Thursday, April 25, 2013

Punta Arenas II, Chile, and its history

We are sitting in the Central Plaza of Punta Arenas—a city of 154,000—surrounded by history; however, its earliest history cannot be seen from where we are sitting.

From the web site, I found the following information about the history of Punta Arenas:

"In 1843, the Chilean government sent a colonizing expedition to the region, which founded Fuerte Bulnes on a rock in the Magellanic forest. With time, the place became improper for the arising city, and in 1848, Governor José Santos Mardones transferred the facilities and the population and founded the city in its present location. The city grew and developed slowly as a penitentiary colony for relapsing
criminals and relegated military, who caused disturbances like the bloody mutiny of Cambiaso in 1851, that ended up in the destruction and fire of the church, the hospital, and the government after sacking the buildings and assassinating governor Muñoz Gamero and his loyals, the priest, and the recruiters and sailors in the ports taken by assault...."
The penitentiary profile of the city subsisted until 1867, when president José
Joaquín Pérez promoted a colonizing policy for foreign immigrants and declared Punta Arenas a "free port". This marked the initial growth of Magellan, specially the arrival of foreign colonists who founded all types of commercial establishments. Steam navigation, while avoiding the inconveniences of sailing through the strait, caused an increase in the traffic through this route, as well as in the interest of the central government for this region. In addition to this, they feared that foreign powers took possession of an area of world strategic importance that seemed abandoned from the times of the Spanish colony.

Rather than a penitentiary profile, however, Punta Arenas has one of prosperity. It wasn’t until 1910, however, when La Anónima, the biggest company in Patagonia, established a pier, a railway, naval workshops, and a fleet of tugboats. In August 1914, the traffic through the Panama Canal was liberated and, thus, "the route through Punta Arenas [became] the cheapest, shortest, and safest voyage through the south of the continent" (

It is around the Plaza that you see evidence of Punta Arenas’ early prosperity. It was one of Chile’s wealthiest cities. The city became increasingly large and important as international trade across the straits grew and the countryside around the city experienced both a gold rush and a sheep-farming boom (around 1900).

Around this Plaza you can see the cathedral church, the governor’s building, the Sara Braun Palace, and the José Braun Menéndez Residence. Here is a brief description of each one.

When you climb the steps of the Mirador Cerro de la Cruz, the muncipal cathedral of Punta Arenas, you get a wonderful view of the city with its colored houses, commercial buildings, and the harbor.

At the plaza’s southwest corner, Punta Arenas’s Iglesia Matriz (1901) now enjoys cathedral status. Immediately north, both the Residencia del Gobernador (Governors’ Residence) and the Gobernación date from the same period, filling the rest of the block with regional government offices. On the south side, directly opposite the tourist kiosk, the former Palacio Montes now holds municipal government offices.

Sara Braun, the landlady, arrived from Russia in 1874 and married a visionary Portuguese businessman—José Nogueira, who was one of the pioneers in sheep cattle raising and founder of the Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego. After being granted one million hectares in the Magellanic area, Nogueira died of TB at the age of 48 and left Sara a large fortune which she knew quite well how to maintain and manage.

In 1895, the beautiful and powerful widow finished building the palace her husband had requested five years before from the French architect Numa Mayer. All the materials, pieces of furniture, and style details were shipped from Europe.

Eventually, in 1905, it was finished. It is a two-story building with an exquisite façade and a winter garden with a metallic structure.
At present, the ancient house owned by Sara Braun has become the Nogueira Hotel and the institutional venue for Unión Club and the Regional Magellan Museum works at Braun Menéndez Palance.

During the same year, architect Antonio Beaulier built the Braun Menéndez Palace,
owned by Sara’s younger brother. Just like Sara, Mauricio Braun, married to Josefina Menéndez, had his house built by a French architect.  In this case it was Antoine
Beaulier who would design the palace back in 1903 and have everything shipped from the old continent following the trend of those days.

The luxurious mansion was declared a national monument in 1974 and the descendants of the Braun Menéndez family donated it to the Chilean State in 1983, along with all its original furniture and ornaments. Around the plaza, too, the City Hall can be found. We needed a restroom with some urgency, and a kind gentleman who worked on the first floor, retrieved a key from his office and allowed us to use a toilet off a small kitchen at the back of the first floor. He spoke no English, but the use of the word "baño" was sufficient to get him to understand our circumstances.

Although there are 154,000 residents, the city center, we are told, isn’t that big nor very interesting. The main shopping street is Bories, starting from Plaza de Armas all the way to the north and more or less ending at the Salesian Church and Museum.

Along Bories and some streets off this main street, we are told, there are all possible shops (also some average gift shops), supermarkets, department stores, a small indoor shopping mall, travel agencies, banks with ATM’s, the Post Office, and some restaurants and fast
food chains.  From the central plaza, we walked down Pedro Monitt Street until we came to Avenda del Estrelio once again, which runs along the Estrecho de Magallanes (the Strait of Magellan) where my wife took several pictures on our way back to the port to catch a tender to return to the ship.

Chile is an impressive country that includes a desert ("El Norte Grande’s Atacana Desert is the earth’s most arid spot: no measurable precipitation has ever been recorded there" (p. 293, Fodor’s), sprawling glaciers, and snow-covered volcanoes ("Perpetually-smoldering Volcán Villarrica in the Lake District is one of the planet’s most active volcanoes" (p. 293, Fodor’s), all on a sliver of land squeezed between the Andes mountains and the Pacific Ocean. It is no wider than 200 miles (it averages 110 miles wide), and it is composed of as much water as earth.

Our 3½ hour visit didn’t do it justice, but despite our short visit, we got a very good feel for the area and Punta Arenas as well. It was a once-in-a-lifetime visit—because we didn’t kiss that toe!

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The site that best covers the etymology, history, demography, culture, education, economy, administration, and climate of Punta Arenas is Wikipedia:

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Copyright April, 2013, by And Then Some Publishing LLC

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