Puerto San Julian will forever be entrenched in the legendary history of Patagonia. In 1520 the explorer Magellan, on a circumnavigation of the world, anchored his fleet of five boats in a harbor near present day Puerto San Julian. Magellan’s crew found a community of natives living in the area. It is believed that Magellan or one of his crew gave the natives the name of Patágones, for reasons that aren’t quite clear. The area inhabited by the natives eventually became known as Patagonia. Before leaving the area, Magellan also named the settlement Puerto San Julian.
To get to Puerto San Julian, I would face another long bus ride. This time it was an overnighter leaving late afternoon from Puerto Madryn. I knew the routine on these buses. I knew I was in for a night of little to no sleep.
About an hour into the bus trip, we were served a no frills meal of sandwiches and cookies. While we were eating, the bus crew turned on the first movie, Rambo III. Of course you’ll never actually see a good movie on one of these bus rides. Similar to my other bus rides, a few of the speakers on the bus had a short of some kind, producing little more than noisy static over dialogue dubbed in Spanish.
As Rambo shot, stabbed, and beat to death Russian soldiers, the sun began to make a fiery retreat below the flat, desolate Patagonian landscape. I sat staring out a bus window, as the sky was ignited in a conflagration of orange and yellow. It was the most intense and compelling sunset I’d ever seen. I felt a sense that I was where I was supposed to be, if that makes any sense.
As soon as the Rambo movie finished, the crew started movie number two, Rush Hour 3. I was getting tired. But since there was a speaker above each seat, sleep was not going to happen. At midnight, the last movie finished and the lights on the bus were turned off. I shut my eyes and tried to not think about how I wasn’t able to arrange a place to stay in Puerto San Julian.
During the night I had a broken sleep, waking every couple of hours. The bus pulled into Puerto San Julian as the eastern sky was beginning to lighten. The bus terminal was very small. I felt tired and very cranky. I was the only person to get off the bus at Puerto San Julian. I took my backpack and went into the bus terminal. A small cafe was just opening, so I bought a cup of tea and sat down. I thought about what to do about finding a place to stay.
As I sat drinking my tea, daybreak had arrived. The little town took form outside – I saw a collection of low structures painted in pastel colors. I thought of how I was probably the only gringo around for hundreds of miles.
After finishing my tea, I wandered through the little terminal, which took me all of two minutes. I was surprised to find a small tourism office. No one was there, since it was not even 7 a.m, but it was a good sign. I went to the terminal’s waiting room and took a seat. Eventually one of the ticket booths opened, and I asked the man at the booth if he knew what time the tourism office would open. He replied that he wasn’t sure if the office would open today. So I returned to sitting.
A middle aged Chilean women arrived around 7:30 a.m. and opened the tourism office. A sense of relief washed over me. She was so nice to me, and so patient with my faltering Spanish. I told her that I needed a place to stay. She started making phone calls. Within a few minutes, she found an inn down the road.
I left the terminal and walked down Puerto San Julian’s main street, the sun bright and hopeful. I found the little inn and was greeted warmly. I was shown to a room, and immediately got into bed. I slept for a few hours and felt recharged.
I grabbed my camera and walked around the little town. I found the natural harbor where Magellan’s ships had anchored. This was the same harbor Francis Drake had arrived at, and after him, Charles Darwin aboard the Beagle. But there were no boats in the harbor, as I stood on the beach looking out at the dark, rippling water. The little town was quiet and felt deserted.
To commemorate the landing of the Spaniards, the town bought an old wooden sailing ship, which sat along a roadside by the water. The ship was a museum, where people pay a small amount to go on board and look around. I didn’t enter the ship, choosing instead to save a few pesos by taking a couple of pictures of the boat before walking on.
Walking along a salt water river, I spotted flamingos and geese and sandpipers. I did my best to get a few pictures of the birds. But just seeing them was enough.
The landscape around Puerto San Julian was treeless and sandy, with small plants adapted to a harsh environment. The land rose in places, forming long, wide bluffs. Juxtaposed with the brown and beige hues of the land were small houses painted pink and green and yellow, much needed color amidst the barren scenery.
By early afternoon the town had awakened from its slumber. Groups of children played by the bay. A few restaurants opened. A few cars passed on the street. I walked up the little main street and ducked into an ice cream shop to indulge my sweet tooth.
If my schedule had permitted, I would have stayed in Puerto San Julian for a few days. There was something very peaceful and pleasant about the place. Perhaps it was the slower pace of life. Perhaps it was the friendliness of the people and the sense of community you find in such a small town. I think I could have written quite a bit of poetry in such a place. However, I left the following morning, bound for El Calafate and the Perito Moreno Glacier.