Day 106: The End Of The World

Tue. 27th November 2012

Bienvenidos a Punta ArenasPunta Arenas marks the southern-most point of our trip. At 53o 41’ S, it is further south than anywhere in New Zealand or Africa. Whilst not quite at the end of South America, we are looking across the Magellan Strait at Tierra del Fuego and we are only 250 miles from Cape Horn. As we’ve been remarking the last couple of days, we can really feel the weather from the Southern Ocean. Goodness knows what this place is like in the winter.

Looking out at the harbour and Magellan StraitsSaying that, the weather gods have been kind to us today (yet again). The sun is shining and the wind has dropped somewhat. As we pushed back our penguin spotting trip to tomorrow, we have all day to explore the small town of Punta Arenas – no buses or trips for us today. Hooray! We really do need a break from deadlines and travelling (and early morning starts!)

Punta Arenas CathedralIt turns out that there is more to the town than first meets the eye. To an extent, this is partly because places all look better in sunshine but it is also that we are starting to understand the history of this town. We have become so used to Spanish influenced towns that we almost overlook the main square with its cathedral and town hall. But they are there and glinting in the sunshine and we shouldn’t take them for granted – I suspect we will miss Spanish town/city planning logic when we leave South America (just a week to go now!)

Typical understated mausoleumAfter picking up another map in the tourist information office (our first got lost somewhere), and detouring into a cafe/chocolateria (yummy – good combination), we walk down to the cemetery which is at the other end of town to our hotel/hostel/hovel. Our experience here summed up so much of what we have seen in South America – not just the ornate tombs that are presumably Catholic influenced, but also the haphazard and very manual entry process and then finding some real gems and spending much longer here than we expected to. We could have just entered through an open side door, but instead opted for the main door where we were spotted by the man in the ticket booth. It turned out that his role was purely to write out a chit of paper and then direct us down a corridor into an office to actually pay the Cl$1,998 (yes, really) entrance fee – once the cashier had found the keys to the safe.

Lesser folk get a cubbyhole in a wallHaving paid, we were given a map which also flagged up some of the highlights of the cemetery. The best way to describe it is as a cross between the Recoleta mausoleum in Buenos Aires and the cemetery in Sucre. It combined ornate mausoleums of the rich and famous, a memorial for Admiral Graf Spee and walls with cubbyholes for common people. This latter, in particular, were full of photos and flowers – so, presumably, frequently visited. Looking at the tombstones, many different nationalities represented in the graves – reflecting what we are beginning to understand about the history of this place and all the different people who have travelled through it.

Memorial to local victims of 1980s dictatorPerhaps the most moving part of the cemetery is the memorial to those who were executed or ‘disappeared’ from the town during the dictatorship in the 1980s. There is a memorial wall flanked by a series of pillars with photographs and the names of the victims – those whose bodies have never been found get a stunted, incomplete pillar. It is a reminder that here is another South American country where as recently as the 1980s terrible things happened. The world not entirely a worse place now than then.

From the naval museumAfter a lunch comprising the local soup – chock full of vegies, rice, cabbage(?) and a bit of meat – we headed off for the naval museum where we again spent longer than we intended to. As you would expect, there were lots of artefacts from Chilean navy, particularly commemorating the war with Peru 1879 – 81 (history being written by the victors and all that). The really interesting exhibits though were the maps and mementos from around Cape Horn.

Are the Weeping Angels following us? Dr Who has a lot to answer for!The highlight was a  30min video of 1920s film of a 4-masted tall ship rounding Cape Horn, filmed and narrated by one of the original sailors (in English). This was simultaneously fascinating and horrifying. The beating that this huge (for the time) cargo ship took and the hardships and risks that the sailors faced was staggering. What a life as the winds reached nearly 100mph, waves washed across the deck and the bowsprit normally 50’ above the waves plunged into the sea. And people wanted to do this!

A further advantage of having the day under our own steam and at our own pace is that we are able to catch up a bit both with family on Skype (sorry if we didn’t talk to you, but you weren’t online – we looked!) and also booking travel and accommodation for the next few weeks. We now have hotels booked all the way through to mid-December (Easter Island) and just need to sort out a couple of buses to join the dots together.

Tomorrow, we start heading north again and hopefully to warmer climes. Thank you, Punta Arenas and Patagonia we have enjoyed our whistle-stop visit – but we will be glad to pack the thermal underwear away and get back to sandals, shorts and t-shirts!

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