February 10, 2018
Punta Arenas, a full-on Patagonian seaside town best known for penguins and it’s A-class cemetery, is worth a day or two before taking the 2.5 hour bus ride on to Puerto Natales, gateway to Torres del Paine. It is also the starting point for cruises headed south through the fiords to Ushuaia, Argentina at the tip of South America.
Flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas
Sky Airlines was significantly cheaper that Latam for the 3.5 hour flight to Punta Arenas. If you are trying to make a same day connection from the States through Santiago see the previous post for information on our arrival into Santiago. During the current renovation project it took nearly 2 hours from the time we landed to clearing customs.
The queue for Sky Airlines baggage check went relatively quickly. We had originally wanted to carry on our backpacks and had done so on the international flights to Santiago, but Sky wasn’t letting any backpacks on as carry-on. In fact they were checking at the gate most of the larger carry-ons and backpacks that had slipped through.
If you are lucky enough to have clear skies, past Puerto Montt it’s a beautiful fight. From the left side of the aircraft you see most of the famed natural landmarks, Mt. Fitz Roy, Lake Argentina and Torres del Paine, however, even on the right you pass amazing snowy peaks and glaciers that flow into lakes.
We finally arrived in Punta Arenas about 30 minutes late, I’m guessing due to winds, as we weren’t delayed at takeoff or during our brief stop in Puerto Montt. Despite the small size of the airport, just 4 gates, baggage was slow to arrive.
We took a taxi into town for 10,000CLP ($15USD) arranged at the desk before exiting the terminal.
Penguins The Seno Otway Penguin Colony is near the airport but was closed at the time of our visit and may be closed permanently. I can’t find anything definitive on-line. Tours to Isla Magdalena generally leave in the morning and require a full day.
Punta Arenas is tidier than I remembered from our 2010 trip. That or it’s gentrified in the last decade due to inflow of petrochemical money. Nonetheless, huge cypress-type trees line certain avenues and the Plaza Gamero in the center of the town.
The cemetery, touted as “among the most interesting in South America” in Lonely Planet, is a highlight of the town. The lines of large manicured gum drop trees set the stage for myriad tombs, mammoth familial tombs as well as smaller individual graves.
Many are lavishly decorated while others have been forgotten.
Of special interest are the rows of individual tombs stacked in a grid fronted with a diorama of mementos commemorating the life of the person. The colorful display glows in the late afternoon sun.
A walk along the beach. On a beautiful afternoon the sun was shining and the air so clear the horizon out to the sea formed a crisp line between the sky and the water. The beach, however, was dirty with seaweed and trash.
Imperial cormorants sun themselves on the remnants of a former dock making use of every available post.
Naval and Maritime Museum – I did not make it back to this museum on this trip, however, I do recommend the museum for those interested in the Shackleton expeditions to Antarctica.
Sleeping and Dining
Hotel Chalet Chapital is located about a ten minute walk from Plaza Gamero and just a block and half from the Fernandez bus station where buses to Puerto Natales depart. The rooms are clean and comfortable. It’s a good option for those looking for a triple with 3 single beds and a private bathroom.
The property has an office atrium and a cozy lounge. Breakfast is served in a woodsy chalet style dining room and includes a small buffet with cereal, yogurt, cake, pie, fresh fruit salad and juice. Bread, both white and wheat, is brought to your table along with a plate of cold cuts and cheese. Coffee is instant.
We had one mishap at the hotel. A power surge shattered the light bulb of one of the bed side lamps knocking the power out to the entire room. Although it was after 11PM the night manager got the problem resolved within a half an hour including replacing the light bulb.
Dinner at El Fogon de Lalo located about a 10 minute walk from Plaza Gamero. The convivial owner greeted our friend who dined here once before with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek, then greeting us with the same enthusiasm. The dining room is open and warmly decorated.
While a typical steak house type menu with various steak options and sides, portions are well prepared and huge. My steak, ordered medium rare, was cooked as I wanted, a little on the rare side of medium rare.
Café Tapiz serves mains, sandwiches and cakes. Decorated in an old-style general store theme, it’s a quaint place to stop for an impromptu lunch or snack. The sandwiches are huge and easily serve two if you are not too hungry. We shared a melted goat cheese and tomato sandwich and a slice of a lemon raspberry pie, washed down with a beer. Just perfect for a late afternoon light lunch.