After leaving Buenos Aires, we headed east on the River Plate, and back to the Atlantic Ocean. From there, we continued southeast along the coast of Argentina. It took us 3 days to reach the entrance to the Magellan Straights, very close to the tip of South America. It got progressive colder, the further south we went. This is a good time for a quick sidebar on “latitude”. When we entered the Amazon river, we were on the Equator, which is zero latitude. It’s always hot at the equator, where the sun is the closest to the earth. As you head further North from the equator, the cooler it gets. As you head further South, the cooler it gets. This may sound curious, because when we think “south” we think warmth. That’s not the case.
At Punta Arenas, the latitude is 53.16 S. This is almost the same as Happy Valley, Labrador, in Canada at 53.19 N… just on the opposite end of the earth. It is the height of summer down here, and the temperature reached a measly 51F, which is perfect for me. I was blissed out to be in a jacket and long pants for a change. The important thing is to protect exposed skin from burning, thanks to the considerable hole in the ozone layer above us.
Chile is a narrow sliver of land clinging to the western edge of South America. It covers 39 degrees of latitude and is 2,653 miles long but only 110 miles wide. The country is hemmed in by the Andes mountains to the east, the Pacific Ocean to the west, a vast desert in the north, and thousand of islands and glaciers to the south. There are 36 live volcanos. Evidence of human presence dates back to 13,000 BC.
There are only 16.3 million inhabitants in the entire county, and most live in the sprawling capital area of Santiago. Chile is known as Latin America’s safest country, hands down. The economy is stable, and there is a lack of corruption. It is the world’s top producer of copper. Other big industries are oil, salmon farming, and tourism.
The first European to discover the area was Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese navigator traveling with a fleet of 5 ships. He entered the Straights (later named after him) in 1520. It was a 354 mile journey battling ceaseless gale force winds that changed direction from one minute to the next, making it impossible to sail. They were literally blown through the waterways. Promising channels shot off in all in directions, only to end in glacier walled cul-de-sacs, forcing them to retrace their steps. At times, the exhausted men had to tow the ships from small rowboats back into (what they hoped) was the main passage. Finally, after 36 hellacious days, the crew spied the open ocean ahead. Magellan was so relieved to see the calmer body of water to the west that he named it the Pacific.
They sailed on for 4 months without seeing land and ate only salted pork and wormy meal. All the sailors had scurvy. When Magellan was killed in a fight with the natives of Mactan Island in the South Pacific, the fleet did not turn back the way they came. They were petrified of attempting to go through the Straights at the bottom of South America for a second time. They took the much longer route around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa instead. Three years after setting out, just one of Magellan’s original fives ships finally limped back to Spain. Manned by only 18 of the original 270 crew members, who were barely alive. The voyage chronicler said he could not imagine the journey would ever be repeated again. The crew did not know at the time, but they were the first men to successfully circumnavigate the globe. To bad they never got to celebrate this astonishing feat.
The Straights of Magellan did become the principle route for steam ships (not sailing ships) traveling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. It is much safer then journeying around the bottom of the continent where the two fearsome oceans meet in a violet clash. Cape Horn boasts the largest ship graveyard in the Americas, due to the treacherous icy waters and the williwaws. Now that’s a great word! A williwaw is a sudden violet squall blowing offshore from a mountainous coast. They seem to come from nowhere… as if conjured up by Poseidon when he has an appetite for sailors’ souls.
Punta Arenas, on the Straights, was first established around 1850 as a military garrison and a penal colony for military personnel. It was also conveniently situated for supplying coal and provisions to ships heading to the west coast of the USA from Europe. In the early years, the town lived off natural resources, including sealskins, guanaco hides, mineral products, guano (bird poop sold for fuel), timber, and firewood. The economy took off around 1875 when 300 purebred sheep were brought here from the Falkland Islands. It was a successful experiment. By 1900, two million animals grazed the territory, and the extreme wealth the wool brought stayed in the hands of a few people. Europeans escaping from WW1 also arrived seeking fortunes in sheep ranching, gold, copper mining, and the shipping industry.
As you can probably guess, the indigenous people who had been living here for thousands of years did not bode well. They were killed in massacres because they were “inconvenient” or they died of European borne illnesses. The local Selk’nam people became extinct, along with over 100 other indigenous tribes. The few that remain are in isolated regions or on Reservations.
Commercial progress in Punta Arenas came to a grinding halt once the Panama Canal was built in 1913, and many ships no longer needed to pass through the Straights or round Cape Horn. And, the situation became much worse, when wool from New Zealand and Australia started competing with Chile.
The town languished until the 1940’s when oil was discovered nearby, leading to a major improvement in roads. Now, 120,000 people live here, and tourism has become a major focus. It’s a starting point for heading south to Antartica, and north to the Chilean Fjords.
There is an ever persistent wind here called Escoba de Dios, or God’s Broom. When we arrived, the Broom was sweeping at 40 MPH. Later in the day it increased. And, this is just a fresh breeze according to the locals. It’s not really windy until the town sets out ropes between lampposts for people to hang on to, as they trudge along the streets. In the winter, the entire area is buried in several feet of snow, and the roads are impassible.
Everything we wanted to explore was within walking distance of the port. First, we headed to the tree lined Plaza Munoz Gamero, which is dominated by a bronze statue of Magellan. Look closely at the shiny foot of the Indian on the right side of the statue. Local legend says that if you rub his big toe, you will come back to Punta Arenas some day. You are not allowed to specify which time of year, so I didn’t dare.
The highlight was a trip to the Municipal Cemetery. It is a jumbled menagerie of architectural styles and tombs. All classes of people are buried here, from the wealthiest sheep barons to lowly sailors from around the world who never left after being shipwrecked. We spend a few hours wandering through the crisscrossing network of maze like footpaths and gawking at the trimmed cypress trees that looked like chubby fingers.
We admired the pristine graves covered in a riot of plastic flowers and wondered about the crumbly ones covered in wildflowers and weeds. We sought out the Grave of the Unknown Indian, who is believed to be the last Selk’nam. His skeleton was found near town and citizens raised the money to have a statue made in his honor. The plaques surrounding him are in gratitude from people who say their wishes came true after touching his hand. Maybe I will be coming back to add one… but only in the summer. But, by far, the most intriguing sections, are the walls of locker-sized funerary urn receptacles and the elaborate way they are decorated. Each one is a unique tribute.
On the way back to the ship, we saw a group of nesting birds, on a dilapidated pier that had been severed from land, and thought what a strange place it was to have a colony. They were not deterred by the wind.
Next up, Chilean Fjords.