By Matthew Owens
Punta Arenas is a very windy city. There I’ve said it. It’s so windy that the council rigs up rope rails that wind-battered locals grip onto for dear life as they struggle up the high street. Not that it was windy when we first arrived in mid Feb, mind you. The sky was broody but not blustery. In fact, when the sun periodically peeped out from behind the bruised clouds it felt like summer, as indeed it was. But rest assured I absolutely felt the 100km-per-hour-plus gusts and gales in spades throughout our long weekend stay. But there is more to Punta Arenas than El Viento!
Once you get over the omnipresence of the wind, there comes a delicious realisation that “Sandy Point” is as fascinating a place to discover as it is remote. At the end of the world Punta Arenas is the capital of Chile’s Magallanes region and the most southerly city in the world. Topographically, it is situated north of the Magellan Strait on the Brunswick Peninsula where its Portuguese namesake was the first to traverse the turbulent, squally waters in 1520. Small wonder then that on emerging from the narrow straight into the solace of a calm expanse of water, Magellan was moved to christen the ocean El Pacifico.
The history of Punta Arenas is steeped in dynastic tales of gold rush and sheep empire building. Immigrants came in search of riches, and some found what they were looking for, making the port one of the busiest in its nineteenth century heyday. Settlers came from a variety of far-flung nations but foremost amongst those was Croatia. The Regional Museum spells this out but the Croat connection is as plain as day from the many Slavic names apparent throughout the city. If you were in any doubt, the cemetery (unmissable – one of the most elegant spaces in South America) is replete with the surnames of immigrants of British and European origin engraved on marble headstones.
After inappropriately beginning our journey in the cemetery, we hotfooted it into town finding ourselves in the Plaza de Armas and confronted with the towering memorial to Magellan. Below the explorer is a statue of a Fuegian Indian in bronze and it is customary to rub his big toe for luck. Legend has it that if you make this ritual you will be sure to return to Punta Arenas. I refrained from doing this, partly because I’m obstinate and contrary (if there was a sign up saying DO NOT TOUCH I probably would have done it) but partly because I had learned previously in the Regional Museum of the demise of the indigenous peoples in Tierra del Fuego. Disease and destruction, tantamount to genocide, brought by the white man has had the effect of vanishing the vast majority of indigenous people. This for me is the dark side of the history of Punta Arenas but sadly it is certainly not specific to Magallanes, or Chile for that matter.
Colonial buildings throughout the centre are living testament to the city’s former glory, like the Russian immigrant Sara Braun’s mansion, which houses the wonderful José Nogueira restaurant with its splendid vine-clad glass conservatory. Although the city has endured a steady decline from those dizzy days, largely due to the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914 – before which there was no option but to circumnavigate the treacherous Cabo de Hornos, a recent survey in Chile tells us that Punta Arenas is one of the cities enjoying some of the highest levels of quality of life.
Not that you would know it from walking the streets but actually one of the most striking characteristics of the city can be found in the multi-coloured roofs that form a patchwork palette of colour across the city. We were lucky enough, however, to have a Chilean family give us the ‘city tur’ and were taken to two lookouts (miradors) on the hill overlooking the city; this gives you a splendid panoramic view, which is well camera-worthy.
Having travelled up and down the ‘long and thin’ country I have to say that Punta Arenas (and perhaps Magallanes in general) is home to some of the friendliest people. As Che Guevara notes in his Motorcycle Diaries, Chilean hospitality is world famous but we were taken by the warmth of the locals. At one point, poring over a map and looking, I would imagine, only slightly bemused (it’s not that difficult – its all square blocks!) a local offered to help out, in English (few Chileans speak English, outside of the capital). They really are a polite bunch, even holding the door for each other when going in and out of shops. Maybe it’s for fear of wind damage, you might say cynically, but I like to think that they are being civil.
Food wise, you are in for a treat as Patagonian cuisine is splendid. Watch out for salt though if you are not used to it or need to take it in moderation (throughout Chile and probably Latin America more generally). Probably our best lunch was at the Okusa Restaurant and Emporio on Avenida Colon, but you are spoilt for choice really. I ate some excellent lamb spiced with merkén (Mapuche smoked chili) and quaffed a couple of the delicious Patagonian dark ales from beer maker Austral, which has its roots in Valdivia, founded by a German immigrant brewmaster. For good fresh seafood in an authentic setting, try the Mercado Municipal on the costanera.
Before we left the great southern city we were determined to see some penguins and decided to take a tour to the “National Penguin Monument” penguin colony on Isla Magdelena. There is one trip per day with COMAPA that leaves at 7am, wind and wave permitting. If the boat does depart (ours didn’t on the first attempt!) it takes around 2 hours to cross the Estrecho de Magallanes, a little rough at times but with even average sea legs you should be fine. The island itself is a windswept barren wilderness, perfect for Penguins. You get about an hour on the island which is sufficient and our guide advised us to race up the hill towards the lighthouse in order to get in all the sights and have plenty of time for snapping pics on the way back – sound advice. Isla Magdalena is a great experience and worth it for the effort. The journey into the strait to get to the island, the sense of isolation once there, the penguin population and the (albeit small) sense of achievement in fighting your way up the hill in the wind.
Ok, so you might want to invest in a wind-proof jacket for Punta Arenas, but like the rain in England you soon get used to it.