When listing off dream vacation destinations, Punta Arenas likely didn’t make your cut. The summer temps top out around 60 degrees, the wind is a constant reminder that you are standing in a subpolar oceanic climate, and let’s just say that the party scene about town isn’t exactly popping off. What you will get is a region of the world full of historical significance in exploration, sunsets that bring a tear to the eye, and access to Tierra del Fuego, “The Land of Fire”.
When we decided to travel, we made the decision to forgo some of the more comfortable aspects, in an attempt to have the most genuine experiences possible. Aside from helping us stick to our budget for the year, we thought that taking a more rough and tumble approach would give us a better glimpse into the way the natives lived. Staying in hostels, cooking many of our own meals, and planning our own itineraries helped us meet many wonderful people that we otherwise may have walked right past.
We did however opt to take a few tours throughout the course of our international trip. We waited until we’d reached the destination, then did our research when we could speak to the company representatives in person. I’m so glad that we did it this way, because we never would have found the tiny company that we selected for our tour of Tierra del Fuego.
While we originally signed up for the tour focused on seeing the king penguin colony, we ended up learning so much about the native people in the archipelago, and sadly their grim ending at the hands of settlers. It was such an interesting experience riding in a van on remote roads, learning about the way of life in a land of extremes. Had we opted to take this route on our own, we would have missed so many nuggets of knowledge in a place that appears so vast and vacant.
As we approached the penguin colony, we saw many a fox, guanaco, sheep, and more birds than we could register. We were happy to see that the colony was being looked after by a scientific group, keeping visitors more accountable for their actions. Our timing was lucky, and our visit took place a few weeks after a handful of females had given birth; it was incredible to see the babies being fed in the wild. We were able to sit down across a river bank from the colony, and spend an hour watching them communicate, move about, feed, and even have a disagreement or two. As we loaded into the van to begin our long journey back across the Strait of Magellan, our whole group seemed to be in a quiet reflection of the intimate peak we’d just been lucky enough to view.
We had a few days left in Punta Arenas before heading on to New Zealand, and we used that time to explore as many nooks and crannies of the town that we could. One of our favorite places was the most unexpected as it was full of deceased people… you guessed it, the cemetery. It had elaborate buildings and these massive green bushes that lined the paths, making us feel like we’d fallen down the rabbit hole along with Alice. We toured and tasted our way through the world’s southern most brewery, Austral, and dined on a few more meals of delicious Patagonian lamb. Our final evening was spent sipping pisco with the head chef of the NOAA “Polarstern”, that had just made its way through Drake’s Passage. His stories were filled with wild sea tales that could make your stomach churn and your hair stand on end. What a fitting way to bid adieu to the adventure filled weeks we spent on the southern tip of South America.