We made our flight from Puerto Montt with some time to spare, despite our difficulties leaving Chiloé. We’d opted to spend a little more (only about $20 per person) to fly instead of spending 32 hours on the bus. Over the next day (including the time that I am currently writing) I have enjoyed pointing out to Magda that we might have still been suffering on a bus this whole time. The plane to Puerto Natales, our ultimate destination before Ushuaia, was very expensive, so we opted to fly to Punta Arenas and try to get a much shorter bus from there.
We have a family of couchsurfers hosting us in Puerto Natales. For those of you new to this game I will explain: purely of good will, strangers open their houses, and their couches, to strangers. The strangers being people like us, backpackers trying to afford travel they might not have been able to otherwise. Or, travelers also like us who’ve realized there is no better way to get to know a place than to have a friend there. A system of vouches, reviews and recommendations assure you won’t be hosted by complete weirdos, though it could be argued there is an inherent weirdness to the whole transaction.
The first few hours of a stay with a Couchsurfing host is about getting to know each other, trading Couchsurfing stories, and congratulating one another on being awesome. We enjoy this typical exchange immensely, or at least I do.
One drawback is that hosts and guests have to deal with a sometimes flexible schedule. We had planned on arriving on the night of the 7th, after our plane and bus combo through Punta Arenas, but we quickly realized that we’d missed all the buses that would get us there at a reasonable hour.
That left us wandering at 7 o’clock in the evening around an unfamiliar town at the end of the earth, weighed down with backpacks and the stress of a long day (only that morning was our adventure with the missed bus in Chiloé).
We found an available room in an overpriced hostel near the bus station and debated looking elsewhere. We’d tried two cheaper looking places before but neither had bothered to even answer the door. High season in Patagonia doesn’t mean throngs of tourists, but it does mean far less available accommodation.
We decided the extra few dollars was worth it for the location (our bus to Puerto Natales would be just around the corner), plunked our stuff down and went out to explore the city.
So far south, 9 o’clock looked like late afternoon. A golden light brightened the painted corrugated metal facades of the little houses in our neighborhood. What at first appears to be a dreary little burg in the middle of nowhere suddenly looked to us like a box of jewels twinkling in midsummer sunlight. Magda burned through several rolls of film as we practically ran through the sleepy streets. Curious perros cocked their ears sideways as we photographed their houses.
Right then we were glad we stayed. As the sun started skimming the horizon in the west, we realized how hungry we were and wandered downtown to look for dinner. Central Punto Arenas is a typically European grid, with a green park at the center and several grand mansions surrounding it. The fine houses were of a neauveux style, built in the late 1800′s. It is hard to comprehend how far Punto Arenas would have been from Europe in 1880: an ocean away, a continent away, across the vast grasslands of Patagonia, in a climate only bearable in summer, settlers from Spain, England, Croatia came to isolate themselves in a desolate, hostile world.
Things haven’t changed much since then. Apart from the invention of motorized transit and the plane, Punto Arenas is still really far away from anything. Another reason I thought it was odd there was nowhere to stay.
We found a cellar restaurant beneath one of the grand mansions that might have been anywhere in Europe. The building’s stone foundations formed the walls of a warren of little smoky rooms. We wandered beneath low arched doorways until we found a room where we could breath and sat for what felt like the first time in days.
For some reason during dinner we decided it was likely we’d be mugged on the way back to the hostel. We were out after dark in an unfamiliar town, pockets loaded with pesos to pay for our room. We’d each ordered a beer and received a giant stein of the local favorite: Austral, so by the time we paid we were slightly tipsy, perfect victims, lined with cash. Nice and soft in the middle too.
We discussed strategies to throw off the attackers. We planned a route back, avoiding the slightly sketchy park between us and our bed. Then we left the cellar. At 11pm it was still light out.
There were street lights on, probably out of habit, but they still weren’t really necessary. There were no roving gangs, just a few families out for a stroll and some perros goofing around with each other. Needless to say we arrived back safely, totally baffled by the still setting sun. In New York, one week ago, it was dark at 5pm. Yes yes, axis of the earth, closer to the poles, mi winter solstice es su summer solstice. But still, its hard to fathom until you are looking at by what all rights should be midnight and seeing sun.
I slept badly even though I badly needed sleep. I was so tired I was awake. I was like Al Pacino in that movie where he goes to Alaska and starts freaking out because its still sunny when I shouldn’t be. Soon Robin Williams is chasing him around in a circle.
Fortunately I drifted off before that started happening.
In the morning we rented bikes and cruised around town, looking for more perfect little houses, neatly patinad by rust and neglect. We visited the town cemetery whose main selling point were blocks of tombs that looked eerily similar to communist era apartment blocks. Magda burned through more film. Up the hill from the proletariat burials were older more lavish tombs. Names from all over Europe were represented in several languages. English is at this point non-existent, so it was a surprise to see a few Smiths and Millers and Johnsons with the usual epitaphs.
Most odd about the upper part of the cemetery were the neat rows of conifers trimmed to resemble giant green gum drops, but taller, more like the classic ghost with a sheet over its head. Row after row of these tall, fat rounded topiaries lined the graves, sometimes so wide little doorways were cut through them to access a tomb.
In fact, odd sized and perfectly trimmed trees like this were all over town, dwarfing pedestrians, dominating green spaces. It is hard to imagine how Punta Arenas, the southernmost town in the Americas, comes up with the resources to keep these trees so neatly shaped. I’m thinking because there’s nothing better to do: aside from a penguin colony nearby, all the action is three hours north, in Puerto Natales.
We’re headed there now.