We have been in lockdown throughout Patagonia for some months now and, with plenty of cases occurring in the ghettoes of Buenos Aires, we were worried that it would only be a question of time before the Covid-19 virus made its way south. But everything down here is eerily quiet. No deaths from the virus anywhere in Patagonia and only a handful of cases, all of whom, touch wood, have recovered. Here in the Welsh towns in the Andes, we have had none.
Argentina has a federal system of government and the big cheeses in Buenos Aires, almost 2,000 kilometres to the north, closed borders and announced a tough lockdown. But here in Welsh Patagonia, the Argentine province of Chubut, we have our own government and they locked us down even tighter. Until last weekend, we couldn’t travel more than 500 metres from our homes for any reason other than for shopping and medical purposes, and we couldn’t have any sort of family gathering. I couldn’t even drive the short distance (25 kilometres) to our neighbouring village of Trevelin, where I spend most of my time raising funds for our Welsh school, Ysgol y Cwm.
This strategy seems, for the time being, to have worked very well. Welsh Patagonia has one major advantage over many other locations in the world – it is very large and with very few towns and villages, and those are spread far and wide. You don’t come close to many people in these parts. If you spread out our population, we could probably manage social distancing of a mile or more. It is around 10 times the size of Wales, or almost half the size of California, but with only one eightieth of the population. If Manhattan had the same population density as we do down here, fewer than fifty people would live there. Unless the sheep become carriers of the virus, we can sleep soundly for the time being.
Here in the beautiful Andes Mountains, our winter is about to kick in, but we are more than 600 kilometres from a town of any size. Short days and bad, icy roads discourage even the most committed tourists. Our ski season, which normally starts in July, will probably not happen this year, which removes most of the reasons for anyone visiting us in the winter. But the lack of tourism in Patagonia, an area that so heavily depends on visitors, is hitting families very hard. Much of the economy in Argentina is black and so fewer families are in a position to claim financial assistance to relieve hardship. But things will soon change and will become even better than pre-Virus days
In Buenos Aires, one of the world’s capitals of cronyism and corruption, governments have developed a speciality in persuading international institutions and governments to lend them vast amounts of money, and they then default on the payments. The current government has just last week scored it latest default. This means that it becomes very expensive for Argentina to borrow money and, in turn, the Argentine currency, the Peso, is of no value outside Argentina, especially considering the vast quantities of the currency being printed by the government at the moment. Not long ago, the highest value banknote was 100 pesos. A new five thousand peso note is about to enter circulation. The central government has been expending its reserves of dollars by bolstering the peso and, as a consequence, preventing as much as possible the purchase of dollars by Argentineans. It has even gone as far as implementing a 30% tax on any purchases made by Argentineans using credit cards outside Argentina.
The result of all this financial jiggery pokery is that everyone wants to buy dollars to stash under the bed (nobody trusts banks here). In just three months, the official exchange rate has remained more or less stationary at 60 pesos to the dollar, while the unofficial rate has ballooned to more than 130. That difference is the boom for tourists. Local prices of Argentine-sourced goods and services have remained more or less the same, while their price to someone buying with dollars has halved. I can buy the entire fillet of a Hereford cow for $5, a very good Malbec for $2, fuel for 50c a litre and, looking at the other side of the coin, any Apple computer product for at least twice its price in the US.
Coupled with the fact that, down here in the Andes in Welsh Patagonia, we have no mosquitos, dengue or zika, and some of the most stunning scenery in the world in some of the world’s emptiest places, tourism and property investment will return here with a boom as soon as the flights restart.
And, when they do, we can reopen our Welsh school, bring back the Welsh teachers who have all been sent back to Wales, and get back to welcoming Welsh tourists from across the world.