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A New Season in Torres del Paine

After closing last year’s tourism season with a devastating wildfire, Torres del Paine National Park is gearing up for another high season. The thousands of tourists that will be arriving should expect changes.

 

The wildfire began at the end of December 2011, and raged for nearly two months. By the end of February 2012, an estimated 17,606 hectares (43,505 acres) of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine had been destroyed, according to Conaf, the national forest service. The entire park was forced closed until the blaze could be contained. Eventually the northern sector reopened.

 

The Puerto Natales hostel, erratic rock, informs V!VA Travel Guides that burned areas include along the trails in the Las Carretas, Paine Grande Italiano and Paine Grande Grey sectors. Ruth, an erratic rock volunteer says, “There is already new green grass growing, which makes the black even darker, so it is pretty impressive.”

 

Reforestation of the burnt areas of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine has been slow. Thus far, only 10,000 native lenga beech (Nothofagus pumilio) have been planted. Conaf takes national and international volunteers in a variety of positions.

 

The high season opened on October 1. Since then, regular bus service has begun and most refuges opened. The ones at Los Cuernos and Chileno are slated to open October 15, and Refugio Dikson, which forms part of the circuit, will be online November 1. Catamaran service also has begun once daily; at the end of October, it will run twice daily, and as of November 5, three times per day.

 

Prices for the 2012-2013 season are:

* Park entry: 18,000 Chilean pesos (CLP) or $36 USD

* Public bus from Puerto Natales: 15,000 CLP ($30 USD) round trip

* Lago Pehoe catamaran: 12,000 CLP ($24 USD) one way; 22,000 CLP ($44 USD) round trip

* Refuges: 22,500 CLP ($45 USD) per bed, without sheets or meals

* Meals: breakfast 5,500 CLP ($11 USD), lunch 8,000 CLP ($16 USD), dinner 11,000 CLP ($22 USD)

 

Tourists will face many more regulations, especially concerning camping, and more education about park rules. Also, many more patrols will be on the lookout for people who camp in non-designated areas. Drop by erratic rock’s free daily information sessions at 3 p.m. to learn about new changes and about all the challenges you’ll face in Torres del Paine National Park.

 

 

A big thank you to the staff of erratic rock for the above information. Pack along your V!VA Travel Guides Chile for the most complete coverage of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine and the other wonder destinations of the region than any other guidebook on the market.

On the Road – Peru: Rain, Rain, Go Away …

As reported last month, rains have caused havoc in travel plans in Peru and throughout South America. The highlands have been drenched, causing rivers to be rushing torrents by the time they reach the coastal plains.

 

Last Sunday, I got to experience this first hand while traveling south from Ica. At about midnight, our bus halted. Passengers drifted in and out of sleep, wondering why we were motionless on this black highway in the middle of nowhere. Within a few hours, we were once more traveling, the gentle sway, the gentle song of wheels on pavement lulling us to sleep.

 

Stranded in southern Peru. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

But again, at 4 a.m., we were stopped. Before sunrise, I walked out to see a long line of buses, trucks and other vehicles wrapped around the base of a cliff, fading around the bend uphill, and into the distance below, ending at water’s edge. On the other bank, another line of buses and trucks wound up that road and around the curve. Between us, the land rolled down to flooded fields. In this pre-dawn light, a broad river raged, red with soil, tumbling to the sea.

 

A río huayco, the driver told me. In Quechua, huayco means a river that forms in dry gulches, hauling rocks, trees and mud into the lowland valleys—and flooding the landscape for kilometers around.

Our río huayco rolling off to the sea. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

On that stretch of the Pan-American highway just before Camaná, near the village of Pescadores, no bridge exists because this is normally a rio seco—a dry river. But the past few years, with the constant cycle of El Niño and La Niña weather patterns, this river has existed in the summer months when temperatures soar on the coast and the rainy season arrives in the Andes.

 

The rising sun’s heat was tempered by clouds to the east. But this forebode more rains in Arequipa, Puno or wherever these rivers are born.

 

"Agua, gaseosa, golosinas," he called out. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

A white van skidded to a stop at the side of the road and its door slid open, revealing mounds of water, sodas, snacks and toilet paper for sale. Passengers heading to Arequipa, Tacna and other southern destinations lined up to pay over double the normal price. The vendor grinned broadly, soles sign (S/.) dancing in his bright eyes.

 

Finally with the morn, a bulldozer began clearing a channel in that río huayco. Soon the waters ceased to rise. The level lowered enough for the first buses and trucks to cross. Finally at 9 a.m., it was our bus’ turn to slowly wade through the still-strong current.

 

Our turn to cross. Photo by Lorraine Caputo

 

This year’s rains have caused havoc all over the region. The Peru-Chile border south of Tacna is closed 7 a.m.-noon (5-10 a.m. Chilean time) to clear 40-year-old anti-personnel mines that the flooding has unearthed. Chile has been wracked with overflowing rivers, from the San José in Arica to the Río de las Minas in Punta Arenas. Travelers report being stranded for up to 12 hours when crossing the altiplano from Bolivia or the Atacama Desert into Argentina.

 

 

If you are traveling this season, be sure to pack extra food and water. (Buses only carry enough for serving at mealtimes.) If you will be traveling into Peru’s southern departments of Moquegua or Tacna, or crossing international borders, this is a challenging task because of agricultural customs controls. No produce, whether fresh or dried, dairy or meat products are allowed. Bread is safest bet, as are peanut butter, marmite or vegemite sandwiches. Stock up on drinks and snacks, as well as a book, sudoku puzzles or anything else to pass the time.

 

And most of all—don’t forget to pack in some extra patience.

 

Safe Journeys until next week!

 

 

Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road, updating our 2012 edition of V!VA Peru. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

Torres del Paine National Park Reopens

Wednesday morning, just a week after a devastating wildfire broke out in Southern Chile’s Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, the government announced the reopening of the park.

 

Torres del Paine National Park, showing open sectors. Map by: www.laprensaaustral.cl

 

The northern part of Torres del Paine, which is unaffected by the fire, is now open to tourists. These include these sectors: Laguna Sur and Amerga, Valle Ascencio, Hotel Las Torres, Campamentos Cuernos and Cerón, and the Los Perros and Dichoso rivers. For complete details, visit the website of the national tourism board, Sernatur. Click here for a map of the open areas.

 

Local guides, hostels and other businesses are joining efforts to give informative talks at the park entrance, to instruct visitors on safety and environmental issues. They also are forming protection patrols to walk the trails, looking for campfires, illegal camping and other park rule violations.

 

Ecologists, however, are not happy with the government’s decision. They fear that the patrolling of the park will draw necessary manpower from the tasks of fighting the wildfire and reforestation efforts.

 

The fire has consumed 14,504 hectares (35,840 acres) of the nature reserve, as well as about 1,000 hectares of Estancia Lazo, a ranch neighboring the park. Grey Glacier was in danger of partial melting from the intense heat. As of Wednesday afternoon, only one hotspot of the fire remained out of control.

 

Over 700 firefighters from four countries have battled the blaze. Water is still being collected for the crews.

 

Already four Israeli experts have arrived to lend their expertise in reforestation. Volunteers are also being enlisted to help with recovery efforts (see UPDATE: Torres del Paine National Park Wildfire for details). The extent of environmental damage is severe. Experts estimate it will take up to 80 years for the park to fully recover.

 

La Prensa Austral has several stunning photo gallery showing the fire’s aftermath.

Torres del Paine: Before the fire

 

Forest fires are burning in other parts of Chile, including in the Maule and Bío-Bío regions. In Pichiqueime, over 22,500 hectares (55,600 acres) of forest, 100 homes and a cellulose refining plant have been destroyed, and one death has resulted.  The Catholic Church has begun an aid drive to help the affected in these areas.

 

Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera is proposing a new law to replace the present one, passed in the 1930s. The forest fire reform act would reorganize emergency response mechanisms, and increase fines and jail time for individuals that cause forest fires.

UPDATE: Torres del Paine National Park Wildfire

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine: Before the fire

Last Friday evening, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced that Parque Nacional Torres del Paine will remain closed through January 2012.

 

As of this morning (Monday), the fire has consumed almost 13,000 hectares (32,423 acres) of the national park. Seven hundred and fifty firefighters from all over Chile, as well as from Argentina, Uruguay and the US, have joined efforts to bring the blaze under control. The entire area has been declared a disaster area.

 

Winds as high as 120 kilometers per hour (73 mph) hampered efforts on Friday. Saturday, a light rain began falling and winds calmed, allowing six helicopters to join in the fight. Three of the six foci of the wildfire were extinguished.

 

Also on Saturday, Israeli citizen Rotem Singer was arrested on charges for starting the blaze. News reports stated he confessed to authorities, which Singer now denies, blaming bad translations. He is on conditional freedom for 41-61 days until investigations are completed.

 

The government has been criticized for its slow response to the unfolding disaster. In the national legislature, Representative Carlos Recondo of X Región de los Lagos is proposing to privatize the park, which he believes will improve its administration.

 

Patagon Journal posts that volunteers for the recovery of Torres del Paine may now sign up. Send your name, age, profession, city and dates available to voluntarios@torresdelpaine.com. The program, which start date is yet to be set, is being organized by Conaf (national park service) and local operators.

 

The park closure is expected to have a tremendous impact on Puerto Natales’ economy. In one season, the tourism sector generates $200 million dollars, as well as 8,000 direct and 24,000 associated jobs.

 

Puerto Natales, though, has much more to offer tourists than just Torres del Paine. For those needing to get out into nature, another reserve may be accessed from this coastal village: Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins. This is Chile’s largest national park, covering 3,525,091 hectares (8,710,689 acres). A boat treads across Seno de Última Esperanza to the foot of Glaciar Balmaceda to the ranger station at Sector Balmaceda. During the voyage, dolphins, sea lions, fur seals and a variety of waterfowl can be spotted, as well as. Although this park doesn’t offer multi-day treks like Torres del Paine, it does have several short hikes into the stunningly beautiful landscape. From the ranger post, trails lead to the foot of the glacier and to a lookout point. Other activities in this part of the park are rappelling and kayaking, though the paddle down the Río Serrano from PN Torres del Paine not possible at this time.

 

Another nature reserve you can visit from Puerto Natales is Monumento Nacional Cueva del Milodón, a massive cave where the remains of a three meter ground sloth were discovered. Posada Hostería Río Verde on Skyring Fiord is not only a lodge at a working ranch, but also offers day packages that includes horseback riding, sailing and trout fishing. Río Verde village also has a small historical museum. Río Rubens is another place with terrific trout fishing.

 

The Museo Histórico Municipal in Puerto Natales.

When the much-needed rains arrive, you can seek refuge in one of Puerto Natales’ museums. The Museo Histórico Municipal features archaeological artifacts and historical photographs, as well as an exhibit on the 19th century European settlement of the town. The Museo de Fauna Patagónica has a collection of over 350 taxidermied animals from around the area.  Just five kilometers (3 miles) north of town, Museo Frigorífico Puerto Bories offers interesting guided tours of the old meatpacking factory, which was awarded Monument status by the Chilean government. Out in Puerto Bories, you can also go horseback riding.

 

Puerto Natales is also the southern port for the Navemag ferry to Puerto Montt. The five-day north-bound journey goes through fiords, and past glaciers of the Southern and Northern ice fields (Campos del Hielo).

 

Turismo Aónikenk, a Punta Arenas-based tour operator, lists other things to see and do in the Puerto Natales area.

 

The famous Navimag ferry.

 

The US Embassy in Santiago has issued a travel advisory for its citizens planning to go to the region. If you are planning to visit the area, keep up-to-date with the news. Check the websites of the various national agencies: Conaf (park service), Onemi (emergency management) and Sernatur (tourism board). These media outlets are also dependable: Prensa Austral, Radio Polar and Cooperativa. Another excellent source is erratic rock in Puerto Natales.

 

Stay tuned to V!VA’s blog and facebook page for more developments.

 

CLOSED: Torres del Paine National Park in Chile

Into the Fire. Photo by Claudia Saunders.

Because of a wildfire that began last Tuesday, the Oficina Nacional de Emergencia (Onemi) has closed Parque Nacional Torres del Paine until further notice.

 

As of this morning, the fire has consumed up to 5,700 hectares (14,085 acres) of land in the western sector of the park. Rugged terrain and strong winds (up to 95 kilometers / 59 miles per hour) are hampering efforts to bring it under control. In a press conference yesterday, Rodrigo Hinzpeter of the Ministro del Interior y Seguridad Pública stated, “We are confronted with an extremely dangerous and complex fire; in the zone, we have very adverse climatic conditions today and the forecast indicates the weather will be adverse tomorrow. Furthermore, the topography of the place makes it difficult for the brigades to fight the fire, along with highly combustible vegetation.”

 

The weather forecast calls for high winds again today (Friday), with a chance of showers Friday afternoon and Saturday morning.

 

On the ground are over 150 firefighters from the national forest service Conaf, the Chilean military and Argentina. Three helicopters are also being employed. Private entities, like Fantástico Sur, which operates several refuges in the park, are asking for volunteers with experience fighting forest fires in mountainous terrain to help preserve their properties. Interested individuals should contact Katherine MacCormick at 61-614184.

 

According to La Prensa Austral, a foreign tourist is suspected of starting the fire. This is the third time in less than a decade that the 227,298-hectare (561,665-acre) park has been hit by a man-made forest fire. In 2005, about 15,000 hectares (37,065 acres) were destroyed and another 10 square meters (108 square feet) were burnt in February 2011. In both cases, foreign trekkers were responsible.

 

Unconfirmed reports say that the fire, which began near the Río Olguín, between Glaciar Gray and Pehoé, has spread past the Valle del Francés and Salto Grande. The wharf in Paine Grande is destroyed. Hotel Explora and el Hotel Grey are threatened. Approximately 1,000 people have been evacuated from the park. According to another source, the Cuernos and Torres sectors have not been evacuated yet. Evacuations are expected to continue this morning. Thus far, no injuries or deaths have occurred.

 

News of the extent of the fire remain sketchy. Visitors to the reserve are advised to keep up on the news with the above agencies, Sernatur, Prensa Austral or Radio Polar. Another excellent source is erratic rock in Puerto Natales. Bill Penhollow, owner of erratic rock, recommends tourists come back in a week.

 

Stay tuned to V!VA’s blog and facebook page for more developments.

 

Residents of Puerto Natales will be having a demonstration Friday afternoon at 1:30 p.m. at the Plaza de Armas, to call on the government to bring in more reinforcements to combat the blaze. The environmental groups Frente Defensa Ecologico Austral and Frente Defensa Ecológico Austral II in Punta Arenas will have a candlelight rally Friday evening (6:30 p.m. Colón and Bories streets, Punta Arenas). Another demonstration is planned at La Moneda at 6 p.m., in the nation’s capital, Santiago.

 

RED ALERT: Wildfire in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park

Since Tuesday, a wildfire in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine has consumed at least 1,000 hectares (2,471 acres) of forest and forced the evacuation of 400 tourists from the Western sector of the park.

 

The fire began near the Río Olguín, between Glaciar Gray and Pehoé.

 

Conaf, Chile’s national park administration, has declared a red alert in that area of Torres del Paine. Over 100 firefighters from Chile and Argentina are on the ground battling the blaze, and helicopters have been called in. High winds, registering up to 95 kilometers per hour (59 mph), are exacerbating the situation.

 

According to Chile’s tourism board, Sernatur, the popular W Circuit is within the affected area. Hikers are to avoid the Pehoé, Grey and Campamento Italiano trails. The old Pehoé refuge has burned and Lodge Paine Grande is threatened.

 

The Eastern sector of Torres del Paine National Park remains open. However, visitors to the reserve are advised to keep up on the news with the above agencies, Radio Polar or La Prensa Austral. Erratic rock in Puerto Natales is also an excellent source.

 

The cause of the fire is not immediately known, though it was not caused by lightning strike, as lightening does not occur in those latitudes. In recent weeks, the region has had warm, dry weather. There have been no injuries or deaths related to the fire.

 

Stay tuned to V!VA’s blog and facebook page for more developments.

South American Freeze Out

While North America is experiencing an infernal summer, with temperatures in the upper 30s and even 40ºs C (90s-100ºs F) with severe droughts, it’s hard to believe that South America is suffering through the other version of Hades: It has frozen over there.

Since late June, Chile, Argentina and Bolivia have been having their worst cold spell in 16 years. Border crossings between the countries are more frequently closed than usual.

Winter began with a bang, when Volcán Puyehue and the Cordón de Caulle erupted June 4. Flights in Chile, Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay were canceled because of volcanic ash.

Then it went from fire to ice. A polar front moved into Argentina the end of June. Heavy snows fell in the mountain areas of Patagonia, Cuyo and the Northwest. Snow and sleet were common in Buenos Aires. Many parts of the country experienced below-freezing temperatures.

Ever since, other polar fronts have crept up from Antarctica, affecting South America.

In mid-July, the Uyuni salt flats and southwest Bolivia were slammed with unusual snows and temperatures. Local residents and tourists were stranded for days until rescue teams could arrive. Alpacas, llamas and other livestock suffered from food shortages. Even the super-dry Atacama Desert in northern Chile and western Bolivia received over 80 centimeters (32 inches) of the white stuff.

On July 21, Chile’s Lake District was whacked with a blizzard. Over two meters (7 feet) of snow was dumped was dumped over the region. More than 12,000 people in Curacautín, Lonquimay and other villages were isolated, and left without electricity and communications. The Chilean government declared the region a disaster area, and had to airdrop food supplies until roads and passes could be cleared. Chillán received three meters (10 feet) of snow in four days. Even temperatures in Santiago, the nation’s capital, plummeted to -4ºC (25ºF).

The storms continue. This past weekend, Paso Internacional Los Libertadores, the major border crossing between Mendoza, Argentina, and Santiago, Chile, was closed to snows. To keep up-to-date on the latest border crossing closures between the two countries, click here.

The upside to all this? Snow bunnies are guaranteed prime skiing and snowboarding conditions throughout the region, including Bariloche. Just be sure to bundle up tight!

And according to Pilar Cereceda, professor of bio-geography at the University of Chile, the Atacama Desert will begin blooming between August and September, and last until November.

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.

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.

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.