Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Wednesday Wrap-up: Punta Arenas, FIGAS, Porvenir & Santiago

Today’s post is a potpourri of items from my last several days in the Falkland Islands, Punta Arenas and vicinity, and Santiago.

Summertime Snowfall
It’s almost summer in the southern hemisphere, but from Monday’s weather in Punta Arenas, you’d hardly know it - as I was walking around the city, correcting the city map for the upcoming third edition of Moon Handbooks Patagonia, I encountered chill winds and several snow flurries, of all things. Admittedly, the flakes melted by the time they hit the ground, but it was still something out of the ordinary even in southern Patagonia’s notoriously changeable springtime weather. I could only imagine what hikers might be going through in Torres del Paine, which can get rougher weather than this city on the Strait of Magellan.

In the evening, though, I managed to shake off the cool day at dinner with my friend Steve Beldham, a Brit whom I met in the Falklands more than 20 years ago, at Damiana Elena (pictured above) - widely considered the city’s top restaurant. In a classic century-old house, Damiana Elena is simultaneously spacious and intimate, consisting of several small dining rooms - ideal for a romantic dinner. My own entrée of cannelloni stuffed with scallops and palm hearts was spectacular; the only minor complaint was the dessert of white chocolate mousse, which could have been lighter. Among last night’s diners was city mayor Vladimiro Mimica (who, like many local residents, is of Croatian descent).

FIGAS: the World's Friendliest Airline?
The other day my post on the Falklands described getting around the Islands, but it didn’t really address my affection for what I consider my favorite airline. At one time, flying anywhere was fun but, given the security hysteria of the past decade, commercial aviation is more stressful than anything else. On FIGAS flights from Stanley to the outer islands, such as Carcass and Bleaker, there are no full body scans and, if you want to take a bottle of water on board, it’s not big deal. Not only that but, if you’re lucky, you get to sit alongside a pilot like Eddie Anderson who, over the headphones, describes every feature of the landscape he’s overflown hundreds if not thousands of times. Eddie, a devoted conservationist, owns several small Falkland Sound islands that are home to the world’s largest concentration of southern giant petrels (rather homely birds that, however, are graceful in flight).

At the same time, FIGAS is a social, and sociable, experience. With only a week in the Islands, it was impossible for me to revisit every place and person I know from my time there but, as the flights make multiple stops en route, it’s often possible to say hello to people you can’t pay a longer visit to. En route to Carcass Island, for instance, we dropped several tourists at Saunders Island, where I was at least able to greet David and Suzan Pole-Evans when they came to pick up their guests (though not without a mild admonition that “You’re not visiting us this time, then?”).

Sunday in “The Future”
Punta Arenas is virtually dead on Sundays but it’s a great day to visit the Tierra del Fuego town of Porvenir, about 2-1/2 hours east by Transbordadora Austral Broom’s new ferry Crux Australis. Sunday’s trip, which leaves at 9:30 a.m. and returns at 5 p.m., allows visitors to spend most of the day in Porvenir, and many locals take advantage of it to visit their families. I don't have family their, obviously, but I took advantage of the schedule to lunch on conger eel in a scallop sauce at the Club Croata, the Croatian club that’s the best restaurant in town.

Porvenir, for what it’s worth, means “the future,” but a town with barely 5,000 inhabitants has its limitations. For those curious about the Falklands, in many ways it resembles Stanley - an elongated town along a sheltered harbor, with many landmark houses of Georgian and Victorian style, a central plaza studded with topiary cypresses, and a good museum that’s due to move to new quarters next year. If you find yourself in Punta Arenas on a quiet Sunday, this is one of best excursions you can take.

Metro Goes on Strike

Meanwhile, when I returned to truly summery Santiago yesterday afternoon, it was a city whose extensive Metro system has gone on strike - or at least its operators have done so. In a city whose subway is one of the world’s most automated systems, people I spoke with here have told me that the effect has been minimal but, if the strike lasts until Sunday, there will be no service on that day. That could affect people who want to get around to visit friends and family for their Sunday lunch or barbecue - a tradition that fills the time from early afternoon to at least early evening - but it won’t stop people from getting to work on Monday.

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