Punta Arenas

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November 1st 2019
Published: November 1st 2019
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Really early start today 😫 - breakfast at 6.15am and I’m up well before worrying about getting the stupid cases shut. Shove everything in and Rodolfo is ready and waiting to take us to the bus station at 6.30am. So nice to see him and say goodbye. He was fun to be around and had great playlists on our drives!

We’re on Bus Sur this time. Not the luxury double decker we’re used to, but it’s comfortable, warm (nice!) and has overhead usb chargers which is handy. Unfortunately it also has piped audio linked to a tv screen at the front which is on an endless 5 minute loop of ads and music. David lasts about 30 minutes then goes to the front to ask the conductor to turn it off, which he does - phew. No guanaco this time, just a lot of empty space and a few scraggy sheep, but David does point out a couple of Rhea as we approach Punta Arenas, which is a good spot. It’s just over a 3 hour journey with a stop off at a petrol station where loads of people change into another coach going to Ushuaia. Then there’s a random stop off at a deserted bus stop in the middle of nowhere, Punta Arenas airport, then we arrive in the town. We take a cab to our new base for one night only - Hotel Rey Don Felipe. It’s not really our kind of place as it’s big, feels a bit corporate, dark decor, jaaaaz is playing...whatever. Our room is fine and we’ve arranged to meet a friend of Andrea’s who has recently started up a bike tour company called La Patota. We have an hour to kill so David looks up the best place to have coffee and we head off there as it’s only a few minutes walk away. It’s closed and boarded up, as are many of the surrounding businesses, mainly banks. There’s lots of graffiti and a convoy of taxis hooting their horns with Chilean and Patagonian flags on display. This doesn’t look like a good place to meet, so we head back to the hotel for a not very nice coffee in the not very nice bar...all brown leather and nothing interesting about it...just more jaaaaaz. Whatever - need the caffeine.

Sebastian and his sidekick Albert are outside unloading our bikes and seem pleased to see us. We’re going out for about 3 hours and they’re keen to take us off the beaten track to see their town, including the neighbourhoods that don’t normally attract tourists. We start by the sea next to the massive Punta Arenas letters which were installed this year to commemorate 500 years since the town was founded. We take cheesy photos and Sebastian and Albert tell us how they’ve been BMX friends since they were little and that they want more people to get on their bikes, get fit and visit the city. (Were on mountain bikes, not BMXs!).

There’s a reasonable amount of cycle lanes, but we start off on a main road going against the speeding traffic...not very relaxing, but it’s not for too long. First stop is a rusty ship just on the shore facing inland serving as a monument to the days before the Panama Canal existed, when this was a main shipping access route across the world. Then we head to the south of the city, through the main park and up towards the places that the first settlers arrived in, before the town spread out. Sebastian’s grandparents still live there, and they arrived from Chiloe many years ago. He is really proud to show us the area and we admire the beautiful views down to the sea. The houses are all colourful and it reminds me a bit of Reykjavik. Maia finds a dog to fuss over as they tell us about the history of Punta Arenas and show us maps. At our next stop, another lookout place still high up in the city, Sebastian pulls out the ‘mate’ noooooooo! Actually, he knows I don’t like it, but I’m determined to give it a go as it aids weight loss through its appetite suppressant qualities, and I need to try and drop a couple of kilos. He prepares the first cup and hands it to me. It’s really grim. So bitter and impossible not to pull a face after each sip. I slowly make it all the way to the bottom and produce the required slurping noise to show I’ve finished, before handing it back. Job done. 👍 Next cup is for David. He says it’s ok. And round it goes to the others. We’re chatting and it really is a nice ritual. Just when I think it’s over, another cup gets poured and it’s my turn again 😯. However, it truly isn’t that bad as the brew has weakened significantly now and it’s like a mild herbal tea - I can do this! It goes all the way round again until we’ve all had 3 cups, then we’re out of hot water and the bike ride continues.

We descend into the heart of the city and arrive in the main square to look at the statues commemorating some of the founders. As well as an assortment of stray dogs, there are a few BMXers riding around. Sebastian and Albert high five one of them who’s nickname is Manteca (Lard). He looks about 10-12 and probably should be at school. I think they see themselves in him...they are the old guard, he’s the next generation.

We have learnt about the Selknan people during the tour, who were nomads basically exterminated by the settlers in a huge genocide. We had seen lots of images of them in Puerto Natales but didn’t know what they were as their body paint makes them look like superheroes out of some Marvel adventure film. The final statue we look at is defaced because many locals believe that the Selknan deserve a memorial rather than the people responsible for their demise. It’s a poignant note on which to end the tour and I resolve to read more about them when I can.

We go back to the hotel with a stray dog escort for part of the way. We say our goodbyes and take pictures. We wish them well with their venture and David shows them the Strava app which may help them to be found more easily by travellers who also cycle.

Although it’s after 3pm we haven’t managed to have lunch so go to a cool bar/cafe for a couple of beers and a couple of bowls of pumpkin soup. On the way back, a large band is playing in the square with a crowd of flag wavers joining in. The crowd isn’t that big, maybe 100, but what is noticeable is how normal everyone looks. It’s not like the movement is a youth movement or representing any particular section of society...there are young and old, men, women and children - it’s a whole country thing. The vibe is upbeat, not menacing, no police, just stray dogs doing their best to get run over by every single car that comes past and barking their heads off along with the singing!

One funny aside is the local opportunists who are there trying to sell flags, horns or other items to the gathered crowd. I saw one man selling that well-known essential when attending a protest - Tiramisu!! (Brilliant)

Although Hotel Rey Don Felipe is a bit dusty and dated the staff are very helpful. The receptionist has booked us a table at La Marmita as requested. So just time for showers and a bit of WiFi catch up before supper.

Like many places we’ve been (La Zaine restaurant in Puerto Natales and Tapiz coffee shop in the afternoon), the decor is eclectic. There’s a mini aga in the corner, various different teapots lined up on a shelf, other sheep-related paraphernalia and a basket full of corks. Anyway, the place is lovely, the service is good and we enjoy a delicious meal of ceviche followed by lamb for David and hake for Maia and I. David was going to try guanaco, but changes his mind. We have a fabulous trio of puddings to share at the end. Very nice night and we see the Germans who were also staying at Nash Lodge...but not the Americans we expected to bump into.

We go home via the square. The crowd hasn’t really grown, and some recorded music continues, but it’s more of a candlelit vigil now. There’s a name being projected onto the wall of one of the buildings facing the square. I imagine that it is the name of someone who has died during the protests or someone who is missing, but I don’t really know.

Lie in tomorrow before we start our long journey home via Santiago.


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