Tent Arbitrage and Tuxedos

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Flag of Chile  ,
Friday, December 2, 2005

We careened into Puenta Arenas with less of a plan than we normally have, and thus began yet another search for suitable lodging. We were met at the bus station by a handful of hostel touts, who provided leaflets with helpful maps of the 100,000 person city and thus we began our search. We first wandered by the city's center square, attractive by Chilean standards, flanked, as it is, by mansions owned by old cattle and sheep barons and adorned with an unusual statute at the center of the square depicting personified areas of the province (Tierra del Fuego, perhaps somewhat predictably, is shown as a half naked native, with a bare foot unconventionally extending beyond the plane of the bronze scupture, bringing it to eye level: residents of Puenta Arenas rub and kiss the foot for good luck).

Another stroll up and down the drag revealed a paucity of good but affordable lodging options (here a pattern, particularly in Chile, develops). So it was our good but weird luck that we stumbled upon a sign for the South Pacific Bed and Breakfast, which directed us to the third floor of an older but stately building about a block and a half from the city center. As we climbed the stairs, strange music mysteriously piped into the stairwell grew louder, until we reached the top of the stairs to find a locked door and a speaker mounted outside of it. After several minutes of vigorous knocking, a disheveled man answered the door, and we immediately turned to apologize and leave this homeowner to whatever was occupying him, when he ushered us in and announced that the apartment we were standing in was, indeed, a hostel and, for a price, we were welcome to stay and would even be given breakfast. The room itself was painted a cheerful sunflower yellow, had enormously high ceilings, and was decorated with tacky pictures of dolphins. We thought we found a deal and agreed on the spot.

Our mission in Puenta Arenas was twofold: (1) visit Isla Magdalena, a nearby colony of penguins, and (2) make our way to the Franca Zona, or free trade zone, where we hoped to find a cheap tent and other sundry camping equipment we'd need for our upcoming trek in Torres del Paine National Park. After a slow start the day following our arrival, we hopped into a local minibus that deposited us on the front stoop of the zona franca. As far as we could tell, there weren't many wonderful deals to be had, but we felt we had all the time in the world and so resolved to scour each and every establishment. Thus it was that we made our way through the myriad of stores on offer, many playing Christmas music (what a strange thing to hear when it is clearly summer outside) to locate the crown jewel of our bargain hunting, the tent. We had priced the same tent out in Puerto Natales for about 28,000 Chilean pesos (roughly 52 USD - as a digression, can I just express disgust at a currency in which coffee costs 2,000 of anything? Get rid of all the zeros!) and in Puenta Arenas proper at 20,000 pesos (40 USD). Here, in the Zona Franca, we found the tent for half price at 11,000 pesos (22 USD), which was particularly wonderful, as Steve had secured a standing offer from a gear dealer in Puerto Natales to take our used tent for 10,000 pesos and also throw in a free night in a local hostel - effectively making use of the tent profitable (Steve should go into tent arbitrage full time). Ah, the small pleasures of saving and making money in the midst of spending so much.

What struck us most in Punta Arenas, aside from its dual lodging and shopping coups, was the intensity of its Austral sun. Apparently the excessive amounts of hair spray the Bratt Pack used in the 1980s is now catching up to the world at its northern and southern extremes in town like Punta Arenas. Even through fairly thick clouds, the sun in and around the city is noticeably more intense than in other cities we have traveled. For all but the most hearty locals, sunglasses are a necessity and sunscreen is highly advisable. Wanting desperately to avoid skin cancer and blindness, the first thing we did every day in Punta Arenas after we slathered on some 45 SPF was to slide on the shades.

What the city itself had slathered on too thick was campaign rhetoric. As far as we could tell every available signpost, fence, and billboard had been covered and recovered by one of the many forms of propaganda that are just ubiquitous in Chile around the time of a presidential election. We had noticed a few posters and slogans in a few other parts of the country, but with the election close at hand the party loyalists were really kicking it into high gear. It seem that for the first time in Chilean history a female candidate stands a very good chance of taking the presidency. Most campaign posters feature the candidate for senator, governor, or whatever, usually a man, flanked by a nice and polite looking woman, usually his wife, who is invariably peering over his right shoulder. Not to be outdone by the competition, the leading lady of the Chilean political scene is featured in front as her dutiful husband stands at her back. This tableau struck a cord with us, and in a few weeks we will see if it did the same with the Chilean electorate ( we have decided to make use of the handy postscript, in which we announce here that as of Dec. 11, Michelle Bachelet did win the election but not by a majority, and thus a run-off will he held in January between her and a conservative candidate, Piņera.)

The next stop on our whirlwind tour of Chile, and the primary motivation for our diversion from Puerto Natales, was the Isla del Magadellena, or island of Magellenic penguins. Several decent sized penguin colonies dot the Patagonian landscape and draw tourists to both Chile and Argentina but Isla del Magedellena is the mother of all penguin colonies. Where other major sites boast anywhere from 5-10 thousand bird pairs, the Isla del Magedellena plays host to some 60,000 couples. Actually, the island we went to visit is only the summer home for this massive number of magellenic penguins who apparently spend the colder months vacationing off the coast of Southern Brazil (these penguins travel the farthest of any non-flying bird in any given season, up to 4000 kms). As we soon learned, the migration habits of these strange birds were among then least salient characteristics.

Like the penguins featured in the recent documentary March of the Penguins (we'd recommend it to anyone who hasn't seen it), these penguins pair for a season and tag-team the incubation of the egg and the raising of the chick. The parents often endure prolonged periods of fasting while egg or chick sitting when its counterpart is out retrieving food, and retrieve they can - these penguins can swim almost as fast a common dolphin! However, unlike the king penguins featured in the film, these Magellenic penguins are more fortunate in that the conditions they experience aren't nearly as harsh, which allows them to burrow into the ground on the island to make a warm nest for the pair and their offspring. On Isla Magdellena, a small island in the middle of the Straights of Magellan, these penguins have the run of the entire place, and their burrows pepper every single hill and dale. We were free, for an hour, to wander around the island - easily traversed with continuous walking in half an hour - on specially marked paths in order to observe the penguins going about their daily routine. We arrived in the late afternoon, around 7pm, just in time to spot several dozen adults swimming to shore after a hard day fishing. Wandering further on, we spotted some early arrivals who appeared to be chatting it up with their respective mates. And we spied several parents in their burrows with eggs or downy young grey chicks; the adults, lying in their dens on their bellies, would look quizzically at us, first out of one eye, then the other, turning their heads each time to get a better look - a very funny move which Steve imitated the remainder of the day. We watched penguin squabbles, listened to penguins make their braying calls to loved ones, laughed as penguins repeatedly fell over or tripped as they scurried too quickly in any one direction, and even saw a few penguin carcasses scattered around the island. What made the whole experience so remarkable was that we walked in and amongst this enormous population of birds going about their business, with nothing between us but the penguins' better instincts to stay a least a human's arms length away. And for those of you who wonder, the stench really wasn't intolerable - a stiff and persistent breeze blew away most of the penguin odor we have all come to recognize from our trips to local zoos. Finally, we paid a brief visit to the lighthouse positioned on the island - built in the early 1900s, it is still considered one of the 100 most important lighthouses in the world (who comes up with these lists?)

With these two tasks accomplished, we returned to Puenta Arenas for more shopping (this time for food for the trek) and a hearty dinner before leaving the next morning. We wandered into a local supermarket and purchased large quantities of faux-Ramen noodles (why we didn't spring for the standard classic is beyond me), a box of un-sweetened oatmeal, several chocolate bars, some soup packets, and a number of rice mixtures. Truly choice vittles. Ugh.

We also picked up some pasta we hoped to make in the kitchen of our hostel host, who generously agreed when asked and then went so far as to prepare it, serve us, and then throw in a little meat he had prepared for us on the side. As he did, he explained in decent English that he had grown up in Puenta Arenas but had been working as a lawyer in the courts in Santiago for several years. Apparently, however (as, perhaps, in the states and maybe everywhere), a healthy salary contributed to ennui, which contributed to drug and alcohol experimentation, which led to a full out cocaine and drink addiction. He said that he had come to Puenta Arenas to get away from that lifestyle and explained that he wasn't yet working as a lawyer again - he wasn't ready to head back into the lifestyle and the same crowds he knew back when. We found it interesting how so much seems different, yet so much sounds remarkably similar.

That night, we packed up our new belongings, shuffled around some unnecessary ones, played with our new tent, and geared up for our hike, which we contemplated beginning the next day, depending on whether we could get everything arranged and ready - including us - on time. And so the next morning, we boarded a bus back to Puerto Natales to begin the big outdoor adventure.
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