Monthly Archives: June 2011

Chilean Ash Cloud Continues Its Circuit Around the Globe, Grounding Travelers

Since Southern Chile’s Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano complex erupted on June 4, its ash cloud has accomplished a feat many travelers daydream about: Circling the globe. And it didn’t even have to buy a round-the-world ticket.

On its leisurely cruise around the Earth, the cloud first grounded flights in Chile, Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. It blanketed Bariloche with ash and cinder, and closed the Cardenal Samoré border crossing. After drifting over the Atlantic Ocean, South Africa and other countries on that continent were affected. Across the Indian Ocean, then, to cause Qantas and other airlines to cancel flights in Australia and New Zealand last week.

Within two weeks, Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s ash cloud made full circle, re-entering South America near Coyhaique, Chile. Once again, South American air traffic was affected.


As if never ceasing on its enviable journey, the ashes arrived once again to Africa and Asia, causing the full moon to appear blood red during the June 15 lunar eclipse.

This past Monday, Virgin Australia, Qantas and other air lines once more canceled over 200 flights, affecting the travel plans of more than 40,000 passengers.

According to Australia’s Volcanic Ash Advisory Center, the ash cloud is traveling some 4,000 kilometers (2,400 mi) per 24 hours, pushed on by strong winds. Satellite images still clearly show the plume, and pilots have reported seeing it.

In the meantime, Puyehue Volcano’s eruption continued to pump out more smoke. Yesterday morning, fine ash fell upon Villarrica, Pucón and the Ranco Lake area. Northwesternly winds pushed the cloud towards Valdivia.

It appears, though, that Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s cloud will be running its course soon. Chile’s Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (Sernageomin) announced yesterday that the volcano has had a significant lava flow, which should stop the volcano from pumping out more ash. Nonetheless, the Puyehue and Ranco Lake districts are still under red alert.

Hopefully as Puyehue-Cordón Caulle settles down and unpacks its bags, human travelers will be able to get one with their journeys around the globe.

On the Road—Colombia: Crooked Cops

CCs, DPs, lawless blue boys, gun slingers, bent coppers, crooked cops—call them what you will. They exist in many countries, even in most of ours. It’s a topic, though, few want to talk about. People will look away, tugging at collars. And then, as if the room was wiretapped, in hushed voices they will tell what has happened to him, or to her, or a relative, a friend.

We feel uncomfortable, even paranoid, talking about it. But we must—if for nothing else but to warn others.

All in all, Colombian police are very friendly and helpful. Even Jack and Russell, two bikers from the US, attest to that. While in Cartagena, they were leaving a nightclub at 3 a.m. Four officers stopped them, to counsel them on returning to their hotel at that late hour. In the course of the friendly chat, the tourists were asked to see their IDs, so they handed over their wallets. Everything fine, everything in order. Be safe going back, the officers told the foreigners. But when they got back to their room, one discovered $80 had been lifted from his wallet. “But it was okay,” he said. “They were so kind and friendly. Never met nicer cops in my life.”

Indeed, like elsewhere, there are a few bad apples. Ask Colombians about it and the reaction is the same as anywhere: They look away, tug on collars and speak in low voices. Hostel owners say, “Yes, we warn foreigners about it.” Stories abound of “on-the-spot fines,” drugs being planted and other shady acts. The worst areas are where the foreigners go most: Bogotá, Cali, Medellín and Caribbean coast destinations like Cartagena, Santa Marta and Taganga.

On the beach at Taganga, it is common to see police officers stopping young travelers, searching through their day packs and sometimes even frisking them.

Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Colombians have a saying, “No dar papaya.” Literally it means, “Don’t give papaya”—advising you: Don’t make yourself a mark. A while back, On the Road—Colombia took on this topic, in the sense of how people set themselves up as a target for thieves. But it also can apply to dealings with officials. Maggie (also from the US) and Daaf (Holland) are perfect examples of this.

I met Daaf in Bogotá. He had been traveling throughout Colombia, taking in the country’s natural beauty—and products. Three times police had stopped and searched him. And three times, he had to pay $200 “on-the-spot fines” because he had marijuana on him. Daaf was a bit down. He was having to end his trip earlier than planned because he had run out of money.

Maggie and her boyfriend, Mike, also “gave papaya.” One evening in Cartagena, they went and to get a small bag from a dealer from whom they’d bought several times previously. She took it and returned to their hostel. A few minutes later, Mike was stopped by a uniformed officer who frisked him—and found a small bag of weed in Mike’s back pocket. The policeman hauled Mike off to the police station and left. For hours Mike insisted the bag was not his and that he was set up. After several hours of complaining, he was released. (Luckily Mike is fluent is Spanish.)

I told Maggie that perhaps the dealer had set them up with the police. “But we had bought from him several times before!” she insisted. Yes, but that could have been to gain your confidence, or perhaps he had to cut a deal with the police to save his own neck. “You think?” she asked me.

When I asked locals about how travelers can lessen there chance of these kinds of encounters, or what they should do if approached, Colombians were at a loss. Really, there is nothing much that you can do. If approached by a police officer, be courteous. Try to have a reliable person witness the encounter. Be aware of the image you are projecting: Do you look like a “hippie” or a drunken tourist that can easily be taken advantage of? Do you look like someone rolling in money? Also, no matter how often we say it, it cannot hurt to say it again: Don’t mess with drugs while on vacation in a foreign land. It’s the perfect way of setting yourself up for “fines” or worse.

The majority of police in Colombia are very friends and helpful, though. So don’t be too paranoid about them on your explorations of this wonderfully diverse and fascinating country.

Editor’s note: All names have been changed to protect identities.

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA COLOMBIA. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

Volcanic Eruption Continues to Affect Travel

As reported last week, on June 4, Southern Chile’s Cordón Caulle on Puyehue Volcano’s slopes erupted for the first time in 51 years. Across the entire Southern Hemisphere, the eruption has been causing travel nightmares not only for common journeyers, but also for U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon, who is on a regional tour. He had to bus to Buenos Aires and boat to Uruguay.

This past week, flights were canceled in Chile and Patagonian Argentina, as well as southern Brazil. On Monday another column of ash, shooting eight kilometers (5 mi) into the atmosphere, forced the closures of airports across the Southern Cone, from Santiago to Buenos Aires to Montevideo.

But South America isn’t the only place being affected by Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s fallout. When winds shifted to the West over the weekend, the ash forced Qantas and other airlines to cancel flights in New Zealand and Australia.

Both Chile and Argentina have declared agricultural emergencies in their Lake and Patagonia regions. Lava flows have oozed down the Nilahue River valley. Over five million salmon were relocated when rising river temperatures caused fishkills.

Friday, rain and ash from the eruption caused an avalanche near the (closed) Cardenal Samoré border crossing road, which remains closed. To handle border traffic, the Chilean government has increased the number of ferries on Lago Pirehueico at the Hua Hum pass and has reopened Paso Pino Hinchado. Snows may force the re-closure of these crossings.

Chile’s Emergency Management Agency (Onemi) maintains a red alert for the Lago Ranco and Puyehue areas. Travelers are advised to watch the news for further developments. To keep up on Volcán Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s activity, check Chile’s Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (Sernageomin) website. Earthquake Report publishes an up-to-date chronicle of reports of Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s effects in the region.

The best views in Quito

At street level, Quito is a hectic place: vendors crows the sidewalk, traffic screeches and lurches along, stereo systems blast reggaeton from each store. From a distance, however, the city is beautiful and serene. What are the best places to get a view of the Quito?

Rucu Pichincha: That craggy looking volcano looming over the city doubles an excellent viewpoint. The easiest way to get there is by taking the TeleferiQo, the cable car that will carry you to an elevation of 13,300 feet (4,050 meters).

The view of Guapulo

Guapulo: Guapulo is an emerging nightlife destination in Quito, but it’s also one of the best places to get a view of the city. From the bohemian, cliff-side bars, you can look down on the neighborhood’s white-washed 18th-century buildings and colonial church, and on a clear night you can see all the way to Cumbayá, in the next valley over.

Basilica del Voto Nacional: From the top of the neo-gothic Basilica del Voto Nacional, you’ll enjoy views that would make Quasimodo jealous. After crossing some catwalks and climbing some ladders, you’ll have an unparalleled view of both colonial and modern Quito.

Mirador El Panecillo: Located atop a hill on the south end of the Centro Historico, a giant statue of the Virgin Mary marks the spot for the best views of Quito’s historic neighborhoods. Make sure to take a cab up the hill.

To learn more about Ecuador’s capital, check out VIVA’s new guide to Quito, available in hard copy and eBook format.

Studying Spanish in Cusco: What you need to know

High-season is kicking off in Peru, and especially in the capital of its tourism industry, Cusco. Among the thousands of visitors packing the streets of town, many will be looking to brush up on their language skills. Before you start your Spanish classes in Cusco, however, keep a few things in mind.

Class Type

Not all Spanish classes are the same. Personal, one-on-one classes give you much more flexibility to decide what you’ll be studying, and give you more opportunity for practice. On the other hand, classes in small groups are a great way to make friends and generally cost 20-40% less.

A group class at the Academia Latinoamericana de Español

Volunteering and other Activities

You’re going to want to do more than just study. Most schools in Cusco have a whole range of activities to choose from. Probably the most popular choice is volunteering; students can volunteer at orphanages and after-school programs, do environmental work, or give back to the community in any number of other ways. Ask your prospective school if they can set something up for you. Many schools also offer excursions to nearby tourist attractions, as well as dance and cooking classes.

Homestays

3-hours of Spanish class per day isn’t going to make you fluent anytime soon. The best way to improve is to practice, practice, practice. If you live with a local family, rather than in a hotel, you’re much more likely to use your Spanish. You’ll also get a better feel for the local culture. On the other hand, hotels and hostels provide much, much more privacy than most homestays. Again, check with your Spanish school about what its various accommodation options are.

Accreditation

Most schools in Cusco are not accredited, which is not a problem in itself. Check to see if the teachers have been trained in Spanish instruction, but for most students, an unaccredited school is fine. However, if you are pursuing the DELE certificate, receiving academic credit from your university, or receiving government funding, you’ll need an accredited school. Ask before you send in your cheque.

For a listing of Cusco’s Spanish schools, click here.

For 316 pages of similar wisdom, check out VIVA’s Guide to Cusco and Machu Picchu.

Volcanic Eruption Disrupts Travel in Chile & Argentina

Travelers in Chile and Argentina’s Lake Districts are finding their journeys disrupted by a volcanic eruption.

After a series of small earthquakes, southern Chile’s Volcán Puyehue-Cordón Caulle re-awoke last Saturday (June 4) with a 10,000-meter (32,600-ft) high column of smoke and ash. The eruptions are occurring on Puyehue’s (2,236 meters / 7,267 feet) slopes. The present activity is northeast of the vents triggered by the 1960 earthquake, which was the largest in modern history.

Over 3,500 people have been evacuated from the Puyehue region and Lago Ranco. Parque Nacional Puyehue has been declared a red zone, and is closed from the customs complex to Hotel Termas Puyehue. Paso Cardenal Samoré, the region’s major border crossing between Chile and Argentina, is closed.

The ash stream of the Puyehue-Cordón Caulle volcano. Photo by NASA Goddard Photo/ Jeff Schmaltz

Heavy ash and softball-ball size pumice fell on Bariloche. The fallout drifted eastward over Puerto Madryn. Argentine airports from Bariloche to Trelew will be closed until at least Wednesday.

Early Monday winds shifted to the northwest, blowing ash over Osorno.  The Oficina Nacional de Emergencia (Onemi) director of the Los Lagos Region, Andrés Ibaceta, stressed that as spectacular as the eruption is, this is an emergency situation. Tourists should keep away from the Cordón Caulle area.

Travelers are advised to watch the news for further developments. To keep up on Volcán Puyehue-Cordón Caulle’s activity, check Chile’s Servicio Nacional de Geología y Minería (Sernageomin) website. Erik Klemetti’s Big Think has a good explanation (in English) of the eruption. The BBC and El Mercurio have spectacular photo slideshows.

Update:

The Ushuaia-based news agency Sur 54 reports that flights to the following destinations are suspended until at least Friday: Ushuaia, Río Grande, Trelew, Neuquén, Viedma, Río Gallegos, El Calafate, Ushuaia, Río Grande, Comodoro Rivadavia, Bahía Blanca, Santa Rosa and San Rafael. As well, night flights between Santiago de Chile and Mendoza are cancelled.

On the Road – Colombia: Off-the-Beaten Track Destinations with the Tempestuous Girl

A week’s hiatus and I’m back. I was off the beaten track, exploring a corner of Colombia where few foreigners go. It’s a favorite Caribbean destination for Colombians who now feel secure in getting to know their country once again.

Boating through the lagoon. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

Besides a beach stretching three kilometers (1.8 miles) and more on other side of a point and a crystalline sea, this destination offers other natural wonders: mud volcanoes in which to immerse yourself, soaking away months of hard travel; ciénagas to slow-boat through, admiring scurrying crabs and multitudes of birds coming to their evening roosts; and an archipelago national park to explore on tour. The civilization of internet is at least six kilometers (3.6 miles) away.

The only reason to go there is to relax, eat good seafood and watch the sun gloriously set over the Caribbean Sea.

Where is this paradise? Ah – no fear. V!VA Colombia takes you there, with complete coverage of what to do, where to sleep and have a wondrous fresh fish meal washed down by an icy beer.

Spectacular sunsets. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

But getting to such places is quite an adventure, thanks to the heavy La Niña rains in Colombia. Still the roads from the Caribbean coast to Medellín and further south are under repair. Sudden drop-offs into abysses narrow the highways to one lane.

The downpours moved eastward, battering the zone between the Cordilleras Central and Oriental.Television shows the flooding affecting Chía, Usaquén and other suburbs of Bogotá. The waters are rising dangerously close to El Dorado airport. The Bogotá-Bucaramanga road has been severed in several areas, causing delays in travel. Now the storms seem to be rolling off into the Llanos. A landslide took out the Yopal’s aqueduct, leaving Casanare’s capital without water.

These La Niña rains, though, have affected much more than travel plans. This year’s coffee harvest will be lower than in previous years. Corn and other food crops are also affected.

Meteorologists say La Niña is finally packing up her bags, and heading into retirement, until her next appearance (which hopefully won’t be too soon). Road crews can continue their work repairing roads and bridges, making Colombia an even safer place to travel.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2011 edition of V!VA Colombia. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.