Punta Arenas – Part 2

Since Punta Arenas is a town where visitors usually spend a few days, it doesn’t have the tourist focal points a larger city would. We managed to enjoy our entire month, even though you can feasibly see the entire city in a day or two. There is no real tying this post into any semblance of a narrative, it is just a miscellaneous collection of the little things we did around the area.

On recommendations by Chileans we met in Santiago, we visited the municipal cemetery, the Cementerio Sara Braun. Some travel publications list it as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. Tradition dictates that Sara Braun donated the land but on the condition she would be the last one to enter the main gate. Even today, the main doors are shuttered and people use an entrance to the side. There are large mausoleums and outdoor columbariums, and many rows have massive, well-trimmed evergreens. Families seem to spend a lot of time there, keeping graves clear and reminiscing. Since the environment is so harsh, many flowers are fake, but even those are kept fresh and brightly colored. The overall effect is to make it seem less dreary than most cemeteries I’ve been through.

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Sara Braun Municipal Cemetery

Many days we walked along the waterfront to enjoy views across the Strait of Magellan and to look for whales and dolphins. Many of the buildings are covered in murals celebrating the seafaring and industrial history of the area. Stray dogs also hang out on the boardwalk. Some seem intent on adopting any family that walks by – one particularly stubborn one followed us for more than half an hour, until he was distracted by another group eating lunch. Apparently the food made them the better option. The largest monument is to Magellan and others along the shore commemorate shipwrecks.

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Mural and mirador

Austral claims to be the southernmost brewery, but I think the Cerveceria Artesanal Hernando de Magallanes might be winning that title by a foot or two. We first noticed it when we were walking around on our cruise-stop day in town, but it was closed on that Sunday. They have a small operation – their fresh-tasting beers are all hand-bottled. I liked their barley wine the most, but when we stopped in a second time, it was already sold out. Next time we know to stop back in sooner…

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An even more local beer than Austral, San Pedro – patron saint of fishermen – at the Mercado, monument to Magellan

We happened to be in Punta Arenas for the February 26, 2017 solar eclipse. While it was a total eclipse farther to the north, we still managed to see the sun about 70% covered at the peak. Since we didn’t have welding goggles, we projected the eclipse onto the ground though a pinhole in a piece of cardboard. But, since Patagonia is famous for quickly changing weather, clouds soon covered the sun (we were lucky the sun was out at all). Amazingly, the clouds were just dense enough that we could watch the eclipse though them without needing thick glasses and still see the moon crossing the sun’s face. The entire event lasted a couple of hours. For having almost no advance warning – we only learned it was occurring the day before – we were thrilled to witness it. This is doubly true since we will probably miss the total eclipse that will be crossing the US in August.

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Feb. 26, 2017 – Annular solar eclipse

Punta Arenas was the nearest we’ve come to winter in more than a year. Temperatures in the 40s are about as close as I like to actual cold, especially with the severe winds that Patagonia can produce. Now that we’ve moved on to Uruguay, I have to say that 75-80 is much more enjoyable for me.

A Year Out

A year ago we were just arriving at our first home abroad in Chiang Mai, Thailand. We haven’t set foot in the US since, just waved at the east coast from 37,000 feet while en route from Frankfurt to Cancun. We’ve been on four continents and on the shores of three oceans. Every few weeks is a new country, new language, new currency, new culture, new foods. We are incredibly lucky to have the chance to experience so much of the world. It feels like hardly any time has passed at all, despite all we’ve seen.

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In many ways, it is still easier than we thought to keep up this lifestyle. Airbnb, Skyscanner, and cost of living websites make it simple to figure out where we can afford. The internet naturally provides plenty of photographic inspiration and easy ways to keep in touch with family and friends. Connecting with locals and other digital nomads through Meetup or Facebook is easy, even if we are only in a place long enough to attend an event or two. I thought our destination list would be getting shorter, but each month we hear about other places to see, so that’s been trending in the wrong direction.

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I have both more and less faith in humanity than when we started. Less in humanity en masse because of where the world seems headed at the moment. We’ve had to explain US electoral politics too many times to count and it only gets more difficult post-election. Arriving in Ireland the day of the Brexit vote, we witnessed streaks of nationalism present in other countries that also threatened to diminish the world we live in. Many people we meet – granted, usually in our generation and often fellow nomads – are likewise disappointed and worried about what the future may hold.

To counter it, at least this trip has give me more faith in individuals. Most people are kind and helpful and polite in person. The rare few that aren’t stand out glaringly as exceptions. Someone is always willing to point us to the right bus, randomly ask if we are lost (maybe, or maybe just catching a Pokemon), or try to answer questions through a language barrier. Uber and taxi drivers offer up advice about the best local dishes and are happy to find you love their city. We haven’t felt unsafe in any place we’ve visited. (Arguably, I feel more insecure in a movie theatre in the US than I have in any city we’ve been to outside of it. Is some of that rose-colored glasses? Absolutely. But much is basic statistics.)

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We are privileged to speak English, which means we can communicate with people all over the world. We learn the most important words in the language of the country we are in – please, thank you, sorry, and basic numbers go a long way. The fact that I could state – in poorly accented Croatian – the cost of fish I bought from a Ribanica in Dubrovnik thrilled the woman who behind the counter. So many tourists never made the effort and she was used to handing over the receipt to provide the total. My fumbling confirmation of the amount of money I handed over was an amusing treat.

Spanish is the first language we are making an effort to learn to the level of actual communication ability, since we plan on being in Latin America for at least 6 months. Of course, we still do a lot of signing and smiling over parts we don’t understand, but any effort on our part to speak like a local is always met with appreciation.

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I haven’t been acutely homesick, but I’m becoming nostalgic for Pacific Northwest hiking. Most of what I miss are small things. My books, currently locked in a storage unit outside of Seattle, are presumably lonely and sad at my absence. My other cravings lean toward junk food: Strawberry Poptarts, Cool Ranch Doritos, pershings from Sentry, and peanut butter (I now believe pb is the most American food – and is now what I recommend anyone headed to the States try).

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We set out a budget in advance, and were pleasantly surprised to find out that, for this first year, we came in under it. 🙂 It is still mind-blowing to be traveling full time and live on a smaller amount of money than we would in Seattle.

That all comes together to mean that for now, we’ll be keeping this up. The world will hopefully continue to get smaller and more interconnected, but there is always more to discover.

 

Cancun

Let it be known right away: Cancun is not my favorite spot. Kevin cares much more about beaches and ocean than I do and neither of us are fans of resorts. We spent a couple of days closer to the tourist enclaves, but enjoyed the local life away from the beach a little more. (Bonus: The more distance between you and the shoreline, the cheaper everything is.)

I will say that Isla Mujeres was worth a day-trip on the ferry from Puerto Juarez. The great thing about the island is that you can do everything in half a day, then relax. The southern-most point, where small cliffs drop into gorgeous turquoise waters, has a sculpture park. But since it costs to enter, we admired the metal art from a bit further down the shore.

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Around Isla Mujeres and mamey fruit.

Ten minutes away by golf cart from the tiny cliffs is the Tortugranja, a conservation effort. It costs just a few pesos to enter but has a dozen tanks turtles and other sea creatures. Outside in a protected sand pit are small wire enclosures protecting different sets of eggs that are soon to be hatched. Once the little turtles pop to the surface, they are taken inside to pools where it is safe for them to grow. A couple different species are kept in the building and in larger tanks outside. You can feed them, or, if you are outside, you can try to feed the turtles and see how much the greedy gulls get instead.

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Tortugranja on Isla Mujeres

Other than those two things, the island and Cancun both offer beaches. And they are NICE beaches; the Hotel Zone has miles of sand. In some spots there are small shells and barefoot walking is a little pokey, but in other areas the sand is smooth sugar. Meandering along in front of the hotels isn’t quite peaceful though. Every three hundred meters down the beach is an identical stand selling parasailing and jet ski time. It felt like we passed the same day-drinkers, beach volley ball games, and people buried in the sand every few minutes.

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Beach in the Hotel Zone, Pepsi v. Coke (hint: Coke won)

The best part of Cancun is the local street food, normally only available in neighborhoods well away from the water. We had amazing pork and cabeza del rey tacos for only a couple of US dollars, the meat super tender and smothered in spicy sauces and lime. And at XB Burgers, the hamburgers and lamb burgers were juicy and cooked just right. Other carts on the sidewalks sell sweets, snacks, and sometimes things like marquesitas (crunchy crepes filled with chocolate and vanilla creams).

Unlike Merida, there isn’t a deep cultural history. Our hosts reminded us that Cancun has really only been a city for the last 40 years or so. Most of it is concrete apartment buildings and industry supporting tourists in large resorts. I prefer places with a little more variety. But to get a break from doing anything for a while, Cancun is perfect.

And it was the first time we rented a single room in a house rather than an entire place on Airbnb. Our hosts were a wonderful couple with adult children (hence the extra rooms). They made us breakfast each morning and had great stores about the city growing. It was a perfect opportunity to practice our Spanish a little more before moving on to South America.

Chichen Itza

We spent a whole month in Playa del Carmen avoiding packaged tours to Chichen Itza because we knew it would be easier and cheaper to visit from Merida. The bus station nearest our home has three buses that leave each morning and stop at Chichen Itza’s main gate. At 5:30 in the evening, another bus that makes the return journey. The best part is the tickets costing between $3 and $5US per person each way, far cheaper than booking a tour.

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El Castillo, gorgeous clouds, a jaguar carving that managed to retain a bit of paint.

We opted for the 8:30am departure that got us to the ruins about 10:30. This gave us about an hour before the hordes of tourists arrived from the coast. Entrance is 232 pesos per person (currently about $17US/person). Visitors are a semi-captive audience and hundreds of souvenir hawkers compete for attention all around the temples. If you really need a jaguar call or festive blankets, you can take the opportunity to stock up (it’s cheaper than Cancun, so there’s that).

Beyond the first gauntlet of vendors are the actual ruins. The steeply rising El Castillo pyramid is the largest and best-known. It is hard to give a sense of how imposing it is in photos, or just how narrow the stairs up its sides are. We weren’t there on an equinox, but it was clear that the builders intended the snake symbolism to match with the year’s solar cycle.

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Temple of the Warriors and the Observatory

Immediately behind El Castillo is the Temple of the Warriors (with the famous Chac Mool statue awaiting human hearts) and the Group of the Thousand Columns stretching off to the right. Many structures, including the columns, used to have roofs. It’s hard to imagine what the city would have looked like at the peak of its power. Not to mention that much of it would also have been brilliantly painted to awe the viewer. Only a few carvings retain small sections of rich blues and rust reds. Bare stone conveys the immensity but not the more personal human touches.

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Crowds in the Great Ball Court, leafcutter ants, stone faces on La Iglesa

Off to the right is one of two cenotes inside the site; vines and ferns climbing the walls make it feel Jurassic-Parklike. Further in this direction is the Observatory, one of my favorite buildings at Chichen Itza. It was probably used to make astronomical observations and is more eclectic in style with several levels of platforms in front of the round tower. in the far corner are buildings named La Iglesa and the Nunnery. Great stone faces peer out from their facades. Hooked noses jutting out from the structures call Pinocchio to mind.

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Group of the Thousand Columns, snakes guarding temple stairs, part of the Nunnery, carved scene at the ball court showing a beheaded player

Going the other way from El Castillo, we first stopped at the ball court. The acoustics inside its walls were planned carefully – converse at one end and it can be heard at the other more than a hundred feet away. Probably useful for cheering and calling fouls. This was definitely a serious sport. The small goal hoops are 25 feet off the ground and a relatively heavy rubber ball would have been used. Rules forbid the use of hands but with the addition that losers might also lose their heads. I suppose you learned to play very well, very quickly.

A few images of the necks of beheaded players shooting out snakes are just a small taste when compared to the Platform of the Skulls. This low platform makes no bones (sorry, I had to) about its purpose. Human sacrifices needed to be put somewhere (apparently), and this elevated space was the perfect spot. All sides are carved with skulls and the occasional eagle ripping the heart out of its human victim. Ah, subtlety.

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Vendors, the Sacred Cenote, Platform of the Skulls

From here another narrow path between tables laden with t-shirts and stone turtles leads to the Sacred Cenote. There are a few small ruins right at the edge of this cenote, which is the more impressive of the two. It is a vivid, violent green. The sides drop away though white stone in a near-perfect circle. The Maya thought it might be an entrance to the underworld. I could easily imagine the same thing: anything might be under that water, looking up.

Chichen Itza was just about everything I’d hoped. the temples and stonework was far more impressive than guidebooks convey. In many places the remaining carvings and stonework face are gorgeous and clearly the work of vast amounts of artisans’ time. It would be nice if the site had fewer vendors inside. Of course, the local economy depends on visitors’ money and most of the sellers probably barely earn a living despite this. Before the heaviest crowds arrive the site is still relatively peaceful (and the vendors are occupied by setting up) and it is mind-numbing to contemplate the amount of stone moved under the burning sun and all the years of devotion that went into the temples’ planning and construction. During the middle of the day the tour groups and high temperatures make it less pleasant, but many people don’t make it to the far corners so it is still possible to find a spot to yourself, even then.

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Casa Colorado and El Castillo

Helsinki & Suomenlinna

We are spending this month in Tallinn, Estonia, but one of the first things we planned was a day-trip to Helsinki. There was a cheap ferry ticket on Eckero Line coinciding with warm weather, which isn’t guaranteed on the Baltic in September. The ferry was like a mini-cruise, but with more personal importing going on. Unlike the tightly-controlled world of bringing alcohol onto cruise ships, Tallinn-Helsinki ferries are basically designed for legal smuggling. Finns head over in large numbers to circumvent expensive liquor in their home country. (Its serious business, they literally buy a third of all the alcohol in Estonia, mostly in Finn-packs of 10 bottles of the hard stuff designed for easy transport home.)  We arrived in Finland – sans alcohol – at 2:30pm and left just eight hours later.

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Leaving Helsinki behind, clouds over Estonia, on deck.

Continuing our tradition of fortress-exploring, we spent our afternoon on Suomenlinna, a former stronghold on four connected islands just offshore. And it involved more ferrying! The largest island is where most of the defensive ramparts are located, and where we spent most of our time. Thick stone walls have protected the passages leading into Helsinki’s harbor since 1748. Tunnels connect some firing positions, and are open to clamber around. It basically feels like adults were asked to build their ultimate playhouse. Larger rooms were for sea-facing cannon, narrow ones facing inward or towards gates had slits for small arms. We needed our phone flashlights to navigate some tunnels, though that became less fun after we saw the island also is home to snakes.

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On Suomenlinna
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Looking into and out of Suomenlinna’s defense tunnels.

Suomenlinna houses museums and cafes and is the home of several hundred residents who live there year-round. (They even have a mini-supermarket and a tiny library!). As pretty as the islands are, I don’t think I could last a winter there. Fireplaces and saunas only go so far against the icy chill and sparse daylight.

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Almost fall!, houses & defenses.

We were only left with a couple hours on mainland Helsinki, and mostly wandered around the downtown between the harbors. The Central Market Square had a craft and lunch market going when we arrived to wait for our island ferry. So much salmon was being prepared – as filets, on burgers, in soups – that the entire market smelled like it, which only made us hungrier. However, we have salmon at home a lot (especially in Estonia), so we opted for the reindeer with potatoes and lingonberry sauce. There were all sorts of summer berries, some, like bilberry, that I’d never even heard of… too bad Finland has much higher prices compared to Estonia.

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The Chapel of Silence and the Lutheran Cathedral.

Most touristy stops were closed by the time our ferry returned, so we walked admired the city from the sidewalk. Unlike most places we’ve been in Europe (aside from Tallinn), the main Cathedral isn’t Catholic. Instead it is a decidedly plainer Lutheran building.  A little ways further from the square, past some delicious food-truck bahn mi, we found the Chapel of Silence. Far from the pillared/Neoclassic look, it is modern Nordic design. I thought it looked somewhere between a peaceful retreat and an Ikea-assembly church. I do really like the idea of putting a place to have a break in the middle of downtown, though.

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Helsinki pretty much covers the full spectrum of public art.

Of course, Helsinki also has some fun pubic art. The giant peeing statue called Bad Bad Boy was right across from the West Harbor Ferry Terminal – impossible to miss on the way to the city center.  It is either really awkward or really creepy. Other less obtrusive murals and yarnbombing were more common.

Our ferry returned – with fewer passengers and a lot less booze-laden luggage – about 1 in the morning. Hopefully we will be able to manage a second day trip to more throughly see the city. Next time though, we will bring something to read on the ferry: a 2.5 hour trip each way gets a little long.

Krakow

Poland is a bit of a rarity on our trip because we divided our month in the country between different cities. Two weeks in Warsaw, the current capital and business center, and now two weeks in Krakow, the old capital and tourist mecca. Krakow’s Old Town is jammed with beautiful old buildings – dozens of churches, the Cloth Hall, Wawel Castle – and all sizes of market squares. Many are original, since the city avoided destruction during the World Wars. Like many European cities, Krakow is very walkable, and each day we try to explore new streets.

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St. Mary’s and the Central Market Square under some ominous clouds.

Art seems to be everywhere (a recurring theme on this trip): decorating sides of gray buildings, scattered around parks, celebrated in new theatre buildings. There is a large number of murals painted across otherwise plain walls. Some will be temporary since they overlook pits waiting for concrete pours, and many celebrate the city’s culture. Along one highway we noticed an entire history of Poland painted across a berm just a couple hundred feel long (somehow they managed to get more in more Polish history than any textbook I had in high school).

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Found art: mural of Judah in Kazimierz, OWLS!!, a newly-constructed arts center incorporating an old power station
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Murals around our neighborhood – rabbits pop up all over.

Happily, we also came across the start of the Pierogi Festival completely by accident. We had already had a partial lunch and immediately decided that had been a mistake. The Small Market Square was set up with fifteen or so booths selling all kinds of pierogis. Every pierogi we’ve eaten in our lives fell woefully short of these. The selection in the US is usually some combination of onions, potato, and beef. Here, they were serving up puffy dough pillows filled with variations of duck, salmon, cabbage & mushroom, potato & bacon… Every stand had Ruskie, the most traditional kind, filled with potatoey and cheesey goodness. Each bite managed to be the best pierogi I’ve tasted. There were even dessert pierogis – banana & white chocolate, blueberry, raspberry. Thankfully the festival went on for five days, and wee may or may not have returned daily.

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Pierogis: the main reason we came to Krakow (though we didn’t know it til we were already here)

Krakow is full of Catholic churches. My favorite (so far) was the Church of St. Francis near the Jagiellonian University. There has been a church on the site for nearly 800 years, but most of the current version is much more recent. Decoration and windows were added during the early 1900s and reflect the best styles of the time. Walls and stained glass windows depict flowers and geometric patterned rainbows.  The whole interior bursts with color – a contrast to many other churches that are much more reserved inside. However, every church we’ve looked in has a fantastically carved altarpiece and pulpit, usually made of dark wood and moderate amounts of gilding.

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Bright colors inside the dimly-lit Franciscan Basilica.

My early impression is that Warsaw is more livable for long-term stays, but that Krakow has a more charm. I do have to say, though, that the happiest surprise about Poland is now delicious the food is, especially anything that is/resembles a pastry.

 

 

We’ll miss you Croatia!

Kevin had a sizable list of work to accomplish in Dubrovnik, so we spent most of our time in Dubrovnik around our own neighborhood and in the Old Town. We had thought about a side-trip to Montenegro but weather, work, and not wanting to worry about a separate currency for such a short time convinced us we should head there for a month at a later point.

Despite getting to spend two months in Croatia, we will miss it.
I have several new favorite-ish foods: ajvar (think thick salsa minus most of the heat), peanut puffs, black risotto (made with cuttlefish ink; it was so yummy I didn’t even get a photo before it was gone), and spicy sour-cream-and-onion Pringles that made other chip flavors boring. The one thing Croatia seems to be missing is a chewy chocolate chip cookie. I’ve been craving one all month since I noticed they were unavailable… Maybe Romania will be better on that score.

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The best Pringles, tasty wafer cookies, all sorts of (mostly eaten) ajvar, peanut crunchiness.

Dubrovnik has a pretty slow place. Once we saw the Old Town and did some hiking, there isn’t much to do except relax and enjoy the atmosphere. Here are a few of the miscellaneous photos that didn’t really fit elsewhere:

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Port mural, Marin Drzic, tiny fried fishies. 
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Dubrovnik’s Cathedral altar, rosaries left by the prayerful, and a recreation of the vision at Lourdes.
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Another beautiful courtyard, map of the 1991-92 bombing, wallflower anchor.

We did also discover a local hotel with a multi-story underground bar. The name is unoriginal but the setting is pretty spectacular. The lowest level had a glass-floored room built over the underwater part of the cave and it lead out to the waterfront seats. I had a really tasty raisin dessert wine that was necessary to get my mind off of the ceiling cracks.

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Cave Bar More. They aren’t lying about the cave part.

I hope we can return someday to see more of the islands and because it seems like the peanut snacks are a fairly local specialty, and I definitely need more of those.