The 10th of July was my wife’s birthday. So we went out to eat in Santiago’s best restaurant. A universe apart from the other restaurants in Santiago. A black sheep and a blessing. Peumayen Ancestral Food is a forward-looking, minimalist restaurant doing magical things with very old ingredients used by indigenous peoples all over Chile.
They served a set menu and each course was made up of several small samples laid out on a wooden board, north to south, representing the geographical layout of Chile and the ingredients used. This is better. Santiago, I didn’t know you had it in you.
This was also the first time we tried pisco sour. Why should an alcohol-aficionado wait so long to try a country’s unofficial national drink: I wanted to make it special. And it was. Pisco sour, the iconic Chilean cocktail varies as much as the geography of the country itself. It’s a very different beast according to where you taste it. So I wanted our first pisco sour to be Peumayen’s pisco sour. Nowhere else.
The 10th of July was my wife’s birthday – so it also meant that that very night we were due to catch a flight to Punta Arenas.
I had an Uber driver ask me once, when I told him we were in Chile on our honeymoon: “why Chile?” My wife didn’t understand the question because we were speaking Spanish, but I knew what she would have answered. In fact, she would have answered less hesitantly than I: mountains.
Our flight was at 3.30 in the morning. We took an Uber to the airport, waited and then boarded. We slept on the plane and awoke to find ourselves, early in the morning, in one of the coldest places on earth. It was a cold that worked hand in hand with the sharp wind. There was unity in this iciness.
Punta Arenas is the gateway to Patagonia. A small city of 127, 000 inhabitants. We would stay there for the day and night then early next morning we would get the bus to Puerto Natales, the last bastion of humanity before entering the Torres del Paine national park.
Entering Punta Arenas felt like entering another galaxy. It was still dark, the tundra all around us covered in frost like blotches of bitter acme. The sea, that dark, grey Pacific, howled and roared in tandem with the wind – more of that icy unity. We were both speechless. We didn’t know what to think or feel.
When we arrived in Punta Arenas we found a sleepy town that looked more German than South American. We dropped our bags off at the hotel and went to explore. Wrapped up in gloves, thermal underclothing and penguin-thick coats, the capital of Chile’s Antarctic region served us an appropriate welcome.
I say this in retrospect because I wasn’t sure about it at the time – but our brief stay in Punta Arenas was the happiest leg of our whole journey.
That small, bitterly resilient town won over our hearts and minds. It was a neat, well-organised town with a lot of charm, a lot of goodness to it – so much so it made you forget that it was the southernmost city on earth. We didn’t know how it was possible that animals, from the same species as us, fellow homo sapiens, could eke out a living in such a forbidding place. But they did. And we loved them for it.
After visiting some artisan craft shops that proudly sold indigenous handiwork of all kinds, we went for a walk along the grey, biting promenade. It was as if the very air wanted to rip our faces off.
In Spanish Punta Arenas means Sandy Point. We found the sandy bit. It’s not like the chips-coloured sand back home. The sand here was as grey and morose as the rest of the landscape. It was a hundred worlds away from what we were used to. Despite it all, it was an enchanting beach.
Above our heads circled giant seagulls weary from their oceanic travels. On the pier ahead of us cormorants rested. Beyond them more cormorants swam and dived like graceful ducks into the wrinkled water. And in the far distance, what are those on the rocks, penguins? Who knows. But there is life here, we thought, and it’s refreshingly wild.
From the beach we walked back into town hunting new quarry. England were playing Croatia in the semi-final of the World Cup that afternoon. We had to find somewhere to watch it. Judging by our experience in Santiago, we weren’t hopeful.
We weren’t hopeful about England either. No matter how much their performances glided with the confidence of a boxer and the newfound luck of a gambler, we knew England well enough and we were skeptical. No wonder we were telling ourselves, even if they lose, coming this far is already an accomplishment. Is it really, though? Brazil or Germany wouldn’t say that, why should England?
It didn’t take us long to be surprised. We found a pub in Punta Arenas. Yes, a proper pub, with wooden tables and floors, framed images of old films and posters of vintage adverts, serving good lager (Austral, Punta Arenas-made beer) and more television screens than there were people in the whole town.
Watching England playing a World Cup semi-final in a pub near the damn Antarctic will always remain one of the most surreal experiences of my life. I felt like I was back home. I felt warm, I had beer, pub food, was watching football – and outside there was the Pacific and the temperature was below freezing. Things in Punta Arenas aren’t what they seem.
As surprising as the whole scenario was, England losing the game after extra-time wasn’t too surprising. It still stung, but it does have to be admitted, the kids did good. Maybe next time – again.
What was surprising were the numerous carcades that passed us by outside like convoys of exhilaration. Exhilaration? Yes, the cars that honked their horns and gave silent Punta Arenas a voice didn’t bear commiserating England flags – they carried Croatian flags.
And these weren’t people who had a grudge against England – these were actual Croatian immigrants living in Punta Arenas. There was even an Avenida Croacia in the city. They were the latest in a long line of European immigrants to come live and work here. Why the hell? And hell, why not. Their surprise appearance here made me feel sympathetic for Croatia.
The sun sets early here in the Patagonian winter. Very early. So, knowing we had an early bus ride the next morning, we called it a night early. The 3-hour bus ride that took us to Puerto Natales departed at 7 in the morning. Luckily the bus depot was two doors away from our hotel.
We got on the bus ready for yet more travelling. On the long, dark bus journey – the sun rises late here too – I wrote a short story and some poems and tried to get some sleep. But then we were awoken by a sight both my wife and I wanted to tick off our bucket list.
In the dark expanse of cloudless, un-polluted skies around us, there blossomed the Milky Way. It wasn’t like the photos, no blue-green rivers in the sky; but still, the stars in the sky looked like an explosion of life. I had never seen so many stars before in my life. How could I?
It made us feel proud and humbled at the same time. The bright, rampaging stars, each one of them progeny of entire solar systems, were the only signs of existence around us. The earth was asleep in the cold darkness. The city lights were way behind us. For an instant we forgot we were on a spinning rock orbiting a medium-sized star. We felt as though we were floating in the silken winds of the cosmos.
That was how we entered Patagonia. Santiago suddenly felt a long, long way away.