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OPINION AND ANALYSIS | 24-10-2020 08:57

Esquel and Trevelin: rare Covid-19 success stories in Argentina

Not everywhere in Argentina is struggling without luck to halt the spread of Covid-19: Esquel and Trevelin are arguably the New Zealand of Patagonia, thanks to the approach of local authorities.

Chubut is, generally, a bit of disaster. Years of corruption and "jobs for the boys" (and girls) has saddled the province with impressive debts, leading to its inability to pay its numerous employees. Perhaps some of them should never have been employed, but to make teachers, nurses and other key employees wait in hope for their salaries being paid each month is a pretty poor show for a province with such potential riches in fishing, oil, minerals and tourism.

The large towns of Trelew and Comodoro Rivadavia, with sprawling areas of cheek-by-jowl, low-cost housing, are a magnet for Covid-19, exacerbated by the presence of Route 3, which carries all the truck traffic from the north to the south of the country. And, to cap it off, fishing fleets docking in Puerto Madryn, Rawson and Comodoro also add to the virus load. Local medical services are already overwhelmed – thank goodness the cruisers have stopped docking at Puerto Madryn.

But cross to the other side of the country and the picture is totally different. Chubut is blessed with some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery in the whole of Argentina, and it is almost all located around the small Welsh towns of Esquel and Trevelin. There’s virtually no industry there and their economies are primarily based on sheep and cattle farming. They say that, if you base yourself in Trevelin, you can ski in the morning (at the nearby resort of La Hoya), have lunch in the rain-forest (in Los Alerces National Park – now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) and tea in scenery rivalling the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley (in and around the extinct Piedra Parada Volcano).

And in these towns, there are hardly any cases of the coronavirus (just six in Esquel as of Thursday). Why? Firstly, because access to both towns is via a single road, a branch off RN40, which follows the Andes all the way down to Tierra del Fuego. The local authorities have ensured that access is very strictly controlled, so there’s little traffic from the highly-infected town of Bariloche, 300km to the north. Secondly, most of the border crossings with Chile are closed. The most popular one for trucks from Chile carrying products to southern Chile, Cardenal Samore, is only open to truck and trailer traffic. They make their way down the Andes via Route 40 and don't come within 10 km of Esquel. Finally, there are no flights, therefore no tourists. There is only one way in and, like New Zealand, it is well controlled, with compulsory quarantine restrictions.

This success story is reflected in the buoyant state of the property market. Citizens of Comodoro and other coastal towns, as well as from Buenos Aires and other large cities across the country, are reportedly buying properties in the area, many as retirement homes or simple investments. Some long-time property owners, mainly farmers, are beginning to divide some of their land holdings and putting on the market lots too.

A case in point is one Welsh farmer who has set aside a lot of five hectares (12.36 acres). The plot, which has water and is suitable for a grand house or small gated community, is in an elevated position, overlooks the town of Trevelin as well as Los Alerces National Park, is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and is only five minutes from the centre of town, with a modern hospital and excellent schools. It is only 50 km from Esquel airport and 35 km from the Chilean border at Futaleufú. The owner thinks he won't have to wait very long to get his US$480,000 asking price.

Assuming the authorities ride their luck and keep the virus away, locals are very happy and going about their daily lives as if nothing had happened – a far cry from life in Covid-19 hotspots across the country.

 

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Jeremy Wood

Jeremy Wood

Jeremy Wood is a retired writer from New Zealand, now based in Esquel, Chubut Province.

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