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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