Punta Arenas, Chile – the magic of Patagonia
After cruising the Beagle channel with its majestic glacier avenue (aka glacier alley) we continued to cruise along the various fjords of southern Chile under the guidance of a Chilean Fjord pilot who boarded the ship to navigate us through the narrow channels. Early morning we were abeam the large Isla Dawson and headed north along the Straits of Magellan to Punta Arenas. We dropped anchor across from the port and the tenders were lowered into the water ready to carry passengers between the ship and shore.
Punta Arenas, meaning “sands point” is an interesting city at the very southern tip of continental South America, the capital of Chile’s Magellanes Y Antarctica region. There is a bit of a competition with Ushuaia for the designation of “themost southern city of South America”, Punta Arenas’ claiming that since they are on the continent and Ushuaia is on an island of the archipelago south of the continent, they deserve the designation. You be the judge. In any event, Punta Arenas takes the undisputed title of the most southern continental city in the world.
Set at the edge of the Straights of Magellan it is part of the maritime history of the explorers. The Museo Nao Victoria features life size replicas of the Beagle (Darwin), the Victoria (Magellan) and one of the Shackleton rescue boats, built with “historical certainty” including reproductions of hardware, sailing rigs, clothing and weapons of the time.
The economy is built on sheep farming, oil extraction, maritime commerce and tourism. The city is built around a main square (in south America these are knows as Plaza de Armas) where local gather and crafts stands are set up when cruise ships arrive.
We only had a day and decided to hike in the Andes’ Club Andino, a ski hill that would afford us great view of the strait of Magellan and Punta Arenas below. After the hike I was hoping to go back to town and have another king crab dinner at a local restaurant. To make life a little easier and save time for the city walk, we drove to the ski hill and took the open chairlift up 4,500 feet to the top, a good 15 minutes ride with superlative views, and then hiked down from there. We joined a group in order to do that as the hill was open to groups only. The hike through the forest was very unique, the Andes vegetation different than anything we see here on the rockies. The trail is well maintained and small wooden foot-bridges let you across the various streams and small waterfalls. Part of the trail was steep and we had to hang on to tree trunks and branches to stop from sliding but over all it was an easy trail and a fun experience.
We headed back to town to Sotito, the restaurant that was recommended for lunch, alas, lunch was over and it was closed until 6:00 pm. The restaurant is on my list for next time as it looked pretty amazing although more of a high end place. This is what is so annoying about cruises, they seldom stay the night in port.
So, we walked back along the main avenue to the fish market, Mercado Municipal de Punta Arenas to check it out. The market is relatively new and not overly large, set over three levels. On the main floor various vendors were selling a little produce and more seafood, the second level was for craft vendors and the third was a food court.
If you wanted fresh seafood this was the place to have it. The top floor of the market was lined with small eateries they call Cocinerias, offering inexpensive and fresh seafood of every kind. Mind you, king crab was not on any menu that day. Although this market is not far from the port it felt more local than touristy, Menus were in Spanish only and mostly local families with kids packed the small cocineras with plenty of ceviche to go around. We were there late in the afternoon and lunch service was wrapping up so ended up not eating but I did look into all the small dining areas where families were finishing their lunch.
Pablo Neruda and congrio a los pobres
One dish I saw at the market that was made famous by Chilean poet Pablo Neruda is the congrio a los pobres, loosely translated poor man’s chowder. It is sometime served as a chowder, sometime as stewed eel with french fries and eggs. Neruda, who was well known for his love of food and for Chile, wrote poems he dedicated to food, including artichokes, lemons, tomatoes and now, an eel chowder made with congrio dorado, a pink eel. “let the chopped garlic fall with the onion and tomato until the onion have gold colour” say Neruda, and “when it materialized flavor in a sauce made from the juice of the ocean and the clear water that dislodged the light of the onion, then that between congrio and immerse yourself in glory, that in the pot“. The dish is frequently translated to Congrio frito, meaning the eel is fried and served with french fries and egg.
Oda al Caldillo de Congrio
(first and last paragraphs)
In the It is only necessary to flavours
stormy sea leave the delicacy of the sea and land
of Chile drop cream for what on that plate
lives the pink conger a heavy rose you know the sky
giant eel and the fire
of nevada meat slowly
And in the deliver the treasure
Chilean pots until the broth
on the coast, is warm
the the essence of
gravid and succulent, Chile
profitable caldillo was and to the table
born. come newly wed
Since ship farming was the bedrock of the economy the city commissioned a sculpture depicting the chilean herd of sheep led by a chilean Huasu (cowboy) and his dog. The monument is life size bronze sculpture featuring 9 sheep, the Huasu, his dog and his horse. It’s a monument to honour the hard working huasus working the fields in the harsh climate.
Located in Plaza de Armas, a grand monument is dedicated to the Spanish explorer Ferdinand Magellan, commissioned for the 100 years of his arrival to the areas on his ship, the Victoria. The monument is close to 30 feet tall and Magellan stands atop it facing the straits that bear his name. Other elements include figures from the Oma and Tehuelches native people as well as a glob and a diary symbolizing the circumnavigation of the world. According to local folklore if you touch the foot of the Ona sculpture you will be back to Punta Arenas.
Cementerio Municipal Sara Braun
A surprisingly beautiful historical cemetery is located in the north part of the city and is worth a visit. Tall European cypresses grace it’s wide avenues and manicured grounds and grand mausoleums are built for wealthy families that lived and died in the area. It is divided into communities based on nationalities that settled in the region and make up the Magellanic culture: the Italian, Spanish, British and so forth. One monument a tomb to the unknown native, known as the Indiecito (little Indian) and dedicated to the indigenous people of Patagonia. The memorial is always full of fresh flowers from visitors who go there to pray and get their wishes granted. Another legend involves Sara Braun who was one of the city’s wealthy residents and contributed financially to the building of the cemetery. She did have one caveat: upon her death, the gate she entered through into the cemetery will be closed forever. Evidently her wishes were and still are respected and nowadays the original gate is closed and you enter the cemetery through a side entrance. Local folklore tells that she was embalmed and every November 1st she is removed from her coffin to have her hair combed and fresh makeup applied. People apparently go to the cemetery on November 1st to try and witness the event. I assume they just miss it every time.
Before finishing our day we climbed from Plaza de Armas up the hill and stairs leading to up to the top of Mirador Cerro de La Cruz for a view of the city and a glass of pisco sour at a local hotel with view of the city. It’s a touristy thing and buses unload hords of tourists at that spot but the view is beautiful and you get an idea of what the
Straits of Magellan look like in relation to the city. The hotel just below has a small restaurant where you can sit and watch the view while sipping a pisco sour or Chilean hot chocolate.
Punta Arenas is an interesting place with a unique way of life. The climate is harsh in the winter and cool in the summer but I see myself going back there to hike some of the trails in the Andes and try some of the foods I missed trying this time.