Sunday, January 24, 2016

Cycling Your Ash Off? Conquering Volcán Osorno

Yesterday, I left the ferry port of Hornopirén in the morning but, instead of continuing toward Puerto Montt – the formal starting point of the Carretera Austral – I left the the highway at Caleta Puelche to turn east on Ruta A-691, a narrow winding gravel road along the Estuario de Reloncaví (pictured above) en route to Petrohué, in Chile’s Parque Nacional Vicente Pérez Rosales. It was a slow drive, disrupted by road work in several places, though some northerly parts of it were paved just before and beyond the town of Puelo (where I had been before, approaching from the north).
It took four hours to drive the roughly 200 km from Hornopirén to the town of Ensenada, at the eastern end of Lago Llanquihue, where I had lunch. After that, I headed to Petrohué, the lakeport locality where the Cruce Andino to Argentina starts, and where I would be staying at Petrohué Lodge, with views of Lago Todos los Santos. It took a while to get there, though, because an urban-like traffic jam coincided with the end of the Conquista Volcán Osorno, a 77-km mountain-bike competition, with more than a thousand riders, around its namesake volcano (pictured below).
There were plenty of spectators along the route, and riders sometimes had to dart between automobiles on the gravel road within the national park boundary (outside that boundary, there’s a wide bike lane that goes all the way to Puerto Varas, 65 km to the west). The riders, though, had looped around the north side of the volcano and passed through what is normally a hiking trail before arriving at Petrohué.

I couldn’t speak to any of the participants, but this morning I asked a national park ranger about the wisdom of allowing such a major competition through an environmentally sensitive terrain of mid-latitude rain forest. While this was the 13th such competition, it was the first since the eruption of nearby Volcán Calbuco, which dumped large amounts of ash here last April. According to what he told me, many riders had to dismount because of deep ash, and he implied that this could be the last such event – at other times, bicycles are not permitted on park trails.

I sympathize with cyclists – I’m one myself, though I prefer paved roads – but I would still argue that this is not appropriate to the environmental goals of a national park. I’d hope that the organizers would find a more suitable route in an area that abounds in suitable terrain – though none of that terrain has quite the majesty of Osorno’s Fuji-perfect cone (pictured above, as seen from the eastern shore of Lago Llanquihue).

Monday, January 18, 2016

Undoing Argentina's "Reciprocity" Mess

In late 2009, Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner’s administration imposed a tourism “reciprocity fee” for passport holders from the United States, Canada and Australia, who can no longer simply arrive at the airport (or other border) and automatically expect a stamp in their documents (as shown below).
On the face of it, this was a just measure - those countries require visas for Argentine citizens, who must pay for the privilege of merely applying to the US (US$160), Australia (US$100) and Canada (US$100). That visa process often involves traveling great distances for a consular interview. My own brother-in-law and his wife, who are presently visiting California, also had to make a special trip to Buenos Aires from their home in northern Patagonia – at additional expense in time and money - for a perfunctory interview at the US consulate in Palermo.

In this context, requiring comparable fees for visitors from the US and countries with similar policies was never unfair. One might even argue that the Argentine policy was relatively liberal, since it never required those visitors to seek an advance visa. Still, I would suggest that the reciprocity fee was (and is) a foolish and counter-productive measure that has made Argentina a less than welcoming destination to many potential visitors.

As the new Argentine administration of Mauricio Macri has taken power, it has already eliminated multiple exchange rates and the “currency clamp,” both of which had caused confusion and problems for visitors who, however, still cannot withdraw money from local ATMs except on disadvantageous terms, and must often carry large amounts of US and Argentine cash. That’s an important step forward for the tourism sector, but it should also eliminate the “reciprocity fee” as soon as possible.

There are many good reasons to eliminate it. In the first place, it adds to the cost of visiting a destination that is already expensive to reach because of distance – for a family of four from the US, it means an extra US$640 diverted to the Argentine treasury rather than circulating in the economy at large. In the second instance, paying the fee requires opening an account with an unfamiliar payment system to which potential visitors may not wish to surrender personal information online. Third, the arriving visitor must show an easily lost or misplaced printout of the transaction.

A Chilean-born friend (with US and Canadian passports), who leads tours into Argentina, described the process and its pitfalls for me as: “cumbersome but doable, it was not always clear what the next step was but I got through it. Largely I succeeded because I have done a lot of payments online, but this one had its slight oddities. I am not sure a little old lady from the Midwest who does not get on the computer a lot will be able to adequately manage this.” He also noted that the English-language version was clumsily unprofessional: “The oddities are mainly some of language, where you have to know to ‘add form’ and ‘print ticket’ instead of ‘upload data’ and ‘print receipt’ or something that makes more sense.”

While none of these may be an insuperable obstacle – visitors from all three countries have not disappeared - they cannot compare with the simplicity of arriving at Ezeiza or a land border and simply having your passport stamped. On the positive side, the fee is valid for ten years, but even that’s not totally positive. In my case, since I travel to Argentina every year, the annual amortization amounts to only US$16, but it does require me to carry the expired passport with proof of payment (at the time, I was able to pay on arrival at Ezeiza, which is no longer possible). My dual passports invariably confuse immigration officers, especially at remote border crossings in Patagonia, because their numbers are different.

Those are short term considerations, but I think the Fernández de Kirchner administration also struck out on a key longer-term perspective. One booming sector of the travel and tourism sector is youth travel, as evidenced by the proliferation of hostels that cater to students and other budget travelers. Their absolute monetary contribution to the economy may be smaller than luxury accommodations and gourmet restaurants, but it often goes to needier providers, such as snack bars, and neighborhood restaurants and grocers. Today’s budget backpackers, though, are tomorrow’s prosperous professionals and, if they have a good experience now, they’re likely to return when their financial resources are far greater. Repeat visitors are better than one-timers.

This, in my opinion, is a missed opportunity. Certainly some of those travelers have made their way to Argentina, but we can speculate that others have bypassed Argentina for, say, Chile – which eliminated its reciprocity fee in 2013. To some degree, of course, Argentina’s reciprocity fee – which I often refer to as a “retaliation fee” - owes its origins to the recent administration’s impulsive politics and awkward relations with the United States, to the detriment of visitors and Argentina’s own future.

Along with the reform of multiple exchange rates, unilateral elimination of the “reciprocity fee” would bring in part of the valuable foreign exchange that the country needs to reactivate its economy. It would be a major step toward improving Argentina’s competitiveness and, in this context, it’s worth noting that Brazil will suspend its advance visa requirements during the upcoming 2016 Olympics.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Patagonia's Outdoor Museum

Recently, in Punta Arenas, I paid my first visit to the Instituto de la Patagonia in several years. It’s actually an academic research institute, founded by local historian Mateo Martinic in the 1970s and affiliated with the Universidad by Magallanes, but it also features the Museo del Recuerdo, a mostly open-air museum that makes an ideal excursion.
I hadn’t visited the Instituto’s museum recently because it hadn’t much impressed me in an earlier stage, and nothing I could see from the street – it’s on the main road into town from the north – really grabbed my attention. Still, after a visit to Norway in mid-2014, where I enjoyed Lillehammer’s Maihaugen museum – a sprawling collection of artifact-filled buildings dating back to the Middle Ages – I decided to give the Museo del Recuerdo another chance.
I was pleased I did so. While the Instituto can’t match Maihaugen’s lengthy history and financial resources -  not to mention the professional actors who make Lillehammer a truly interactive experience – it’s assembled an impressive collection of structures and objects from the 1880s to the 1950s. It deals with three main themes – the wool industry that spurred settlement and brought early prosperity, the local commerce that the wool sector supported, and the regional petroleum industry (this is the only part of Chile with crude oil, though it provides just a tiny percentage of the country’s consumption).
In that context, the open-air exhibits include shepherds’ caravans and shearing shed facilities (pictured at top), horse carriages (of many styles) and antique automobiles, houses and commercial buildings such as a bakery (pictured above), and heavy equipment including steam tractors and oil derricks. Unfortunately, this time, I prowled the grounds after closing, and couldn’t see the collections of smaller artifacts and automobiles except by peering through the windows.
What’s missing here is the mansions of the families that made their fortunes from the Wool Rush of the late 19th century, but several of those – such as the Palacio Braun-Menéndez, home to the regional museum (pictured below) – are still on display downtown.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Avoiding Argentine ATMs Advisable - Still

In 1902, when Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid went to Argentina, they presumably tried to go straight but, in the end, the temptation to rob banks was too great. The banks were where the money was and, despite their apparent wish to retire in northern Patagonia, they returned to robbery before meeting their eventual end in Bolivia.

Today, in Argentina, the banks are still “where the money is,” but now they’re trying to rob foreign visitors. Like many foreign travelers and Argentine tourism operators, I welcomed the end of the cepo cambiario, which forced visitors into a surreptitious foreign exchange market instead of exchange houses and ATMs. Playing by the rules made Argentina expensive.

At the moment, foreign visitors can get a more realistic exchange rate with their ATM cards, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the end of carrying cash. That’s because ATM transactions come with a penalty, as I learned when I attempted, failed at first, and finally succeeded in withdrawing pesos on New Year’s Eve in El Calafate (as soon as I did so, I headed to El Chaltén, a pleasanter place whose ATMs are often down because of poor Internet service).

Initially, I went to an ATM belonging to Banco de Tierra del Fuego (pictured above) and, after introducing my card, I chose the option to withdraw 2000 pesos (roughly US$154 at the new official rate). The machine, though, informed me that I had already exceeded my withdrawal limit for the day (even though I had not withdrawn money since December 25th, in Puerto Natales, Chile). I then tried for 1000 pesos and, after getting the same message, I went elsewhere.
Down the block at Banco Santa Cruz, the machine worked (though the lines were longer), but there was a glitch. It would not let me withdraw more than 1000 pesos and, if I wanted to do so, I would incur a charge of 79.80 pesos – eight percent, nearly US$6, on a withdrawal of roughly US$70. In Chile, by contrast, I was able to withdraw 200,000 pesos (nearly US$300) with a charge of 4000 pesos – two percent, about US$5.50. I’d rather not pay that either, but it’s reasonable (I might add that BancoEstado, whose ATMs I use in Chile, charged foreign customers nothing at all until very recently).
What this suggests is that, for the time being at least, carrying US cash makes more sense than using Argentine ATMs – whose banks want your money “by any means necessary.” As the photo above indicates, many businesses are willing to accept US dollars and other currencies in payment, and will not skim eight percent off the top. It also makes sense to use foreign credit cards, whose international charges are less usurious than Argentine banks.

What would Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Bonnie and Clyde, and Willie Sutton do?
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