Punta Arenas, Chile

Yesterday a friend asked me how I liked my trip to Patagonia.  I told him that it may have been the best thing I ever did.  He responded back saying after every trip I take I say the same thing.  It may be so.  I do recall telling him how much I loved being in the Galapagos, living in India, spending Thanksgiving in Italy, and so on.  I guess that’s why I keep traveling and living my life on the road.  I’m constantly amazed, surprised, and awed by so many things I come across whether it’s natural wonders or sprawling cities.

My adventure in Patagonia headed farther south on January 11, 2012 to Punta Arenas, Chile.  We’d left our cozy hotel in Puerto Natales in the morning for a 4 hour bus ride to the capital city of Chile’s southern most region, Magallanes and Antarctica Chilena.  We only spent one night in Punta Arenas but it served as a great stopping point to break up our long journey down south to Ushuaia, gave us a chance to visit a penguin colony, and very importantly, two more Chilean meals(!)

After having lunch at La Luna restaurant (I tried the local King crab casserole, chupe de centolla) we headed out of the city to Seno Otoway Penguin Colony, 65km away.  We had a fantastic local guide who gave us a lot of historical information about Punta Arenas, Magallanes (Spanish name for the Portuguese explorer Magellan), and about the penguins.  Punta Arenas sits by the Straight of Magellan and it was originally established as a penal colony in 1848.  It became an important trade port in the late 1800s and the city grew, as the traffic through the Strait of Magellan increased and sheep farming started.  Now there are about 2.5 million sheep in these parts (human population ~160k) and it’s one of the main sources of income for Punta Arenas along with cattle, oil, fishery, and tourism.  As for it being an important international trade point, well that effectively ended with the completion of the Panama Canal in 1914.

I learned that it was the explorer Magellan, who named the largest body of water on Earth Mar Pacifico (Pacific Ocean/peaceful ocean) for having found favorable winds and calm conditions after navigating through the strait.  As for the penguins, she said there are several colonies of them nearby but Otoway Sound is accessible for visitors and the penguins there are used to humans so we weren’t too much of a distraction.  They arrive from the southern coast of Brazil and the Falkland Islands in September, mate and lay their eggs in October, mid November to mid December the eggs hatch, and by January/February the young ones change their feathers and begin to swim.  We’d come just in time to see the young penguins.

And indeed there were families of penguins everywhere.  The younger ones were obviously much smaller and had lighter color feathers.  By the way, I was fascinated to learn the reason why the penguins are black and white.  For one, it allows them to regulate their body temperature- when they feel cold, they turn their backs to the sun and the black feathers absorb the heat and when they’re hot, they turn around to reflect the sun’s heat with their white torsos.  Secondly, when they swim in the ocean their white bellies blend in with the color of the sky so they are not easily seen from below.  The opposite is true from the sky where the black backs of the penguins blend in with the dark colors of the ocean and again they’re not distinguishable from above.  Awesome, right?

Just about two months ago I saw a few Galapagos penguins in Ecuador.  They were obviously living in an environment very different from this cold and windy place in Patagonia.  It’s amazing how they can adapt and survive!  I absolutely adored spotting those few Galapagos penguins but here we got to see a much larger group.

It was cloudy, windy, and cold, but it was very peaceful.  The sky looked as if it were pained and if you stared closely, you could see all the brush strokes.

Our last evening in Chile was filled with laughter and great food.  I hadn’t talked to Carola about it but she took us to the only restaurant I really wanted to check out in Punta Arenas, La Marmita (which means a big pot/pressure cooker).  We took a great long table upstairs in their warmly lit dining room, surrounded by colorful paintings and interesting works of art.  The menu was eclectic and offered so many vegetarian options it was hard for us to decide what to have.  Lynne and I shared a Chilean dish called “charquican con cochayuyo,” which was really flavorful.  We couldn’t tell what everything was but there were squash, carrots, potatoes, and supposedly seaweed (cochayuyo is Chilean seaweed but we couldn’t see or taste it).  We trusted Carola to recommend a good bottle of Chilean wine and she again delivered us a winner.  We loved this Errazuriz Carmenère so much that we had two bottles to share amongst Lynne, Lucy, and me.  Argentina has Malbec and I think Chile may have something with Carmenères…

After splitting two desserts Lynne and I still had too much energy and enough room for another round, so we gathered up a few companions (Joy, Andrew, Carola, and Stuart) and headed over to a quiet bar for a beer.  Cerveza Austral, a Calafate ale from Punta Arenas helped us wrap up our wonderful trip on the Chilean side of Patagonia.  Crossing back over to Argentina for our final destination, Ushuaia, el fin del mundo (the end of the Earth) was next.  Gracias, Chile!  Nos Vemos!

La Marmita restaurant: Plaza Sampaio No. 678, Punta Arenas, Chile

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