PUERTO NATALES — Doña Vilma sits on an old sofa, its cushions stained and pockmarked with holes from carelessly handled cigarettes. In front of her is a 70-inch television showing a Spanish-league soccer match that nobody pays attention to. Vilma's attire is understated. She doesn't wear jewelry. The lines etched in her 50-something-year-old face have never been softened with expensive creams. She doesn't look like someone who earns a million dollars a year.

Vilma owns four brothels in Puerto Natales, in far southern Chile, that together employ approximately 35 prostitutes of varying nationalities. Puerto Natales lies across the border from Río Turbio, in Argentina's Santa Cruz province. The two Patagonian towns are intimately linked, with a shared history and culture that dates back generations. Something else they have in common is the sex trade, which pays little attention to local border controls.

It used to be miners who kept the prostitution business going in this far-off corner of the continent. They'd crowd into the brothels on payday, covered with coal dust, and flush with banknotes and all the "eagerness" they'd built up underground. That was 40 years ago. "Better times," Vilma says, when "the girls" would cross the frontier, as they still do, to come work with her.

But the girls aren't just "friendly" Argentines, she says. They also hail from Colombia, Paraguay or even the Dominican Republic — women who are lured here by stories about "getting paid more" in the south.

Upstairs for "dessert"

Vilma says the business began when she was a teenager, in this very house. Back in the 1950s, it was a popular local restaurant, run by her father. They had a cook called "Manitos," as he was so deft with his hands (manos) for cooking, cleaning and readying customers' bills. But as Manitos aged, Vilma and her sisters began exploiting a parallel activity already complementing the eatery's earnings: receiving girls and ushering them onto the upstairs rooms, "for dessert, let's say."

The eatery is now part of a larger tourist complex and Vilma's brothels, which include bars and "end rooms," are in another part of Puerto Natales, a tourist hub two hours' drive from the Torres del Paine national park. Punta Arenas, capital of Chile's Magallanes Region, is two hours away in the opposite direction. Río Turbio in only 30 minutes away. In all of these places, prostitution is surprisingly brisk.

An oil rig in Patagonia, Argentina — Photo: nestor galina

The area is decidedly remote. And yet its receives approximately 400,000 tourists a year. Oil and mining firms also have operations here, and pay their workers relatively well. Río Turbio has a huge power plant that employs 1,000 people. A former welder from Río Turbio says the unions themselves are adamant supporters of the sex trade because "it keeps the men quiet."

In the 1990s, the politicians who emerged in this region, following the end of military rule, also became clients. A prominent journalist from Neuquén, in central Argentina, recalls being offered a prostitute following a dinner meeting a few years back with area businessmen. "'They're clean!,' they assured us."

Since the oil boom began in the Vaca Muerta area, police and health services have noticed a marked increase in the flow of cocaine and prostitutes toward areas close to the oil fields. A pretty girl can "pick up" 40,000-50,000 pesos (up to $3,500) a month in Añelo, capital of Vaca Muerta. But she will also face a constant risk to her personal safety, and spend a good deal of that money on high rents, drink and probably drugs.

Money to be made

There are about 1.5 million people in Patagonia and in this ring of southern districts, the sex trade is thought to generate an annual turnover of $25-30 million. That excludes the drink and drug businesses that prosper on the sidelines. There are many lonely or single men here who work hard and earn good money, and that is just one factor fueling prostitution.

At some point, the business evolved thanks to the Internet. Women from other countries started "coming down" to Patagonia, often stopping in Santiago or Buenos Aires, the Chilean and Argentine capitals. Caribbean girls reportedly charge a premium for their "well-rounded" bodies, and can earn more than Argentines.

"The black girls changed this business," says Vilma. "Men here had never seen a woman with skin and curves like that. The first one that worked with me was a sensation: There was a queue of men waiting their turn," she recalls.

A Patagonian district of some 150,000 can typically boast about 100 prostitutes working full time. But while the money is good ("Where am I going to earn money like this?" asks a girl from Bariloche, Argentina), the night has its dangers. Quite a few of the girls end up involved with a man who becomes their pimp, which can change their routine. "It's purely money for sex now," says Osvaldo, a regular customer. "Before you had a drink, sex and a chat."

The average cost in Patagonia is 500 pesos ($35) for a half-hour, and 700-1,000 pesos ($48-$70) for an hour. VIP girls charge 2,000 pesos ($1,400) or more. And it is all fairly irregular: Many of the girls arrive with forged papers, have criminal records or are employed as "waitresses" as the law allows, before doing whatever they want around, or instead of, their regular job.

It is a "trick" that exploits gaps in Chilean employment laws. Argentina has closed this particular loophole — in discotheques especially — inadvertently driving prostitution to the roadside, or into cars and flats, according to a health workers' association in Río Negro. "It is more clandestine now, and it has become more difficult to keep in touch and perform health checks," says Nelly Costa, coordinator of the El Galpón help group.

Trucha, a transvestite and prostitute who had a regular act in one of the clubs, concurs. "The cabarets may be over, but it's all continuing elsewhere," she says. "I used to do Rocío Durcal and Paloma San Basilio. It was divine." Trucha now works in a bread shop.