Thursday, January 13, 2011

Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas is the southernmost city on the South American continent, and the place where flights to and from this part of Antarctica are based. (Ushuaia is further south, but on an island, not part of the greater landmass.) Climbers going to Mt Vinson, the highest mountain in Antarctica, fly to and from the ice with the only private company that operates here, Antarctic Logistics and Expeditions or ALE. They have been in business for 24 years and make something as incredibly complicated as operating a base in Antarctica as seamless as showing up at the tip of Chile.

In between my Aconcagua trips, I went down to meet the incoming Vinson climbers for Alpine Ascents and get them ready to fly onto the ice. The two guides who will actually be with them on the mountain stay down to guide two trips because the flight costs about $15,000 round trip, so I act as their proxy guide until they fly. This means I get to see a new part of the world and learn a little more about the whole Antarctic scene while getting to know some new interesting people.

Summer in southern Chile is not quite as balmy as Mendoza. The high most days was around 55, sometimes less, with a warm sun but a cold wind. It's a sea town, but on the east coast of land, along the Strait of Magellan, which is an inland shortcut to avoid storm-lashed Cape Horn. Cruise ships and fishing boats and colorful roofs decorate this grey place where many of the buildings date from 100 years ago and there is an awareness of its distance from the rest of the world. We roamed around town several times daily looking for meals, and spent some time just checking out this place where we would be waiting until it was time to fly.

Various members of the group spent time in the scenic areas of the city, including the expansive local cemetery. We spent an afternoon in this peaceful place filled with memorials big and small to the dead of the last 100 years. Dr Suess-inspired trees were set among some really ornate crypts and monuments and other simpler plots. A beautiful setting, one clearly well-attended by loved ones.

Our other fascinating destination was a full-size replica of Magellan's ship Victoria which originally passed through in 1520 and is being built from the original plans. A local penguin-tour and kayak-rental operator is losing business due to increased competition, and decided to take this opportunity to give shape to his passion. He and a business partner built the frame of local wood, and 6 local carpenters who normally build fishing boats finished the rest of the work. He invited us on board to poke around as we pleased, and we got to see it as one rarely does, without barricades or limitations. It's a small ship, called a nao, that requires 18-40 people to sail. He plans to make his money back from tourists for a few years, and then sailing it in some capacity for fun and profit.

But all is not idyllic in southern Chile. Interestingly, a national government decision to reduce the subsidy on natural gas has caused enough concern in this cold land to spark a series of strikes, the latest of which is an indefinite strike closing down roads into and out of the city, including to the airport. Faced with the possibility of not being able to leave town, I decided to get out while I could in order to make sure I was back for my next Aconcagua trip. Back in Mendoza, I hear from the Vinson climbers that normal delays due to weather are being exacerbated by lack of mobility due to the strike. ALE has its hands full, to be sure! Hope they can get out soon - Punta Arenas is nice and all, but I wouldn't want to spend too much time there...

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