Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Ferry Tales From Petrohué

Over the weekend, I spent a couple nights at Petrohué Lodge (pictured above), at the west end of Lago Todos los Santos, in Chile’s Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales. The Petrohué area, which takes its name from the river that drains the lake, is the lacustrine the starting point for the Cruce Andino, the trans-Andean tourist shuttle to the Argentine city of San Carlos de Bariloche that started precisely a century ago, in 1913. At that time, lake steamers, horses and mules carried the tourists and their baggage, but today it’s a bus-boat relay that reaches its peak in summer but operates all year.

In fact, the service across the Andes started in the mid-19th century to deliver products from bustling Puerto Montt to Bariloche at a time when the Argentine settlement was a precarious frontier hamlet, remote from Buenos Aires. Petrohué Lodge’s owner Franz Schirmer has recently built a tribute to his own family in the Museo Pioneros de la Patagonia, an impressive visual chronology of the area from pre-Columbian times to the present, paying special tribute to his great-grandfather Ricardo Roth and other key figures here.
One interesting fact is that, in 1913, former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was one of the earliest tourists to enjoy the scenery of the Cruce Andino (formerly called the Cruce de Lagos, it also navigates Argentina’s Lago Frías and Lago Nahuel Huapi). Roosevelt met Argentine explorer and conservationist Perito Moreno, who had earlier donated part of a land grant to create the Parque Nacional del Sur (now Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi), and his presence undoubtedly contributed to the fact that Todos los Santos and its surroundings became Chile’s first national park in 1926 (the photograph above, from Argentina’s Archivo de la Nación, shows Roosevelt on the Argentine side). Ironically, Pérez Rosales himself was responsible for promoting native forest clearance to establish German colonists in the area.
Another intriguing fact, the Swiss-Chilean Schirmer told me, is that a couple years ago he discovered a photograph proving existence of an aerial tramway intended to replace mules as the means of transport for goods across the Andes – something he had always thought was just a legend. Contacting a German scholar in Leipzig where the tramway was built, he managed to locate the blueprints and, later, he identified the route by overflying the park in a small plane. He and his father found remains of some of the towers, one of which is replicated in the museum (pictured above).

The project, unfortunately, failed because a protectionist Argentine government clamped down on trade from Chile, and it fell into disuse – well, non-use, actually, because it never really got a chance to function. Still, it makes for a good exhibit in a museum that bears visiting, with descriptions in readable English as well as Spanish.

At this time of year, the Cruce Andino is a daily event, with the catamaran Lagos Andinos carrying Argentina-bound passengers to Peulla in the morning and returning with their Chile-bound counterparts in the afternoon. It’s also possible to spend the day in Peulla and return to Petrohué in the afternoon.

Meeting Saturday’s afternoon boat, I was a little surprised to see so many arriving cyclists – who can ride part of the route - because through-paying passengers have priority. For several years, Cruce Andino has been reluctant to carry bicycles but, at present, they’re happy to do at no additional cost, even in the peak summer season. That could change as traffic recovers from the worldwide tourism downturn of 2008, but for now it’s good news for two-wheelers wanting to enjoy what Roosevelt did – always presuming, of course, that the weather holds in this fickle climate.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The Heat Wave Abates? Plus, An ATM Alert

Last month, when I arrived in Santiago, I went from California's approaching winter to Chile's arriving summer, with temperatures in the high eighties to low nineties (around 35° C). Even as I headed south into higher latitudes, the heat wave didn’t dissipate much until, just a couple days ago, it rained on the outskirts of Puerto Octay, where I’m staying at the Swiss-Chilean guesthouse Zapato Amarillo (pictured above).
Today, at Octay, the forecast high is a comfortable 72° F (22° C), the symmetrical snow-covered cone of Volcán Osorno is already visible, and it promises to be an agreeable day. That’s not necessarily the case across the Andes, or at least in Buenos Aires, where temperatures are rising: yesterday’s high reached 44.4° C (112° F) in the Argentine capital’s warmest December in 43 years.

Temperatures are also rising, politically, because of rolling blackouts that have left people without power for days at a time, and the government  of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner suggests they should be happy because state-set electricity rates are low. For someone who often flies the presidential jet to Patagonia when things get tough, this might qualify as a “Let them eat cake” moment.

While I prefer the weather in Puerto Octay, I’ve managed to tolerate the summer heat in Buenos Aires even though our apartment doesn’t have air-conditioning – to this point, our large ceiling fans have provided sufficient cooling even if I’ve sometimes slept atop the sheets instead of under them. If I were in BA at present, I might feel differently but, even if I managed to get the a/c installed, we might not have the power to operate it.

ATMs are widespread in Argentina and Chile but, unlike the newer US machines where your card never leaves your hand, both countries still have the kind that swallows your card and then, presumably, spits it out after finishing your transaction (the one pictured below is from Hanga Roa, on Easter Island). A few weeks ago in Santiago, though, I neglected to retrieve my card and only, after dinner, did I realize it was missing. I returned to the ATM in the slim hope someone had left it there but I was wrong, so I had to cancel it and request a replacement.
That’s one lesson to be learned while traveling here – I had never done such a thing before – but there’s another that’s perhaps even more important. In Chile, I was able to have my bank FedEx a replacement to my friends at Pucón’s TravelAid, where I picked it up a week ago. That’s not necessarily an option in Argentina, where opaque import and customs requirements now require most if not all courier packages to be picked up at Aduana (customs) at the international airport at Ezeiza. That’s a nuisance, at best, if you’re in Buenos Aires; if you’re elsewhere in the country, best of luck, though registered mail (rather than a courier service) may result in direct delivery.

Of course, if you’re using ATMs in Argentina instead of the “blue dollar,” you’re already low on luck. When my Zapato Amarillo friends went to Bariloche last month, they were getting upwards of nine pesos per dollar instead of the ATM’s official rate (6.47 as of today).

Sunday, December 22, 2013

For the New Year: An Argentina-Chile Exchange Rate Update

For the past month or so, as I’ve been traveling in Chile (not counting a week in the Falkland Islands), the exchange rate has remained stable at roughly 530 pesos to the dollar – there have been minor fluctuations in either direction but, essentially, there have been no surprises. In the same period, across the Argentine border (which I haven’t yet visited on this trip), the official dollar has steadily deteriorated by about five percent from 6.06 to 6.42, while the unofficial “blue dollar” has fluctuated – it hasn’t quite reached the ten-peso plateau again and now stands around 9.65, for a roughly 50 percent “breach” with the official dollar.
Here in Pucón, just across the border from the Argentine resort of San Martín de los Andes, I was a little surprised to find that local exchange houses are handling the volatile Argentine currency at all, though I have come across a handful of Argentine tourists paying everything with credit cards (despite a punitive 35 percent tax imposed by their own government) because they have been unable to purchase dollars legally. I was less surprised to learn, from a friend who operates a travel agency here, that Argentina-bound Israeli backpackers have been “raiding” local banks and other sources to purchase dollars with Chilean pesos.

For many years, Argentine ATMs dispensed US dollars alongside pesos, but that was in and just after the decade of dollar-peso parity that ended with the economic collapse of 2001-2. To the best of my memory, Chilean ATMs have never dispensed US dollars, but it’s not difficult to buy dollars with Chilean pesos even though, in this case, the Israelis normally have to do it during regular banking hours. Otherwise, they have to seek out options like the exchange houses and my friend’s agency, where they’ll have to pay a little more for their dollars.

When I checked in at a Pucón exchange house the other day, I was told I could purchase Argentine pesos at 8.1 per dollar, which is lower than the blue rate but still significantly higher than the official rate. For somebody uncomfortable with the idea of risking an “illegal” exchange on the other side of the Andes, it’s not really a bad rate, though I have a friend in Bariloche who provides me better suggestions (which I am not comfortable with passing on here). The parallel market in the Patagonian provinces is not quite so vigorous as it is in Buenos Aires, but I’ll probably be able to provide a further update some time after New Year’s, when I expect to cross the border.

Usually, in the course of updating my guidebooks, I will not include a negative review of a hotel or restaurant, but rather just exclude it. Today, though, I will make an exception after an attempted dinner at Pucón’s Fiorentini (formerly Fiore), an Italian restaurant on Avenida O’Higgins, the town’s main commercial thoroughfare.

Fiore appears in my Patagonia and Chile books, but last night was one of the worst dining experiences of my life. Ordering crab-filled cannelloni, I waited over an hour in a lightly crowded restaurant as other parties took their tables, were served and even finished their meals with no indication when my own order might arrive. Finally, after telling the waitress I’d been waiting for some time, I received a dish of three cannelloni that looked (and tasted) as if they’d just been removed from the freezer and insufficiently microwaved. I sent them back, paid for my pisco sour aperitif, and went to bed without dinner.

I have already deleted Fiore/Fiorentini from my working text for the new edition of Patagonia but, for those who might visit Pucón in the interim, I recommend eating elsewhere.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Under the Volcano: Reinventing Hotel Antumalal

It’s well over a decade, perhaps considerably more, since I first stayed at Pucón’s Hotel Antumalal, near the base of Volcán Villarrica, one of South America’s most active volcanic cones, overlooking the glacial finger lake of Lago Villarrica. At that time, writing for another guidebook publisher better left unidentified here, I found it a charming anachronism in a region whose architecture tended toward the conventional. Its owner, Rony Pollak, came from a Sudeten German family that arrived in Chile in 1938 and, after a couple false starts, hired a Chilean architect to create a contemporary lodge in the Middle European Bauhaus style made famous by Walter Gropius.
On five hectares of meticulously landscaped hillside gardens, at the western approach to Pucón, Antumalal was one of the Andean lake district’s most audacious projects when it opened in the 1950s – each room had a large sliding picture window with expansive views, in contrast to the small and relatively dark wooden constructions that were typical elsewhere in the region. In a conversation yesterday morning, Rony told me that, although she’s gradually stepping away from direct participation in the business, there will continue to be strong family involvement through her son Andrew, even as the Antumalal reinvents itself as a resort spa.
Even as the Antumalal contemplates a more strictly businesslike future, the personal touches remain here. All of its 22 rooms lack numbers - rather, they place the guest's name discreetly on the door (it's not perfect; they unfortunately typoed mine). Whenever personnel are available, they even wash your car on arrival. Card keys have replaced the simple locks, and there is WiFi throughout, but handsome cabinets camouflage the flat-screen TVs – electronics do not distract from the natural setting and the handsomely built structures.
One continuing anachronism is the use of firewood for water heating – common even in some surprisingly large hotels elsewhere in the region – but that now comes from a sustainably managed forest, and Pucón does not suffer the same severe pollution problems that the larger city of Temuco does. Each room has its own modernized fireplace for in-room warmth but, at present, a late-spring heat wave has let me leave the windows open at night (to be awakened this morning by some raucous buff-necked ibises on the sloping lawn outside).
In what was, arguably, one of the world's earliest design hotels, accommodations are not large by contemporary standards. Still, for a night at least, guests can fantasize getting the same royal treatment as Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, the highest-profile visitors ever here. Non-royalty (or non-royalists) can alternatively aspire to emulate Jimmy Stewart, Barry Goldwater, or Neil Armstrong, whose photographs also help decorate a lobby wall.

In addition to accommodations, Antumalal has a view restaurant with both indoor and outdoor seating facing open stretches of the lake, and the rejuvenated Antumaco Spa with an indoor/outdoor pool. Arriving with a stiff back, I indulged myself in a deep tissue relaxation massage last night and, this morning, some of the pain has dissipated. It wasn’t cheap, but the results appear to have been worth it.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

A 24-Hour Drought in Chile? Plus, My Own Personal Wine Lodge

Chile, like California, often experiences drought – it’s a wet-winter, dry-summer Mediterranean climate and, at the moment, summer is fast approaching. Right now, on the outskirts of Talca, it’s 86° F with 27 percent humidity, the kind of weather that often calls for a cold beer (though I’m not much of beer drinker).
Still, just a few minutes ago, at 8 pm Santiago time, Chile officially became a dry country. On election day – the country chooses tomorrow between former president Michelle Bachelet and the weak conservative candidate Evelyn Matthei – there is a de jure 24-hour period of prohibition during which you cannot sell or purchase alcohol (though that doesn’t mean you can’t stock up before 8 pm).

I think I understand the reasoning behind this – in principle, a sober electorate should make a better choice, but that’s open to question. Having witnessed the results of last November’s US congressional elections, I'm tempted to suggest that alcohol consumption should perhaps be obligatory, especially in so-called “red states” (which, however, may not have been sober anyway). Meanwhile, as zero-hour approached, I was enjoying a pisco sour (like the one above) at Casa Chueca.
Last night, though, prohibition was not a problem. For the first and probably only night in my life, I had a 13-bedroom winery guesthouse all to myself, at the Maule valley headquarters of Viñedos Julio Bouchon. At Mingre, about 30 km inland from the coastal city of Constitucion, it's a sprawling colonial casona with Francophile furnishings, two internal patios, citrus trees, olive trees, and even a rustically styled hot tub outside.
I was working, of course, and got a tour of the modern winery facilities, whose maceration and storage tanks stand in the open air, rather than in a building, but shaded by tarps. It produces the usual Chilean varietals, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Carmenere, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc in several different lines. It didn’t surprise me to hear that 90 percent of their production goes for export – that’s not unusual in Chilean wineries – but I was rather shocked to learn that 70 percent of those exports go to Russia. It’s only now breaking into the US market, through Sausalito-based Vine Connections.

On a warm afternoon, before falling asleep in a comfortable room to nearly total silence, I indulged myself in several glasses of an excellent Sauvignon Blanc from their Mercedes line – not their top, apparently, but still outstanding – to accompany a dinner of gnocchi and pesto. I also took away a bottle of Carmenere that I’m looking forward to. The Mingre line (pictured below) is another step up, but I can't imagine it's that much better.

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