Thursday March 2, 2023
Today we visited Punta Arenas, the city located the farthest south on the continental part of South America. (Tomorrow we will go to Ushuaia, which is on the island of Tierra del Fuego.)
What an interesting part of the world this is! I really loved Punta Arenas, and I can’t really say why – mostly a feeling the city gave me. The weather was hardly ideal for traipsing around – a mere 42 degrees, cloudy and intermittently raining, though never very hard. We started our walk along the sea wall, the inner waters sporting the remains of old piers, that today now provide perches for hundreds of cormorants. Our ship docked at the modern pier, a very long narrow cement structure, that echoed the shape of those old wooden piers.
As a city of the sea, Punta Arenas has quite a naval history, interwoven with tales of adventure into the Antarctica. It was here that Shackleton finally secured aid for his ice-stranded ship, Endeavor. There is a monument to the Punta Arenian who helped him go back and rescue his men. A bit further along is another monument to the first volunteer settlers of Punta Arenas, though that initial settlement was not here, in the current location.
The town has a rich history, and an interesting one. The name was coined by Magellan, who referred to this as Sand Point. The very first settlers here were the volunteers I mentioned, but mostly there were incentives from the Chilean government to get settlers from Europe to this remote place. As a result, the ancestry of the people who live here today is a crazy quilt of different countries and places, now clearly all Magallanes. This province of Chile is called “Magallanes & Chilean Antarctica” (that last part encompasses three naval bases that Chile maintains in that continent).
The province is Magallanes, but the region (of South America) is Patagonia. I mention that because there is confusion about what “Patagonia” is, given that it is both in Argentina and Chile. Patagonia is made up of several Chilean provinces and several more Argentinian provinces. (While in Argentine Patagonia, the guide told us that Chile cannot really say it has part of Patagonia, because there were no Patagonian natives in Chile…)
“Magallanes” comes from the Spanish word for Magellan, the explorer for whom the strait of Magellan is named and which is right outside Punta Arenas’ front doors!
The central square in Punta Arenas is lovely, and very much on the European model with banks, hotels, mansions, and cathedral. It is filled with trees and right in the center is a large monument to Magellan. He stands atop, one foot on a cannon, his eyes off in the distance gazing at fires burning on the island to the south (Tierra del Fuego). At the base of the monument are two native figures, one whose bronze foot is rubbed to a high sheen by those who touch or kiss it in the hopes that they will return.
Much of our enrichment on this trip has been about the native people of the region, and though the Mapuche were the dominant people of southern Chile, here in Patagonia there were four tribes, supposedly one of giants (called by Magellan “Patagons” or Big Feet) and another tribe where the people were extremely small and dwarf like.
The mansions of the prominent residents are extremely interesting. The city is said to have a “faded glory” vibe, but that is, in my mind, a little bit negative as the remnants of that glorious era have been restored to provide a wonderful picture of the past. We did get the chance to visit the Sara Braun house, and it definitely felt like a set of Downtown Abbey, an elegant era reproduced at the ‘end of the world.’
Despite the rain, we hiked up the hill to see the panorama of Punta Arenas, town and harbor. The colors are striking, between the roofs and the cars, and the place has a very cheerful mien.
Tomorrow we are in Argentina, briefly. Keep going!