We rose early today and drove north across town towards the Punta Arenas ferry terminal. There we had a date with the Transbordadora Austral Broom “Crux Australis” to sail across the Strait of Magellan to Tierra del Fuego and the town of Porvenir. We’d been staring at Tierra del Fuego from the shores of Punta Arenas the last few weeks, and today it was finally time to leave mainland South America and make the jump to the island. Prior to the ferry dock, we stopped for gas at a service station. The attendant there had been working in Punta Arenas for the last 3 months. He said he came from Santiago to work here for the summer, but it was way too cold for him. He plans to head back in a few weeks before summer ends and it really gets cold!
We arrived at the ferry dock about 8 AM. We didn’t make a reservation since it was the off season, so initially we needed to wait our turn before driving aboard. After the loading chief verified there was enough room on the boat, Mango along with the other standby vehicles, rolled onto the ferry. The price was 32300 Chilean pesos for Mango and the driver, and 5100 additional pesos per passenger (about $75 USD total). Here is the website for anyone taking the ferry in the future. www.tabsa.cl. You can only pay in cash.
The ferry crossing took about 2 ½ hours to make the 20 mile journey across the Strait of Magellan to Tierra Del Fuego. Tierra del Fuego is one of the larger islands below the southern terminus of continental South America. Both Chile and Argentina share the island, with the border splitting the island roughly in two. Our destination today was the ranching and gold prospecting town of Porvenir. During the crossing, we kept warm in the ferry’s nice passenger areas, which had comfortable seats and a small snack bar with many people congregating about to buy coffee and sandwiches. We kept busy walking around the top deck, talking with the other passengers, and watching the schools of dolphins that would occasionally race along the bow of the ship. One of the passengers we spoke with, Hugo, was a native Chilean who immigrated to Germany in the 1970s during the time of military dictatorships in Chile. He has returned since then, but this time was back with his girlfriend, Hildegard. They were traveling in Chile for 1 month, visiting his family and friends. They both work in a retirement home in Bremen, Germany.
The ferry arrived in Porvenir (population approx 5000), the biggest Chilean town in Tierra del Fuego. Mango dutifully chugged off the boat, and we watched a smaller, heavily loaded pickup almost burn out its transmission trying to make it up the not-very steep boat ramp. And I thought Mango was underpowered! Hugo and Hildegard tagged along with us for the afternoon, and we drove around town, checking out the local sites.
Porvenir originally started as a gold rush town in the late 1800s when many immigrants arrived from Europe. There are still prospectors working in the streams and rivers outside of town. The next wave of immigration occurred as a result of the sheep and cattle industry. This part of Tierra del Fuego mainly consists of wind-swept, rolling grasslands, ideal for sheep and cattle ranching. All across Tierra del Fuego, (and Patagonia for that matter), large estancias (ranches), some comprising thousands of acres, engage in sheep and cattle ranching. They are a vital part of the Chilean and Argentinian economies. One of the most infamous immigrants in Porvenir’s past was Nazi War Criminal Walter Rauff. As the museum in Porvenir states, he was the originator of the mobile death camp “trucks of extermination.” He lived here and in other parts of Chile from 1958-1984. Unfortunately, due to a sympathetic military dictatorship in Chile, he was successful in fighting his extradition for war crimes.
Another result of the influx of immigration into Tierra del Fuego was the unharmonious mixing of old and new cultures. For thousands of years previously, the Ona, Yaghan, and Alacaluts indigenous tribes all lived and hunted here. The new immigrants from Europe didn’t mix very well with the indigenous population. It was a two-way violent clash, with ranchers not wanting the indigenous to kill their cattle, sheep, or themselves, and the indigenous peoples fighting against the new settlers who took their land and hunted their animals. The clash ended up as it usually does, with the new settlers and their superior weaponry winning. Entire groups of indigenous were rounded up and slaughtered by the settlers. Some settlers fought against the violence, and in several parts of Tierra del Fuego there are missionaries established by religious and private groups as refuges for the hunted indigenous population. Today though, a little more than a hundred years after the largest influx of immigrants, indigenous culture in Tierra del Fuego is all but extinct.
We toured the museum, waterfront, an overlook above town, and ate at a restaurant with Hugo and Hildegard. Later we drove outside of town to the lighthouse and watched the ferry leaving on its afternoon run back to Punta Arenas. We spent the night on a street in a residential neighborhood. Some local kids noticed the strange van parked outside on the street and came over to say hi. They were cute but one of them kept using Mango as a springboard to launch himself and his bicycle into the street. Easy with the 33 year old car, por favor!
The next day we drove to the peaceful Lago de los Cisnes (Lake of the swans) north of town. We didn’t see any swans, but we did see a ton of guanacos and enjoy the view at the lake. Guanacos look a lot like Llamas and are related closely to them as well as alpacas, and vicunas. They have long, shaggy hair and are well built for this cold, windy climate. They are illegal to hunt, and you can see them grazing everywhere on the island of Tierra del Fuego. Guanacos also seem a bit smarter than a lot of other large, grazing animals. Even though they’re bigger and more powerful than Ana or I, in the hundreds of times we’ve approached them, they always move away from us. Maybe we just smell bad, I don’t know! In any case, I think guanacos have a better built in self-preservation mechanism than other animals (like deer) that just stand in the middle of the road as you approach. We ended the day by driving out of town to the east and along the shore of Inutil Bay. Bahia Inutil, or “Useless Bay” was so named by British Explorers in the 1800s because they felt a useful port could not be built here. When the sun set, we pulled over and found a peaceful place to camp on the side of the road.
The next day we awoke and continued our drive along Inutil Bay until the very small town/estancia of Onaisin. In Onaisin, we saw only one person during the hour we were there. He was on horseback heading off into the grassland, probably to check on some sheep. We visited the tiny Colonizers’ cemetery, where marble headstones with brightly-colored moss kept watch over a wind-swept prairie. Continuing our drive around the bay towards the slightly larger town of Cameron, we passed what seemed like hundreds of guanacos and sheep. We stopped for a few minutes when Ana spotted a fox pouncing on something in the grass near the roadside.
Cameron is a small ranching village that has a few public services such as a health clinic and school. While enjoying the view above town, a rancher walked his horse to a nearby tie-up spot. A headless sheep carcass was strapped to the horse’s back. Apparently the horse did not like this. While waiting for the rancher to return, the horse somehow managed to undo his tether and walk away. When the rancher came out a few minutes later and didn’t see the horse nearby, we directed him to the top of the hill where the agitated horse had climbed. The rancher climbed the hill with his pack of dogs, retrieved the horse, and smiled knowingly as he told us that the horse was mad because of the dead sheep on its back. Maybe the horse knew the sheep? We don’t know. Anyway, it was interesting to see an animal that was aware of what he was carrying, and wasn’t too happy about it. Animals are pretty smart sometimes. We ended the day by driving out of town towards Lago Blanco, passing some old gold dredges and what felt like a million guanacos along the way.
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