February 6, 2020 Punta Arenas, Chile
Punta Arenas has seen better days. At least the Plaza Muñoz Gamero, has also seen better days. It’s the city’s main plaza with its statue of Ferdinand Magellan. In November a riot ran through the plaza, buildings were paint bombed, windows smashed, streets ripped up and two buildings nearby burned. The protests were part of a nationwide uprising over the inequality of wealth in Chile.
Chile has one of the strongest economies in South America and is one of its wealthiest countries. Its education system is the envy of the continent. And everyone tells Chileans that. But the disparity of wealth is growing. Chileans ask “if we have it so good why were we hurting?” The riots throughout the country were triggered in an increase in Metro rates in Santiago, the capital, but the real reasons ran deeper and several cities exploded.
Punta Arenas started as the port on the Strait of Magellan that catered to ships traveling to the west Coast of the United Stated from New York Boston and Europe before the Panama Canal. It also was a center of the wool trade. It has grand merchant houses and former consulates that point to times when this city was more prominent in world affairs. According to Bloomberg News the city is coming back with one of the stronger economies in Chile and increased tourism, until November which brought the riots followed by cruise ship and visitor cancelations just at the beginning of the summer season.
Buildings along the Plaza Muñoz Gamero that used to have plate glass windows now have plywood or corrugated iron and while businesses are open, they don’t look welcoming at street level. But look up and you see the pediments, cornices, turrets and towers of the fine old buildings from the 19th century that frame this lovely square. And the square itself is a shaded delight, especially in this fine summer day.
Actually, it’s a 5-ring circus. Suzi and I spent our whole time on this port call in the square, no museums, no hikes to the scenic overlook, we stayed on the plaza. All we had to do is sit down and the world came to entertain us. Our first welcoming committee were the many dogs that laze around the square. Two came and sat at my feet. Then there are the buskers. There is every sort of free entertainment. A pianist is playing free jazz under a tree. A drum and dance troupe start in. The pianist is trying to maintain his own style and pace but ultimately gives in the pervasive polyrhythms of the drummers and starts doing jazz riffs on the beat. Then the dogs join in. Dogs can not keep rhythm. But their barking lends to the joyous raucousness of the square. Right then, across the square different dance music starts up and a woman with flaring skirts is dancing with a partner while tourists take selfies in front of the dancing couple. Right then a man with a ping pong paddle with the number “16” on it leads a line of baffled tourists through the square. They are intent on following his commentary on the Magellan statue while the circus swirls around them. A pan piper picks up with “Ave Maria” followed by the “The Good the Bad and the Ugly,” a saxophonist plays standards and a small combo of two accordions and a guitar do dance music. Some start when others stop, some play at the same time, sometimes groups join to play together. It doesn’t matter, it just swirls around us while pushcarts pass us selling their wares, dolls, scarves, jewelry or ice cream cones. We stayed for five hours with a break in the one coffee shop, the Francis Drake, which still had glass windows, for a macchiato and lemon meringue pie. When we finished a woman was doing interpretive dance with a daycare group trying to clap along. She pauses to take a selfie with the kids. A guy is riding his bike through the square with his dog. Only he doesn’t have a leash for the dog so rides with one hand low holding the dog by the collar while he peddles. Any ambition we had to “see the sights” was lost to the joy of the moment.