February 21 – March 21, 2017 (Beginning of Fall)
Currency: Peso ($)
Visa: 90 days
Cost of living: High
Wintering in the Southern Hemisphere was really disorienting. In Buenos Aires, Christmas lights decorated pine trees indoors but palm trees outside, and while family shared pictures of fresh snow we worried about sunburn in Santiago. We were excited for a chance at a little on-demand “winter” in Punta Arenas. The city at the end of the world grew in booms: shipping, sheep, gold, and finally tourism and the cruise industry (the culmination: ships full of sheep with gold!). We chose it for its relative accessibility, and for its proximity to one of our hiking bucket list sites, Torres del Paine. Just living in such a unique location was exotic and thrilling for us though. We cherished the icy wind stinging our faces and numbing our fingers, cozying up on the couch and mulling wine and roasting big dinners. Of course, comfortable in the knowledge that we’d be long gone by the time the real subpolar weather hit.
Where we stayed
Finding an Airbnb↗ in Punta Arenas was a little harder than usual. There were few listings to start with, and once we added all of our filters (entire apartment, necessary amenities, price range) the number dwindled into the single digits. The clear standout was a small house on the south edge of town. The neighborhood, a subdivision called Río de los Ciervos, appeared to be one of the more recent frontiers in the city’s expansion. We certainly felt remote (even by edge of the world standards), but not isolated. The area was full of families and friendly neighbors, well-served by buses and colectivos, and just a few minutes from the water.
There were a few routes from our house to the city center, but the shoreline highway was the simplest and best. It took more than 40 minutes to walk to Plaza de Armas. But with the polar wind in our faces, the Strait of Magellan on one side and the city on the other, the trip was never uninteresting. Inland routes took almost as long, thanks to the expansive María Behety Park forcing a kilometer detour on what should be a straight shot downtown. Still, we sometimes took the back roads to avoid the wind, or if we wanted to leave the option open for catching a ride. The nearest grocery store was that way too, about 2 km to the northwest.
Our house was small, but cozy. The living room/dining room was the largest open space and where we spent most of our time. It was also home to the heater, the critical piece of equipment around which our lives became focused. This was the first thing we turned on in the morning or when we got home, and the last we turned off at night. Even though we were just a few weeks past the the height of summer, temperatures already hovered in the mid 50s and dipped into the 40s at night. Past the heater and down a short hall, there were three bedrooms, though we had no use for the two spares and closed them off to save on heat. We also kept the bedroom we did use closed during the day (which made it perpetually cold and just a little bit clammy), but opened the door at night to share the residual heat from the common area and warm the bed a couple of degrees.
Like most of the world outside the US, the apartment used a tankless water heater. It was alarmingly effective. The margin between a shower of ice water and one of lava was razor thin though, even after we turned the heater down a notch. Still, we appreciated the warm start to our mornings. There were actually two full bathrooms with showers, but we preferred the ensuite one and mostly went in the other to use the washing machine.
The kitchen was so small as to border on cramped, though far from the worst we’ve seen. We had little counter space but were well-equipped with appliances, cookware, dishes, and utensils. The oven was especially welcome. We developed a taste for oven roasted meals, like beef roasts or ratatouille. As they cooked we would sit in the next room, cuddled up on the couch catching up on Netflix and savoring the smells and waste heat that wafted our way. Outside the kitchen was the garage – mostly empty save for the clothesline and a pair of 4 wheelers we couldn’t use.
What we did
Our favorite way to appreciate Punta Arenas was simply to take long walks along the waterfront. Our house was less than ten minutes from the sea, and the road hugging the coast was easily the most direct and scenic route downtown. Right at the start, we’d pass Parque María Behety to our left and to our right, the Lord Lonsdale, most photogenic of all the local shipwrecks. Though it sank in Stanley Harbor, Falkland Islands, a salvage company towed it through the strait and then abandoned it in this spot, where it has rested ever since as a monument to the precariousness of sailing such dangerous waters. The park was huge, and pretty deserted most days. It was surprisingly neat though, with a menagerie of life-sized prehistoric creatures by the entrance and extensive walking trails through the marshy basin further in. Continuing on, we’d keep our eyes out over the Strait of Magellan, where we’d often see whales spouting in the distance or naval vessels idling nearby. About a half hour later we would reach Muelle Prat and the Mercado Municipal. Muelle Prat is the downtown pier and port area, where vessels bound for Antarctic expeditions gear up and cruise ship tenders drop passengers near the city center. Though these days, the heavy duty shipping takes place in the Tres Puentes area on the far north edge of town. We were lucky enough to see the R.R.S. James Clark Ross in port as it prepared to embark on the inaugural mission of Boaty McBoatface, the infamous internet meme turned real life submarine. Mercado Municipal housed a mix of tourist restaurants, craft shops, and fishmongers – pretty much the only choice for good, fresh seafood. Around this point, the waterfront gets a bit more developed, a beach (where the city gets its name – Punta Arenas means Sandy Point), public exercise equipment and playgrounds, benches to sit back and watch the icy waves lap the shore, and wide cement walking paths and bike lanes that stretch another 4 1/2 kilometers up the coast.
Of course, we also explored the city of Punta Arenas. For us, it felt remarkably like Alaska, from the superficial (cold air and colorful tin roofs) to the demeanor of the people. Just being in one of the southernmost cities in the world (Ushuaia, Argentina is further, but with half the population) was mindblowing. A helpful signpost reminded us that we were a long, long way from anywhere. The city was prettier than we expected, with a lively town square (Plaza de Armas) and surprisingly grand buildings, both historic and modern. One of the more famous mansions, home to a local shipping magnate, is now the Museo Regional de Magallanes. The main floor is a reconstruction of the house boasting elegant furniture, while the downstairs shows off servant areas and features museum exhibits on the Patagonia region (including artifacts, like the ship’s wheel of the Lord Lonsdale). Northeast from the city core is a cemetery ranked among the most beautiful in the world. A curious legend about it – the land was donated by one Sara Braun, who requested only that the central entrance be sealed forever after she died; the side entrances has been used exclusively ever since. Last and best was Cerro de la Cruz, a viewpoint overlooking the entire city. There was no better way to take it all in. From here, tin roofs melted together into a jubilant patchwork, defying the desolate expanse of blue, brown, and gray.
The one touristy thing we could not pass up during our stay was a trip to Isla Magdalena, site of the Los Pingüinos Natural Monument. The trip was actually fairly expensive for us (around $60 a person), and a bit of an ordeal. We had to get ourselves to Tres Puentes, on the complete opposite end of town, to catch our ferry – with two full hours of transit time each way – for the privilege of barely an hour on the island. We were confined to a narrow, roped-off trail that followed a one-way circuit from the landing point to a lighthouse and back. And you know what? It was totally worth it. We had never seen so many penguins before, so close up and in their native habitat. Thousands of Magellanic penguins nest on this tiny rock: pairing up, scraping tiny holes into the earth, and stoically safeguarding the next generation of little waddlebirds. Most ignored us, though some were clearly excited► for a bit of entertainment. It was an absolutely magical experience. All too soon, it was over. But as we reflected on our lengthy ride home, we appreciated how well the tour respected the penguins and their environment, and how lucky we were to get to share it for even a little bit.
From the moment we landed in Punta Arenas, it was clear that the city is proud of Cervecería Austral. The brewery is the oldest in Chile, founded in 1896, and has played up its Patagonian home pretty much from the start. We decided to pay a visit and called to schedule a tour (very important, as the number of slots is limited). We were the only two native English speakers on the tour, but the guide was polite enough to repeat any of the Spanish narration we missed in English for us. The tour started through a bustling lot filled to the brim with pallets of Austral Lager destined for the rest of the country, but also stacks of the competitors’ brews and even soda from the nearby Coca Cola plant. It turned out the company also handles the distribution for much of the southern part of Chile. Next we came to the iconic silo (briefly stopping to share our appreciation) before passing through the bottling room, the quality control lab, and the fermentation tanks before ending at the tasting room. Here we sampled generous pours of the entire company lineup. And everyone left the tour happy.
Finally, the real reason we chose Punta Arenas – Torres del Paine. For various reasons, we couldn’t go until almost the very end of our stay, but it was absolutely the highlight↗ of our visit. Excellent weather coupled with the best (and most challenging) hiking we’ve faced since we left the Pacific Northwest made for the trip of a lifetime. A+ would Patagoniagain.
Food & Drink
After the quality seafood in Santiago, we were really looking forward to sampling straight from the source. The Southern Ocean is home to some of Chile’s best fishing, but as we were disappointed to discover, most of the catch is immediately shipped north to the rest of the country and the world. What little there was available for us to by in Punta Arenas was surprisingly expensive. We also learned that all salmon in Chile is farmed; despite the similar climate and geography to the Pacific Northwest, wild salmon never made it past the Equator and therefore never colonized the Southern Hemisphere. We tried it a couple of times, but it so disappointing and overpriced that we pretty much gave up for the rest of the month.
Our remoteness and climate hampered our grocery options in other ways, too. Produce was pricey and good stuff was hard to come by. Frozen veggies weren’t any better. The quality was as low as everywhere else in Latin America. That is, until we lucked into a monster bag of ratatouille in the Zona Franca – 2.5 kilos (or more than 5.5 lbs) of the stuff for just a few bucks. We ended up subsisting on a lot of rice, pasta, potatoes, and ground beef. We made pot roast once or twice, but we were still pretty beefed out from Argentina.
Snacking was a little better. We gave alfajores another shot, and we’re glad we did. The ones we had from the little bakery by our house were better than any we had in Buenos Aires. Chirimoya puffs might have been the worst snack food flavor we tried in South America. The Zona Franca was a godsend, though. We found diverse and comforting foods from all over the world. Popcorn and salsa from the US, spicy ajvar and peanut crisps from the Balkans, hot sauce and ramen from Southeast Asia. Even a broad selection of spices. Aliño completo (a seasoning mix almost as synonymous with Chile as Vegeta is to Croatia) is nice and all, but variety is the… something… of life.
We didn’t eat out much this month, but we absolutely had to pay a visit to Kiosco Roca. Coming to the bottom of the world and passing up choripan y leche con plátano would be like going to Chicago and snubbing the Chicago-style hot dog (or worse, putting ketchup on one). Choripan – or choriqueso, the slightly cheesier alternative – is a small sandwich of dense bread, a cheesy goop, and an almost imperceptibly thin smear of chorizo. Leche con plátano is just milk with banana (and a little sweetener) blended up into it. They made a pretty good pair, but it was more about the experience than the taste.
As far as drinks went, the big contender was obviously Cerveza Austral. The lineup was modest by our standards, but well above average for South America. They offer 5 varieties, with two more on a secondary label, Polar Imperial; Yagan Dark and Polar Imperial Dunkel were the best but hardest to find. Calafate, flavored with the eponymous berries, was an interesting take. According to local legend, anyone that tries calafate berries is destined to return to Patagonia someday. We weren’t sure if it counts in beer form, but it couldn’t hurt to try. (We tracked down the real thing later, just to be safe.) Disappointingly, Austral was not much cheaper here than anywhere else. The plain lager sold at a discounted rate that made it competitive with Cristal (the biggest Chilean macrobrew), but the rest of them were the same price as in Santiago.
There were a few other options. Grocery stores carried a few familiar global brands brewed locally on license. Kunstmann and Kross, mid-sized craft-ish labels with better product and correspondingly high price, were fairly easy to come by too. Our favorite discovery was Hernando de Magallanes Brewery, a tiny craft brewery just north of the mouth of Río de las Minas. Their repertoire was small, just an ale, IPA (adorably pronounced in Spanish as eepa instead of eye-pee-ay), and stout, though we got lucky and snagged one of their last bottles of a limited edition barley wine too. Everything they made was really good, well worth the visit.
We had much less wine this month than last. There just wasn’t as much choice as in Santiago, and we’d already tried the stuff that did make it down (Gato) and found it lacking. We did manage to scrape together enough spices to make a go at mulling wine, though. We made at least two big batches during our stay, once with a mediocre imported brandy and the other taking a chance and using local pisco instead. Both turned out great, and we appreciated having nice warm mugs to sip on cold nights.
Speaking of pisco, it was fine. A little watery for the given proofs (it sure tasted like it was watered down), but a nice flavor, even in the bottom-shelf options like La Serena.
Flying in South America is very expensive compared to Europe and North America. Some airlines, like the Chile-based Sky, at least offer some competitive tiers if you’re willing to sacrifice flexibility (always!). Their website wouldn’t let us buy online though, and their phone number had no English option and couldn’t (or at least pretended not to) understand our Spanish. We were saved by third party sites: Expedia on the way down and Kiwi for the return journey. The flight itself was so worth the trouble, though. Watching the stark brown peaks around Santiago transform into a snow-capped wonderland reminded us of home. Breaks in the clouds gave us glimpses of mammoth glaciers that dwarfed any we’d seen before. And finally, that all melted away into a flat expanse that looked every bit the edge of the map.
When we stayed there, Uber↗ had yet to make an appearance (though it came online immediately after we left). That was fine, though. Getting around in Punta Arenas was cheap and easy. The only exception is the airport – well out of town and unserviced by transit, our only option was a taxi or airport transfer. We went with the second option both times for around $15 each way.
Taxis were common but expensive. The best ways to get around were by city bus or colectivo. Bus fare was practically free at about $0.50 US per person, but the handful of lines weaved all over town, making for long rides. They were also few and far between. If we ever missed a bus though, we didn’t have to wait long before a colectivo would roll up in its place. Colectivos are kind of a cross between a taxi and a bus line. They’re small sedans with taxi-like markings and destination names plastered on the doors and window, but they stick to set numbered routes between major shopping centers or landmarks. Fares were fair too, a flat rate usually around $0.75 US per person, even all the way across town. While you can wait to pay till the end (as we did before we wised up), standard operating procedure seemed to be to pay at your earliest convenience.
When it was time to leave, the flight back to civilization was just as scenic as the one down. But the journey was less pleasant. South America has fewer point-to-point routes, which meant we had to go all the way back to Santiago to reach Montevideo. We spent a night at the Santiago Airport Holiday Inn to pass the wait until our continuing journey. It was the worst night of our trip. They put is in a special early-flight-to-catch room, which had no special features besides an airplane icon on the door and a ground-floor location next to the very loud, very late-operating bar speakers. An excellent reminder why we shun hotels and only ever stay in Airbnbs.
Stuff of interest
We came to Punta Arenas with Claro SIMs↗ already in our phones and freshly topped up with 1 gig of data each for $15 total.
We didn’t get terribly much work done this month, as we were still down a computer. Waiting to get our Surface shipped back from the United Stated turned out to be quite an ordeal, and we got to learn a bit about Chilean shipping and customs to boot. For one thing, we learned that when shipping anything internationally, the magic phrase is “personal effects.” Otherwise, the package gets stuck in customs for weeks while the shipping company contacts a customs broker to work out how much I need to pay to ship my own stuff to myself. Tracking also broke down, and FedEx has next to no clue what its international subsidiaries are doing. Luckily FedEx Chile had extremely helpful customer service reps that talked me through everything (in English!) and managed to get my package delivered, and not a moment too soon. Waiting around the apartment for an impending delivery was a pretty lame way to spend our days. But it worked out in the end, and we didn’t miss out on Torres del Paine after all.
But things are darkest before the dawn, and when we assumed that all hope was lost, we did a little computer shopping in the Zona Franca. This is a special economic area on the north end of town, where goods are allowed to be imported and sold without duty or tax. A mall and several huge, warehouse-style department stores have sprung up to take advantage. This is the place to shop for everything from the obvious (high end electronics and big ticket items) on down (foodstuffs, housewares, etc). It was too far to walk more than once – 8.6km along the waterfront, or almost two hours. But it was served by several colectivo lines and a couple of bus routes, and there were always taxis in the parking lots like piranhas in the water.
The sun plays odd tricks at this extreme latitude. Shadows are long and creepy. Sunsets are magical. The ozone layer is thinner over this part of the world, seriously increasing the risk of skin cancer. Any work site where people would spend a lot of time outdoors, like an industrial area or port, posts a chart of the day’s UV radiation risk and recommends appropriate protections.
We didn’t plan this, but we were in the right place at the right time to catch a bit of an annular eclipse (where the moon blocks the sun, but is too small to completely obscure it). From our vantage point at the edge of the continent, it was just a partial one. But it was still a really neat experience. We got to experience the pinhole camera effect in the shadows of trees, for one thing. And the cloud cover was actually kind of a boon. When just the right one passed in front of the sun, it dimmed enough that we could briefly glance at the eclipse and capture some memories►.
What we learned
In a lot of ways, people that live at extreme latitudes have more in common with each other that with their own countrymen. It’s a hard life, and probably not for us (at least not the winters). But we have yet to find a place that more closely captured the same magic we felt living in the Pacific Northwest. Southern Chile has so much to offer, we can’t help but think we’ll be back. We did eat the calafate berries after all.