Chile Travel Curacavi — 02 January 2013

Chile prides itself at being at the bottom of the world and Punta Arenas prides itself at being at the bottom of Chile.  This region flies the Chilean flag but they also fly the flag of the Magallanes region.  Punta Arenas is the city at the most southern latitude in the world.  Only Puerto Williams lies further south but that is not much more than a town unless you went to school in Argentina in which case they taught you that Ushuaia, Argentina is further south still.

Chile is not too wide but extremely long.  From Santiago it takes 2 and 1/2 hours to fly to the northern border and 4 hours to fly to the southern tip.  You can take LAN or Sky airlines to go to Patagonia.  At this latitude in summer the sun sets a full hour later than in Santiago.  Daylight lingers after 11 pm.  The temperature in summer here rises to about 11 or 15 degrees Celcius and if the wind is not blowing and it is sunny, it feels warm.

Here the Atlantic meets the Pacific and the Andes meet the vast pampas grasslands. This is a bleak landscape, with no trees except pines bent over in the direction of the prevailing winds, which can gust to 100 miles per hour.  Lovely purple and red flowers grow wild here along with a brightly colored yellow bush.  Lonely sheep huddle down in their overcoats of wool against the rain and snow.

For many tourists Punta Arenas is simply a stopping off point on their way to Puerto Natales.  There, one can visit mighty glaciers and the awe inspiring Torres de Paine.  But Puerto Natales is 4 hours from Punta Arenas so if one were to go it would be best to fly to that airport  instead of taking the long bus ride.  Some hapless Israeli tourist last year built a camp fire and burned hundreds of thousands of hectares in the Torres de Paine national park–he left the country barely escaping jail.  Volunteers are replanting trees there, millions of them.

Beyond Puerto Natales, Punta Arenas is also a jumping off point for tourists heading off for cruises to Antarctica or the fjords here.  One long curve of Antarctica reaches up to Chile and so it is not so far away.  Chile has a permanent settlement there.  Those hardy souls brace themselves against the polar winter to help Chile maintain its claim on a region which the rest of the world says should belong to all nations.

Punta Arenas was founded as a way to establish a foothold in the region against Argentine encroachment.  The border between here and Tierra del Fuego in fact is partially delimited with land mines planted by the military regime.  Chile is still struggling to find and destroy these.  (Chile has a similar problem along the border with Peru.)

Most of the tourists here are foreign, and the vast majority seem to come from Germany.  On a van headed off to visit a colony of penguins the Chileans wonder why the Germans are so quiet.  Latinos of course make much more noise.

Another tourist opportunity is to go whale watching or snow skiing from a slope which offers a view of the ocean.  In the winter that ski resort is not ideal as the temperature is often above freezing due to the low altitude and proximity of the ocean.

The whales are far from here as are the glacier so the best thing to do is go see the penguins.  By habit they always return to the place where they are born to lay eggs and raise their young. There are two colonies here:  one with 10,000 birds and another more distant with 100,000. In Chile everything is privately owned including the major highways.  So there is no park here to visit the Penguins.  Instead you pay a toll to cross one private property and then pay another to arrive at the beach where the penguins live.  They dig holes in the grasslands to raise their young.  The penguins have well established paths so you can watch them emerge from the waters and waddle off to their nests oblivious to the dozens of tourists who stand behind fences snapping their pictures.

Any Chilean will tell you the the best seafood in Chile is to be found at the central market, so go there and avoid the restaurants for tourists.   The central market is across from the main wharf where the cruise ships and tugs berth.  The small restaurants here serve king crab, stone crab casserole, seafood soup, and of course locally brewed Austral beer.  The Chileans put mayonnaise on king crab, but that is like putting coca-cola on top of fine whiskey so tell them leave it off. It is warm here as the heat is turned on unlike, say, Santiago in winter where people sit indoors wearing jackets.  That persistent cold annoys the foreigner.

When you take a flight in Chile, if you ask for a window seat the airline will ask you if you want a view of the Andes or the ocean rather than the left or right side.  Chile is so narrow you can see both sides at once.  On the flight down sit on the port side where you can see the snow covered Andes with smoking volcanoes.  In the summer the snow has disappeared except for the highest altitudes.  This view continues until you cross over the Andes and reach the boring landscape of the pampas with their dreary repetition. Going back north sit on the other side where you can see the southern Andes covered with much more snow, large mountain lakes, and glaciers.

 

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