Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Punta Arenas, Again!

There are some places that keep me going back, first time here in 2004 then 2010, 2011 and again in 2012.  It is as a city frozen in time; it started as a penal colony just as Ushuaia en Argentina. Back then British influence was dominant in South America and both colonies were modeled after the penal one in Port Arthur in Tasmania; it was a way to colonize to the isolated southernmost regions of the world. 

 This city was booming back in the XIX century when all seagoing traffic from the Atlantic to the Pacific coast of the USA went via the Straits of Magellan’s.  When gold was discovered in California, this was the easiest away to get there.  It was a coaling station so ships have to stop there for fueling bringing business to the local economy.   The opening of the Panama Canal changed all that.  

During 1890-1940, the area was the largest exporting of sheep and wool in the region; giving rise to large fortunes as those of the Menendez and Braun families.  They controlled vast territories both in Chile and Argentina.  As always, national pride between the countries put in dispute as to who is the southernmost city in the world, so Ushuaia and Punta Arenas are in competition.  I will settle this by saying that the former is the southernmost while the latter is the largest southernmost city.

Punta Arenas has the honor of being the city with the largest exposure to Ultraviolet light as part of the daily weather report the radiation index is posted.  I enjoy walking the streets and I will venture that there are more murals and graffiti here that any other city I have visited.  It may have to do with been the southernmost city and  the ozone hole that exposed its artists to high doses of ultraviolet light; causing them to see colors that have to be expressed in their neighbor’s walls.

It is not only paintings but there are also local sculptors at work mostly using metals.  Some are very original as the trashcan made out metal parts and the hand in the wall supporting a flag pole. The more you walk, the more you appreciate the local talents.

There are lots of street dogs and they are mostly friendly ones.  One morning, while standing in front of the hotel Plaza at the traffic light facing the square, I saw 2 mutts crossing the street with the pedestrian light green; they got across as the light changed.  There was another dog behind them that began to cross with the Do Not Walk sign on, the two dogs that have crossed started barking at the third dog crossing the street which turned around and went to the sidewalk…Believed or NOT?  And they are always looking where they can check previous visitors and leave their business calls.

The cemetery has several large mausoleums from the old potentates of which the Menendez-Braun family are the most prominent. And there is the statue of the Indio Desconocido covered with flowers and the walls behind with testimonies plaques of the miracles that he had granted.  In the beginning of the XX century there was a great immigration of people from the Balkans that were escaping the wars there.  Some of these families established here with great success as represented by the triangular mausoleum below.

A section of the cemetery has a complex of multistoried sepulchers, the most extensive I had seen; not even the one in el El Retiro cemetery in Buenos Aires can match its size.  Another peculiar thing is the way that the trees are trimmed; they look like they are fertilized with Viagra.

I noticed a revival of the city in 2010 when la Avenida Costanera was being finished; this year it is booming with new construction both industrial and commercial. By 2011, there were windmills harnessing electricity from the winds. I attribute this growth to the discovery of coal. Nor far from the city they are opening a coal mine which along with the damage to the environment, will brings jobs and wealth. 

This is a city I could live on; still a slow pace with nice cool summers. I may have a different opinion if I would visit there in the winter.  This year the city was still undergoing repairs both of the streets and historical buildings.  They just recently suffered large mud floods.  But the colors are still there.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

The Fires at Torres del Paine.

 A disaster, crime or just plain negligence.  According to the official news the fire was originally blamed on an Israeli soldier on vacation; now the culprit was a Czech tourist according to the official CONAF website, the Chilean government agency responsible for the parks.at http://www.torresdelpaine.com/ingles/secciones/noticias/11.asp.  Regardless of who ignited the fire, the Park authorities are blamed for not timely controlling the fire. The “expert politicians” started to arrive from Santiago and took over the firefighting operations. These “experts” were not familiar with the park and ended up been guided by the local hacienda owners and hostel staff to fight the fires. There was a lot of resentment by the local tourist operators due to the closure of the park, and as always, some got exempted from closure due to political contacts. And yes, I being one of those tourists, I suffered too; more on this later.  My perception was that the governments over reacted by originally closing the whole park using the excuses of safety and to facilitate the firefighters work.  Eventually some trails were reopened but the park remained closet to vehicle traffic while I was there.
CONAG current party line (as of March 2012)   is that things are back to normality; that the damaged forests and the lost to the local economy and the tourists who lost their time and money are whole again!!!  There was heavy criticism of the park rangers at Torres del Paine and of CONAG, the agency in charge of the Parks in Chile; they were not prepared and took too long to start firefighting operations.  Allegedly, the rangers spent most of the time performing administrative tasks such as collecting park fees at the entry gates rather than policing the trails to protect the flora and fauna as well providing assistance to the trekking tourists.  And also charges that most of the revenue collected from the park entry fees are nor reinvested in the park, but go somewhere else.   

I witnessed some of the destruction caused by the fire as well as CONAF firefighting activities.  The Chilean military responded to the emergency and I saw many of their soldiers actively involved in putting out fires.  One of the problems that they faced was that once they put out a fire in one area and moved on, the fire in the former area came to life again.  High winds at times between 100-140 KMH added to the complication of fighting the fires.

I spent a week in the vicinity of the park unable to enter it because of the fire; I had to wait for an upcoming cruise of the Magellan’s Straits the next week.  Arrangements for visiting the park were made 3 months in advance and all fees paid for and the various hosterias within the park including meals.  My tour guide had warned me of the problems in the park a few days before arrival, but there was no alternative, so upon arriving in Punta Arenas, proceeded to the park.  The first night was paid and reserved for Estancia Laguna Amarga hosteria.  This hosteria is outside the boundaries but close to the park so it was open for business.  We had reservations for 3 rooms with private bathrooms but when we arrived, they have given 2 of our rooms to an Italian tour group, and moved all four of us to a single room.  We protested and the response was “take it or leave it” and refused to credit the payment for the stolen rooms.  We left upon the insistence of our guide, who found accommodations at a superior hosteria farther from the park where we arrived after midnight. Our tour operator assumed the extra cost of this alternate facility.  Reservations for the two other hosteria within the park were also prepaid and lost, but since the park was closed by the government, they refused to refund the cost of the rooms.

Helicopters (above) were heavily used to fight the fires and I photographed these birds filling their water buckets at Laguna Verde repeatedly and flying to the fires to dump the water.  This was a costly and lengthy operation; I was told that the cost of keeping them flying was $4000/hour. The helicopter firefighting operations were observed from the estancia Lazo and while there, the young cowboy (image below) riding a spirited horse was thrown off the horse.  His father came in an ATV and drove him the home, he appeared to be fine but was taken to the doctor in Natales next day.  I stayed at the estancia for a couple of nights, a friendly family run place with rooms with great views and excellent food.  While there saw this “pecho colorado” that in English means “red breasted” but the proper name is ‘white browed blackbird”. 

Traveling in the vicinity gave us opportunities to photograph the wildlife.  It appears that the guanacos were at the top of their romances season was able to observe the related activities.   These animals are always a pleasure to photograph as well as the lesser rhea.  There were also opportunities for landscapes imagining, although not as striking as inside the park proper, still beautiful to photograph.  Horseshoe bends are one of my favorite geological formations to photograph are created by the flow of old rivers.  The third image below was in the Rio Paine, just below the Cascada Paine; it took a bid of a walk to the edge of the river but I got the image.

Laguna Amarga was a challenge to photograph due how wide it is but it was eventually capture in all its majesty with a fisheye lens; there were flamingos and cauquens in the lake at the time of the visit.

Another alternate hacienda that we stayed outside the park was Cerro Guido (www.cerroguido.cl).  This was an old sheep hacienda that still operates and had the opportunity of visiting to the old buildings where they shear the sheep.  The old steam engine has been replaced by a modern gasoline motor but the old system of overhead pulleys to power the shearing equipment is still in use.  The hacienda is a self-contained small town with a school, police station and houses for the workers.  And then a surprise, the Kaw Restaurant, with an outstanding chef that prepared culinary dishes that were works of arts to the eyes as well as gastronomically delicacies.  A great selection of Chilean wines was a perfect addition to the meals, along with the views of the Needles of Cleopatra (currently known as the Horns of the Devil).  It is amazing to find such a high class restaurant in such an isolated place; an oasis.

Travel has its rewards as well as challenges and I have learned to deal with them by being patient.  Despite the fire at Torres del Paine, it is still there and the “Horns of the Devil’s” as majestic as always, but the forest fire wounds will not heal in my lifetime.  I do thank my tour operator for providing alternatives activities while the park was closed at no extra cost.  Yes, I will return but not to those hostales that did not honor reservations or failed to refund payments using the fire as an excuse.