We ended our backpacking trek on Friday (2/10), reunited with Michael Jackson, and drove a couple hours south to Puerto Natales.
We decided to stay in a hostel instead of camping so we could get hot showers and avoid the work of finding a decent place to camp. This also made it easier for organizing gear and having less fuss the next morning since we would have an early start getting Sean to the airport. Our hostel of choice was Guanaco Blanco and it was an excellent choice, indeed. The woman running it was adorable and made us feel right at home. She was also naturally chatty which she said was helpful in getting to practice her English. She spoke of how safe Puerto Natales is and how much she loves it there. When we mentioned our lost camera woes she was certain that if someone from Puerto Natales (which was the closest city to the border crossing where we think we may have lost it) had retrieved it, they would have turned it in to the police station.
The police station was less than a mile away. We knew it was a long shot but couldn’t not investigate with it being so close. So, Alastair and I walked across town, entered the police station, and found what appeared to be the only officer around. I approached him and asked, “¿Hablas inglés?” The bad news is that, no, he did not speak English. The good news is that he was able to use Google Translate on his desktop! We started a conversation about our lost camera with me attempting to speak Spanish but using the translation app on my phone when I didn’t know a word or phrase, and with him responding in Spanish but using his desktop to translate when I wasn’t understanding him. Aside from me saying “cocinar” (to cook) instead of “conducir” (to drive) it was a relatively easy way to communicate when dealing with a non-typical situation in which hand gestures don’t really work. We came away empty-handed but were still glad we tried.
We went back to the hostel to take (amazing) showers, put on jeans instead of hiking pants for the first time in over a month, and briefly relax before heading to dinner at a local pizza place. Alastair and Sean had spiced lamb pizza, I had a vegetarian pizza, and Alastair and I both tried the homebrew blonde beer. On the way back to the hostel we stopped at the grocery store to buy a carton of ice cream which didn’t last very long thereafter.
On Saturday (2/11) we had an early breakfast that the hostel host had prepared the night before, then hit the road to Punta Arenas. This is the southernmost city in Chile and where we would be dropping off Sean to catch his flight back home. We got to the airport in great time, momentarily parked in a precarious spot, and said our good-byes to Sean before setting off to explore Punta Arenas.
Although consistently windy, the city itself has a great waterfront with walking and bike paths, art sculptures, and basketball courts. After spending the afternoon enjoying the view and relaxing with Michael Jackson, we drove north of town to go to the much-anticipated Seno Otway penguin colony. We were both quite knackered and short-tempered at this point from the lack of a recent good night’s sleep, an early morning, and continued cold symptoms (we’d never been sick at the same time before and now realize what a luxury that had been) so we were looking forward to being cheered up by penguins waddling along the shore. We drove for nearly 30 miles (mostly on a gravel road) before coming to a fence with a sign saying the area was closed. The sign looked relatively permanent but there was no information of why it was closed. Annoyingly, there was even a massive billboard advertising the penguin colony just prior to turning off the main highway with no indication of it being closed (which would have been a nice courtesy and would have resulted in far fewer miles driven on gravel roads). Thoroughly disappointed, we gave up on the penguins and drove farther down another road to at least get good views along the water, then headed for camp.
There is a large free campground across the highway from the Punta Arenas airport where we decided to stay for the night. The noise of the strong winds combined with having lived next to an airport for the past 4.5 years seemed to make us immune to any airplane noise. We ho-hummed our way through dinner and researched plans for the next day. Since the penguins were high on our list, we were going to splurge on Plan B and buy tickets for a tour boat to take us to an island with another, larger penguin colony. Attempting to buy such tickets on a Saturday evening for the following Sunday morning during the height of tourist season when one of the two local penguin colonies was closed was, of course, a very optimistic venture which resulted in the creation of Plan C.
Come Sunday (2/12) morning, we put Plan C into action with much better moods than we had ended Plan B with. We started the day by driving to the Cemetery of Punta Arenas. While many would question the idea of going to a cemetery to brighten your mood, it turned out to be really interesting. The cemetery is nearly ten acres of headstones and mausoleums, and includes many notable figures of the history of Punta Arenas. By reading surnames of those buried there, you can get an idea of the variety of nations involved in its early settlement.
After the cemetery, we drove south to the Parque del Estrecho de Magallanes to see this historic site that connects the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Considering the out-of-the-way-ness of this piece of land, the visitor’s center and the re-creation of the original forts were quite impressive. It also had the tiniest lighthouse we’ve ever seen. I definitely don’t envy those who lived in the area prior to modern amenities. The winds were fierce and the weather is rarely pleasant when you’re this far south.
Alastair had been intent on driving to the end of the world, so that’s what we did next. Following Ruta 9 south, it eventually turns from pavement to dirt roads and terminates at a barrier with a sign indicating it’s the end of the road. While Argentina claims ownership of the southernmost city of Ushuaia, Chile competes for notability with this section of road which is as far south as anyone can drive on the mainland continent. After a few bummers and failed attempts at Plan As during the previous week, it felt good to successfully reach our destination and be as far south as we had ever been (and may ever be). I got out of the van to take some pictures while Alastair stayed in the driver’s seat with the motor running. While I was distracted by framing my next shot, Alastair rolled down the window just enough to stick his head out and yell to me, “THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU!” After a brief panic-induced moment of attempting to judge whether or not he was kidding, he flashed a smile and kept the van in neutral. Thankfully, even after living in a van for five weeks and battling colds at the same time for nearly a week now, he’s still willing to put up with me (and vice-versa).
This would be our last night with Michael Jackson, so we treated him to a wild camping spot near the end of the road. A few seemingly car-sized potholes made for a dubious entry and exit from the site but Alastair was a pro with off-roading (which, actually, is still on a road most of the time) by now and avoided any major mishaps. That evening and the next morning were windy and chilly but warmer weather awaits us as we head farther north, on to the next phase of the trip.