Frequent readers of our travels may recall that I have a knack for booking us in the wrong place. And, yet, it almost always works out. My theory for this is that the world is an amazing, miraculous place and if you show up somewhere willing to push outside your normal boundaries a bit, magic happens.
Mary thinks I get lucky.
It therefore pleased me greatly that she thanked me for booking this past weekend in Punta Arenas as if it were some grand plan. She has stated that she really wanted to go to Patagonia, as did I, and I thought this was where we should go. When it got to booking actual outings, it turned out we were a couple hundred miles south of the “real” Chilean Patagonia action which normally takes off from Puerto Natales, 248 km north on Route 9. We had only two full days in town so getting up there would suck way too much time off the trip. I was worried the luck had run out and I was going to end up sitting in a cafe in a cold rain in a dingy port town unable to order tea because of the language barrier.
One week before we arrived in Punta Arenas, I had nothing formally booked. The two things I’d read about that I knew we’d like to do was to see penguins and hike Mount Tarn. Either of these, the internet will tell you, can be done on your own. And, sure, they could be. I could also build my own furniture. In the end, I chose to book a sailing to Isla Magdelena where there there is a large penguin colony living in a protected refuge. They know it, too, as they barely move out of your way. The second thing was to book a guided hike up Mount Tarn.
Punta Arenas itself is a wonderful small city. For me, it was nice to escape the urban bustle of Santiago for a place you could peacefully drive yourself around. We arrived a little after noon to a cool, gray day, picked up a rental car (a stick! watch out Americans as you grow lazy with your automatic transmissions), happened upon a grocery store to stock up and drove south along the coast. Ruta 9 goes as far south as roads go in Chile but on this day we didn’t quite go that far. We stopped at Puerto del Hambre, site of the first attempted European colony in this part of the world. Only one man survived, with the others dying of starvation. One wonders how he survived. Or, at least I did. Mary told me not to be gross. Unfortunately, the site was closed because they’re trying to preserve the archaeological data present from the hordes of modern Chileans and tourists who show up to the beautiful spot to party on the beach. But there were pretty daisies and the sun had come out and there weren’t any people to be seen anywhere so we were happy.
By this time we could check into our hotel and we had a bit of trouble with that as the only businesses near the address we had were nightclubs. One nice one and some very un-nice ones. Finally, we located the discreet sign for the hostal and checked in. The signs for the clubs were loud and curvy. The sign for the hostal was small and classy. The hostal was a lovely place and, to be fair, you couldn’t locate a business in Punta Arenas without being near a nightclub. We got dinner at a place called Dino’s Pizza where Mary had a salad on a crust and I had what was called an “Empe-pizza”. Basically, empanada filling on a pizza crust. It was great and our waiter laughed when I pointed at our two pizzas and said, “Son differentes!”
Punta Arenas was found in the mid-19th century and has a lot of history as does the area in general. It was, at one point, an extremely important and busy trading hub. In the late 19th century, Chile was Europe’s (and the US’s) primary source of nitrates, copper and fertilizer. Essentially all of it shipped through Punta Arenas. Any shipping between the east coast of North America or Europe and the west coast of the Americas had to come through the Strait of Magellan. Punta Arenas was a major stopping off point and business was good. Then, at roughly the same time, the Panama Canal was dug and the Haber process industrialized. Suddenly, no one needed to sail as far as Punta Arenas or buy Chilean products nearly as badly as they did just a few years before and the city and area went through some tough times. However, cargo shipping continues to play a role (I suspect there is a lot of shipping between coasts of South America as the Andes present a major obstacle and there is no charge for shipping through the Strait of Magellan) and it is a major jumping off point for Patagonian tourism which is not small. It definitely has the feel of a city that was once much more important than it currently is but is by no means done. There are dozens of places all over the world that have gone through this and come out much worse than Punta Arenas. We’d be happy to come back again.
(the first two pictures are from the old cemetario that is a really lovely, moving place. If you ever get here, check it out. It’s also close to Dino’s).
The next day, Saturday, we caught an early boat to Isla Magdelena, a penguin preserve in the Strait of Magellan. It was a two hour boat ride and I slept most of the way. Mary says it was very smooth sailing. We had been taking Dramamine for over a day owing to a bad crossing a few years ago to the Dry Tortugas. Not needed here. You get to spend one hour on the island and in that time can make about a half mile circuit up to the top of the hill where the lighthouse is. I may have more to say about penguins later. We have twice had the pleasure of hanging out with puffins and I can say without question I’d return to spend time with penguins. The preserve contains Magellan penguins and you can find them on the mainland as well but they aren’t as tame and it’s harder to get close. On the other hand, no boat ride or time restrictions. All in all, it was well worth the price to ride over. And penguins are as cute in person as you think they are.
At this time of year, there are a lot of teenage penguins hanging about yelling at their tired looking parents. They’re fluffy and eager and easily shouted down. There are two flags flying on the lighthouse. One is the Chilean national flag and the other is the flag of the Chilean Antarctic Territory. The second is as common in Punta Arenas as the first and in many cases is the only flag flown. I have no idea if there is any meaning to that – we didn’t get into politics with anyone but it was noteworthy. The Chileans are clearly very proud of their Antarctic holdings and seem to make good use of it. We aren’t going to make it to the 7th continent but if you were ever going to here is a great place to do it.
Back in town, we drove around for an hour trying to repeat the miracle of landing on a grocery store. We found two but not the one from our first day and we could only figure out how to park at one of them. Which was sufficient. We paid for the Mount Tarn hike and hit Dino’s again. We were in bed well before the nightclubs heated up.
More on Mount Tarn later.