January 29, 2011
Punta Arenas, Chile
Punta Arenas, Chile and Ushuaia have a rivalry. Both claim to be at the end of the world. Both claim to be the furthest south city in the world. Looking at a map it’s no contest, Ushuaia is obviously south of Punta Arenas. Punta Arenas makes its case saying it is a city while Ushuaia is only a town. However Lonely Planet lists this “town” as having more than 50,000 people. The town itself claims 70,000. I can understand Punta Arenas’ problem. It’s older and for years its claim was undisputed. Ushuaia, in very recent history, had only 7,000 people. But this all may be moot. Puerto Williams is further south than either; both bigger places call it a settlement. Puerto Williams, itself, claims to be the capital of Antarctica.
I’ve seen this in Norway where several municipalities claim to be the northernmost city, town or village in Europe. Both Punta Arenas and Ushuaia are prosperous with low unemployment. Both have duty free zones which has boosted their economies. You can read about Ushuaia in the next post.
Punta Arenas dates back to the times of the American Gold Rush. It was a provisioning town for people going to California from the East. British sheep herders from the Falkland Islands also settled here with their flocks. A lot of English speaking people settled here which is reflected in the names of stores, Anderson’s, Johnson’s and Scott’s although I think Fitz Roy’s Hostel is named after the captain of the Beagle, the ship on which Charles Darwin made his voyage. After the Panama Canal opened it lost a lot of business but now it is both a free trade zone, which has spurred industry, and it is a tourist town.
The city has a lot of old mansions from the wool barons and merchant chiefs. They line the plaza. Many have been restored and they give the city a European feel with a frontier edge. It’s a pleasant place to spend an afternoon.
Lonely Planet laments the free trade zone on the outskirts of town as changing the town’s character. We were glad it was there, not that we needed to stock up on booze, but Suzi’s camera died so we spent about an hour in 4 different camera stores getting her a replacement at a good price. We took a cab there and, on the way back, the driver pointed out a cemetery to us telling it was the world’s most beautiful cemetery. Did we want to look? I am not a person who likes visiting cemeteries but the world’s most beautiful? I guess a city needs to have a backup plan when its claim to be the end of the world is challenged.) The Cemetery is on municipal land but a woman named Sarah Braun is responsible for the layout and design. It has sections for different ethnic groups and occupations. There is a fireman’s section. We stumbled into the Croatian section. Croats are one of the largest ethnic groups in the area, coming here between the world wars. Names like Juan Vasalovič mark the stones. Even at the end of the world I can’t escape the Balkans.