Category Archives: Latin America

Patagonia 2013: Trekking the “W” at Torres del Paine

One of a group of posts from an”autumn” trip to Patagonia. 

 

If you just drive around Torres del Paine National Park in far-southern Chile, you’ll be very impressed.  But you ain’t seen nothin’ unless you’ve hiked deep into the park, where the weather, the trees, the lakes, the peaks — everything — is completely different.  One of the two famous “Treks” around the iconic mountains is called the W; each prong of the W-shaped route probes into one of the valleys of the park.  You start in arid scrub at the edge of the park, go up and down through multiple climate zones and cloud layers, and wind up shivering next to a bright-blue glacier.

It’s a multi-day trek.  We were fortunate enough to get to stay in “refugios” — essentially bunkhouses (with meals!) in the wilderness at the bases of the W — rather than having to camp.  We even met a few new friends along the trail and at the refugios.  All in, it was nearly 30 hours of “trekking” over 4 days, often in rain or wading through creeks and flooded trails.  We got some of the nastiest blisters you’ve ever seen.

The red building (and the one with the rainbow) is the hotel at the far east edge of the W, where the trek began.  The tall granite spires are the actual Torres (towers) del Paine themselves.  The interior shot is at Refugio Cuernos.  The W trek ended at the north end of Lago Grey, near where the Grey Glacier dumps into the lake.  We were able to catch a Glacier boat back to civilization at the end of our trek — saving us several hours of backtracking.  The last shot at the bottom is where we got off that boat.  That’s a real condor circling above near the cliffs.

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Patagonia 2013: Argentina’s Mt. Fitz Roy (“El Chalten”)

Part 2 of a series that started here:  Argentina’s Mt. Fitz Roy (“El Chalten”) wasn’t actually the first stop on my Patagonian adventure, but these are some of my favorite pictures, and (unlike the others) I’ve sorted through them and they’re ready to go.  Much more later.

 

My weeks in Chile and Argentina’s Patagonia region are almost over.  Lots of good pictures – though as always, the perfect image eludes me.  It’s fall here, so the weather is unpredictable and there were lots of gray skies.  The tradeoff is that the leaves are changing, giving us a view of Patagonia most of the ‘summer’ (November – February) tourists never see.  It’s very quiet – the restaurants and the trails are mostly empty.

To get north out of far-southern Chile, you’ve got to go into southwestern Argentina.  Chile is so mountainous there are no Chilean roads that connect its southernmost section with the rest of the country.  Thus as we headed north, we crossed into Argentina for a few days.

The real highlight of the Argentinian section was Mount Fitz Roy (known locally as El Chalten).  Amazingly, you could see El Chalten for over 100 miles as we drove towards it.  All the pictures on this post are of (or around) Mt. Fitz Roy).

 

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The trip into Argentina had other highlights:  A great steak.  Some Argentine wine.  Up-close views of a glacier or two.  Me teaching my friend Mike Short to play craps in a small-town Argentinian casino.   Going 575km between functioning gas stations in a car with a range of 580km (apparently).

Cristina Fernández de Kirchner on the throne

This was the photo on the wall. Argentine President Fernandez. Scepter, sash, lace & throne.

Our introduction to Argentina was driving through immigration and customs at a rural border crossing.  Picture a tiny isolated home, with nothing for miles around, and with half-finished concrete construction work on the front porch and sidewalk.  You just park somewhere out front and walk through the yard to go in.  Inside you’re “welcomed” by Sgt Lopez and by a portrait of Argentine President  Cristina Fernandez.  President Fernandez is literally sitting on a throne, holding a scepter and wearing a sash and a lace dress.  She looks like a sixty-year-old prom queen, shot with a her mom’s cheap cameraphone.  Still, the sign says she welcomes us to Argentina – which is nice.

Lopez is more discriminating about who he welcomes and who he doesn’t.  He’s dressed in full military drab – a green wool uniform probably left over from the 40s, complete with a perfectly round but perfectly flat hat that looks like a green tambourine with a black bill.  Makes me want to call him “Generalissimo” and chat him up about the Falklands War.  The hat sits on the desk as he grumbles his way through our paperwork, including a few disgusted “Aye aye ayes.”  He rummages through a desk drawer to find the proper forms for two Americanos crossing the Chile/Argentine border in a rented SUV.  He finds one – just one – and rips apart the duplicating pages so each of us can fill one out.  He seems to want some sort of “carta” (“letter, card, or document”?) that we clearly do not have.  He shakes his head (“AYE aye aye”) and gets over it.

On the other side of the room is the much friendlier customs guy.  His job, apparently, is to write down in big old-fashioned manual ledger books the license number of our car and the passport number of the driver.  There are stacks of these log books; I’m sure they will never be opened again for any purpose whatsoever.  Behind him is the biggest (and perhaps most important) section of the facility:  the ping pong table.  There are probably some very long lonely stretches between cars out here.

Never are we even asked if we had weapons, drugs, passengers, diseased fruits and vegetables, or anything else. (We did not, fyi).

We make it through.  Critically:  At no time during this process did I bust out laughing.  But I wanted to.

 

 

 

 

 

On the road again! Patagonia 2013

I guess my ‘hiatus’ from travel (and thus from travel blogging) is over.  As some of you out there know, I had one last lawsuit to finish up in my legal career, so in December I rejoined the great team I’ve worked with for the last decade and wrapped up a ten-year-old case that has changed all our lives.  We’re done!  That last chapter (our claims against Swiss investment bank Credit Suisse) is reported here if you’d care to see the story.  I may still find a time to be teary-eyed again about not being around those dear friends and great lawyers with whom I had the privilege to practice — but now is not the time for that.

So I’m back on the road.  Step one was to fly to Punta Arenas, Chile, which is as far south as one can fly and still be on the “mainland” of South America.  Here’s the best picture of the day — honestly, it doesn’t look like much.  This shot — like Punta Arenes generally — looks across the Strait of Magellan at the islands of Tierra del Fuego — the jumble of islands that cap the bottom of the continent.  Actually this was about 30 miles south of Punta Arenas — “about as fer as you can go.”

But the real sights of this region — called “Patagonia” and including the iconic Torres del Paine — are for the weeks ahead.  It’s not as cold or as exotic as you’d think down here.  But we’re just getting started.  Not sure how consistently I’ll be able to get wifi access in the days ahead, but hopefully the weather will allow some decent pictures I can post in the weeks ahead.

 25 miles south of Punta Arenas, Chile, overlooking the Strait of Magellan and the islands of Tierra del Fuego

 

 

 

 

 

Cuba (Part 10) One Last Look

Here’s the last installment of pictures from my March trip to Cuba.  The series started here.  The trip offered lots of photographic variety — including dancing showgirls, boxers in training, school kids, cigar moguls, classic cars, Havana street life and more — so take a look at all the posts.  The trip was also fascinating and educational for me personally; I hope my eagerness to share what I learned didn’t get too long-winded.  Thanks for looking.

As I mentioned earlier, Havana has plenty of sights to see.   A prior post had my attempts at decent pictures from Revolution Square, the current center of federal government buildings.   The Capitolio (pictured in three shots below) is the former center of government.  It looks just like the U.S. Capitol building in Washington.  Built in the 1920s, it was originally the home of the Cuban legislature.  When Castro took over, he disbanded both their houses of Congress and did away with representative government — thus freeing the Capitolio up for other purposes!

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Our group had some nice opportunities to get on rooftops and other high places just at sunrise or sunset, which is a simple recipe for good pictures.  A few of the pictures you see are from a hotel on Park Central; one is from the tower of the original Bacardi building; a handful are from the lighthouse at “Morro Castle,” which is actually a 400-year-old fortress that guards the entrance to the port of Havana.

On the last night of my trip, we went to a rooftop party.  The event included the opportunity to watch a drums-and-dancing Santeria ritual.  Santeria is a form of religion that mixes Catholicism with African “animist” beliefs.  I cannot pretend to understand or explain it, but these dancing performances are fairly common and open to the public.  The dancers and the folks wearing white are part of that.  The finale of that evening was those pigeons.  (See the picture at the top of this post).  There was a pigeon coop (and a pigeon-keeper) on the roof, and just at sun set he let 30 or so of them out for their evening exercise.  They kept returning to the roof; he kept shooing them away to fly around some more, giving me several chances to try to get the “perfect” picture.  It was a nice, peaceful wind-down of a sometimes-overwhelming couple of weeks in Cuba.

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Finally, here (below) is one of the last pictures I took in Cuba.  I know it doesn’t look like much.  I took it with a tiny pocket camera in the cab on the way to the airport.  Normally, I had always tried to use one of the privately-owned taxis rather than the government-owned taxis, but in the scramble to get out of my hotel and out to the airport, I didn’t seem to have a choice.  My reflex was to be unhappy and uncomfortable in the government-run cab, but of course it wasn’t Castro at the wheel; it was just an ordinary Cuban guy doing his job.  The driver was a nice guy who found out I was headed for Miami and quickly told me he had family that had moved to America long ago.  He seemed to envy their fate, but Cubans are generally not allowed to travel freely, so he said that he’d never been allowed to go visit.  At about that point, I noticed his personal keychain — the stars and stripes of an American flag on a heart-shaped medallion.  That’s a “sneaked” picture of his keychain (and his knee and steering wheel) in the picture below, taken from my backseat vantage point.  Seeing his keychain — attached to the keys of his Communist-government taxicab — was a fitting finale to my Cuba experience and another reminder that I’m lucky to live where I do.

If you happen to get a chance to go to Cuba in the next few years, go.  You’ll need a sense of adventure and an open mind.  You’ll stumble into things you never expected and things you’d never encounter at home — some good; some bad.  The overlay of a Communist, socialist system in what’s otherwise a peaceful tropical world is fascinating and eye-opening.  Parts of it you’ll love, and the other parts will make you appreciate your own country.  As the Castros age, Cuba is changing fast.  Maybe I’ll get to go again and see some of that change take place.  Hasta la proxima!

Cuba (Part 9) El Bloqueo

A brief, mostly-nonphotographic post before I finish the Cuba photography series.  It’s impossible to spend a couple of weeks thinking about Cuba in the year 2012 without some focus on the 50-year-old American trade and travel embargo.

The most popular and controversial topic in American-Cuban relations is of course the U.S. “embargo.”  American laws put in place mostly by President Kennedy still bar much trade and travel with Cuba.  The Cubans call it “El Bloqueo” (“the blockade”).  Castro complains about it regularly, using it to demonize the U.S.A. and to justify his own harsh policies.  As you leave the Havana Airport, the Cuban government has a big billboard that says, “Bloqueo.  El genocidio mas largo de la historia,” which means “The longest genocide in history.”  The second “o” in Bloqueo is a noose.  Though this is obviously ridiculous hyperbole, a lot of the world has taken Castro’s side – criticizing America for keeping the embargo in place.  Even the Pope recently popped off about it, feeding Castro’s Communist propaganda machine by criticizing the American laws as “unfairly burdening” Cubans.

The U.S. (including our current President) has consistently said the embargo will remain in place until the Castro regime yields to a democratic system.  There is much legitimate debate about its effectiveness, its rationale, its continued relevance and its potential counter-productive effects, but at this point we are at least standing behind our word on this.

Importantly, whatever you think about the continuing rationale for a 50-year-old embargo, it is not to blame for Cuba’s economic woes.  In the 21st century, it should be painfully obvious that the sources of Cuba’s problems are its socialist economic policies and its un-democratic political system.  As The Economist recently reported, “The American embargo is an irritant, but the economy’s central failing is that Fidel’s paternalistic state did away with any incentive to work, or any sanction for not doing so.”  (Let this be a lesson to us here, too.)

Remember:  Cuba can and does trade freely with every other country on earth, and the U.S. actually does provide much-needed food to Cuba (we’re already its biggest source of food).  So scapegoating America for Cuba’s situation is mostly a Castro-regime P.R. strategy (for which many America-bashers and socialism sympathizers have gladly fallen).  It’s not as though Cuba has lots of surplus goods to sell the U.S. – or lots of money with which to buy American goods.  The reason Cuban people do without lots of basic items is because their government jobs pay them almost nothing, and their government-run stores won’t sell many foreign goods anyway.  Otherwise, Cubans would be buying Chinese-made goods just like we do.  Cuba already has a tourist industry servicing Canadians and Germans and Brits.  If American tourists were allowed to go, they’d soon learn that the Cuban-government-operated hotel facilities did not compare favorably against the many other options in the Caribbean.  It’s Cuba’s own Communist/socialist policies that prevent, e.g., Spanish-based Iberostar Hotels or Canada-based Four Seasons Group from opening hotels and resorts there.  Unless Cuba changes its own policies – including allowing foreign investors to own and develop resorts, factories, stores and commercial farms — removing “El Bloqueo” wouldn’t make much difference.

The best argument for lifting the blockade may be simply that its continuation gives Castro and other eager America-bashers a convenient, misleading scapegoat for Cuba’s socialism-induced economic quagmire.  But compromising one’s plans and principles because one’s foes have condemned them seems to be a ludicrous foundation for foreign policy.  Of course Cuba is no longer the security threat it was in the 1960s, but the leadership and the political and economic systems in place there haven’t really changed.  Lifting the embargo might help make Cuba’s Communist Socialist system a bit more palatable to its citizens, but that may actually prolong the regime’s existence.  Changing Cuba is going to be Cuba’s responsibility; we just need to make it very clear that we’ll gladly change our policy when they change theirs.