Day 44 – Thursday, February 17 – Punta Arenas, Chile

 

Punta Arenas (English: “Sandy Point”) is the most prominent settlement on the Strait of Magellan.

Punta Arenas is the capital of the Magallanes y la Antártica Chilena Region, Chile. The city itself was officially renamed Magallanes in 1927, but in 1938 it was changed back to Punta Arenas. It is regarded as the world’s southernmost city. (As noted earlier, this title is in contention with Ushuaia, Argentina depending on what population you define city)

Two early Spanish settlements attempted along this coast (on the Straits of Magellan), including the first (1584), called Nombre de Jesús, failed in large part due to the harsh weather and difficulty in obtaining food and water, and the enormous distances from other Spanish ports. A second colony, Rey don Felipe, was attempted at another location some 80 kilometers south of Punta Arenas. This became known later as Puerto Hambre, sometimes translated as Port Starvation or Famine Port. These Spanish settlements had been established with the intent to prevent piracy by English pirates, by controlling the Straits of Magellan. Ironically it was an English pirate captain, Thomas Cavendish, who rescued the last surviving member of Puerto Hambre in 1587.

As said above, in the year 1843 the Chilean government sent an expedition with the appointed task of establishing a permanent settlement on the shores of the Strait of Magellan. For this it built and commissioned a small sail ship called Goleta Ancud, which under the command of the British sailor John Williams transported a crew of 21 people (captain, eighteen crew, two women), plus cargo, to accomplish the mandate of the Chilean government. The founding act of the settlement took place on 21 September 1843.

Although the site was perfectly suited for a military garrison with the mission of coastal defence, since it is located on top of a small rocky peninsula, it was ill prepared to become a proper civilian settlement. With this in mind the Military Governor, José de los Santos Mardones, decided in 1848 to move the settlement to its current location, on the sides of the Las Minas river, renaming it Punta Arenas.

In the mid-19th century, Chile used Punta Arenas as a penal colony and a disciplinary posting for military personnel with “problematic” behavior, as well as a place for immigrant colonization. In December 1851, a prisoners’ mutiny led by Lieutenant Cambiaso, resulted in the murder of Governor Muñoz Gamero and the priest, and the destruction of the church and the hospital. The mutiny was put down by Commander Stewart of HMS Virago assisted by two Chilean ships: Indefatigable and Meteoro. In 1877 a mutiny, known as “El motín de los artilleros” (Mutiny of the Artillerymen) led to the destruction of a large part of the town and the murder of many civilians not directly associated with the prison. In time the city was restored and with the growth of the sheep industry and the discovery of gold, as well as increasing trade via sailing ships, began to prosper. Between about 1890 and 1940, the Magallanes region became one of the world’s most important sheep-raising regions, with one company (Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego) controlling over 10,000 square kilometres in southern Chile and Argentina. The headquarters of this company and the residences of the owners were in Punta Arenas. Visitors today can get a glimpse of the economic stature of the city, or at least of its leading citizens, by touring the Sarah Braun museum (sometimes called Braun-Menéndez mansion) in the centre of Punta Arenas. Other popular attractions include the two nearby rookeries for Magellanic penguins, and the rebuilt site of the failed Fuerte Bulnes settlement.

The Punta Arenas harbour, although exposed to storms, was considered one of the most important in Chile before the construction of the Panama Canal, because it was used as a coaling station by the steamships transiting between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Today it is mostly used by tourism cruises and scientific expeditions. The city is often a jumping-off point for Antarctic expeditions, although Ushuaia (Argentina) and Christchurch (New Zealand) are also common starting points.

We docked early in Punta Arenas. Our tour was one scheduled with the Cruise Critic group from the internet forum. We had about 30 people with a very nice bus and three guides. We were picked up at the dock and immediately started toward Otway Sound to see the colony of Magellan Penguins. This colony has over 60,000 pairs, but many have already begun their migration to the coast of Brazil and the Atlantic Islands. Most of the remaining birds are younger and haven’t yet begun to swim. Nevertheless, we did see a LOT of penguins.

 

 

 

The trip to Otway was mostly over a gravel road and the distance was about 30 miles. Along the way we saw much countryside. This area consists almost entirely of ranches, mostly sheep, which are a minimum of several thousand acres each. There are no small ranches because the land is so arid, it requires about one acre to support one animal. One of the things which most impressed me was the fencing. There were what had to be hundreds of miles of fence like the one picture below. There was a post about every two feet, and kilometer markers may be seen in many areas marking every one-tenth kilometer.

Can you imagine how many post this takes!

We didn’t see as many sheep as you would expect. Our guide explained that the ranchers have summer fields and winter fields and the fields we were traveling through were mostly summer fields and the ranchers had not yet moved their herds yet. They normally did this in March and April. We did see some sheep though and most had very poor haircuts! Sheep are mostly raised for meat export and wool is a by-product. The price of wool had decreased considerably over the past few years and is no longer the commodity it was once was

 

This is a real Chilean cowboy. This photo was taken from the bus window as we passed him and his dogs (he had three with him). Our guide explained that the ranchers had different dogs to herd cattle than to herd sheep. The cattle dogs were taught to bite to do the herding and the sheep dogs did not.

After returning from Otway Sound we had a city tour. Punta Arenas is a pleasant town with pretty harsh living conditions. I was impressed with how clean and maintained the city was. There was much evidence of the pride these people had for where they lived. We saw MUCH less graffiti here than in other cities farther north. My theory is that this climate is not inductive to being non-productive and there are better places to live if you want to be a hoodlum!

Statue of Magellan

Cathedral

A vendor’s stall in the city park.

I purchased an alpaca sweater here, it was beautiful and heavy. It can actually serve as a coat. It cost 14,000 pesos, $29.00.

Another stop we made which was very enjoyable was the Cemeterio Municipal. This is the main cemetery for the city where the common and elite are buried. It was beautifully maintained and has some incredible statuary and gardens. Here are a few photos.

 

 

This is the “apartments” mausoleum for the more common people.

 

We are sailing the Chilean Fjords for the next two days. If the weather clears and I get some decent photographs I will do another post. Until then, everyone take care.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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