Part of the fun of being in Punta Arenas is getting to Punta Arenas. From just about every way I looked at it, Chile is one of the most beautiful and varied landscapes in the world. High desert salt flats and rocky peaks lead southward into Santiago. We flew over the Atacama on our way from Lima to Buenos Aires and were stunned to see brightly colored mining ponds from the air. But to get from Santiago to Punta Arenas we flew almost straight down the Cordillera – mountains colored red, yellow, and orange by their mineral makeup, active volcanoes issuing wisps of smoke. As we neared the Puerto Montt and lake region the land became less dusty and sprouted trees and the mountains grew glaciers. Further on, great ice sheets took over, darker lines of crushed rock marking their inching currents. Finally, through the clouds, the southern straits and islands of Patagonia.
Punta Arenas is the smallest city we’ve lived in during this trip, with a population of just over a hundred thousand people. Tourists often visit for just a day or two on their way to Antarctica or to Puerto Natales and Torres del Paine National Park. The town is friends and much less chaotic than most places we’ve been. Around our Airbnb, the nearest beach is dominated by a sunken ship, and the park has statues of extinct dinosaurs but also a live horse that roams the grounds.
The most popular activity in town seems to be touring the Cervecería Austral, which claims to be the southernmost brewery in the world (though I can think of a couple smaller ones that might debate that point). As far as beer tours go, Austral’s was a good one. Our guide was kind enough to give his talk in both Spanish and English, even though we were the only non-Spanish speakers in the group. We saw their storage facilities, bottling line, and tanks that had active fermentation going on inside. And of course, we ended with a tasting consisting of five Austral Beers and two brewed for Imperial. Austral’s Calafate Ale was my favorite – the berries used to flavor it make it taste a little like candy.
A few blocks away from the brewery is one of PA’s best views. It looks out over the Strait of Magellan and the town’s bright roofs. The “how far to?” signboard is here – most cities seem to have one hidden somewhere. There is an impressive amount of smaller towns, especially from Germany. It seems like anyone can add their own as long as they have a spare couple of nails.
Nearer to the old center of town is the Museo de Magallanes. The rooms of the Palacio Braun Menendez have been kept/restored to their early twentieth century glory and some have been converted into displays presenting the region’s history. It’s free, so it was easy to stop in for a few minutes and avoid an impromptu rainshower. The first few rooms proved that wealth means comfort just about everywhere, even on the far corners of the continent. The family had imported hardwoods, gaming tables, sumptuous fabrics, and enough gorgeous inlay to rival grand homes in any capital. Some servants’ quarters in the basement are also kept in a near-original state, though they are obviously more spare.
We are in Punta Arenas at the end of their summer (equivalent to mid-August to mid-September in the northern hemisphere), but that doesn’t stop the weather from feeling wintery. One of the first things I sought out was a jacket to layer under my raincoat. The wind off the Strait can be biting, and the sun stays hidden much of the time, making it even harder to warm up. And rain seems to be constantly threatening on the horizon. Thankfully, indoors there is a working heater and we can take the opportunity to cook heavier meals that summer doesn’t lend itself to. Anything for an excuse to mull wine and make a batch of poutine!