Sunday, 28 February 2010

The Amazing Race 16, Episode 3 (Earthquake in Chile)

Puerto Varas (Chile) - San Carlos de Bariloche (Argentina)

Mouth of Tunel Cristo Redentor
Tunel del Cristo Redentor, looking from Chile towards Argentina

Watching The Amazing Race 16 make its way from Chile into Argentina in the episode broadcast this week, I couldn't help thinking about how what we've seen this season, which was filmed in November and December of 2009, might have changed as a result of the earthquake, tsunami, and continuing aftershocks in Chile. The show's host, Phil Keoghan, supposedly recorded an appeal for support for relief and reconstruction in Chile to be broadcast before this week's episode, but I didn't see it on my local CBS station in San Francisco.

Moon Handbooks Chile and Argentina author Wayne Bernardson has an initial report in his blog on the earthquake, and more importantly, the first roundup I've seen of conditions for travellers and travel infrastucture throughout Chile, and the prospects for rebuilding and recovery, after the earthquake.

I was relieved to learn that the Yellow House B&B in Valparaiso, where I stayed and which I mentioned last week, "survived without problems" -- although it's an indication of overall conditions in Valparaiso that residents consider their overall situation to be relatively "without problems" compared to many of their neighbors as long as their home is largely undamaged, even without electricity, running water, or transport links to the outside world.

Wayne Bernhardson has this to say about, "The Immediate Future, and Travel to Chile":

In the short run, Chile's challenge is to get basic services running again. In the medium run, it's to find housing for those displaced by the quake and, in this at least, the weather should cooperate. In central Chile's Mediterranean climate, this is the dry season, and significant rain is unlikely for the next two months at least....

For those wondering whether or not they should travel to Chile, I personally would suggest postponing it, but not for too long -- the prime destinations of Torres del Paine [far to the south] and San Pedro de Atacama [far to the north], for instance, are well beyond the damage zone, and even Santiago is likely to be up and running pretty soon. As a guidebook author, I'd rather see Chile make headlines because of its geographical beauty and gracious people than for natural disasters, and staying away will not help its recovery.

Edward Hasbrouck on tour bus in hard hat
Taking the tour at Chuquicamata (hard hats required)

Sightseers are typically unwelcome, and untrained would-be volunteers can be more hindrance than help, in the immediate aftermath of natural disasters. Unlike many other countries, Chile doesn't depend primarily on international tourism for foreign exchange. The main export remains copper, as it has been for decades. Remember the mine at Chuquicamata, near Calama, visited by "The Amazing Race 11"? It was nationalization of Chuqui which led ITT, wanting cheap copper for telephone wire, and the USA at its behest, to back the 1973 coup that killed Salvador Allende and brought in the military dictatorship.

Chuquicamata open-pit mine
Part of the pit at Chuquicamata (note the relative sizes of the pickup and the ore truck)

crosses in the desert
Site in the desert near Chuqui of a mass execution of prisoners by the Chilean army just after the coup

Some mines in central Chile have suspended operations temporarily, but only because the electricity is out. Operations at Chuqui, the world's largest copper mine, have been unaffected by the earthquake more than a thousand miles to the south. So it's not as though the economy will collapse if tourists stay away from the earthquake-affected portion of the country (central Chile) for a little while.

But tourists are typically scared away from a substantially larger area, for a substantially longer period of time, than conditions warrant and/or than local people -- who are eager to get their jobs serving tourists back, and to start recouping their investment in reconstruction of tourism capacity and infrastructure as soon as possible -- would prefer.

I regularly receive press releases and come-ons from hotels, tour operators, and destination marketing organizations struggling to persuade me, and to get me to tell my readers, that tourist facilities are open for business and able to offer tourists a good time in some place that suffered from a natural or political disaster, or whose reputation was tainted by such an event "nearby" (where "nearby" may have meant, as in the case of Chile, 2,000 km or 1,000 miles or more away). If you plan well but are flexible and realistic about what you will find, these destinations can be travel bargains: affordable, uncrowded, and with many new facilities.

Lately, for example, tourism to the Dominican Republic (where it is the largest source of foreign exchange) has been suffering from the proximity of the D.R. to Haiti, even though the earthquake in Haiti had little effect on the other side of the island. If you've been thinking about a visit to the D.R., prices and hotel occupancy are currently at a low point.

If you're thinking of traveling to Chile in the future, bookmark Wayne's Southern Cone Travel blog (most of which is also mirrored at Moon Over South America on Moon.com) for continuing coverage. For decades he has divided his time between Chile and Argentina (where he did the research for his Berkeley Ph.D. in geography), and the San Francisco Bay Area, spending several months every year on Chilean highways and byways and revisiting even obscure corners of the country and its offshore islands to update his guidebooks. Because of Wayne's detailed knowledge of conditions on the ground before the earthquake and his network of sources throughout the country, his blog is likely to remain the best source of practical information on post-earthquake tourism to Chile.

Unlike several other countries, notably Turkey and Mexico, where many poorly built "modern" structures collapsed in earthquakes while older wood frame structures were more likely to be left standing, Chile has relatively well-enforced construction codes, at least in cities. Most of the damage seems from initial reports to have been to older buildings (although earthquake effects even on similar buildings in the same neighborhood often vary greatly). More recent structures -- from high-rise office buildings and hotels to the recently purpose-built Hosteling International facility in Santiago -- were largely undamaged except for toppled interior furniture and some broken windows.

Much of Chile is desert or semi-desert, and almost every report I've seen has mentioned shortages of potable water in cities and towns since the earthquake. If urban water outages are due to widespread cracking of pipes rather than merely outages of power to pumping stations, block-by-block repair or replacement of water and sewage piping could be a considerable task.

Chile's geography has meant that its economic development depends on long-term commitment to investment and maintenance of transportation infrastructure -- by road, by water, and by air. But routes in and out of the country are limited, and most of them go through Santiago and the area of central Chile most affected by the earthquake.

Mountain road in Chile
On the road leaving Santiago towards the tunnel to Argentina

Chile's roads are generally well engineered and maintained, but most of the country is both mountainous and sparsely populated. It remains to be seen how long it will take to patch broken or buckled pavement and to make potentially slower and more costly repairs to damaged bridges, viaducts, revetments, and other structures.

Santiago's airport, one of the largest and busiest on the continent and essentially the sole hub for all domestic and international Chilean air service, was beginning to reopen today, but it's unclear how much traffic it will be able to handle, or how much of that limited capacity will be allocated to anything other than emergency flights.

In the meantime, many flights have been diverted to Mendoza (just across the Andes from Santiago) or Buenos Aires, Argentina, with travelers trying to make their way from there by land to Chile. Unfortunately, there are only a few roads over or through the Andes, even in the summer. The best of these is the 2-lane highway between Santiago and Mendoza that we saw in The Amazing Race 7. It switchbacks up to the Tunel del Cristo Redentor, 3 kilometers (2 miles) long with portals at well over 3000 meters (10000 feet) above sea level. The photo at the top of this article shows the Chilean end of the tunnel when I went through in springtime in late October.

I've seen no report of damage to the tunnel itself, but since the earthquake it's been closed to commercial vehicles or those over 3500 kg (a little less than 4 tons) due to rockfalls that narrow the approach roads. Even if the rocks can be cleared and none of the bridges or viaducts are damaged, all roads on the Chilean side between the tunnel and the epicenter of the earthquake pass though Santiago itself, where they are blocked by collapsed overpasses and other urban obstacles.

The next best road route in or out of Chile is the paved year-round highway to Bariloche, Argentina, followed by "The Amazing Race" in this week's episode. Unable to get to the epicenter of the earthquake from or via Santiago, NPR flew their correspondent Annie Murphy into Bariloche and sent her west and north from there by road, following the racers' route in the opposite direction. Her road trip report gives the best picture I've heard of road and other conditions in areas outside and to the south of Santiago and the epicenter of the quake.

Unless and until normal international and domestic air service is restored at Santiago's airport, most travellers to southern and south-central Chile are likely to follow this route through Bariloche or those by way of more southerly cities in Argentine Patagonia (Via Gallegos) and Tierro del Fuego (Ushuaia). There are almost no international flights into anywhere in Argentina or Chile except Buenos Aires or Santiago, respectively, so this is likely to require flying first into B.A. and then either a domestic flight or a long (if reasonably comfortable) bus ride south-west through Argentina -- like the bus trip the contestants on "The Amazing Race" took in the opposite direction the last time the race passed through Bariloche -- before crossing into Chile. Keep in mind in planning such a trip that domestic and international flights operates to and from different airports a considerable distance apart in Buenos Aires. There's been some talk about changing that for regional connections on Aerolineas Argentinas, but it hasn't happened yet. It's harder to get to northern Chile quickly or easily without going via Santiago, but there are scenic if slow routes by road or track from northwest Argentina, southwestern Bolivia, or southern Peru.

If you already have airline tickets for a trip to Chile, don't panic. If conditions are completely unsuitable for tourism when it's time for you to go, your flight(s) probably won't be operating as originally scheduled, if at all. And in that case, you have the right to a full and unconditional refund, even if your ticket was otherwise completely nonrefundable, as I discuss in my FAQ About Changes to Flights and Tickets. Airlines don't want you to claim a full refund in case of a schedule change, or even a flight cancellation , and are unlikely to tell you that you have that right. The magic words are, "I do not accept that schedule change."

Some airlines are offering generous-sounding "waivers" of "penalties" or "change fee" for travellers whose flights are cancelled, rescheduled, or rerouted, especially while the airport in Santiago (SCL) remains wholly or partially closed to normally scheduled flights. But according to the rules in airlines' tariffs, there are no penalties to wave if a flight is no longer scheduled to operated as ticketed.

In some cases, it may be preferable to accept such an offer, rather than claim a refund: If your flight is still scheduled to operate exactly as ticketed, but you no longer want to take the trip, or if the airline is willing to exchange your original tickets, without fee, for tickets on a date or route for which tickets would otherwise be more expensive. But the purpose of such a "waiver" offer is not to help you but to persuade you to leave your money with the airline, rather than asking for it back. Don't get suckered into accepting "credit" for future travel that you aren't certain to use, rather than a full refund of the same amount in cash or by credit to your card.

Edward Hasbrouck in Bolivian cowboy hat
A foggy day on the coast of Chile

This leg of the race was won (again, as was last week's) by the team of professional rodeo cowboys from Oklahoma, who exchange compliments on each others' hats with the Argentine "gaucho" greeter at the finish line at a dude-ranch "estancia". Hats can be wonderfully evocative wearable souvenirs: I have hats in my closet that I've picked up in Vietnam, Mexico, Australia, Bolivia, London, and New York, among other places. My favorite purple wool beret was probably made in China, but I bought it from an unlicensed West African street vendor on the "Avenue of the Americas". Sometimes, I love New York! (Never thought I'd say that, did you, Yankee fans?)

I've seen some other hats I regret not having bought. And some hats I bought cheaply, knowing that I would give or throw them away at the end of the trip, or before moving on to a different climate or culture. But before you spend real money on a hat, consider how it will look (Would you ever really wear that giant straw sombrero back home?) and how you will get it home. If you aren't carrying a hatbox in your steamer trunk, and buy a large new hat that doesn't fold or crush, you may have to wear it on every flight for the rest of your trip. (One pilot to another, disgustedly watching passengers -- many wearing souvenir sombreros -- arriving from Mexico: "Oh no! That one's wearing TWO hats.")

You can find "cowboy" style hats throughout Latin America, but the best value may be in Bolivia. The picture of me above was taken on a deserted stretch of the northern Chilean coast near Antofagasta, but the hat is from Sombreros Sucre in the Bolivian city of the same name. Including the cost of mailing it home to the USA, it cost me about US$20. A US-made Stetson of similar quality (although probably of lighter-weight felt) would have cost me five or ten times as much.

A tip of the hat to you all for your future travels!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 28 February 2010, 23:59 (11:59 PM) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

Edward,

Thank you for this post. Don't care much about the Amazing Race, quite frankly, or anything in the way of "reality" shows. Still, having been right in this area back and forth time ago, sure appreciate your post.

More broadly, I also appreciate your dedication and attitude to stuff like transparency in the internets, civil liberties, unmasking scams, and so on. Keep up the good work!

Best,

H.

Amsterdam
Netherlands

Posted by: Horacio Cassanello, 2 March 2010, 19:25 ( 7:25 PM)

Edward,

Absolutely stunning. Please keep us up to date with all of your adventures, I love looking forward to seeing where you head next!

Posted by: Phil Neujahr, 2 March 2010, 22:59 (10:59 PM)

Edward,
I do love The Amazing Race, but reading your comments after each episode brings a new dimension. You elevate the conversation above the reality TV standards of who is mad at whom, and add enlightened and exciting substance to the premise that makes The Amazing Race great, travel.

Thank you.

-SJ

P.S.on 2/28, the message that Phil recorded regarding relief in Chile aired after the show on the local CBS station in Pittsburgh PA.

Posted by: shayle johnson, 6 March 2010, 19:25 ( 7:25 PM)

I love watching amazing race, i love to see all the places they've been

Posted by: , 7 November 2010, 13:40 ( 1:40 PM)
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