Monthly Archives: October 2019

South America by Subaru 19/10/21 – Hello, Argentina

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Everyone is up early at Hostal Berta. The nine Brazilian women bikers are leaving this morning for Argentina, as are we, so there’s quite a ballet around Berta’s two bathrooms. The mountain spring morning is clear, cool, and crisp. As we’re all eating breakfast, pictures are taken and one of the women, Sula, invites us to visit her in Florianópolis.

Brasilian Biker Breakfast
Brasilian Biker Breakfast
Brasilian Bikers Blastoff

Once they mount up and roar off. we throw our bags in the car, say our heartfelt farewells, and continue eastward.

Susan and Berta, "¡Revolución!"
Susan and Berta, “¡Revolución!”

The highway twists its way along the Aconcagua River, gradually approaching the steep ascent to the Andean pass that marks the international border. This is the 4th time I’ve driven over Paso de los Libertadores, and I’m awestruck every time. The wide shouldered, two lane, well paved road winds its way up the steep mountainside in about 30 switchbacks. This section is named Los Caracoles – The Snails – for reasons that are quite clear when you’re looking down the mountainside. A parade of semi-trailers and double-decker buses inching their way up or down share the route with smaller vehicles. Many people write how dangerous the road is, but it’s beautifully engineered and competently maintained. Visually, though, it has the potential to scare the hell out of drivers and passengers alike. The road ascends to over 10,000 feet and chains (which we always carry) are required during frequent snowfalls. In extreme conditions it can be closed for days.

Switchbacks ascending to Paso de los Libertadores
Switchbacks ascending to Paso de los Libertadores
Why they call it The Snails

Not to waste a long, steep slope, the sinuous road has a ski area overlaid on it. The chairlift sails above the road numerous times but, fortunately, the ski trail doesn’t have any grade crossings of the busy highway.

Ski slope superimposed on the highway
Ski slope superimposed on the highway

All the way up, the old railroad clings to sheer walls, the railbed blasted into the cliff or bypassing particularly treacherous sections through short tunnels. At the bottom, the tracks are far from the highway and near the top rails and road finally converge. The original 1910 engineering and construction were a marvel. It must have been some ride, although it’s said trains would be stranded for hours or days by snowfalls. Even under optimal conditions, train speeds up and down the steep grades were minimal. Specially designed locomotives used sections of cog railway to ascend and descend the steeper sections on both sides with the aid of rack and pinion traction.

Abandoned railroad high above highway
Abandoned railroad (with tunnels) high above highway

I would have loved to take that ride but, these days the route, though clearly visible all the way up, is greatly decayed, rock slides having blocked or wiped away many sections of the abandoned track. There are persistent but unrealized plans to reconstruct the route but they involve building a super long, low altitude tunnel along the lines of Swiss rail solutions. This would be much more reliable but far less dramatic and I doubt it will ever happen. Modern highways, trucks, and airliners have made railroads largely obsolete except for carrying bulk materials like ore, coal, and industrial chemicals.

The original auto route went 2,000 feet higher to the true pass, where, in 1904, as is mandatory in all Catholic countries, someone built a 4-ton statue of Christ the Redeemer. Google Maps still claims you can drive the old road and bypass the current tunnel, but on every trip I scrutinize the turnoff on the Chilean side and decide it looks too abandoned and sketchy to chance it. Perhaps in midsummer it’s snow free and navigable, but the only time I crossed the pass at that time of year, I didn’t know about that theoretical option. Every other time, the route definitely ascends above snow line, with no signage or evidence of maintenance. From the Argentine side the road looks better, but so far I’ve had no desire to drive a long dead end to see a religious monument.

Instead, we drive, as usual, through the well engineered but boring (get the pun?) 2 mile Cristo Redentor tunnel, squeezed among the buses and trucks that fill the oval cross section to within inches of the walls. Emerging on the Argentina side, we enter a broad valley that gently descends without the need for switchbacks. Here the old rail tracks meander along their own route, covered with long runs of snow shed built to ease winter maintenance. Many of the sheds are collapsed in yet another poignant reminder of technological obsolescence.

Decrepit snow shed over abandoned railroad track
Decrepit snow shed over abandoned railroad track

Entering Argentina, the integrated Chile-Argentina border post is over ten miles past the actual border. A mile before that is Aconcagua Provincial Park. The highlight here is Mt Aconcagua, the highest point in the western hemisphere. There are no good views from the highway and on the three prior trips, weather or park hours stymied our desire to see this enormous mountain. This time, finally, the sky is clear blue and the park is open. We pay the entry fee, drive a short way up the side valley and walk the loop trail that offers unobstructed views of the peak, which lies about 7 miles distant. As a former Alaskan who often boasted about living near Denali, at 20,320 feet, the highest point in North America, it’s humbling to realize that Aconcagua is 2500 feet higher. Not only that, but 45 other Andean peaks overtop Denali as well. There’s no Denali boasting in South America. The unobstructed view of Aconcagua is awesome, and we’re very gratified to finally see it.

Susan with Mt Aconcagua behind
Susan with Mt Aconcagua behind
This what we saw of Aconcagua 2 years ago, just the lower slopes.
By contrast,tThis what we saw of Aconcagua 2 years ago, just a bit of the lower slopes.

Here are some more photos taken during our walk:

Birds of Aconcagua:

High mountains often generate their own clouds that sit over the peak and curve along its profile. These are called lenticular clouds for their characteristic shape. In my experience such clouds are quite stable and stay over the peak for hours. Aconcagua, though, had a fascinating sequence of constantly changing lenticular clouds, an indication of ferocious winds at the summit.

And... my own lenticular cloud
And… my own lenticular cloud

Returning to the car and the highway, we next face border formalities. Generally our border crossings have been routine but every official in the gauntlet has arbitrary power and anything can go terribly wrong. Witness our problem last November, during our prior road trip, when Chilean Customs absolutely, unpersuadably wouldn’t allow us to take the Subaru out of northern Chile to Bolivia because we were not Chile residents, unexpectedly forcing us into a 2,600 mile detour (!!!) back south to where we are now and north to Bolivia via Argentina.

The border facility here is integrated, with Chilean immigration and customs sitting side by side with their Argentine counterparts. Given our prior disaster, we’re understandably stressed. As expected, though, everything goes smoothly, the final step being a perfunctory car search by a friendly Argentine customs officer before being released into the country.

The highway down from the pass traverses an impressively austere route, paralleling both the river and the forlorn abandoned railroad. After a couple of hours we reach the junction town of Uspallata, where I’m pleasantly surprised to find that gasoline in inflation-ravaged Argentina is substantially cheaper than in Chile, though still expensive by U.S. standards. The leftover currency I had from our last visit has lost about half its value in the intervening 11 months. Foreign tourists don’t have problems because the exchange rate compensates for inflation. We use mostly credit cards and only pull small amounts of cash from ATMs because (a) it starts shrinking the moment you put it in your wallet and (b) the ATM fees for foreigners are a staggering 12%, although ours are reimbursed by Schwab. The Argentines, however, suffer financially because their earnings don’t keep up with inflation driven price increases. Except for the rich, things are really rough here although there’s no sign yet of Chile-style unrest.

We’re heading for Mendoza, the gateway city a couple of hours southeast, but instead of again taking the main highway, we decide to take a route across the mountains through the Reserva Natural Villavicencio that, on the map, has a gratifying number of twists and turns. We start out on the well maintained gravel road, climbing gradually. Fifteen miles along, we pass a mine entrance and immediately past that the road condition deteriorates. It’s still very driveable but much bumpier with many rocks on the road.

Always opt for the interesting route

Half a mile later, we see what looks like a modern gravestone a bit above the road to the right. The name on it says Charles Robert Darwin. This of course piques our curiosity so Susan trudges up the short, steep hill to read the details. It turns out the stone memorializes that Darwin traveled this route on his way back from Mendoza to the H.M.S. Beagle, anchored at Valparaiso. That 500 mile round trip on muleback must have been some rugged journey in 1835. I’m almost ashamed that we’re breezing along in our 4WD Subaru Forester — almost.

"Darwin Passed By Here"
“Darwin Passed By Here”

Some minutes later, we see a dog trotting down the deserted road toward us. As we get closer we realize it’s not a dog but an Andean fox. We stop and the fox stops, not showing any great fear of us, and we commune with it for several minutes and take some closeup photos. This is the first time I’m putting our new camera, a Panasonic DC-FZ80K, to actual use and I’m very pleased with the results. Although it sells for a modest price and is not nearly as bulky as an expensive SLR, its 60X optical zoom, very good optics, and many convenience features quickly convince me I made a good choice.

The "dog"...
The “dog”…
... is an Andean fox!
… is an Andean fox!

The road continues ascending gently to about 3000 feet above Uspallata and then begins a twisting, dizzying descent. Instead of the 4300 foot drop on the main highway to Mendoza, we’re now carefully navigating a rapid 7300 foot elevation change. The road is rough and I’m constantly picking my way around pretty large, sharp rocks. We unexpectedly encounter guanacos. Generally, they’re very skittish but this group let’s us get quite close.

Guanacos in Reserva Villavicencio, Argentina
Guanacos in Reserva Villavicencio, Argentina

We stop frequently to enjoy the views and take a break from the necessarily cautious driving.

Starting descent in Reserva Villavicencio, Argentina
Starting descent in Reserva Villavicencio, Argentina
Looking toward Mendoza from Reserva Villavicencio, Argentina. You can see our road winding down the mountain in the distance.
Looking toward Mendoza from Reserva Villavicencio, Argentina. In the distance, you can see our road winding 7,300 feet down the mountains.

At one point, I misjudge the my track by a couple of inches and run the front right tire over a sharp edged, softball size rock. This is the kind of mishap that can ruin a tire, wheel, shock absorber, or spring, but we seem to have escaped any damage. Continuing down the winding slope, we finally encounter paved road at a hot springs resort.Termas Villavicencio. I had harbored some hope that it might have affordable lodging but, in addition to looking very expensive, it’s closed for the season. As we’re looking beyond the locked gate, a woman picnicking nearby walks over to us and says we have a flat tire. Visual inspection confirms that the right rear tire has lost most, but not all, of its air. I don’t think we’ve done any damage by running on it but it definitely needs immediate attention. I dig out the tire inflator to see if I can refill it and slowly, slowly, it comes up to an acceptable pressure.

Never travel without an air compressor
Never travel without an air compressor and leak detector (Windex in this case)

Now that we have paved road, I’m hoping we can make it to Mendoza without mounting the spare. I stop to check the tire every 10 km or so and it’s evidently just a slow leak that I can drive on.

We race into Mendoza before the tire deflates again. It’s now evening so repair will have to wait until morning. Using my trusty technique, we locate a very nice hostal, Casa Huésped, that offers a clean, comfortable room, private bathroom,, breakfast, and courtyard parking for only US$17. The proprietress is a little brusque but accommodates us with a room away from the busy street. Hungry but lazy, we head across the street to a shopping center, and have plates of ravioli and a giant Quilmes Stout, Susan’s favorite Argentina beer – mine too, if a person who doesn’t particularly like beer can be said to have a favorite. The meal is tasty and cheap and, once sated, we walk carefully back to the hotel in the dark and are soon asleep.

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Mobile again!a

South America by Subaru 19/10/20 – Goodbye, Santiago, Chile – Joyful reunion with Hostal Berta

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This morning we face the formidable job of packing the car and new rooftop box with everything we brought down plus everything left in it from the earlier trip. Surprisingly, that goes pretty well and we’re even able to leave the rear seat free for possible hitchhikers. A mysterious law of car travel is that packing efficiency evolves – the same stuff packs better and tighter each time you load it. Of course, if you acquire more crap along the way, all bets are off.

By coincidence, today is Susan’s 69th birthday, so our celebration consists of hitting the road on our 3rd South America perambulation.

We leave Santiago, grateful that I filled the tank yesterday because every gas station we pass this morning has long lines stretching back into the streets. This is doubtless an effect of the crippled transit system.

We are heading for Hostal Berta, another small lodging run by a wonderful family. We’ve stayed there twice before and even the first time it felt as if we were old friends. They’re about one hour shy of the primary border crossing linking Santiago, Chile and Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a little community called Villa Aconcagua. We divert into Los Andes along the way to pick up some gift wine but it’s a wasted side trip. All the supermarkets are closed, fearing possible looting. The drive is otherwise uneventful although we veer around the smoldering remains of two roadblock fires from last night. A few seconds after we negotiate each one, Google Maps helpfully announces, “Warning, obstacle in road.” Smart, but not quite smart enough.

Hostal Berta, Villa Aconcahua, Chile
Hostal Berta, Villa Aconcagua, Chile

We arrive about 1:30 pm to a warm welcome. Alex and Berta have prepared – unsolicited – an amazing birthday feast in Susan’s honor. Barbecued meats, cooked vegetables, salads, wine, and more. Almost everything is local and all is prepared in the quincho, a traditional Chilean outdoor kitchen and dining area. To make the meal even more celebratory, they’ve festooned the ceiling with birthday balloons. What generous friends.

Chef Alex
Chef Alex
Home cooking
Home cooking
Birthday balloons for Susan
Birthday balloons for Susan
Birthday balloons for Susan
Berta, daughters Gabriela and Francesca
Susan and the feast in her honor
Susan and the feast in her honor

We have a great reunion and the talk quickly turns to politics and the protests. Fiery Berta, equally fiery daughter Gabriela, and neighbor Maritza complain bitterly about the level and handling of violence against women, the privatization of drinking water, the difficulty most families have making ends meet, and the massive economic inequality in Chile. They good naturedly shout, “¡Revolución!” but it’s not just a joke. They tell us that cows die of thirst because farmers can’t afford to buy sufficient water from the corporations that control it. Indeed there’s a proposal to privately dam up the Aconcagua River and drown their entire valley. Changes are truly needed in Chile, as they are in many nations.

Berta, "¡Revolución!
Berta, “¡Revolución!

After lunch, Berta gives us our room, saying they only have one other guest at the moment. We settle in, grateful for the rural peace and quiet amidst the uncertainty of the upheaval across Chile. The tranquility is disturbed only by the thrice daily copper ore train that rumbles by just 70 feet away.

The narrow gauge track was part of the Transandean Railway that used to go over the pass, connecting Valparaiso, Chile to Mendoza, Argentina. The line employed some impressive railroad engineering, but was abandoned as an economic failure in 1984. Now only a portion operates on the Chilean side to haul ore from a major mine further up the valley to the Pacific coast. Copper is said to be Chile’s most valuable export.

As we’re settling in for a quiet evening, some new guests arrive, a group of 9 Brazilian women, all riding substantial touring motorcycles. They’ve arrived unannounced and Berta scrambles to accommodate them, filling every bed in the hostal and housing the remainder with her neighbor.

Arrival of the Brasilian Biker Broads ("Broads" used only for alliterative purposes!)
Arrival of the Brasilian Biker Broads (“Broads” used only for alliterative purposes!)

In speaking with them, I find out they’re from all over Brazil, northeast to south. I also confirm what I already know – only tiny remnants remain of the Portuguese I learned pretty well during my 5 months traveling in Brazil in 1984. When we return there in a few weeks, communicating will be a real challenge. Fortunately, although most Brazilians vehemently deny any language similarity, they can actually understand Spanish without inordinate difficulty. The women are preoccupied with getting their sleeping arrangements settled, so we talk a bit but don’t get into any lengthy conversations before Susan and I retreat to our rooms for the night. The women sit outdoors until late at night, smoking, drinking, socializing, and playing music.

It’s been a great birthday for Susan.

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South America by Subaru 19/10/19 – Santiago, Chile Under Siege

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We wake up well rested and I drive back to nearby Tránsito (DMV), which fortunately has Saturday morning hours, to get my permanent car registration. I stop on the way to fill the empty fuel tank, which will later turn out to have been a fortunate move. The registration is issued without any problem, so the car is completely legal until 3/31/20. My sense of relief is palpable and we-re clear to leave Santiago tomorrow morning.

Now that I have peso cash, I need to pay Álvaro about $300 for his parts and labor. With our imminent departure, that means driving to his downtown residence today to hand it to him. The demonstrations are intensifying and, with public transit shut down, traffic will be a challenge, if not an impossibility. We arrange a rendezvous with Álvaro and sally forth into the fray. Traffic slows to a crawl as we near his neighborhood and the sidewalks are filled with demonstrators, many engaging in a traditional form of protest, rhythmically banging cooking pots with spoons. The Chilean word for this is cacerolazo. We have a hard time remembering how to say it – until someone points out that its stem comes, appropriately enough, from casserole. At one point we see demonstrators holding signs and standing in front of a bus to prevent it from moving.

Along Balboa Ave, Santiago

Eventually, we get to where Álvaro is waiting for us on the sidewalk. We hand him the cash, express our gratitude, say our goodbyes, and plunge back into the inching flow of traffic.

Servas host Álvaro, one of the most generous people in Chile
Servas host Álvaro, one of the most generous people in Chile

Since we’ve come this far, we decide to proceed beyond downtown to the natural history museum.

Santiago protester. I don’t understand the sign

When we reach the far side of the park, it’s late afternoon and we’re really hungry so we scout restaurants in the adjacent Barrio Yungay, enjoying the murals and architecture as we walk.

Since we’re in that awkward part of the day, after lunch and before dinner, most eateries are closed. We finally settle for mediocre Thai food and then walk back to the car. Suddenly, a man runs up to us and asks if he can take our picture. I wonder just how weird we look to attract that kind of attention, but we happily comply and then take one of him, for revenge.


We walk back to the car, in a quiet part of the city elsewhere wracked by protest over inequality. Ironically, we pass a number of homeless people sheltering against the park wall.

Homeless encampment against park wall
Homeless encampment against park wall

Driving back to Las Condes, road closures route us to the north side of the Mapocho River. Where we are, there are some relics of last night’s disturbance.

Plaza Italia, the main protest site, is directly across from us and we join others observing clashes between demonstrators and police. From our relatively safe perch, we see water cannons and tear gas being used by the police, but the protestors are resilient and not easily dispersed. I stay with the car at the curb while Susan walks over to the river wall to get a better view and take photos. After a short while she starts feeling the effects of tear gas wafting across the river from the distant plaza and retreats to the car.

Plaza Italia protest

We return to our apartment and stay glued to the television news. The government announces a 10 PM – 7 AM curfew, but many protesters ignore it. More fires are set, some stores are looted, and in one 3 people die – not by police action. Chile’s president announces the cancellation of the fare hike that triggered the protests, but the issues have gone far beyond that, deep into social justice and equality. A state of emergency is declared and soldiers are in the streets for the first time since the 1973 Pinochet military coup. Metro announces that damage to the system is extensive and it will take days to weeks to fully restore service.

Late at night, we shut off the television and drop off into fitful sleep.

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South America by Subaru 19/10/18 – Bureaucracy and Protests in Santiago, Chile

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At first light in Curacaví, I’m out of bed and getting ready to leave, but I encounter a small problem first. South American homes are generally locked tight at night, with most doors and gates requiring a key to open, even from the inside, a practice which definitely does not comply with U.S. fire safety codes. I neglected to ask Margarita how to exit and I don’t want to wake her up at 5 AM to do it now. First, I have to open one of the house’s two doors. The front door has a key in the lock, but it doesn’t turn. The side door has no key. I start quietly rummaging around the kitchen, looking for likely keys in increasingly unlikely places. I eventually find one that unlocks the side door, so now I’m outdoors but still not free. The yard has two egresses, a locked pedestrian gate and a motorized sliding driveway portal. None of the keys work on the gate, so I start pushing every button on the 3 remotes I’ve turned up, unlocking Margarita’s car, turning on yard lights, and possibly opening garage doors all over the neighborhood. The driveway, however, remains closed.

At this point, I give up and seek help. Since I had helped Gerhard and he’s not my host, I knock on his bedroom door and ask, “How the hell do I get out of here?” He’s only slightly less befuddled than I am and we search together. Noting the key in the door that doesn’t turn, he suggests I remove it and try it on the front gate. Voila, it works and I’m out on the sidewalk! Free at last. I hop in the car and start out for Santiago by a very roundabout toll free route. On vacation, I generally avoid tolls (even though it costs me more in fuel and wear) because it satisfies my rebellious streak and often leads to more interesting routes. Today, though, I have a more practical reason — headlights are required 24/7 on Chilean toll roads and I have a dead one.

It takes me quite a while to reach Santiago and since it’s now open, I drive right to the municipal Tránsito, the department of motor vehicles. Here I buy my annual obligatory liability insurance — only about US$15 annually — and a one day temporary registration for about US$4. Momentarily legal, I have to interrupt my quest to help Susan get our stuff transferred to new lodgings. Although happy where we were in the downtown apartment, it’s not available for a 3rd night. Now that we have the Subaru back, it would also require expensive garage parking, so we have reservations at a more suitable location, a family run guest house with free parking in the Las Condes suburb.

We have to get everything we brought on the plane down six floors from apartment to car — except I can’t park or even fully get the car out of the traffic lane on the narrow, busy downtown street below. The only possible plan is for Susan to pack everything herself and shuttle it down to the sidewalk single handed while I watch nervously for the police. This is no small task for her as we have five bags, one of them a 45 pound suitcase, and miscellaneous smaller items. As she brings each bag out, I dash across the street, grab it, stuff it in the car, and return to my vigil. By this high stress method, we’re eventually able to drive off to our new digs. It feels really good to be back in the Subaru together on the road in South America, but there’s still a very busy day ahead of us.

Drunken stupor apartment damage?

As we drive away, Susan warns me that she woke up this morning to find a broken bedside lamp. She doesn’t remember knocking it over, so she’s forced to attribute it to possible after effects of yesterday’s enormous Pisco Sour. We get a laugh out of this because she never drinks enough alcohol to even get high, much less get sick or black out. We text the apartment owner, apologize, and offer to pay for the lampshade. Fortunately it was a cheap one.

The new place, Traveler’s House, is very different. Homey, but less new and modern, it’s a small apartment squeezed onto the grounds of a family home and garden on a quiet residential street. The owners welcome us warmly. Without even transferring our belongings into our quarters, I resume my car quest. First stop is Álvaro’s car accessory shop on the south side of Santiago. Here, one of his employees works with me to replace the failed headlight and a few other lamps, install the new tail light assembly I brought from the U.S., and replace my expensive, broken rooftop cargo box with a new, functioning one. With the car now able to pass inspection, I race over to the inspection facility, Planta Revisión Tecnica, and hand the car over to them shortly before their gate closes for the day.

Robotic inspection of Subaru front lights

Chilean auto inspection is a very interesting process. It takes place in a giant shed while drivers observe through large windows from the waiting room above. It’s highly automated with the technicians mostly manipulating car controls as prompted from a computer screen at each station. The car is driven onto various embedded floor plates which then test things like alignment, brakes, suspension, steering, and exhaust emissions. There’s even a mobile robot that scans across the front and back of the car to check the various lights. At the conclusion of the tests, I notice them drive the car somewhere other than the exit lot but don’t attach much significance to it. A few minutes later, though, my name is called and the clerk tells me “No aprobado”, the car has failed inspection. This is disturbing news as it could mean immediate, expensive repairs or perhaps that the car can never pass and be registered. The clerk walks me over to the station manager who looks over the paperwork, says something to me in incomprehensible Spanish, and signals me to come with him. We walk outside to an area I immediately realize is the “purgatory lot” where the failed vehicles are parked. Further conversation clarifies that one of the tests is seat belt function and the technicians couldn’t do that because all the seats were still filled with hastily loaded baggage and gear. I clear everything out of the seating areas, the manager checks each belt, gives me a big thumbs up, and proudly says “Everything good!” in English. What a relief! It’s too late in the day to go back to Tránsito for my permanent registration, so I head back to Travelers House to unload the car and get ready for our 8 PM dinner appointment with Brian and Pablo.

In the course of describing my day, I’ve omitted the background events simultaneously transpiring in Santiago. Yesterday, students and others were demonstrating in the streets against a newly imposed 3% transit fare hike. As various Santiagueños explained to us, this small increase was the straw that broke the camel’s back. Chile, by all accounts is the most prosperous nation in South America and also has massive economic inequality. The current president is a multi-billionaire and ordinary people are living on the edge of financial ruin. The standard of living in Chile has actually been rising for everyone but, as in the U.S., the rich are reaping almost all the benefits while the middle class and below are seeing microscopic gains.

In this context, the fare hike demonstrations which started yesterday have grown larger and more violent throughout today. Metro subway stations were vandalized and set afire, some buses were burned, and some stores looted. By afternoon, the Metro system citywide was completely shuttered due to the damage downtown. Brian and Pablo let us know that they would understand if we canceled dinner because of the transportation problems and expanding unrest. Since we now have the car mobile (and, until midnight, still legal) and there is little in the way of violence and police action in Las Condes, we make the short drive and the four of us have an excellent dinner, elegantly prepared by Pablo.

Throughout the meal, we’re all watching the increasing chaos on television news. Some of their rental apartments are in the heart of downtown. One of them faces what we see is a raging fire in the high rise headquarters of the electric utility, Enel. It’s obvious the protests are getting very dangerous. We leave after dinner while Brian is on the phone talking to nervous guests seeing police and protesters from their apartment windows while smoke pervades the neighborhood.

Late night protetsters outside shuttered Santiago Metro station.

Las Condes, fortunately, is quiet. We see only one small group of protesters near a closed Metro station while I hit an ATM for Chilean pesos and our drive back to our lodgings is uneventful. With the car off the street behind a locked gate, we eventually drift off to sleep to the accompaniment of TV news footage of fires and violence.

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South America by Subaru 19/10/17 – Santiago and Curacaví, Chile

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I’m counting on today to retrieve the car and get it documented, but I haven’t heard from Álvaro, on whose property it’s stored, for over two weeks. It’s been parked for 8 months at his weekend home in Curacaví, about an hour’s drive from Santiago. The property is high up on a mountain, fenced and locked, so there’s no way for me to get to the car unaided. He usually responds quickly to my messages, but now he’s gone dark and I’m helpless to proceed. There’s nothing to do but wait, so I sally forth from the apartment on a successful search for pastries and milk. We then hear from our friends Brian and Pablo, who are nearby servicing one of their fleet of Airbnb rental apartments. Pablo is a field archaeologist and Brian, the ex-pat son of one of my long time clients, makes a good living via Airbnb rentals. Administering what is, essentially, a distributed hotel keeps them very busy.

While Susan is taking a bath, I walk several blocks to where they’re setting up a new location for the coming tourist season. Once they finish up, the three of us drive to our building, pick up Susan, and head to the Plaza de Armas for drinks at a sidewalk cafe. Susan wants a Pisco Sour. When the waiter explains there are two sizes, in keeping with my universal rule – buy the product with the lowest unit price – I urge her to order the big one, the Catedral. The name turns out to mean a drink of enormous size, loaded with alcohol. Susan enjoys it and dutifully nurses it to its conclusion, which leads to unwanted consequences during the subsequent night. In the course of our conversation, Pablo and Brian invite us to dinner tomorrow at their elegant high rise apartment. I finally hear from Álvaro who tells me I can ride to the Subaru with his cousin at 6 PM. Relieved, I leave the others and head for Álvaro’s auto accessory store on the other side of Santiago via Metro to meet up with him and his cousin, Fernando.

At the store, Álvaro explains that he had to relocate the car on his property and discovered that the battery had died during the winter. Since he sells them. he sends a new one along with us in case a jump isn’t adequate to revive mine. I’ve brought along a new taillight assembly from the U.S. to replace the one I damaged during the last trip. It still functions fine, but definitely won’t pass inspection. About 6:30 PM, Fernando and I head slowly out of Santiago in rush hour traffic and eventually arrive at Álvaro’s property. His mother is already there, along with Gerhard, a German friend of the family who, by coincidence, is also picking up his stored car after just arriving back in Chile.

The car is parked facing up a steep grade and I see that all the tires are very low on air, but not quite flat. Although I brought my portable tire inflater from the U.S., I didn’t think to bring it with me tonight, so I’m going to be risking tire damage for a while. The battery is, indeed, dead, so Fernando drops the new one in and the car starts right up. Margarita, the mother agrees to lead me to a gas station with air, so she convoys us out of the high subdivision in the darkness toward the center of Curacaví. I’m driving very slowly, of course, to reduce the chance of ruining my almost flat tires. The first 2 stations do not have a working compressor but on the far side of town, we find the one that does.

I’m now faced with a number of bad options. The car is completely illegal at the moment: unregistered, uninsured, uninspected and I have only tomorrow and Saturday morning to get everything done before everything shuts down until Monday. I’m in a Catch 22. I can’t drive without registration, I can’t register without an inspection, and the nearest inspection station is back in Santiago. Margarita tells me I can get a one day registration to get me to the inspection station, but that would mean waiting until morning and shortening the available time to complete everything. I decide, instead to drive illegally back to Santiago during the wee hours, so I can be at the inspection station first thing in the morning, presuming I’m not stopped by the police for any reason. This plan is derailed when I realize I also have one non-functioning headlight, which would greatly increase the chance of a police encounter during a night drive.

In view of this, I make a quick modification. I’ll sleep in the car on some quiet street and head for Santiago at sunup, when headlights can be left off. On hearing of my plan, Margarita says “absolutely not” — I will sleep in one of her guest rooms until I’m ready to leave. Remember, this is someone who just met me an hour earlier. Gerhard, who is Margarita’s occasional travel buddy, is also staying there and the 3 of us talk for a while before heading for bed. I’m able to save Gerhard a lot of trouble by telling him what we found out from bitter experience last November, that in the north of the country, Chilean Aduana (Customs) will absolutely not permit a Chilean car owned by a non-resident to leave the country. It makes no sense, since in the central and southern areas, the same customs agency doesn’t care about that at all. Having saved Gerhard a likely 1500 mile dead end, he decides to reverse his planned route, entering Argentina first where it’s safe, and re-entering Chile in the north, which is also no problem.

Midnight is approaching, Gerhard is suffering from jet lag, and I’ve had a long unsettled day of problem solving, so all of us gratefully hit the sack.

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South America by Subaru 19/10/16 – Livingston Manor to Santiago

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Here we are, Susan and I starting our third (my fourth, actually) South America road trip since December 2017 in our trusty 2007 high mileage, much abused, Subaru Forester. We arrive in Santiago, Chile after a hectic departure from home — because for me, every departure is hectic. Important pre-trip tasks don’t get done until the last minute and I end up packing in the final hour before heading out for the airport. The absolute last thing I have to do before stepping on the plane is go to the German Consulate at United Nations Plaza to submit the application for my German passport, itself the culmination of a long story, which includes recognition — at age 69 — of my lifelong dual US/German citizenship. Why now, finally, 20 years after I found out? Hint: it’s primarily for the benefit of my two kids and their future offspring. The German bureaucracy is especially kind to me and everything goes very smoothly.

The red eye flight is long, cramped, but otherwise uneventful. The short stopover in Houston breaks it up somewhat but, unlike the old, pre-terrorist days, flying is merely a means to an end. It’s a miserable, authoritarian, physically torturous experience in which you’re treated as a criminal suspect and subjected to the whims of every tin pot dictator-wannabe you may encounter among the numerous staff manning the gauntlet of transportation access. Admittedly, I make it worse because I really react badly to being told what to do and flying demands obedience to a seemingly endless sequence of mandatory instructions. Back in my Alaska days (1975-1985) flying was actually fun. You looked forward to it as part of the travel experience. Now I feel lucky if I’m not pulled out of line for a body cavity search. I’d rather drive from New York to San Francisco than go through airport security — and I’ve got Global Entry, despite my substantial ethical objections to government selling preferential access to those who can afford it.

Dawn over the Andes, just before beginning descent from 37,000 feet to Santiago airport

The dawn approach to Santiago airport is magnificent, with dramatic clouds highlighting the sun rising over the distant Andes to the east. We arrive 30 minutes early thanks to a hellacious tailwind at 37,000 feet, step off the plane in Santiago, collect our voluminous luggage, and clear immigration and customs without hassle – except that the drug and food smelling dog flags my backpack for extra inspection. This requires a trip through the Xray tunnel (the bag, not me) and a complete unload of the big cargo pack. I already know why. I’m carrying 100 U.S. supermarket corn tortillas, the chemically enhanced kind that can sit around in heat and darkness for years without developing a speck of mold. Why tortillas? Because when we stay with families and other hosts, I like to cook a meal for them. Tex-Mex style tacos are one of my regular choices and prior experience has shown that corn tortillas are rare to nonexistent in South America, especially the immortal kind. Flour tortillas are often available but that just doesn’t cut it. For me, tacos require corn tortillas. Once the inspector satisfies herself that I have no contraband, say a brick of fentanyl, a fresh apple, or slab of raw steak, I’m left to the 15 minute job of repacking everything.

Traveling tortillas

We’re past all the barriers by about 10 AM and since our initial rental apartment doesn’t want to see us before noon, I use the time to locate the airport Aduana (Customs) office to resolve a nagging question I have about car travel. When you take a vehicle out of its home country, you’re generally required to return it or face illegal export charges. What I want to know is what happens if the Subaru is stolen, or totaled, or otherwise impossible to return to Chile as the law requires? Will my name eventually be on a wanted list, meaning I can never take a chance on returning here lest on some future arrival the lettuce sniffing dog grabs my leg and drags me off to detention? I’m eventually referred to a very friendly agent who, to my pleasant surprise, totally reassures me. Even better, she speaks English well, relieving me of the chore of having to conduct a complex legal discussion in Spanish within an hour of my arrival. Señora Astorga tells me that if the unfortunate happens, to send her a police report or mechanic’s letter explaining the car’s fate and she will issue a waiver of return on it. She gives me her direct phone and personal email and assures me there will be no problem, no arrest warrant, no massive fine. I am much relieved because the car is really getting old and might very well give out somewhere along the way. If only all bureaucrats were so friendly and helpful. U.S. Homeland Security, take note!

The cheapest way to get downtown with our mass of belongings — the substantial carrying capacity of the Subaru makes it tempting to over pack – is by Uber. With Susan minding our pile curbside, I call via phone app for a ride. The message is “arriving in one minute” and I’m quickly in contact with the driver as we try to coordinate a specific pick up point at the busy terminal. He tells me where he is and I’m scanning cars for the provided license plate to no avail. After several minutes, I figure out why — he’s on foot right next to Susan. No, this is not some developing country version of Uber where he’s going to carry us and our luggage to our destination on his back. Uber is illegal in Chile, despite its dominance in ground transportation, so the driver leaves his car in the remote parking lot, meets his fares on foot, and accompanies them and their luggage on the free shuttle bus to the vicinity of his car, thus avoiding unpleasant interactions with airport police. I’ve used Uber on rides to the airport, where there’s also a dodge employed — the driver gives you his first name and instructions to back up his story, if the police ask, that he’s just dropping off a friend rather than a paid ride. As you approach the ramp, his Uber sign disappears under his seat and anonymity prevails. By the way, although Uber quotes you a price before ordering a ride, they can upcharge you without notice. This ride cost 18% more than the price I was given before I said OK. Bastards.

A little after noon, we arrive at the downtown high rise where we’ll be staying. I’ve gotten pretty good at finding accommodations, usually via, that meet both my criteria (a cheap place to sleep) and Susan’s (clean, comfortable, quiet, private bathroom). This apartment is no exception and after shuttling our luggage from car to curb to elevator to apartment door, we’re met by Norita and Rosita, the on-site greeters who orient us to our two-night home, one of nine apartments in the building owned by Raul, whom we never meet face to face, as traveler lodging. After today, I have just two workdays to accomplish everything it takes to retrieve and document the car. Anything I don’t get done by Friday at 5 PM will have to wait for Monday. The rest of today is my only chance to rest between the trip down and the car project. As the afternoon progresses, we head out on foot to find dinner. To our great good fortune, we see a Chinese restaurant just 200 feet down the block. A quick perusal of the menu indicates price, ambience, and food selection make it worth a shot. Indeed, our “menu for 2” choice is quite tasty and we even take about half of it back for lunch tomorrow. The rest of the evening is spent reacquainting ourselves with the historic Plaza de Armas neighborhood. The central square of most Hispanic South American towns is so named because, originally, the community’s weapons were stored centrally so everyone could run there and form up quickly in case of attack. We browse a bookstore, ogle beautiful public gardens locked behind high fences, people watch, and generally kick back before falling into bed with a lullaby of steady traffic noise six floors below.

Chilean Chamber of Deputies, Santiago. No entry to the publi
Bookstore near Plaza de Armas, Santiago
Used clothing, known in Chile as Ropa Americana, Santiago
Iguana Sculpture, Santiago

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