Southern light and free dogs: Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas reminds me of small towns in New Zealand. It has the neat rectangularity of Invercargill and the bright colours of Napier. The town shares the light with Bluff, on the south point of South Island. Even clouded and raining, the air is that particular southern oceanic grey, brighter than its northern cousin, less shifty. The light at the bottom of the world has seen less use, keeps its energy and innocence, washed clean by the unstopped winds.

Or maybe it is just that the hole in the ozone layer is bigger here.

Of course the town is different in key ways. Spanish for a start. It is nine years since I passed more than a few hours in Spain and I am reduced to coffee and beer, gestures and smiles. Chileans, lovely, friendly Chileans, are forgiving and amused.

Chile has a reasonably good economy but it is very unequal and not wealthy. Even in Santiago the unmade roads begin 20 minutes walk from the seat of government. Here, the centre of town is cruise ship friendly but the weeds break through not far away. There are a lot of monuments, to navigators, generals and even the shepherds, but in between the pavement is breaking up. You simply don't see that in comparable towns in New Zealand, or the UK come to that, however much the entitled classes complain about potholes.

More cheerfully, PA is full of dogs. They're not strays: indeed many of them are remarkably well fed and groomed. The citizenry clearly turn their dogs out in the morning to roam around the parks, the beach and the streets. They are friendly while preoccupied with their own complicated politics and not in the least interested in playing with strangers.

It must be said that the streets, even the dustier ones, are remarkably clean. There's litter about but I have no idea where the dogs do their business.

Punta Arenas is also big on knitting. The handicraft stalls set up in the main square for today's cruise liner (not us) sell lots of scarves, hats and rugs. Some are made of this marvellous, soft chunky wool. Each hat is decorated with a knitted rose or pom-poms, with a frill or ornate brim. My several knitter friends would love it here.

Quite a lot of PA is shut on a Sunday, so I can't tell you about the Naval Museum or other attractions. It's a sweet and friendly place, and comfortable enough even in the bitter winds of last night. I would like to come back one day.

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