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Punta Arenas


Punta Arenas is easy to locate: it’s at the end of the world.

One of the southernmost cities in the world, Punta Arenas sits on the Strait of Magellan, a treacherous channel between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. This choppy route passes by the rocky islands of southern Chile and Argentina, between the mainland and the large island of Tierra del Fuego. The strait was discovered by Ferdinand Magellan in 1520, and has been used ever since as a major trade route by those seeking to avoid the more dangerous Drake Passage to the south. Until the construction of the Panama Canal, the Strait of Magellan was the best way to ship goods.

The city of Punta Arenas marks the third crack at establishing a base in the region. In 1584, the colorful Spanish historian and explorer Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa established the first settlement, which he named Rey Don Felipe after the king of Spain. The conditions were very harsh, however, and all 300 settlers eventually deserted or perished: when British pirate Thomas Cavendish visited the site in 1587 no one was left alive. Cavendish renamed the site Puerto Hambre, or Port Famine, and it later became a British naval base. Charles Darwin visited the base during his voyage with the HMS Beagle. The second settlement was sponsored by the Chilean government and was named Fort Bulnes. It, too, was abandoned: a reconstruction is now on the site for interested visitors.

The history of Punta Arenas consists of a series of boom-and-bust cycles. Punta Arenas was established in 1849 and reaped the benefits of the California Gold Rush, as it was often easier to ship supplies around South America than it was to send them overland. The next boom followed in the late 1800s, when it was discovered that sheep thrive in the chilly climate. Wool merchants made vast fortunes: their legacy is still visible today in the grand mansions lining the streets of Punta Arenas. The wool boom fizzled around World War II, but two more booms were waiting in the wings: oil was discovered on the island of Tierra del Fuego and the fishing industry took off.

Since the late 1980s, tourism has been a huge industry in Punta Arenas as well. There’s much to do in this unique area at the end of the world. The city itself is worth a visit: some of the homes of the old wool barons have been converted into museums. The most notable is the Palacio Sara Braun, built between 1894 and 1905. Today it houses the elegant if pricy José Nogueira Hotel as well as a museum: stop in for a coffee or a snack at the restaurant even if you can’t afford the hotel itself.  

Punta Arenas is also very close to one of the most beautiful vistas in the world: Torres de Paine national park. These majestic mountains are breathtakingly beautiful, and visitors come from around the globe to gaze upon them. There are penguin habitats in the nearby Otway inlet which are relatively easy to visit, and Magdalena and Marta islands are home to penguins as well as other marine birds.

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