Thursday, December 22, 2022

Where's the Money? The Latest in Chile and Argentina

Since arriving in Chile, I’ve had four occasions to change money—thrice at ATMs and once over the counter at a casa de cambio (exchange house). Normally in Chile I use an ATM but, in the latter case, I had to pay my mechanic for auto repair that exceeded the Ch$200,000 (about US$225) withdrawal limit for a single transaction.

A casa de cambio in Pucón, Chile

A BancoEstado ATM (also in Pucón)

Using the ATM here still makes sense, but there are drawbacks as well. In the past, the public BancoEstado made no charge for any withdrawal, but now it collects Ch$5500 (about US$6) per transaction, amounting to a 2.75 percent fee. Later, out of curiosity (and necessity), I made a similar withdrawal from the private Banco Itaú and incurred a charge of CH$6000 (almost US$7, or 3 percent). I rather assumed that would be the private bank standard but I was mistaken—at a Banco de Chile machine, I paid Ch$8500 (nearly US$10, 4.25 percent).


Thus, BancoEstado remains my default option but, in most places, private bank machines are far more abundant. The exception is very small towns, where BancoEstado is often the only option, and that’s fine with me.


Meanwhile, there’s been another development in Chilean travel, and that has to do with credit card surcharges. Since I arrived in the country, I have experienced multiple purchases with a small additional charge for paying with a foreign credit card. Yesterday morning, for instance, my Ch$9000 breakfast (about US$10) came with a surcharge of Ch$328 (3.6 percent). There seems to be no consistency on this, however, and at least half my purchases have had no additional charge whatsoever. Still, visitors should be prepared for this.


Meanwhile, in Argentina…

The Dólar Blue is nearly double the official rate.

For several years now, one of the hassles of traveling in Argentina has been the multiplicity of exchange rates, and the necessity to carry large amounts of US cash to exchange at the “blue dollar” rate (that’s a euphemism for black market, which is widely accepted). Even with the more favorable blue rate, visitors have to carry large numbers of Argentine banknotes, because the highest value is just 1000 pesos (about US$3 at the blue rate).

Now, however, there’s been a step in the right direction, as the government recently instituted the “Dólar MEP,” which stands for Mercado Electrónico de Pagos (Electronic Payment Market). What this means is that visitors, when paying for good or services with a foreign credit card, will benefit from the blue rate rather than the official exchange rate but, according to a Bariloche friend who operates an adventure tourism agency, the situation isn’t perfect.

A cueva near our apartment in Palermo, Buenos Aires

That’s because many Argentine businesses still prefer to deal in cash, and that means visiting so-called cuevas, informal exchange houses that operate with official tolerance (though not approval). It’s also because, as yet, it’s not clear whether or not the the Dólar MEP applies to ATM transactions—will visitors still get the official and disadvangeous exchange rate when withdrawing cash from local banks? Stay tuned.

This Western Union office also serves as a cueva, and you go to the front of the line.

Saturday, December 10, 2022

Returning to Santiago (and all that entails)

At very long last, this past Monday, I arrived back in Chile for the first time since March of 2020, when I abruptly flew home to California as the seriousness of the COVID-19 pandemic became obvious. I was originally to arrive on the previous Saturday but, late that week, LATAM suddenly canceled my nonstop Friday flight from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Aeropuerto Arturo Merino Benítez (SCL).

Thanks to my heroic travel agent—there are still such things!—I was able get rescheduled for Sunday even though not without trepidation that the new flight might also be canceled. Analía Rupar-Przebieda (an Argentine resident of Southern California) first tried to reschedule me on Delta (a LATAM partner) via Atlanta, but Delta refused (even though the SFO-LAX leg of my flight was with them). That would have gotten me to SCL on Saturday as planned, but the rescheduled LATAM left on Sunday and didn’t get me here until early Monday morning.

The lines at immigration were long, but moved surprisingly quickly.

The flight was reasonably comfortable if crowded, and I was one of few coach passengers wearing a mask (those in first and business seemed to take it more seriously). On deplaning and arriving at immigration, though, we were faced with the longest lines I’ve ever seen at any airport. We also saw a warning for monkeypox—Chile continues to take contagion seriously—but the lines moved surprisingly quickly. So did the customs and agricultural checkpoint, so I was finally officially in the country.

Is monkeypox the next big thing?

Now to get to the city, and I purchased a seat on a shared TransVIP shuttle and was surprised to find a 5.5 percent surcharge on my foreign credit card. This has also been the case on some restaurant meals, but not on a purchase I made at a downtown department store. I had arrived with a small amount of Chilean cash but, at the new international terminal, the exchange houses were offering very poor rates and there was no functional ATM anywhere to be seen.


I rested most of Monday, other than a fine Peruvian dinner at with my host Marializ Maldonado at Del Carajo, across from the Hipódromo (racetrack) in the untouristed neighborhood of Independencia. The next day, I found a BancoEstado ATM and learned that their once-free ATMs now charge Ch$5500 (roughly US$6.50) for any withdrawal from a foreign account. Yesterday I made the maximum withdrawal of Ch$200,000 (about US$230) with the private Banco Itaú at a cost of Ch$6,000 (US$7). I haven’t yet tried to change US cash in the city, because I’m saving most of that for unpredictable Argentina.

With luck, my so far trusty Suzuki will be back on the road soon.

In preparation for upcoming Patagonian road trip, I’m now awaiting replacement of the catalytic converter on my 2005 Suzuki Grand Nomade, which failed its most recent revision. The most worrisome part of this, at present, is the availability of a replacement part, though my trusted mechanic Mauricio Donoso sounds reasonably optimistic.

Another issue I’ve had to deal with is cell phone service. My US carrier provides phone and data coverage here, but with limits—not exactly clear—on how much, and I’ll be in Chile and Argentina for three months. Because my new iPhone 12 uses an E-SIM rather than a physical chip, I cannot use a pay-as-you-go option here and, without legal residence in the country, nor can I open an account with a monthly plan. Yesterday, though, my host Marializ added me to her plan (and I’ll reimburse her), but that’s not an option for the overwhelming majority of visitors. Some will be limited to WiFi.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Ushuaia's "Prison without Walls:" A Book Review

Over more than four decades, I’ve visited the city of Ushuaia at least a dozen times—first, in 1979, when Argentina had nearly provoked a potentially ruinous war with Chile over three small islands in the Beagle Channel. At the tip of the South American continent, Tierra del Fuego had long had a reputation as the “uttermost part of the Earth” but, with only about 11,000 people, Ushuaia then was nothing like the Antarctic cruise ship capital it is today.

At that time, about to enter grad school at Berkeley, I had only a general understanding of the area’s lengthy penal history and, given Argentina’s brutal military dictatorship, poking around places like the former Presidio Nacional (National Prison)—then under naval control—was inadvisable. It’s this history, and related developments, that Ryan C. Edwards explores in A Carceral Ecology: Ushuaia and the History of Landscape and Punishment in Argentina, recently published by the University of California Press.

Ushuaia has always enjoyed an imposing setting, but it was once a  rugged frontier outpost.

In 1884 Argentina initially established a lighthouse and military prison at Isla de los Estados (Staten Island), a rugged offshore island at the eastern tip of Tierra del Fuego, but the extreme climate—incessant winds, rain, and snow—dictated its abandonment for a site on the big island’s southern shore in 1902. What is now the city of Ushuaia had been a rather less rugged encampment of British missionaries and Argentine gold-seekers for decades before that.

There's now a national park footpath to the Chilean border (though it's formally illegal to cross).

By some accounts, Ushuaia was nevertheless a “natural prison” from which escape was nearly impossible. The Isla Grande de Tierra was then a roadless wilderness—even though the Chilean border was technically within walking distance—surrounded by violent seas (Anarchist Simón Radowitzky, who assassinated Buenos Aires police chief Ramón Falcón 1909, did make a valiant escape attempt). Still, the Argentine government built a solid prison to confine its convicts—or did it?

Cellblocks of the former prison (now the Museo Marítimo)

The prison, which closed in 1947 but reopened as a museum 50 years later, took its architectural inspiration from Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary. Of an initial plan of eight radial cellblocks, only five were completed and it was, in fact, a “prison without walls,” many of whose inmates worked in and for the community. There were violent criminals, such as the serial killer Cayetano Santos Godino, who were confined to small cells, but many others worked on outside projects—some of them dangerous, such as logging in the forests that would eventually become Parque Nacional Tierra del Fuego. Others were confinados (political prisoners), such as journalist Ricardo Rojas, who enjoyed “off-campus” housing and could meet with his colleagues away from penal supervision, could purchase better rations, and could even publish accounts of their internal exile in the “Siberia of Argentina.”

Inside the cellblocks

Originally built for timber extraction, the restored railway is now a tourist attraction at the national park.

The prison closed when a consensus developed that Ushuaia’s extreme environment, in a thinly populated area, was not conducive to reintegrating prisoners into society. That said, it was the prisoners whose labor, including building a short-line railway for timber extraction, laid the foundation for what is now the national park in a city that has also become the gateway to Antarctica for a growing fleet of international cruise ships.

The port of Ushuaia is now the gateway to Antarctica for cruise ships.

The prison facilities themselves became a naval base but, as a museum, they’re a visible part of what’s become known internationally as “dark tourism” that also includes similar sights/sites as California’s Alcatraz Island and South Africa’s Robben Island. Again, when I first visited in 1979, this was still to come. The story of how it came to be is engrossing.

This mural of prisoners in Ushuaia is a reality check on what it was like in penal days.

If I have one quibble about this book it’s that, despite the fact that the author was an undergraduate in the Department of Geography at Berkeley, he seems unaware that the author of this review (a Berkeley PhD) had written about Ushuaia in a multitude of guidebooks for various publishers over the last four decades. While I wouldn’t suggest that I have greater insights on the city and its history than his exhaustive research in both primary and secondary sources, an analysis of guidebooks (not just mine) might have added something to the topic of tourism.

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