Patagonian Penguins
in Punta Arenas, Chile on 10th March, 2013


The "generally peaceful and interesting experience" we were experiencing in Santiago become more interesting on our last day. We were walking around the Presidential Palace when we saw two groups of eight F-16 Falcons flying overhead in close formation. We went to cross a street to go into a supermarket. The street was very busy with cars and buses. All of a sudden a plain-clothed man walking right into traffic and directed every bus to turn right.

We bought some bottles of water at the supermarket and sat down outside to drink them. We then saw two riot squad buses park up on either side of the palace. One of the buses was covered in yellow paint which looked to have been thrown at it. The road that lead back to a park we wanted to go to suddenly had police in riot gear stationed every 50 meters or so along the middle dividing line. We saw ambulances and fire trucks taking off. Up till that point we hadn't really heard any sirens in Santiago, suddenly they were everywhere.

We walked down a major street towards a park thinking they were getting setup for a demonstration later that day. We were asking ourselves: Is it Independence day? Is it major date in the Chilean calendar? Is this just a normal Thursday here? Turned out the demonstration had started about two hours prior just up the road and they were trying to build up re-enforcements to stop protestors making their way towards the Palace.

As we walked towards the park we wanted to go to I saw a few people running at us. One was a teenaged boy, another a middle-aged woman holding their mouths and rubbing their eyes as they ran in our direction. I saw people who'd been standing and sitting around scattering. I went up to a gate dividing the road from the sidewalk and used it to look up and over a bit. I could see mushroom clouds of tear gas down the road. Our eyes began to feel a burning sensation and I began to cough.

We turned around and headed back quickly to our flat which was nearby. Soon we were in our flat online looking at twitter and various Spanish-language news websites trying to find out what was happening. Turned out there was an unauthorised student demonstration. We never found out why we'd seen all the fighter jets in the air but had it been for anything serious we'd have known about it by now.

We headed out about two hours later and all had cleared up by then. We had a nice walk in the park before buying some dinner to eat at home. I booked a taxi for the next day to the airport with the building manager. I gave him 15,000 pesos and an hour later he handed me an envelope to give to the taxi driver the next morning. The envelope had another envelope inside and in it was 10,000 pesos. At least now I know what his margin is.

The morning before we left to fly down to Punta Arenas we had a small breakfast at Starbucks. One of the baristas came to clear our table and after hearing us speak in English began to ask us how we were and how things were going. This Starbucks was one of the few places in Chile I heard anyone speaking in English.

I'm sure there are a lot of bilingual people in this country but the problem is that most people we've seen speaking in English were discussing Bloomberg terminal functions between themselves (there was an insurance company next door to the Starbucks we were in) rather than staff at shops where we needed help with something.

The taxi driver driving us to the airport drove like a maniac. I'm pretty sure he's paid based on his lap times around Santiago. I was worried he was going to drive up on the curb as we headed for a motorway at one point. Traffic on the motorway was pretty crazy. No one likes to let anyone else in and speeds were usually 30 KM/H over the posted speed limit.

The food on the plane, despite not being very good, was still some of the best food I've eaten in Chile so far. We haven't had much luck with finding cheap and cheerful food in Santiago.

The cockpit door swung open during takeoff. It was interesting seeing everything the pilots were doing and how the leaver to pull the wings back was spinning just after we left the ground. The pilots looked to be hitting switches around each other almost randomly. A stewardess closed the door about three minutes into the take off so I only got a peak into how they fly the plane.

When we arrived in Punta Arenas it was properly raining. Triin was shocked how cold it was and wasn't happy to see poor weather on our trip. I'd bought hiking trousers for this part of the trip. We're at the bottom tip of South America close to Antarctica, it was never going to be warm here during this time of year.

We caught a minibus into town. It drove through five pools of water on the roads leading to our hotel which came up to the door. I was glad we didn't get stuck in any of them as trying to lift two 21KG suitcases myself to keep them dry would not have been fun.

The hotel we're staying at is really run down. It's drafty, the heating in our room doesn't work, breakfast is dry oatmeal mixed with cold milk and runny yoghurt. The coffee, which is free, is so bad it's probably not coffee. I'm very careful with the lock on our door as it looks fragile and I don't want to break it. The carpet on the staircase smells of sick and water is leaking through the roofs in several parts of the building. The shower is so broken it's like a not-fun game trying to wash in the morning.

Every day I've had to get a portable heater from downstairs to keep us warm in our room. The heater looks like the kind I usually find in countries Russia used to occupy. Triin has drawn several parallels between this place and her experiences growing up during the Soviet and post-Soviet eras in Estonia.

This place feels like a refugee camp with a credit card machine.

On the first night Triin didn't want to go to the supermarket down the street for dinner without a taxi. I asked her to stay and I walked down myself. The owner of the hotel said I could use the kitchen here to cook dinner. Restaurant food has been so bad and expensive in this country that it was music to my ears to be able to cook food myself. I jumped puddle after puddle getting to the supermarket. There I bought Uruguayan steaks, Chilean wine, strawberries and pistachio nuts for Triin and I. I cooked up the steaks medium rare and we spent the rest of the rainy night in bed watching shows and sorting through our various excursions we'd booked.

The only reason we came down here to Punta Arenas was to see Penguins in the wild. We booked with a tour company a month back but when we arrived they cancelled the boat trip citing unfriendly weather conditions. We booked with three other companies, each turning us down along the way. We finally found a company which would drive us to a sanctuary where we could see wild penguins, ostriches, rabbits and hedgehogs.

We spent Saturday morning and afternoon walking around Punta Arenas. It really wasn't very interesting or amazing. I thought Santiago was a bit boring when we were there but now I can see it must feel like the centre of the universe for most people and to pretty much know you're getting 24-30C weather all the time is a huge bonus. I'm looking forward to getting back there next weekend.

We've been on holiday a week now but it feels like a month. I saw photos of snow-covered Tallinn and grey London yesterday and they looked very alien to me.


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