Punta Arenas

Tuesday 3rd February – Punta Arenas

No internet. Nice start. Sometimes happens when we’re in places with a strong military presence.

Tendering ashore was quite painless, although until we cast off, it was a bit rough – mostly because of the waves bouncing off the ship and coming back against the little boats alongside. Once we were moving, however, the sea was like glass; mirror-smooth.

Punta Arenas means Sandy Point, apparently. And here, they check your bags when you arrive, not for bombs, but food. They are as paranoid about invasive species here as they are in Australia.

There is a very welcoming, bright yellow-painted tourist centre on the quayside, full of vastly over-priced souvenirs, not enough maps and unhelpful but smiley people – all the things we need! We negotiated a route through the taxi drivers punting for trade, and walked from the port gate into town – two blocks away from the water, uphill, and then three to the right, through a residential area, which was pretty, if a little run down.

In fact, the whole town was run down, with individual buildings varying from breathtakingly pretty colonial architecture, to, um, utilitarian ugly basic, often right next door to each other. If it keeps the rain off and the tsunamis at bay, it’ll do. This place used to be a major coaling and supply port for ships rounding the Horn, and was once one of the busiest ports in the world. It had a second wind of success when oil was discovered nearby in the forties, but it is not the hub it used to be – other than as a jumping off point for trips to the Antarctic, which is now the major trade here. It is not the most hospitable place on Earth, with strong winds blowing all year round and heavy snows in the winter – the Patagonian permanent icecaps are not too far to the west of here.  This planet has permanent ice in other places than the two poles. Don’t forget the permafrosts of Siberia either. This is part of the world is further South than anywhere else on Earth – it will take us three days to get back up to the same latitude as South Africa, for example. Today was breezy and sunny, with one or two spots of rain (calling it spitting would be a compliment). I wore a long sleeved t-shirt under  my thickest cardigan with the fluffy hood, and overheated in very short order.

We stopped for a cold drink at a very anonymous-looking café, called the Discovery. It was pretty basic – the chairs were plastic, as were the tablecloths, and the lighting was dingy to the point of obscure (seriously, couldn’t read our maps, it was so dark), but the toilets were clean and well-provisioned, so we were quite happy. Even after I noticed that our drinks were best before the end of February 2014. Meh, it is February. Close enough.

Then we continued on through the town until we found the main square. This is pretty much the only thing marked on the maps they supply. Never mind the insults our port guide woman usually indulges in; this time, there really is nothing here. There are a few museums inside a few mansions built by founders and millionaires who made their money here, but that’s about it.

The square is very pretty, and the buildings around it are colonial ornate and expensive-looking (you know the style by now – French/ Spanish/ Victorian/ Georgian). In fact, the cathedral was probably the plainest building in sight. We walked around the square, and found the rather splendid edifice known as Sarah Braun’s house (she and her husband pretty much built this town). It was supposed to have a coffee shop inside, but the man on the door wanted us to pay to go through the museum first, before he would allow us to go to the coffee shop, so we just kept walking.

On the east side of the square, we found the Hotel Cabo de Hornos (the Cape Horn hotel) which was very nice indeed – modern but with some unusual touches, such as llama-hide chair covers. We went and ordered a snack lunch and I used the wifi for a while. Well, quite a while, because the service was so lethargic that it was virtually going in reverse, so there was definitely no rush. Most of the hotel residents seemed to be on their way to Antarctica, or on their way back home from there. Antarctic adventurers are not as young as I expected them to be – there was a surprising amount of grey hair in evidence. Maybe they’re the only ones who can afford it these days? Their presence may be why the owners decided not to heat the place too much – to allow them to acclimatise! I kept my coat on. The food was fine and the bill was reasonable (although at 1015 pesos to the pound, it didn’t LOOK it at first glance!), and we did manage some Skyping before all the other cruise passengers arrived and started clogging up the bandwidth.

There were market stalls set up in between the trees on the square (seems to be a theme around these parts) and so we browsed them all and bought some bits. Having purchased Stanley, the penguin mascot of the Falkland Islands, I duly bought him a companion, whom we have named Olly – as you do (well, he’s short and round and going to live with Stanley for the foreseeable future, so…) – along with the obligatory t-shirt, magnets and postcards. Perhaps by way of compensation for how little there is to see or do here, they have made all of their postcards uniformly HUGE, so anyone who receives one from here will find it had to be cut down to size to fit in the P&O envelope (we find they arrive quicker and with more predictability/reliability in envelopes than if sent loose).

We then strolled back to the ship in the sunshine, via a different route, to see a little more of the place. It was all blessedly downhill from now on. Mum was a bit perturbed by the number of stray dogs we saw, but they didn’t seem unhappy. For the most part, they just dozed in the sunny patches of pavement (which were all smooth as a baby’s behind, not a pothole in sight) and ignored the humans entirely. We went past the naval headquarters on our way back – which may explain the internet being jammed this morning.

The queue for the tenders was stupid, and even though it goes down 100 people at a time, it took us a while to get back to the ship. At dinner, we found out that it had become so rough around BOB-time, that they had actually stopped running the tenders for a while, which meant we left an hour late. The captain announced we would be doing a “fast run” to make up the time tonight, so we will get to the glaciers as planned tomorrow. I don’t know who he thinks he is fooling, but eighteen knots is not a fast run, and anyone on this ship who has ever cruised before knows that full well. Whether he was trying to impress us, or keep our ship’s true capabilities under wraps for some reason, I don’t know, but he failed on both counts.  But bless him for trying.

Side note: on my return from dinner, I found Stan and Olly in bed together, with Olly sitting on Stan’s head and Stan resplendent in my sunglasses, looking very pleased with himself. My cabin steward must get really bored.

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