Puerto Arenas (Feb. 19)

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Billed as the “southern most city on earth” (a designation contested by Ushuaia and its neighbouring naval base), Punta Arenas overlooks the Strait of Magellan and is quite beautiful.

European immigrants, largely from Spain and Croatia settled here in the mid 19th century although unsuccessful attempts were made three centuries earlier by the Spanish. Facing the harsh climate and lack of supplies, they finally gave up. Evidently a similar attempt at colonization some 80km south resulted in Puerto del Hambre being dubbed Port Starvation or Famine Port.

Now a vibrant city of 150,000, it’s European origins are reflected in lovely colonial mansions, monumental statues (to Magellan and O’Higgins), grand avenues, and it’s large central square filled with araucaria trees.

We found the square bustling with entertainers and perhaps 50 small stalls selling local souvenirs. A young drum corp (complete with scantily clad girl walking hat in hand amongst the crowd) and a strange (but fun) fellow dressed as a chubby dancing couple entertained as tourists browsed penguins and sheep (glass, wooden or stuffed) and all types of woollen goods and knickknacks.

We walked about 10 blocks past familiar names such as Scotiabank (a bit of Canada in every city we have visited) and Winnipeg (a shoe store!) to the Museo Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello. This museum, founded by Salesian monks, has a large taxidermy collection of indigenous animals (in addition to a few mummies and shrunken heads) on the ground floor but the most interesting was the cultural history upstairs. Here we learned a lot about the indigenous people and how they were essentially wiped out after the arrival of Europeans. Not only were their food sources and land overrun but they were determined to be savages and “sub-humans” (a few were even put on display in a cage at the Paris Exhibition at the turn of the century). Sadly, their demise was primarily caused by diseases, brought to them by their self-pronounced “saviours”.

Museo Regional Braun-Menendez highlighted the other side of life in Peurto Arenas…that of the wealthy sheep farmers. The mansion, built just after the turn of the century, has beautiful inlaid floors (you are provided with cloth covers for your shoes as you walk in), French and British furnishings, and every modern convenience of the day. In an interesting twist, you can walk out the back door into the garden and then immediately down the steps into the servants area. This includes a huge kitchen and pantry, a large food storage area (including cava for the wine), a bedroom and well-equipped bathroom for the cook and housekeeper (evidently 8 other staff lived off site) and the boiler room and coal storage area. A real upstairs/downstairs view of yesteryear southern Chile.

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