CHILE: FROM THE ATACAMA DESERT SOUTH, TO THE END OF THE WORLD.
DAYS 8 – 14: IN PATAGONIA
Day 8: Punta Arenas
Just as in Santiago, we arranged for no one to meet us at the Punta Arenas Airport. Sometimes it’s much easier just to hail a cab – as we soon would discover.
I’d enjoyed Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia (1977) and knew that Chatwin, an inspiration to modern adventure travel writers, had started his travel writing career here in PA. Inspired by his great-uncle Charlie Millward, 26-year-old Chatwin ventured from his homeland Britain to Patagonia to learn more about his uncle, more about his uncle’s discovery of the mylodon, a deep-frozen prehistoric giant sloth, and more about himself. I knew that PA represented one of the last major settlements in South America. Indeed, PA is by far the largest of these three with a population of more than 130,000. PA sits at the 53rd line of latitude whereas the others, Ushuaia and Puerto Williams, both in Argentina, are one degree of latitude further south and much smaller (Ushuaia, population 70,000; Puerto Williams population 3,000).
But everything else about Punta Arenas surprised me. Magnificent architecture and museums with spectacular furniture. Fine dining in excellent restaurants. And Croatians.
My Rough Guide advised that industrious Croatians had emigrated here in the 19th C to work in the nascent and thriving sheep industry. What wasn’t mentioned was the boulevard entrance to PA divided by green space – named Croatia Park. Or that signs in store windows read: Dobrodošli, “Welcome” or hrvatski govori ovdje, “Croatian spoken here”. In fact, nearly half of PA’s population are Croatian!
Online images for accommodations looked bleak, bizarre, too far out of town, or overpriced. In reality, Lonely Planet‘s online description of Hotel Cabo De Hornos (Cape Horn Hotel) was right on. “This smart business hotel begins with a cool interior of slate and sharp angles, but rooms are relaxed and bright, with top-notch views. Service is good and the well-heeled bar just beckons you for a nightcap. The on-site restaurant is well-regarded too.” Our fourth-floor room looked north over Plaza Munoz Gamero, another leafy green space dominated by 100-year-old Monterey cypress trees. The restaurant served excellent espressos and a health-conscious filling buffet breakfast; the dusky bar boasted soothing lighting, dark wood, and a 30-foot-long scale model of Magellan’s flagship, La Trinidad.
We meandered the plaza, touching the shiny brass toe of a Tehuelche Indian, positioned subserviently and well beneath a towering replica of Magellan, one foot poised confidently upon a canon. Native to South America, the Tehuelche were just one of many indigenous groups of the Americas conquered by European explorers, whose culture and lives were destroyed either intentionally by torture followed by death, or unintentionally with the transmission of Old World diseases such as measles, influenza, and malaria.
Hotel Jose Nogueira, located on the northwest corner of the plaza and inside the Palacio Sara Braun complex, might have been an excellent accommodation alternative. Their common areas, restaurant, and the romantically named Shackleton Bar, exude charm. Suites (approximately $400/night) are stunning but their smaller rooms aren’t nearly as attractive as comparably priced rooms at Cabo de Hornos. For food, Rough Guide touted Brocolino as “a must-stop for gourmets”. Not only is the excellent food enjoyed in relaxed but upscale ambiance, the chef comes out to chat with you, ensuring that you’re happy with his creations (YES!) and the service (YES!). We went there twice. Stepping over the glass-covered watery threshold a la Pablo Neruda, funky resto-bistro La Luna is just plain fun and a perfect spot for lunch!
Mirador Cerro La Cruz offered exercise climbing to the hilltop, rewarded with stunning views of the city and harbor, and supplied silly reference poles with directions and distances to other world cities.
Of the museums, the presentation of Upstairs:Downstairs inside Museo Regional Braun Menendez, intrigued me the most. Emigrating to Patagonia, the furthest reaches of America, wealthy European settlers replicated class divisions between the elite and the workers of Europe.
Next stop? Tierra del Fuego!