Natural Habitat Adventures’ primary focus is to bring our guests into the greatest of nature places, where animals are aplenty and respectfully viewed in their natural surroundings. Three years ago, I was getting ready to fly off to one such a trip to the vast continent of Antarctica.
The jumping-off point for our Antarctic adventure is the windswept city of Punta Arenas in Southern Chile, also known as the city at “End of the World.” Here, our small group of just seven adventurers was getting ready to fly off for two weeks of exploring the Antarctic Peninsula in a privately chartered expedition yacht.
Punta Arenas is the southernmost continental city on our planet. Due to its low latitude, the town has a sub-polar oceanic climate and sunny days even in the winter. The place also has the feeling of a true frontier town on the rugged edge of wild Patagonia.
I was initially prepared to stay inside at our boutique hotel in downtown Punta Arenas until our departure, relaxing with my Antarctic birding guide and enjoying some good Chilean wine in the hotel bar. A good day’s rest would be great to get ready for the next day’s exhilarating charter flight across the Drake Passage to reach the South Shetland Islands, where our expedition vessel, the S/V Australis, awaited us.
But being the curious and restless type, and with a rare sunny Patagonia day in the forecast, I inquired with the hotel receptionist about how best to spend a few interesting hours exploring this frontier town. The reply was an enthusiastic, “The Necropolis—a must-see!”
So I hopped in a cab to reach the outskirts of town, where my curiosity was rewarded. I would later understand why some travel connoisseurs say you can’t really understand a city’s culture and history until you see where they bury their dead. In the case of the Punta Arenas cemetery, this edict certainly rang true.
The taxi let me off at the front gate of the Necropolis, which had an impressive giant stone portico. The entrance, strangely enough, was permanently closed—I had to enter the graveyard humbly by a side door through the imposing Sara Braun marble mausoleum. The explanation for the closed main entry was that, when Ms. Braun contributed the funds for building this imposing entrance to the cemetery, she asked for something in return. She asked that the central door of the cemetery be closed forever after her death. This “Grande Old Dame’s” death request was a somber testimony to the wealth, dominance and even violence of some of the early white settlers of Patagonia.
Passing through the cemetery’s side door, I was struck by the sheer size of the place. The many beautiful mausoleums were accessed by long, white-gravel pathways that were lined with large ornamental trees. These European cypresses grew along the avenues, granting an almost English touch to the area. The trees are shaped like large minions and accentuate the serene, otherworldly landscape. The inner labyrinthine paths connect hundreds of tombs and mausoleums, some of them ornamented richly with large marble statues and brass ornaments, all surrounded by fences made from artistically forged iron.
This Punta Arenas cemetery covers an area of more than 25 acres and is an exquisitely kept park, a place chosen by select visitors to behold. A disproportionately large cemetery for a town the size of Punta Arenas, the Necropolis tells the story of the city in dramatic silence and is a testament to mankind’s struggle with nature in wild Patagonia. It is the keeper of the remains of the indigenous peoples, courageous pioneers and struggling entrepreneurial families that gave origin to the population of this fascinating region of southern Chile.
I continued on, accompanied by my local graveyard guide. He showed me many large chapels, some of which belong to the most important families in the region, the Menéndez-Behetys, the Braun Hamburgers, the Blanchards, the Kusanovics, the Menéndez-Montes, and Sara Braun—all of European descent.
We finally reached reach a remote corner of the cemetery that did not match the bombastic European opulence seen in other places. Here, long white-stone walls were plastered with a jumble of flowers, small Christian and native icons, handwritten notes and color paper pictures of deceased relatives. We had come to the area around the grave of Indio Desconocido—”The Unknown Indian.” Compared to the quiet European mausoleums, this place was busy with local visitors praying in silence.
The story behind this grave site originated in 1930, when one of the remaining Selk’nam natives died on the nearby Island Diego de Almagro. His remains were brought to Punta Arenas and the local settlers from Diego Almagro arranged for the funeral. Twenty years after the burial, locals discovered several candles and coins placed around the grave. These offerings with “thank you” notes attached were left by people who believed in the healing miracles performed by the powerful spirit of this Indian saint.
In 1968, a woman named Magdalena Vrsalovic decided to collect and donate the coins in order to help the Red Cross of Punta Arenas, which supports the local community with healthcare and education. Since then, a large monument depicting a life-size figure of The Unknown Indian has been constructed, and locals today still travel to the site to receive healing powers.
My guide told me that there are no more pure-blood natives left in Patagonia, since the last Selk’nam died in 1974. The Selk’nam were an indigenous people who inhabited the northeastern part of the archipelago of Tierra del Fuego thousands of years before Europeans arrived. They were nomads known as “foot-people,” as they did their hunting on land, rather than being seafarers.
The European ranchers tried to chase off the Selk’nam and conducted a vigorous campaign to exterminate them—with the compliance of the Argentine and Chilean governments. Repression against the Selk’nam persisted into the early 20th century. Chile finally moved some Selk’nam to Dawson Island, confining them in an internment camp. Argentina allowed Salesian missionaries to aid the Selk’nam and attempted to assimilate them, but their culture and people were largely destroyed.
With a mixture of awe and a heavy heart, I left the Punta Arenas Necropolis and walked back to the hotel. The cemetery visit had been a sobering experience about what we humans are capable of doing to each other and our environment. But I was glad that I had seen the Necropolis, because it put the human struggle in Patagonia into perspective.
The ensuing Antarctica adventure was simply wonderful. Here, humans have never been able to live naturally and survive from the land—the climate is simply too harsh. This remote land belongs to the wild animals and not humans. On The White Continent, there are no national borders, no wars, and the wildlife is plentiful. In fact, Antarctica is not a continent of nations but an internationally protected area, bound by the Antarctic Treaty to support conservation and global science.
Whereas the Necropolis of Punta Arenas is a testament to the failure of humans to coexist—Antarctica is proof of international cooperation to conserve the planet’s ultimate wilderness.