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Punta Arenas

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 that passes through 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 who do not want to attempt 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 attempt to establish a base in the region. The first settlement, in 1584, was led by colorful Spanish historian and explorer Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa and was named Rey Don Felipe after the king of Spain. The conditions were very harsh, however, and 300 settlers all 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 Fuerte Bulnes, or Fort Bulnes. It, too, was abandoned: a reconstruction is now on the site for interested visitors.


The history of Punta Arenas is a series of boom-and-bust cycles. Punta Arenas was established in 1849 and immediately benefited from the California Gold Rush, as it was often easier to ship supplies around South America than it was to send them overland. When the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, traffic through the strait decreased.


The next boom came in the late 1800’s, when it was discovered that sheep thrive in the chilly climate. Wool merchants made vast fortunes: their legacy can still be seen today in their mansions which still line the streets of Punta Arenas. The wool boom fizzled around the time of World War Two, 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 1980’s, tourism has been a huge industry in Punta Arenas as well.


There’s much to do in Punta Arenas. 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. There’s also the Naval and Maritime museum, showcasing Chilean pilot Luis Pardo Villalón’s 1916 rescue of legendary British explorer Ernest Shackleton and his crew at Elephant Island, on the Antarctic peninsula. Other attractions include the nearby town of Puerto Natales the Cueva de Milodón, or Ground Sloth Cave, made famous by travel writer Bruce Chatwin in his book In Patagonia.


Punta Arenas is 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.


Costs associated: A flight from Santiago can be had for less than a hundred bucks, buses are even cheaper. There are a variety of eating and lodging options in town. Punta Arenas is a good place to consider an all-inclusive tour that includes penguins, Torres de Paine park, and other attractions


Other places nearby Punta Arenas: Puerto Natales and Parque Nacional Bernardo O'Higgins.

By Christopher Minster
I am a writer and editor at V!VA Travel guides here in Quito, where I specialize in adding quality content to the site and also in spooky things like...
19 Dec 2007

Things to do in Punta Arenas

Magdalena Island penguin colony

Along with the islet of Marta, Magdalena Island forms the Monumento Natural Los Pingüinos, the natural habitat of over 100,000 thousand Magellanic penguins and one of the largest colonies of ...
Punta Arenas, Chile

Museums of Punta Arenas

After the summer high season ends with the migration of tourists and fauna, Punta Arena’s various museums are still open. Covering a wide array of topics, some are considered Chile’s best in ...
Punta Arenas, Chile

Estancia San Gregorio

Estancia San Gregorio is a relic of the 19th-century Menéndez wool empire in Chilean Patagonia, a nearly-abandoned compound of yellow buildings lining Ruta 255 about 125km (78mi) northeast of Punta ...
Historical Building
Punta Arenas, Chile

Río Rubens

Río Rubens is an idyllic trout stream sandwiched between rolling green shores about halfway between Villa Tehuelches and Puerto Natales. The Hotel Río Rubens (09-640-1583; cabins $20-75) is a ...
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Punta Arenas, Chile

Posada Hostería Río Verde

Posada Hostería Río Verde sits about 60km (37.3mi) northwest of Punta Arenas on an estancia dating to the 1800s, where many of the historic buildings still stand. Guests can enjoy the ...
Historical Building
Punta Arenas, Chile

Magallanes National Reserve

The Magallanes National Reserve (Reserva Nacional Magallanes) is an often-overlooked park just fifteen minutes west of downtown Punta Arenas (following Avenida Independencia) where nature-lovers can ...
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Punta Arenas, Chile

Fuerte Bulnes

Located approximately 56 kilometers south of Punta Arenas, the original Fuerte Bulnes fort was the first Patagonian settlement in the area. Built in 1843 by the crew of the Ancud, a Chilean vessel ...
Historical Building
Punta Arenas, Chile

Puerto Hambre (Port Famine)

Though the area around Puerto Hambre (Port Famine) is beautiful, the story of the area is bleak. All that remains of the Spanish outpost of Rey Don Felipe is the ruins of a church, which was ...
Punta Arenas, Chile

Pali Aike National Park

While not often visited, the 5,000 hectare Pali Aike National Park offers barren beauty and lunar landscapes, just 200 kilometers northeast of Punta Arenas near the Argentine border. The dry ...
National Park
Punta Arenas, Chile

Seno Otway Penguin Colony

The large inland sound of Seno Otway, just 65 km (40 miles) north from Punta Arenas, offers visitors a chance to watch the charming 8,000 or so Magellanic penguins (also called Jackass penguins) ...
Punta Arenas, Chile


On the highlands of the city are two miradores giving views of the city rolling down to the shores of the Straits and across the Estrecho de Magallanes to the mythical land of Tierra del Fuego. ...
City Park
Punta Arenas, Chile
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