Saturday, May 18, 2019

Chasing Chile's Eclipses...Across the Andes, Perhaps?

Many times I’ve visited north-central Chile’s desert regions—CoquimboAtacama and Antofagasta—which are home to some of the world’s most important astronomical observatories. There is also a constellation of smaller community observatories that offer visitors a chance to see the austral night skies through what, not that long ago, would have been professional telescopes.
The clear skies around Cerro Tololo Observatory (upper left here) an ideal for astronomy.
Combarbalá is one of many town and cities eagerly anticipating July's eclipse.
That said, I’ve never seen a solar eclipse there or elsewhere in South America, even though Chile (and Argentina) experienced major events in 1994 and again in 2010. There’ll be another opportunity soon, though, in the best of all possible areas—on July 2nd, the path of totality will pass directly over the city of La Serena and the Coquimbo region, home to Cerro Tololo and several other observatories. Even area beyond totality expect to take advantage of the event, as I learned last month when I visited the town of Combarbalá, which lies just south of the path.
The July eclipse's path takes it over the Coquimbo region and into Argentina's San Juan Province.
On the Argentine side, totality will pass over the Humid Pampas and just south of Buenos Aires, but winter weather could obscure the event.
From Coquimbo the path then trends southeast, crossing the Andes to the Argentine province of San Juan—another ideal viewing location for its clear desert skies—and continuing toward Buenos Aires. The eclipse will not be total in the Argentine capital, though it will be—theoretically at least—in parts of Buenos Aires province. Theoretically, I say, because that part of the Humid Pampas has a good chance of heavy cloud cover and rain in mid-winter. The skies will darken, certainly, but there’s no guarantee of seeing the moon cover the sun.

Either way, I won’t see this year’s eclipse because I’ll be in California and, in the days leading up to it, we’ll be hosting our Argentine nephew Manuel, his wife Ivana, and their son Simón. They’re flying back to Buenos Aires on July 1st, and I’m not sure whether they’ll arrive in time for the big event. I suspect that a lot of Porteños will leave the city, if just for the day, to spend some time in totality, especially if the weather seems likely to cooperate.
The map here indicates the 2019 eclipse coverage at various locations throughout Chile.
The map here indicates coverage during the 2020 eclipse. 
Even if you (or I) won’t see this one, there’s another upcoming opportunity. On December 14, 2020, Chile will experience another total eclipse in the southern mainland region of La Araucanía, passing over the prime tourist towns of Pucón and Villarrica. The downside is that, like the Pacific Northwest, this area enjoys a marine west coast climate that can bring cloud cover and drizzle at any time of year. It might be better seen in Argentine Patagonia, as the rain shadow of the Andes usually means clear skies on the sprawling steppes. It can get windy there, though, so the beach resort of Las Grutas might be the comfiest option.
For the 2020 eclipse, it won't quite be high season at Las Grutas.

Tuesday, April 30, 2019

I've Never Been to Spain?

I’ve never been to Spain. Well I have been, I guess, if you count Catalonia as part of Spain, because I once spent a week in Barcelona. But I’ve been to Salamanca…oh, wait, not that Salamanca! Earlier this month, I spent two nights in the Chilean city of Salamanca, which I’d visited before, but this was an escape from Santiago after spending most of the previous two months in Patagonia.
Gregorio de la Fuente's "Abrazo de los Pueblos" still decorates the now disused passenger  terminal of Los Andes' Ferrocarril Transandino.
How did I get to Salamanca? Well, I started slow, thanks to late-rush hour traffic out of Santiago, but then headed north to the town of Los Andes, where the Ferrocarril Transandino once carried passengers and freight across the Andean divide to Mendoza. I had no intention of visiting Argentina this time, but I did want to see the mural by Gregorio de la Fuente—his "El Abrazo de los Pueblos” (Embrace of the Peoples) at the old train station is a celebration of Argentine-Chilean friendship. It was just a brief stop, though I did learn that there’s now an occasional tourist train on this route.
Vehicles pass along the old railroad route through Túnel La Grupa, near the town of Cabildo.
Symbolically, at least, trains played a role in my route to Salamanca, as I took the paved highway west to the town of San Felipe and then north through scenic Andean foothills that resemble the higher, drier parts of Southern California. There are only scattered settlements along this route E-71, which leads to the town of Cabildo; there, a traffic light controls access through the Túnel La Grupa, one of a series of tunnels that belonged to the Longino, the Ferrocarril Longitudinal that connected La Calera (west of Santiago) to the nitrate mines and ports of the northernmost Atacama Desert.
The landscape here resembles the higher, drier areas of Southern California.
I’d driven this route before, but not for several years. In the interim, authorities have either paved—or begun to pave—much of it north of the border between Region V (Valparaíso) and Region IV (Coquimbo). This is significant because most of Coquimbo’s population resides along the coast, where cities like Los Vilos and La Serena attract beachgoers from Santiago, and this is a more adventurous (if slower) alternative to lesser-known points.
Túnel Las Palmas marks the border between the Valparaíso and Coquimbo regions.
Café Quarzo is one of few roadside services here.
There are few services on this stretch of “highway” but, surprisingly, one enterprising local has opened a small café on the northbound descent from Túnel Las Palmas, which marks the regional border. She sells ground coffee drinks—in a country where Nescafé is often still the default option—as well as juices and mineral souvenirs (hence the name Café Quarzo). The road continues, passing several railroad bridges, to the enigmatically named village of Caimanes (there are no carnivorous aquatic reptiles here, though; the name apparently comes from an indigenous Mapundungun [Mapuche] word meaning “six condors”).
Carnivorous aquatic reptiles do not populate the area around Caimanes.
Túnel Las Astas is the last of three short tunnels north of Caimanes.
The foundations of the old railroad station still stand here, but there’s no more obvious evidence until a short distance north, where the road passes through three short tunnels with no traffic lights. Several years ago, in Argentina, I met two US cyclists who’d taken this road on my guidebook recommendation and loved it, but they confessed their trepidation in riding through the narrow tunnels, with little room to dodge any oncoming vehicle. That said, this route remains a potentially great ride for adventure-seeking cyclists.
The old train station at Limáhuida is now a country store.
Emerging from the Túnel Los Astas, the road continues to Limáhuida, where the old train station is now a small market and fading wooden workshops still stand below it. That’s also where a new bridge crosses the Río Choapa and leads east to Salamanca, where I spent two nights at the modern and comfortable Hotel Recanto, on the eastern outskirts of town.
Hotel Recanto is full during the week, but nearly empty on weekends.
Oddly—or not—I was virtually the only guest in contemporary accommodations with spacious rooms, solar-powered hot water, and an outstanding restaurant. That’s because it clears out on the Thursday and Friday, as mining managers—there are large copper deposits in the area—leave for the weekend.
Farm-fresh garlic spreads at Salamanca's central plaza
Salamanca's old train station is now a museum and part of a pleasant public park.
Nevertheless, the hotel was still walking distance from a handsome central plaza with a lively crafts and farmers market, a former train station turned museum and municipal park, and easy access to nearby petroglyphs. There are also wineries in the area, though I didn’t get to visit those, but Salamanca—where I’d stayed once several years earlier, still struck me as a good weekend getaway.
The pre-Columbian petroglyphs at Cerro Chalinga are walking distance from downtown Salamanca.
It’s not the area’s only attraction, though. The next day I took the paved highway north to Combarbalá, a village which, on the face of it, resembles some Mexican villages, with narrow streets lined by adobe houses and even ranchera music. To get there, I did veer northwest off the more direct but still unpaved railroad route (though, had there been tunnels, I would have taken it again).
The fountain at Combarbalá's central plaza represents indigenous Diaguita motifs.
Mexican ranchera music is popular in rural Chile, including Combarbalá.
Small-scale mines extract combarbalita for local crafts workers.
What Combarbalá does have is small-scale mining for the semi-precious gemstone combarbalita (I visited a local mine, thanks to Paola Yáñez of Inti Wasi Tour), and the community astronomical Observatorio Cruz del Sur, which offers nighttime tours in one of the best possible areas for professional and amateur astronomy. I stayed at the cozy Eco-Hostal Alto Algarrobal, one of many accommodations that will fill up in for July 2nd, when a total eclipse of the sun will pass nearby (Combarbalá will be slightly south of totality).
The approach to Observatorio Cruz del Sur, in the daylight hours.
The beginning of a nighttime tour at Observatorio Cruz del Sur
Combarbalá and other nearby towns will fill up for the July 2nd eclipse.
After a night at Combarbalá, I headed the next morning for the coast, where Los Vilos would make an ideal beach break for Santiaguinos returning to Chile’s capital. For my part, I continued along the coast to Viña del Mar and Valparaíso, which will be another story here in the near future.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Malbec World Day

Today, April 17th, is officially Malbec World Day, marking the date in 1853 when President Domingo Faustino Sarmiento established the foundation for Argentina’s wine industry by designating a French agricultural expert to import new vines from Europe. Among the varietals imported was Malbec which, a decade later, nearly disappeared in France after a Phylloxera aphid outbreak.
Argentina's 19th-century president, Domingo Faustino Sarmiento, gets the ultimate credit for  Malbec World Day.
In Phylloxera-free Argentina, though, Malbec has flourished. Since the 1990s, it’s become an icon of the industry, but it's also present in California, Chile, and some other parts of the world. While it’s still relatively rare in Europe, last year we managed to find it in Bruges (cinematic reference too tempting), and couldn’t resist sampling it.
Last year, in Bruges, we found this French Malbec on a restaurant wine list.
Malbec’s always on hand in our household, but this World Malbec Day has a poignant aspect. On March 8th, as I was traveling in Chile, our beloved Alaskan malamute Malbec—nearly 15 years old—had to be euthanized.
This is our first World Malbec Day without this 2004 vintage.
Having returned home, I still expect to see him in one or another of his customary resting places when I get out of bed in the morning, and as I walk around the house during the day. On this Malbec World Day, we’ll raise a glass to him this evening, and encourage all his admirers to do so. He left a lasting imprint (pawprint) here.
Before Malbec died, the attending vet made us a pawprint.

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Chile's Highway Hazards

I consider myself a prudent driver and somehow, in Argentina, I’ve managed to avoid any road accidents—an impressive record given the recklessness of so many Argentine motorists, a topic on which I’ve written at some length.
My long-ago confrontation with Buses Don Carlos on the Carretera Austral. At that time, the narrow road had steep edges, so almost everyone drove down the middle.
I’ve been less fortunate in Chile, though I generally consider it a safer place to drive. Once, on the Carretera Austral, I had a blind-curve bus confrontation that effectively demolished my own car and left me with broken ribs. A few years later, on the same route, I rolled a rented SUV when a tire blew on rough gravel (at that time, in 2001, almost the entire route was rough gravel), but I managed to avoid injury.
Not the SUV that I rolled.
Nothing quite so serious has happened since, though I later lost another car when I loaned it to a Santiago friend and an uninsured driver blasted through a stop sign, forcing her into a sidewalk telephone pole. She, fortunately, was uninjured and my own insurance company reimbursed me for the damage. That enabled me to buy my current vehicle, a Suzuki Grand Nomade with far lower mileage, so in that sense I actually came out ahead.
My current car on the southern segment of the Carretera Austral, almost none of which is yet paved.
On my current trip, there’s been nothing to match those occurrences, but other issues have manifested themselves. For one, Chile’s prosperity has meant a burgeoning fleet of modern automobiles—most notably SUVs—apparently owned by people with a great sense of self-entitlement (Yes, my own car’s an SUV, but I like to think I’m more considerate and I have pragmatic reasons for owning it). Many appear to be people from urban areas—probably Santiago—who think they can drive as fast on gravel as they can on a freeway.

That’s significant because a couple weeks, as I drove at a reasonable speed on a remaining gravel stretch of the Carretera Austral, south of Villa Cerro Castillo, one of these jerks passed me at high speed and threw a rock that hit my windshield. At first, the sound seemed worse than the actual damage but, in the following days, a crack appeared that’s now progressed almost all the way across the dash.
The windshield's due for replacement on Monday.
It doesn’t really affect my driving, because the crack does not obstruct my view of the road. When, however, the car next receives its annual revision técnica inspection, it would not pass and, therefore, I’ll now have to replace the windshield in Santiago. This will cost money and time that I’d prefer to devote to other parts of my trip, which ends on April 14th.

Another lesser issue was more easily but oddly solved. One of my tires was clearly losing air and, before leaving Puerto Varas for a nine-hour freeway drive to Talca, we pumped up the pressure (Anecdotally, it’s interesting that, even in these metric countries, the default option for measuring tire pressure is pounds per square inch). I thought a nail or broken glass would be the culprit but, on Thursday, the local Firestone store found no such thing—instead, apparently, air was leaking from a loose seal on the tire. It’s not a big deal like the windshield—remounting the tire cost only about US$5—but it’s a reminder that bad roads (like much of the Carretera Austral) can cause unanticipated problems.

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Saturday, March 23, 2019

Parque Nacional Patagonia, an Update

The former Parque Patagonia is now, officially, "Parque Nacional Patagonia."
Just over two years ago, when I had last visited Parque Patagonia—now officially Parque Nacional Patagonia—the park’s new Centro de Visitantes (Visitor Center) was work-in-progress. Two weeks ago, when I revisited, the center had opened and I finally had a chance to appraise it.
Under construction two years ago, the visitor center is now open to the public.
To start, the center displays all the sophistication and attention to detail that’s typical of all the Tompkins Conservation projects in Argentina and Chile, with no expense spared. Indeed, it would be hard to think of a comparable project, in such a remote area, anywhere in the world. Clearly, both craftsmanship and technological sophistication have gone into the finished product.
The old woolshed at Valle Chacabuco, before it became part of a national park.
When I first heard of the project, I thought the foundation should preserve at least one of the original metal-clad buildings as an in situ museum that would represent the sheep-farming tradition here, but those buildings are gone now. What’s replaced them is a cluster of contemporary buildings with certain rustic style elements, including carved stone façades and wooden details—some of which mimic earlier structures in the region.

Central diorama of the Parque Nacional Patagonia landscape
Overpopulation is the central theme of "The Predicament."
The Centro, which is bilingual in Spanish and English, consists of four exhibit halls surrounding a central diorama that offers an aerial view the park’s jagged landscape. The first focuses on population and, in my opinion, oversimplifies that issue—"The Predicament”—as  the overwhelming instigator of environmental degradation. The displays themselves, though, depict a persuasively vivid correlation between rising population and the decline of wild species.
The "Nature" hall explains the park's ecosystems and their characteristic species.
The "Culture" hall chronicles the region's evolving human occupation.
The second hall categorizes the region’s natural environments—steppes, forests, mountains and wetlands—and fauna, with life-size models of iconic wildlife including guanacos (plenty of living specimens on the lawns outside), pumas, huemuls (Andean deer) and rheas. The third, entitled “Culture,” traces the human impact from pre-Columbian times to the arrival of European settlers (with an intriguing hologram presentation of the pioneer Lucas Bridges, in English with Spanish subtitles) and the gaucho heritage.
Pioneer sheep farmer Lucas Bridges appears in hologram form.
The fourth and last exhibition, entitled “Why Parque Nacional Patagonia?,” is an exhortation to activism, with a plethora of protest signs and a compact surround-sound theater with a short film on “Facing the Abyss.” In terms of the museum’s ethos, that’s pretty self-explanatory, but it’s also something that’s going to change.
Pessimism appear to be the default option.
The suggested response to that pessimism is activism.
That’s because, at the end of April, the park’s ownership will devolve from Tompkins Conservation to the Chilean state, under the Corporación Nacional Forestal (Conaf), which administers Chile’s national parks. According to a career Conaf official with whom I spoke recently, such overt official activism is unlikely.
Private concessionaires will take over the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco and other services.
On a broader scale, Conaf may lack sufficient resources to maintain such a complex of facilities—the center and museum itself, the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, the Rincón Gaucho restaurant and bar, and the Puma Verde handicraft shop, along with support facilities, at least in the manner the Tompkins group would. Next month will begin a period of transition in which concessionaires should take charge of those, and I hear that foreign bidders may be in the running. This is also true of Parque Nacional Pumalín Douglas Tompkins, the Tompkins’s first project in Patagonia, though its installations are not quite so elaborate.

As part of Chile’s ambitious Ruta de los Parques, it will all be worth watching.

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Sunday, March 10, 2019

Another Ferry Tale, from Hornopirén

Many times I’ve driven Chile’s Carretera Austral, but it’s been some time since I began at its official starting point in the city of Puerto Montt. On Tuesday, though, I chose to take the shortest leg of roughly 100 kilometers to the port of Hornopirén, where I would catch the Wednesday ferry to Caleta Gonzalo—or so I thought, as I’ll explain below.
The port of Hornopirén
Leaving Puerto Montt, it’s a smoothly paved two-lane road until Caleta La Arena, where the steep headlands still necessitate a ferry crossing to Caleta Puelche, where the road continues to Hornopirén. At the moment, though, this latter segment is one big construction project, with slow single-lane traffic, until within about 20 km of the town.

Once in town, I found a room at a funky hotel which, however, was reasonably comfortable and had better WiFi than I’d had in purportedly posh Puerto Varas the previous couple days. I’d purchased my Caleta Gonzalo ferry tickets online, but had to report to the local Somarco office to get them printed out.

There’s not a lot to do in Hornopirén other than wait for the ferry, but I found the pleasantly surprising Cafetería Rincón Piedra Lobo down the block for an ave palta (chicken breast and avocado sandwich) on homemade bread, plus a calafate sour for a nightcap. Later at night, though, it started pouring rain and, the next morning, I learned our departure was tentatively moved from 10:30 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Even if that change had happened, it would’ve been inconvenient because the Ruta Bimodal itinerary I’d booked is a ferry shuttle, with two separate crossings linked by ten-km gravel road. This would have meant a very late arrival at my planned destination of Chaitén where, I learned, the storm had left the town without electricity. There were also rumors of trees fallen onto the gravel road from Caleta Gonzalo through Parque Nacional Pumalín Douglas Tompkins.
Hospitable Hotel Hornopirén is about as good as basic gets.
That meant another night in Hornopirén, where I moved to the gracious (and slightly cheaper) Hotel Hornopirén, where my room was smaller but far cozier. During the night, though, heavy rains still pounded the sheet metal roof (typical of this area), and I worried there might be another postponement.
Boarding the Capitán Andrade at Hornopirén
At first light, the clouds still hung low over the mountains, but the movement of ships in the harbor showed that the navy had lifted the port closure. And, as it happened, the Capitán Andrade—a spacious ferry with comfortable seating for passengers and small cafeteria with empanadas, sandwiches and kuchen—sailed on time up the lengthy Fiordo Comau. From the ramp at the hamlet of Leptepu, all the vehicles (and bus passengers) rode the 10 kilometers to Fiordo Largo, where we boarded the Andrade’s twin ferry Hornopirén for a shuttle to Caleta Gonzalo.
A view along the Fiordo Comau
I wasn’t sure what to expect here, especially since I’d received a friend’s alarming Twitter message about floods, the park’s evacuation, and conditions in Chaitén, but those turned out to be mistaken. But for a few potholes, the road was fine and, when I got to Chaitén, all was back to normal (though a crew was restoring some power lines). After a brief stop to purchase a ferry ticket to Chiloé on the 19th, I was on my way to La Junta’s Hotel Espacio y Tiempo for a restful evening.
My modest quarters at Hotel Espacio y Tiempo
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