South to Puntas Arenas

Wednesday 24 to Saturday 27 January

Our last destination in Chile was to Punta Arenas (or Sandy Point). This is Chile’s southern most city and a stepping off point for Antarctic cruises as well as a stopping point for the famous South American cruises which include passing through the Magallen Straits.

In the afternoon we wandered around the city. Plaza de Armas was right opposite our hotel and bordered by the Cathedral, Palacio José Montes (City Hall) and Palacio Sara Braun. Sara Braun was part of the family who had built a fortune on shipping, seal lion hunting and sheep farming.

We walked down to the Costanera (shore), and the Muelle Prat (Prat pier) which was a favourite resting place for many sea birds. We walked along the shoreline for some way. Punta Arenas is full of monuments. Hernando de Magallanes is a favourite, as he discovered a navigable passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.

Once again, we hired a car to give us flexibility.

We drove to Fuerte Bulna, in the Strait of Magellan National Park which is located on a small peninsula about 60km south of the city.

On the way we saw fields of lupins – a beautiful mixture of purples, pinks, blues and creams. These lupins (lupines polyphyllus) are native to Chilean Patagonia and their seeds were consumed by the Incas who would soak them to remove their bitter taste, before boiling them. We were so lucky to be there during their flowering season.

The park was well set up and consisted of a number of stations to visit along the 4km road, starting with the Laguna Honda Access Point. Here we were given a short history of the park and the rules.

The park proper started at the Twin Towers, which were built in the second half of the 20th century as guardians. They are built in the style typical to the settlers here.

We spent a long time in the Interpretation Centre which had a history of the sailing ships that sailed through the Straits of Magallen and information about its original inhabitants. The name of the region is Tierra de Fuego (land of fires) which was used by Magallen to describe the many fires he saw along the shores, lit by the original inhabitants.

Next was Fuerte Bulnes, a fort named after the Prime Minister of the time, where the first Chilean settlement was founded in 1843. The location on the peninsula was considered a good defence position as it afforded excellent views over the straits. The 20 people who formed the settlement soon left, disgruntled with poor growing conditions, lack of water and extreme cold. They had come from Chiloé Island near Puerto Montt, and while authorities thought the living conditions would be the same, a distance of about 1200km actually made life far more difficult.

In order to maintain the settlement in Chile’s southernmost outpost the government of the day brought in prisoners and set them to work chopping down trees and building accommodation.

From there we took the Wind Forest Trail from the O’Higgins Lighthouse, through a beech forest, that is bent by the winds, and then onto the coastal trail with lookouts along the way.

The following day we took a short drive to the Reserva Nacional Magallanes which is in the hills above Punta Arenas. We needed to register and were given instructions on where to go.  The distances were well marked on the map and the park ranger suggested we walk anticlockwise until we reach the road that transacts the park, and return on the road.

She pointed out that one of the trees in the park, the Lenga (Nothofagus pumillo) was related to trees in Australia.  The Southern Beech (Nothofagus cunninghamii) has Gondwanan origins with related species in South America, New Zealand, New Caledonia and Papua New Guinea.

In fact there are only three species of trees that are in the park (and also in the parks in southern Argentina). The Coigüe (Nothofagus betoloides) and the Ñirre (Nothofagus Antarctica). They all have small robust leaves with serrated edges – I couldn’t tell them apart.

The walk, about 10km altogether, went through some undulating terrain, during which we reached the Mirador Guardas (lookout).  It was a little hard to see more than tree tops.

We continued on, climbing slowly until we found ourselves on top of a ridge, which was the Mirador Zapadal Austral. It was high, and the wind was very strong – so strong in fact that I felt challenged to stay on my feet.

What struck us most about the beauty of this place was the lichen that appeared to decorate the trees. It made patterns as the wind had swept it around the trunks.

On the way back, we drove past the wetlands, which are a little underdeveloped, and then stopped at the Monumento Ovejero (Shepherd’s Monument), one of many in the median strip along Avienda Bulnes, which is the main road that goes to the airport and then on to Puerte Nantes.

It seems that a day of transport takes the whole day.  We had a two o’clock flight to Ushuaia in Argentina.  By the time we checked out of the hotel, enjoyed the obligatory coffee in the Drake Café, drove to the airport, checked in the hire car and checked in for an international flight – there wasn’t much of the day left.

I knew we were in a turbo prop plane, but it turned out to be a small 10 seater Beechcraft Twin Air 100. Our luggage had been tossed onto the back seats and the six passengers joined the captain and co-pilot for an amazing flight.

The captain turned around and after establishing that everyone understood English (lucky for us), reeled off the standard instructions about seat belts, life jackets, oxygen masks and said he expected a relatively smooth flight with bumpy take off and landings.

We flew up, dodging clouds until we sat above both the clouds and the Andes.  It would have been a spectacular flight on a clear day, however we were lucky enough to see glaciers, snowed peaks, alpine lakes and bays as the clouds parted.

After an hour’s flight we swept around the Beagle Channel to land on the tiny airstrip at Ushuaia, Argentina, our stepping off point to Antarctica.