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Published: April 13th 2014
I'd come to one of those mythical places that conjures up images of adventure and a palpable sense of history! Punto Arenas, the capital of the Magellanes and Chilean Antarctica Region, is the southern-most point on continental South America, and sits on the Straits of Magellan with a view across to Tierra del Fuego. What a thrill!
Upon arrival, I immediately headed to the waterfront to see these wonders. Not only was it amazing to sense all of this, but also the endless storms of Puerto Natales had given way to magnificent clouds, a fiery sunset, and Patagonia's famed four seasons in a day--I felt free, renewed and ready for exploration! And the city was full of treasures to discover. The city was big, 130,000 people--bigger than my hometown and the largest I'd been in for quite awhile. It had stately buildings from its boom days, an inviting, leafy plaza, good museums, friendly dogs and people, a fine waterfront, a nature reserve near town, park-like walkways alamedas for long-distance walking in town, a picturesque cemetery, and even a cinema--I stayed longer than planned!
Chile's Sweet Street Dogs The owner of my chaotic hostel in Puerto Natales had passed me on to Veronica, who met me at the bus station and paid for a taxi to her peaceful, affordable, house-turned-pension. It was a little out of town, but I like a quiet place to sleep, and then a nice long walk into town, exploring different neighborhoods each day. Veronica had a yappy, little dog, and since it was autumn and cold, allowed a little street dog to sleep in her garage at night. I took a fancy to the pup, who often followed me to the end of her territory. I had her spayed and slept with and comforted her in the garage the night she came home from surgery. Chile, more than other South American countries, has a huge, over-population of street dogs. They are all incredibly loving, surely hoping someone will give them a forever home. They're indulged and well-fed, hanging out in doorways and sleeping in the middle of the sidewalks where people just step over them, and a bit round because people feed them bread. I'd pet a pup and
then would have a sweet, walking companion for the day. While there are campaigns for neutering pets, it's expensive, so few do it.
Downtown Treasures and a Glorious Cemetery It was lovely to hang out in the center of Punta Arenas where there were well-kept mansions from the turn of the 20c when the town had been more sophisticated and prosperous than the country's capital Santiago to the far north. These mansions were now museums, government buildings, banks, and restaurants, including that Chilean institution, bars marked, "Smokers Only." The main plaza had lovely trees, turning autumn amber and vermillion, a huge statue of Magellan, little gypsy wagons displaying artisans goods, and a charming gazebo with excellent tourist information. Down at the inviting waterfront, there were explanatory signs on the various waterfowl, as well as benches and tables for chess, giant anchors and other artifacts from the ships that plied the straits and even a skateboard ramp. It was exciting after the small, outdoor-oriented towns I'd been in. Punta Arenas had lots of lovely places to walk. As in many Chilean cities, tree-lined, pedestrian walkways
divided the lanes of traffic on wide streets, making walking a pleasure. It's so healing to walk on the earth instead of sidewalks when exploring the outskirts of a town. Other favorite spots were along the waterfront and the hilltop viewpoint/Mirador Cerro de la Cruz
. I followed one of the alamedas, picking up a pup on the way, to the Municipal Cemetery, one of the best in Chile. It has 19c and 20c monumental, carved mausoleums of the great families, of the Croatian, Italian, British, German immigrants, and of public service groups (police, firefighters, nuns and monks, etc). There were also stone tributes to the city's German and English who died settling the land, fighting over the Falklands/Malvinas Islands and in the world wars. Best were the towering, double rows of round-trimmed junipers that marched between the rows of tombs, heading into infinity.
Libraries, Friends and the Magellan's Nature Reserve Chile's public libraries are also unique in Latin America, offering free internet and wifi--handy since none of my little pensions had it. In the library to check email, I met Teresa, French-Italian-Chilean, raised in Paris,
and here discovering her roots. An adventurer, she 'd hitchhiked around Patagonia, showing films on the side of buildings to tiny communities, and later was a tour guide on ships offering fabulous day trips around Cape Horn. Now, she was working as an administrator and getting itchy feet and living with Patrick, a drifter from Texas, with amazing travel stories. We had many great evenings of story-telling together. One Sunday, we took a taxi up to end of the road then hitchhiked to the Reserva Forestal Magallenas above the town for a great day of hiking through Magellanic forests that were turning autumn red. Trails were covered with leaves (and mud) at lower elevations and with snow higher up. The windswept landscapes had great views of the town and the straits at the viewpoint/mirador on top. Although I loved the city and waterfront, it was exquisite to walk on a mountain with my friends.
Patagonian Settlement While Patagonia has been populated by hardy indigenous people for ten thousand years, Europeans settled late in this windy, inhospitable land, and towns were often established to declare sovereignty over the area. One
of my favorites, El Chalten, had been established, though not much populated, in 1985 for just such a reason. Ferdinand Magellan sailed though the narrow straits that bear his name in 1520, and in the 18c, a British explorer named the spot Sandy Point, Punta Arenas
in Spanish. However, it wasn't until the mid-19c that European settlers, first English missionaries, started trickling in. In 1848, Chile founded the city as a penal colony and army outpost, and to assert its sovereignty over possible claims by England and Argentina. That year, the city grew as the Straits of Magellan became the principle route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, first for Europeans heading to the 1848 California rush, and then for increased trade between Europe and the west coast of the Americas. Until the Panama Canal was built in 1914, this was the preferred route between the oceans for steam ships, and Punta Arenas became rich as a refueling station.
Sheep Ranchers and Indigenous People Punta Arenas really blossomed in the 1880s and early 1900s when 500 hardy Faulkland/Malvinas Island sheep were imported and flourished, and waves of European
immigrants arrived. One sheep ranch even controlled 10,0002 kilometers, and a few families became incredibly wealthy, building opulent mansions in town. These wool merchants often visited Europe on business and brought architects, furnishings and innovations from there. Their mansions had modern conveniences such as electricity, hot running water, and central heating long before the rest of Chile. One of these families, the Brauns, played a large part in the city's development and had fabulous mansions that were now museums. The Brauns had emigrated from Estonia and made a fortune in the wool business. Daughter Sara married a wealthy Portuguese business man; when he died, she took over his enterprises, expanded them and became the town's most prominent philanthropist. Her home, Palacio Sara Braun, is now a museum exhibiting its original Victorian furnishings and also a private club and hotel. Her brother's mansion, the Braun-Menendez Regional Museum, showed the way these early wealthy families lived, and also had fine exhibits on the flora and fauna of Patagonia, the indigenous tribes and early settlement. Those from this area hunted, ate and wore the skins of cormorants and the wild guanaco, the
largest of the South American camelids. In the usual patriarchal manner of museums, they omitted the fact that a large part of the indigenous diet would have come from smaller creatures, such as hares, that women would have trapped as well as the eggs, nuts, roots and greens that they would have collected. Also omitted, but which I learned at a great indigenous museum in Ushuaia, my next stop, was that Braun and other sheep ranchers paid for the slaughter of the native people. The ranches had dislocated the tribes from their hunting lands; when they couldn't hunt the guanaco, they went for the easier sheep, but the ranchers put an end to that. Today, there are few indigenous people, and no full-blooded ones, in Patagonia. The native Americans were also decimated by diseases brought by missionaries who came to Christianize them. On the walk back from the cemetery, I had visited the Salesian Order's Museum that exhibited interesting artifacts taken from the indigenous people whom they had "civilize," as they said. More palatable were exhibits on the natural history of the region and on the great mountaineering monk
Alberto Agonstini who explored and mapped much of the southern ice fields. You can still see these Salesian monks walking around town in very snappy outfits. I would be learning more about the native Patagonians on my next stop.
Winter was approaching here, so while in Punta Arenas, I booked a bunk in the underbelly of the last of the season's Navimag Ferries to head north through the Chilean fiords. Yikes, I had a deadline--perhaps the only thing in the world that I fear! So, it was time to head down to Ushuaia, a place of incredible beauty on the island of Tierra del Fuego. To get there, I paid my dues on a 13-hour bus ride down that was a suffocating slice of hell, but that's another story...
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