Punta Arenas, the southernmost continental city in the world, sits on the shores of the Magellan Strait and is a good starting point to the rest of Chilean Patagonia. With roughly 125,000 people, Punta Arenas and its location has played a role into several famous expeditions. The town was established in 1848 as a small penal colony to claim the strait as Chilean. It grew because of its port and the pioneer expansion of immigrants through Patagonia in the 19th and 20th centuries.
No buses go from Punta Arenas into the more desired locations of Argentinian Patagonia, so when we arrived we quickly learned that we must travel northwest to Puerto Natales to venture to the famous Torres del Paine National Park of Chile and to El Calafate and El Chalten, Argentina. Really, the only good places to get to directly from Punta Arenas is Ushuaia and the rest of Tierra del Fuego.
We stumbled off the bus after our 30 and ½ hour journey from Puerto Montt and immediately looked for our hostel. Everything is pretty expensive in Patagonia, particularly food and lodgings, so we paid around 42 USD for one night at a hostel here in town.
The next morning, after meeting an older American couple and a young Canadian couple over breakfast, and learning about how to travel through Mongolia, we decided to visited Museo Nao Victoria. Punta Arenas has a variety of museums, tours to islands with penguins, and kayaking which can fill probably two days, but we decided to see one or two things, then head to Puerto Natales.
Museo de Nao Victoria has four replica ships, all life size, and is about 10 minutes east of town. We got a taxi there for 3.000 pesos and a taxi back for a little bit more. Admission is another 3.000 per person. Of all the replicas, Nao Victoria is the best and most interesting, though the HMS Beagle, James Caird, and Ancud are all worth some time.
In 1520 Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe, in search of an alternative route to the spice islands for Spain. This was after about 30 years after Columbus’ voyage, so Europe was aware of the New World already. It was a harrowing voyage, and only 18 men of the original 270 survived the trip. Magellan sailed around the tip of South America, just skirting Antarctica, and discovered the area and the indigenous people already living there, so the body of water between continental South America and the islands just offshore is named for him.
We know much about his voyage because of a Venetian passenger who recorded everything and was an assistant to Magellan. They reached Patagonia in October and sailed through the strait to the Pacific Ocean. Magellan was actually killed during a battle in the Philippines, and only one (the Victoria) of the original five ships survived and returned to Spain.
The HMS Beagle, made famous by its passenger Charles Darwin, also sailed through the Strait of Magellan in 1832 before moving on to the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. The replica of this ship isn’t done yet, but we were able to walk around the deck and peek into the hold.
James Caird, the lifeboat I’m posing by, is just 23 feet long and was never meant to be an actual sailing vessel. But in 1916, after Shackleton’s infamous attempt at exploring Antarctica ended with the sinking of Endurance and everyone stranded on an ice floe for months until reaching Elephant Island, Shackleton decided it was time to go for help. Elephant Island is out in the middle of nowhere, so he picked a few men to make a lifeboat ready for sea travel. They added about 15 inches to the sides and covered it in tarp to make it more sea-worthy, then sailed about 920 miles before reaching South Georgia island off the coast of South America.
The six men, of course, almost died multiple times (once of these through a terrible hurricane) but somehow made it all the way. They landed on the wrong side of South Georgia Island and had to cross the interior on foot, something that had previously been considered too dangerous to attempt. From there, Shackleton had to convince people to go on a rescue mission for the remaining crew back on Elephant Island. Weather was so terrible that it took several tries, but finally he was able to get help from Punta Arenas. They successfully crossed the sea, gathered the survivors, and sailed back into Punta Arenas harbor.
I think the story is supposed to inspire people with an optimistic view of the determination and will of mankind, but all it did was make me scared of the ocean and look at James Caird with horror. Maybe I’m not much of an explorer at heart. Or maybe I just hate cold weather.
Speaking of exploring, the settlement of Patagonia is relatively recent, just in the last 200 years or so. The Chilean government encouraged conquest by forming penal colonies and encouraging migration. There are museums explaining the pioneers and their movement in Rio Gallegos, Argentina and in Punta Arenas, Chile. Immigrants tended to be Welsh, Scottish, and English in the far south. They moved to find a new life, to be sheepherders and cattle farmers in a beautiful country that they could make their own. The pioneers now are looked back on with pride, for they were the first to civilize or settle the land. There were, of course, indigenous people (aborigines) already living here, but that’s for another post. This is a very brief description if history that doesn’t include gauchos, bandits, gold rushes, or territorial disputes.
A church in town.
After seeing the town, we hopped on a bus to Puerto Natales. There is no main bus terminal in town, and there are three companies with their own departure terminals that go to Puerto Natales. We picked Bus-Sur, though Bus Fernandez and another seemed just as safe and affordable. The price to Puerto Natales is 6.000 pesos one-way, the trip is roughly three hours long, and buses run several times a day.
Mountains and glaciers, here we come!