Punta Arenas – the southern most city of Continental America

Since starting a full time consulting job in February it has become really hard to find the time to write posts for my blog. So my final accounts of our trip to Patagonia are a little overdue. But Torres del Pain was not the only highlight of our week down south, so finally I am getting around to telling you about our time in Punta Arenas.

This was not my first experience of Punta Arenas. When I started my trip through Patagonia with Guy in 2010 I flew to Punta Arenas and from there took a bus to Ushuaia in Argentina. There are a few reasons why at this time Punta Arenas didn`t leave the best impression on me.  I arrived on a Sunday which meant that absolutely EVERYTHING in the centre was closed. It was the middle of April, which meant the tourist season was definitely finished and there didn`t seem much to do or see. And finally, two days before I had been in the heat and sun of the Atacama Desert 3500km to the north and suddenly I was in the freezing cold, grey of the south. Basically, I was rather happy to move on the next day and head to Ushuaia.

However, most Chileans seem to have fond feelings for the city and so I was happy to be returning to give it another chance. The difference this time was that I was going with ALOT more spanish and most importantly with people who know city well. We were also lucky enough to be staying with family which always makes a difference – not just a normal tourist this time…

Punta Arenas is the equivalent of the Cape in South Africa. In the early 1500s the Spanish were trying to discover the route around the south of the continent that Christopher Colombos had “discovered” a few years early. They were looking for a route to the Indies, similar to explorations around the south of the African continent. The first successful navigation was not around Cape Horn which is the final landmass of the continent, but through what became known as “Estrecho de Magellanes” (The Magellan Strait). Half a century later, a fleet of 23 ships and 3000 people set sail from Spain with the goal of establishing the first colony in the region. Long story short, the attempt at colonisation was a failure due to the harsh environmental conditions so far south and in the end only one person survived and was rescued after years by an English ship. This episode was to become known as the most important failure of the Spanish empire in America and one that put off any further attempts to settle in the harsh Patagonian conditions for many centuries.

Decades after Chile`s independance from Spain in 1810, control of the region was finally confirmed with the first permanent settlement named Fuerte Bulnes after the President of the Republic at the time. Naturally life was rather tough, but the pioneering spirits of the first colonisers led to the growth and success of various industries, mainly sheep farming and for a limited period, gold.

I don`t want this post to turn into a history lesson, but I think what I found fascinating about Punta Arenas was learning a little more about its history. And not just the history of the Chilean colonisers, but also the history of the indigenous peoples that lived in Patagonia (sadly all of which has been lost now). The stories of hardships and struggle against the unforgiving climate, the lack of resources and the isolation from the rest of Chile reminded me, in some way of the stories of explorers and settlers of Southern Africa and the conditions they endured to set up the cities and towns we know today.

The golden age of Punta Arenas ended many decades ago with the increasing centralisation in Santiago. But still, the city as it is today captures the essence of the first colonisers.

My first impressions of Punta Arenas have definitely changed, thanks largely I think to seeing the city through the eyes of the locals and hearing the stories of the city.

One of the highlights of Punta Arenas was definitely kayaking in the Estrecho de Magallanes with Rodrigo`s uncle. We were super lucky with the weather as often the conditions are too rough to do the trip, but for us, the ocean was as calm as a swimming pool, albeit a rather large and very very cold swimming pool.

 Ricardo (Rodrigo`s uncle) owns the transfer company for the kayak business in Punta Arenas. He is well known around town for this colourful van!

 

Rodrigo paddling and me smiling for the photo!

It really was phenomenal how calm the ocean was. But even with the peaceful conditions, I could feel the wildness and ruggedness of our surroundings. Apart from keeping a look out for dolphins, which we did manage to see from a distance, we enjoyed spectacular views of Tierra del Fuego and the Darwin Peninsula.

 

Looking a little cold and with rather tired arms from paddling, our amazing paddle in the Magellanes Strait had to come to an end. 

Sports in the morning and a little bit of culture in the afternoon. After lunch the entire family (12 of us in total) all piled into the kayak van and headed to Fuerte Bulnes (the first permanent settlement in Magellanes). Just the hour or so journey to the fort was an experience in itself for me – Chilean families are big and usually rather boisterous, so the trip was full of jokes, laughter and general competition for space to talk. This is totally normal for people here, but for me it is still something different, besides the fact that I still have issues with too many people all speaking Spanish at the same time!

 The clouds from the morning had disappeared and we were blessed with vivid blue skies and wonderful sunshine. 

Fuerte Bulnes

 

The fort is a reconstruction of the original and provides a small insight into how the people lived in the 1800s. 

From the Fort and Santa Ana Point, we had the clearest view possible of Mount Sarmiento which is on the Darwin Peninsula of Tierra del Fuego. Basically the southern most part of Chile is a maze of islands thanks to periods of glaciation millions of years ago and the Andes Mountains that stretch almost the whole length of the continent (and all of Chile) transform into flat pampa around Punta Arenas. But the biggest island (Tierra del Fuego) has its own mountain range (with Mount Sarmiento). There is a myth in Punta Arenas that when you have a clear view of Mount Sarmiento, the next day there will be terrible weather. And on this particular day, everyone said to us that they had never seen the mountain so clear.

Mount Sarmiento

I didn`t pay much attention to the myth, but that night it started to rain in Punta Arenas and it didn`t stop raining for more than 24 hours. Punta Arenas, being so far south is actually more accustomed to snow than rain and so after hours of constant, and fairly strong rain, people began commenting on how unusual this was. The next day, we headed to the airport for our flight home and didn`t think much of the rain, until the next day, back in Santiago, when we heard that the, usually tiny, river flowing through the city broke its banks and flooded most of the centre. In 36 hours the city had 115mm of rain, when the average in a year is 400mm.

La Costanera de Punta Arenas (the new walkway along the Strait in Punta Arenas) 

The same walkway, 2 days later – Climate change…or the myth of Mount Sarmiento…hmmm

Sadly, all adventures have to come to an end – after 10 days of Patagonia it was time to head back to the city and back to my new job. Another superstition is that if you kiss the big toe of this statue in the Plaza of Punta Arenas you will return to visit again. Since this was already my second trip to the region, I didn`t find it necessary to do so, but I hope that even just a photo will bring me the luck to return to this fascinating place…

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