Generally speaking, I hate to make general statements; however, in this case, I’ll say something in general. People from the States don’t travel as much as people from other countries. Perhaps it’s because we have so much to see and do in the States? Maybe it’s because we don’t have very generous vacation policies? Or could it be because we simply don’t like to leave the safety of the world’s only remaining superpower?
Regardless of the reason, the net effect on me is that it’s rare in my solo travels to come across a US citizen my age who shares my love for the world. As you’ve seen, this trip was an exception.
Nowhere did that become more clear than on our last night. After flying from Frei Station (barely missing Tom Hanks who landed for a week-long vacation as we took off), we were to stay in Punta Arenas. It’s the bottom of Chile. Ushuaia in Argentina is farther south and is the launching place for most Antarctic adventures, but our jumping-off point had been Punta Arenas. And so it was to Punta Arenas that we returned.
The populace of Punta Arenas is quite possibly the most dejected, downcast, dismal, doleful, and despondent group of sad people I’ve ever seen on earth. If Disneyland’s tag line is “The Happiest Place on Earth,” Punta Arenas quite possibly could be nicknamed, “The Not Disney.” Walking around the town’s main square, we didn’t see a single smile. In fact, there wasn’t even an upward turn in a lip. Everyone looked depressed. I guess it’s because there’s not a lot to do in Punta Arenas.
The statue of Ferdinand Magellan in the town’s square pays homage to the Portuguese man who discovered the Strait that runs past Punta Arenas (and around the southern tip of South America). The discovery was made on his mission to be the first to round the world. Unfortunately, Ferdinand didn’t make it because he was killed in a battle in the Philippines (we’re on a first-name basis because I made it all the way around the world without getting killed by local warriors).
Speaking of the Philippines, one of my favorite stories of all time originated there. Here goes: Ferdinand’s personal slave was a guy named Enrique. When the expedition arrived in Southeast Asia, they were approached by curious Filipinos in small boats. Suddenly, Enrique started speaking with them in a Malay dialect, which they understood. As best as anyone can tell, slave raiders from Sumatra probably captured “Enrique” when he was a young boy and sold him in Malacca. Eventually, Ferdinand bought him. So, “Enrique” was — in all likelihood — the very first person to make it all the way around the world and return home! For more on this unbelievable story, check out Over the Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen.
So, after that exciting diversion, let’s head back to the sad reality of Punta Arenas. We were all hungry so we sought out a local eatery. After searching for a while, we finally stumbled into a place. I think it was called Broccolino or Javez. I couldn’t be sure. All of the restaurants kind of ran together. Anyway, the guys cleverly ordered steaks or seafood, good choices, to be sure. I, on the other hand, decided to return to my diet and opted for the Ensalada de Chile or Chilean Salad. When it came, I was greeted by a plate full of uncooked onions with a tomato on top. Good thing we were all friends by this point. My breath was about to be turned up a notch. Although, onion breath is preferable to penguin poo, which was still burned into our olfactory memories.
After the guys filled up on food and I pushed onions around on my plate, we decided to walk along the town’s beachfront. The walk required us to dodge rusted nails, blowing trash, and rabid-looking dogs. We also passed a rotten, old pier. It had seen better days and was missing a lot of boards. There were some folks out on the pier. And, since it looked relatively stable, I thought it simply made sense to ask to get a picture of myself standing on it.
As I was making my way out over the water, pieces I’d inadvertently knocked off fell three stories to the water below. The guys cautiously shouted,
“Uh. Hey, Jeb!”
I turned around to see my friends flanked by what could have been the entire Punta Arenas police force.
Head hanging low, I headed back toward the shore, and said, through onion breath,
“Lo siento” to the two officers who, wait for it….were laughing at me!
That’s right, I got a native Punta Arenian to laugh! Like “Enrique,” I accomplished something for the first time in human history!
That laugh — okay it was a chuckle — earned me a reward of 1,000 Chilean Pesos (which sounds like more than it actually is). We’d all taken a bet that the first person who got someone from Punta Arenas to smile earned the prize.
After my brush with the law, we continued our stroll. We happened onto a marathon course. It was a group of people who sought to run marathons on seven continents in seven days!! They’d run in Antarctica the day before and were headed to Miami the next day. This was the South American leg. Here’s where it gets interesting (at least to me): it turns out Aaron knew one of the runners! Crazy. It’s a reminder that it’s a small world!
After watching the marathoners, we decided we’d earned a beer, so we headed to “DREAMS.” It’s the local casino. We’d heard about the Skybar, which is on the tenth floor overlooking the harbor. The highlight of the place was allegedly the bathrooms, which provided visitors with sweeping views of the city while taking care of business.
They didn’t disappoint. I was so impressed that I went twice.
Well, in short, Punta Arenas is good as a jumping-off point. Not much more. So, if you find yourself there, it’s probably because you’re on your way to Patagonia or Antarctica or, in “Enrique’s” case, home to the Philippines. My recommendation? Get out as quickly as possible (but definitely check out the bathrooms in the Skybar).