I have never visited Torres del Paine in winter – though I once experienced a whiteout snowstorm in mid-summer. Recently, though, I received a message from reader Steve Behaegel, of Merelbeke, Belgium, with a link to his blog detailing his own winter hiking trip on the “W” route. The photographs accompanying the entry are stunning, and his advice to winter hikers is well worth reading.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Conservation Conversation: Kris Tompkins's Patagonia, Part 1

Earlier this year, I stayed at the new lodge at Valle Chacabuco, the ambitious Chilean conservation project of environmental philanthropists Doug Tompkins and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins. In the course of my brief stay, I had the opportunity for an extended conversation with Kris (pictured above, center, at the lodge) over the proposed Parque Nacional Patagonia, including several topics related to the park and their other projects.

Because the conversation was so lengthy, I’m breaking it up into two parts; part two will appear in the near future. It covers their projects in both Chile and Argentina, under the auspices of the non-profit NGO Conservación Patagónica (CP).

WBB: I’ve met Doug before, and I’ve met you extremely briefly. Doug is in the press a lot more than you are.

KMT: A lot more.

WBB: I don’t know much about you personally – can you give me a nutshell biography?

KMT: I was born in California…fourth generation ranching family. I went to college, graduated and started working with Yvon Chouinard, who had climbing equipment for a couple years and then in 1973 we started Patagonia company. I started running that business a couple years later and retired in 1993 to move to southern Chile with Doug to start working in conservation.

WBB: Do you spend all your time here in South America? I understand you spend the summer in Pumalín and the winter in Iberá (Argentina).

KMT: Yes. I mean, we’re residents of the United States, we go between Chile, the United States and Argentina, but the great majority of our time is here. Our time is spent six months in Chile and six months in Argentina, being based out of those two places – we move around a lot.

WBB: With regard to Valle Chacabuco (pictured above), when did you acquire the place? Did you do so with the idea of creating a park?

KMT: In 2004. When we started coming through here in 1993, we looked at it as the kind of place you would like to turn into a park. We talked to the owner about it and he wasn’t necessarily interested, so we just went on and did our things and then, several years later, we heard that it might be up for sale, and that’s how it got started.

WBB: These were the Belgians? How long did it take to arrange the purchase? Were there any other bidders?

KMT: Yes, it was Francisco De Smets. To answer the first part of your question, it took about a year and four months from the time he said he was considering selling to the time that we actually took over. A lot of that was spent negotiating the price that we were prepared to pay versus what he felt was acceptable. Once a deal was struck, it got out into the press that and there was a group, non-government related, that was opposed to the deal. They put up a competing bid and that took about four months of very public back-and-forth about who would end up with Valle Chacabuco. Finally, at the very last hour, we were able to make a bid and close in a way that the owner thought was appropriate. It was brutal.

WBB: Who was the competitor? Was he planning to continue it as a wool estancia?

KMT: Ricardo Ariztía. Mr Chicken, though he has many other holdings besides chickens. He and about five other guys, for anything but conservation.

WBB: What’s the area of the estancia?

KMT: We originally bought about 173,000 acres. Since then, we’ve added three of four nearby inholdings to the park. We have one neighbor who’s not interested in selling. He’s surrounded by us and a touch of Reserva Nacional Jeinimeni. He has sheep and cattle.

WBB: How does this differ from Pumalín in setting it up, since this is not going to be a private nature reserve? What's the difference between the two projects? Will Conaf take over?

KMT: Well, of course, the landscape is different. We hope Pumalín will become a national park too. Both will fall under the new Ministry of the Environment, and will be going to whatever new national park system that they are going to create.

WBB: Is there a timeline?

KMT: The timeline was to have Valle Chacabuco donated by 2017. That was always the timeline, but these things are very opportunistic, often politically driven, so it could be sooner. It just depends on who the president is and all the infrastructure is set, and we feel the park is ready to go toward a donation. Then you have to see what the timing is. Our idea is not to hold onto it, but to make it into a national park.

WBB: By the infrastructure, you mean finishing the buildings, campgrounds…?

KMT: Campgrounds, trails, everything you’d find in a world-class national park.

WBB: Where are the campgrounds going to be, mostly along the highway?

KMT: The principal ones, certainly, the biggest of them all will be at the foot of this valley, and another at Casa Piedra as you go up toward the [Argentine] border. We will have a few campsites up in Lago Chico and other places, such as Lago Cochrane. They won’t be big fancy campgrounds, but there’ll be designated places where people can camp.

WBB: Does this property extend south to Lago Cochrane?

KMT: We go all the way to the lake, and then all the way to the border along the lake. The national reserve is contiguous.

WBB: How open to visitors is the park at the moment? Are there enough campgrounds functioning at the moment?

KMT: That’s the thing, that’s why we need to get two campgrounds going immediately because we’ve got visitors and, other than the lodge (pictured above), we have a little campground back here where stragglers and volunteers camp out, but that’s not a public campground per se. People can use it, but it’s not what you want visitors to be using. So people are welcome, but usually for the day, or they’re stuck in the working campground.

WBB: Will the facilities resemble those at Pumalín, in terms of what they offer in the campgrounds and such?

KMT: Yes, you know, a group area for cooking, some individual campsites, with little quinchos, and then a lot of places where people put up their tents and use the public bathrooms and showers.

WBB: Cold showers?

KMT: Yes.

WBB: Before we get onto that, I want to bring up the issue you mentioned of presidential power, whoever happens to be in power at the time. How has the current president responded to initiatives like this?

KMT: As Chilean presidents go, I think Sebastián [Piñera] has got a real chance to be remembered as a president who is very concerned about conservation. He has his own conservation project.

WBB: I have been to Tantauco, at least on the edges of it.

KMT: He’s also declared some areas as new protected areas. Is it a lot, well, he’s only been in office a year, but he certainly understands the necessity to have active protected areas, and that’s pretty rare.

WBB: Can he bring along the rest of his constituents, or his party, on the issue? If not, can he bring along enough of them?

KMT: I have no idea, but I doubt it. Teddy Roosevelt didn’t either. Chile has changed a lot since we started 20 years ago. We had a guest here the other night, a friend of ours, from the business community of Chile, and he has a significant place here on the other side of Lago Cochrane, and he really sees that as a private conservation initiative. Andrónico Luksic has a place down in Villa O’Higgins that they consider to be a conservation project. Little by little, things shift, just as they did in the United States.

WBB: Even now there remains a lot of opposition to expanding protection of public lands in the United States. Just in terms of infrastructure, I was surprised when I got in here yesterday to see the size of the restaurant. Are you anticipating tour buses coming through?

KMT: Yes. In another 25 years, you have to imagine Yellowstone when it was first designated a protected area, not a national park yet, there was almost no way to get up there until they put the train in. You have to imagine this park and other parks like it 25 or 50 years from now when there will be a lot of people coming, up from El Calafate and over, when Ruta 40 is paved.

WBB: That’s progressing faster than the Carretera Austral.

KMT: I mean, it’s happening fast over there and here.

WBB: Would you expect an expansion of something like the lodge here?

KMT: That’s not in the master plan, I can tell you that for sure. But after a certain point, we won’t be the ones to decide that.

WBB: You are encouraging people who have an interest in conservation, who have the means, to become donors.

KMT: We have an active fund-raising program for this project. Little Conservación Patagonia cannot possibly create this 650,000-acre park without partners. Impossible. It’s too big. CP started in the year 2000, the first project we did was the Monte León National Park. Have you been there?

WBB: I have been to Monte León (pictured above) several times. Looking at it from a distance, it seems it was simpler to accomplish that project on the Argentine side, or at least quicker, than it was to do this in Chile, at Pumalín. Would that fair to say?

KMT: They’re so different. Pumalín (pictured above) is almost 800,000 acres, and Monte León was a one-purchase, 155,000-acre sheep estancia that was going broke. It’s so difficult to compare the two. Monte León was fast because right after we made the donation, [the late former Argentine president] Néstor Kirchner came into power and he’s from Río Gallegos, and in order to make it a real national park you have to cede jurisdiction from [Santa Cruz] province to the federal government, and the provinces hate the federal government. But Kirchner came into power just months before the Río Gallegos legislature had to vote on that and he called up and effectively said, “I don’t want to look like a schmoe, everybody get in line and vote for this thing.”

WBB: So it was good timing.

KMT: So much in life is good timing. Monte León would have languished as a national park, but without real jurisdiction if Kirchner hadn’t happened to come into power then. He’d been governor forever of Santa Cruz and was able to strong-arm them – ceding jurisdiction requires a 100 percent legislative vote. Imagine trying to get that – that’s why it was so fast. We did it in 18 months. Little CP can manage that kind of project, which we did and we did it fast, but the scale and complexity of this project is different, and so this is the only project we have where we have partners and we absolutely couldn’t do it without them.

WBB: This is the first one where you’re using partners? How many partners are there? All foreign partners, or Chilean partners as well?

KMT: It’s the only one. There are many partners. Ever since we brought the property, I couldn’t have waltzed in here and spent enough money to have bought the initial property, US$10 million. We could do a lot of that, but we couldn’t do all of it.

The partners are mostly foreign, some European, one Chinese man who’s a business partner and the rest from the States.

WBB: Do you still run into objections because the participation is so overwhelmingly foreign?

KMT: We don’t get any objections to it, because this project is 100 percent run by Chileans. This project pays Chilean taxes, people have never cared nor would they analyze where all the funding has come from, they know that CP is a US-based public charity. Where the funding comes from, we don’t hide it, it’s no secret, but what people care about is who’s working here, who helps make the decisions about what’s going to happen, just as they wondered about with Pumalín and Corcovado, will we make national parks out of it? Well, now we have a track record for doing so, so I don’t think people worry about that. Certainly the government’s not worried about it.

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Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Birds of Chile: An Ornithological Extravaganza

When adventurous birders think of travel, they often head to the tropical rain forests of Asia, Africa and the Americas, with their celebrated abundance of species. It’s an axiom of biodiversity that the low latitude tropics, especially the forests, are home to large numbers of species, even if individual numbers of those species are relatively few. By contrast, higher latitudes have fewer species, but larger numbers of individuals of each species.

Chile has no tropical rain forests – in fact, its own sizeable sector of the tropics, between the Peruvian border and the Tropic of Capricorn, running just north of the port city of Antofagasta, is among the world’s driest regions, if not the driest (see the semi-ghost town of Pisagua, pictured above). But the country’s “crazy geography” (a term popularized by geographer Benjamín Subercaseaux), stretching to the tip of Cape Horn, provides enough diverse habitat to support nearly 500 species of breeding or visiting birds (Subercaseaux’s Spanish title Una Loca Geografía has been less literally translated into English as “A Geographical Extravaganza”).

According to Álvaro Jaramillo, author of Princeton’s newly published Birds of Chile, this makes the country an ornithological extravaganza. There have been several field guides to Chilean birds, but most of those cover restricted areas, such as Enrique Couve’s and Claudio Vidal Ojeda’s bilingual Birds of the Beagle Channel/Aves del Canal Beagle, or are difficult to find, such as the English version of Braulio Araya’s similarly titled The Birds of Chile. Jaramillo’s is by far the most current, with illustrations and distribution maps for every species.

Birds of Chile accurately describes all the country’s avian habitats, starting with the northern deserts and altiplano (high Andean steppe). It continues south through the Mediterranean matorral and sclerophyllous (glossy-leaf) forest, resembling the chaparral of California, through the temperate rainforest of Patagonia’s islands and fjordlands. It ends at the Magellanic tundra or moorland at the South American continent’s tip, home to the rare striated caracara (pictured above). Jaramillo also covers Chile’s coastline and islands, including Easter Island and the Juan Fernández archipelago, as well as offshore waters and even the Antarctic Peninsula, the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.

For birders, one of Chile’s underappreciated gems is Parque Nacional Lauca (pictured above), where flamingos fly above cobalt blue lakes and verdant wetlands that are home to nearly a third of all species found in the country. At the city of Arica, on the Pacific coast, the Atacama desert is at its driest, but its highlands near the Bolivian border get ample summer rainfall that make species such as the giant coot, Andean goose and Andean gull abundant. For birders from the northern hemisphere, of course, just about everything is a new addition to their life list.

Jaramillo, whom I know slightly, is Chilean-born and still has family there, but lives near Half Moon Bay, south of San Francisco. He operates his own birding tours of Northern California, Argentina, Chile and Easter Island through Alvaro’s Adventures, and also leads occasional trips through Uruguay.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

Buenos Aires Subte Subsidies to End?

Argentina’s Peronist government of President Cristina Fernández and the conservative administration of Buenos Aires mayor Mauricio Macri rarely agree on anything. Since Cristina’s recent re-election, though, they have decided to work together on at least one topic – the transfer of responsibility for the Subte from the national government to the city.

As I detailed in an earlier comparative article, Buenos Aires’s underground railway is one of the world’s oldest and still functions well, but its sluggish expansion has caused to it fall far behind Santiago de Chile’s sleek Metro system, in both quality and extent of service. Buenos Aires, though, has a distinct advantage in terms of price – a single-ride ticket for the Subte costs 1.10 pesos (about 26 US cents), while the Metro fares range from 520 to 630 pesos (about US$1.10 to US$1.35), depending on the hour.

That’s because, until now, the Argentine federal government has paid enormous subsidies, presently amounting to 70 million pesos (about US$16.5 million) monthly, to Metrovías, the private company that has operated the Subte since 1994. With the transfer, that subsidy may disappear and, if it disappears completely, city residents could see the cost of their commute and shopping trips triple to 3.30 pesos or even a bit more.

According to the Buenos Aires daily La Nación, when Metrovías assumed control of the Subte, fares were then 70 centavos, with the peso at par with the dollar. Since then, fares have increased by 57 percent in peso terms, but have actually fallen by 63 percent in dollar terms, at the same time that the number of Metrovías employees has nearly doubled - even as the system continues to underserve poorer neighborhoods in the south and west of the city.

According to La Nación, the federal government “gave up any plan of investing in the network some time ago. They never undertook the modernization of the rolling stock, nor did they upgrade safety equipment. It will take US$1.3 billion to finish those infrastructural improvements…” In fact, when the mayor tried to attract private investment in the network some years ago, the federal government prohibited him from doing so.

In that context, it looks as if the city may gain a nominal control over its public transportation system that may require it to sacrifice additional expansion simply to keep that system serving the privileged passengers, and employees, it already has.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Where's the Money? Exchange Rate Update

Argentine President Cristina Fernández managed an impressive re-election victory on Sunday, October 23, but her honeymoon could be short. Almost immediately after the election, confident with a nearly 40-point margin over the closest challenger, her government instituted new foreign exchange rules intended to reduce capital flight or, as her current economy minister/vice-president-elect Amado Boudou described it, “money laundering.”

No matter what one might call it, Argentines have been betting on the dollar for decades – only during the 1990s, when the peso was at par with the US currency, did the demand drop. But it’s not a stereotypical issue of smuggling money across borders – in reality, neither the business sector nor middle-class Argentines have much confidence in the populist government’s economy policies. Its notorious manipulation of inflation statistics is one symptom, and many people view the dollar as a hedge against a potential devaluation.

In reality, the purchase of dollars through legal means has forced the government to put is own currency reserves onto the market, to avoid a precipitous decline in the peso (currently at an official rate of 4.20 to the dollar, it trades at 5.10 on some informal markets). Yesterday, according to the English-language Buenos Aires Herald, the new bureaucratic controls brought foreign exchange transactions to a virtual standstill.

What does this mean for visitors to Argentina? In the short run, very little – my wife is presently in Buenos Aires, and she reports no difficulty in acquiring pesos from local ATMs. Until now, however, it’s been possible to obtain either pesos or dollars from many ATMs, and that’s no longer true (for all Boudou's blathering, it's hard to imagine big-time money launderers abusing the ATM option by withdrawing the maximum US$250 per day). And those who need to turn pesos back into dollars at the end of their holidays may find it more difficult than it once was.

It wouldn’t surprise me if, sooner or later, the government instituted multiple exchange rates that would encourage people to bypass official channels entirely – making backroom exchanges to get their dollars. That would be highly prejudicial to the travel and tourism sector, as services would be higher at official prices than they would be for those using the so-called “parallel market,” an Argentine euphemism.

Meanwhile, the situation is toughest for Argentines presently traveling abroad – many have suddenly found that they can no longer purchase dollars or other foreign currencies in North America, Europe, or elsewhere in the world. Unless they’re carrying large amounts cash, or have an overseas bank account, their only alternatives are credit cards.

Moon Handbooks Patagonia on the Road
Continuing this week, my promotion tour for the new third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia will approach its end in a series of digital slide presentations on southernmost South America. In addition to covering the capitals of Buenos Aires and Santiago, the gateway cities to Patagonia, I will offer a visual tour of the Chilean and Argentine lakes districts, Argentina's wildlife-rich coastline and Chile's forested fjords, the magnificent Andean peaks of the Fitz Roy range and Torres del Paine, and the uttermost part of the Earth in Tierra del Fuego. I will also include the Falkland Islands, with their abundant sub-Antarctic wildlife.

Tonight, at 7 p.m., I will be at REI Fremont43962 Fremont Blvd., Fremont, CA 94538, tel. 510/651-0305. The season’s last event will take place Thursday November 3, at 7 p.m., at the Lafayette Library3941 Mt. Diablo Blvd., Lafayette, CA 94549, tel. 510/385-2280. Under the auspices of the World Affairs Council East Bay Chapter, this is the only event that will charge admission - $15 for WAC members, $17 for all others. Doors open at 6:30 p.m. for a wine tasting and tango demonstration, both included in the admission charge.

For those planning trips to the south, there be will be ample time for questions and answers. Books, including my other titles on Argentina, Chile and Buenos Aires, will be on sale at all events.
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