It is as inhospitable a spit of land as you will find anywhere in the world, a place where ocean current collide . . . where violent tempests rake the land . . . where survival requires tenacity and determination. Yet for generations, nations of the world vied for this spot at the ends of the earth, overlooking the strategic navigation route linking east to west. It was thus that Chile lay claim to the Strait of Magellan and, in 1843, built a fort high on a cliff overlooking the passageway — Fort Bulnes.
This was not the first attempt at establishing a toehold in the area. In 1584, in order to prevent the English Explorer, Sir Francis Drake, from returning to the Pacific via the Straits of Magellan, Captain Sarmiento de Gamboa of Spain founded an outpost, the Ciudad de Rey Don Felipe (The City of King Don Felipe), just a mile away from where Fort Bulnes sits today. But nature proved to be a cruel companion — the inhabitants of Ciudad de Rey Don Felipe starved to death within a matter of months, the victims of extreme weather and the lack of food and water.
The remains of the encampment were discovered sometime later by Sir Thomas Cavendish, the English privateer, on his way to circumnavigate the world. He renamed the spot Puerto del Hambre (Famine Port). By 1843 the President of Chile, Manuel Bulnes Prieto, realized that if his country was going to maintain control of its southern borders, it would have to command the Straits of Magellan. He ordered Captain Juan Williams of the Chilean Navy to “take possession of the Strait of Magellan for Chile” and prevent the French or British from establishing a presence on the continent.
An expedition was organized from Chiloé on the schooner ‘Ancoud’ (the first warship built in Chile). Learning from previous failures, the 21 men and two women included provisions of dried food as well as live chickens and pigs to last until they had established their own means of survival.
Fort Bulnes was established on Santa Ana Point, about a mile south of Puerto del Hambre. (Ironically, the day after Williams landed at Santa Ana, a French frigate arrived off the coast with the intention of establishing a French port on the same site.) The fort was built by hand with tree trunks and peat bricks, surrounded by a log fence.
Although the original intention had been to build a town around the fort, within six years the inhospitable conditions forced the inhabitants to abandon Fort Bulnes, which was burned to the ground, and to move to Punta Arenas, 40 miles to the north. Nature had won again! In 1943 the Fort was restored and today provides a realistic glimpse of what life might have been like during the age of exploration and conquest.
As you drive along the Straits of Magellan from Punta Arenas, skeletons of old ships that have fallen victim to the treachery of the currents litter the shores. They sit silently on their sides, encrusted with the guano of cormorants, gulls and other seabirds that nest in the nooks and crannies.
Near the spot where Puerto del Hambre once stood is a monument marking the ‘geographical center of Chile.’ A map on the white stele outlines the long, thin ribbon of land from the Peruvian border to the tip of the continent, separated from the area of Antarctica that Chile claims as its own.
The port of Bahia Mansa at the base of the hill is home to the wooden fishing boats which ply these waters in search of Patagonian hake, Chilean sea bass, and eel. We visit on a holiday when the “fleet” is at anchor, a collection of small wooden boats, painted blue, white and red, with fanciful names like ‘Beagle.’
A short drive up the hill takes you to the reconstructed fort. Surrounded by the same type of log wall, a watchtower looks out over the ocean, facing the Brunswick Peninsula on one side and the Straits of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego Island on the other. Climb up for a panoramic view through the exposed window where the winds howl, even on the warmest summer day. Cannons line the two sides of the bluff, protecting the church, chaplain’s quarters, jail, powder magazine, and stables.
Walk down the hill past the Santa Ana Lighthouse (1944) to the edge of the Straits. Enormous tree trunks lie mangled on the rocks as waves pound around them. If you are lucky, you might see a seal bobbing around the waters offshore, periodically diving after food, then quizzically popping up to see if you are still there.
Standing on this once coveted spit of land, Fort Bulnes is a silent reminder of the extremes that nations would go to reign supreme even over inhospitable lands such as these.
IF YOU GO
Fort Bulnes is about 40 miles south of Punta Arenas on a partially paved road that skirts the edge of the Straits of Magellan. The fort is open from 0900 to 1800. Your hotel can arrange transportation to the fort which can be visited on a self-guided tour.