A little bit of History and Geography
Punta Arenas, which lies at a southerly latitude of approximately 54° south was discovered by J. Byron in the 17th century who named it “Punta Arenosa” (Sandy Point). Today, it is Patagonia’s largest and most commercially important city and the capital of Magallanes provincia and Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena región, southern Chile.
Punta Arenas lies along the western side of the Strait of Magellan between the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. It has a superb port and the only large airport in the area, it is the major hub for boat transport through the strait and research vessels on their way to or from Antarctica.
Founded in 1849 by Colonel José de los Santos Mardones, it flourished as a port of call and coaling station until the opening of the Panama Canal (1914) and the replacement of coal, which is still mined nearby, by fuel oil as a maritime fuel. Now the service centre of a large sheep-raising area, it processes and exports hides, wool, and frozen mutton. Its port facilities also handle local lumber and petroleum products. The nearby Tierra del Fuego oil fields, the attractions of the free port, and the maintenance of naval, air, and army garrisons have all contributed to the city’s modern growth.
Today, Punta Arenas reflects a great mix of cultures, from English sheep ranchers to Portuguese sailors, and it remains an utterly fascinating testament to the Chile’s rich history. Punta Arenas is also the starting point for excursions to some of the most spectacular scenery in the world.
Things to Do
A Short Walk in the City
The best spot to gain an introduction to Punta Arenas is from the hill which overlooks the city. From here you have breathtaking views of the city’s orderly streets, colourful tin roofs, and the strait beyond. On the horizon, Tierra del Fuego can be seen as well as Monte Sarmiento (Sarmiento Mount) and the southern part of the Brunswick Peninsula. The wrecks of old sailing ships that have remained where they ran aground also can be seen in the distance.
To see the other side of the city, go to the northern peak of Cerro de la Cruz. Follow Señoret Street to Colón Avenue, turn left and walk uphill for two blocks on this cobble stoned street dating from colonial times. This peak offers a different view of the area – the city’s industrial section, the Barrio Hortícola (Horticulture Neighbourhood), the Zona Franca (Duty Free Zone), and a lake used for ice skating. Eight kilometres in the distance are the ski slopes of Cerro Mirador (Lookout Mountain). From my diary:
‘…the little town is full of life and movement…the buildings are solid looking monoliths built to withstand all that nature can throw at them in this desolate almost-end-of-the-world location.’
Around the Plaza de Armas are government buildings; the Club de la Union (Union Club); and mansions with turrets, beautiful roofs, glassed-in sunrooms and well-kept gardens with huge “araucaria” trees (slow-growing native trees revered by the indigenous people of the region). From my diary:
‘…the trees which stretch along the middle of the road are some of the most impressive I have ever seen. Each one looks sculptured to perfection like an army of giant bonsai enthusiasts have been secretly working away here for decades. They look like they don’t belong here on the edge of the world.’
The plaza itself is full of huge, old trees, and in the centre is the Monumento a Hernando de Magallanes (Monument to Ferdinand Magellan). Note that the toes of one of the bronze Indians is polished and shiny. Local legend states that everyone who touches these toes will return to Punta Arenas someday, making the statue a favourite with tourists and locals alike. From my diary:
‘…around the statue of Magallanes are a group of young locals, they stand around looking curiously at the tourists and give them hard Magallenic looks.
They tell me that there is nothing to do at the end of the world and I sympathise with them as I come from a small desolate village myself. They ask, with perfectly formed incredulity what I am doing here so far away from home. I shrug my shoulders and wish I had a good answer for them.’
Among the city’s Salesian churches are the Cathedral and the Santuario María Auxiliadora (María Auxiliadora Sanctuary). The Salesians built their first church out of wood, but it was completely destroyed on June 17, 1892, only four months after being inaugurated. Nine years later, the Salesians constructed a brick church and dedicated it to the Sacred Heart. Today this church, the first brick building in Punta Arenas, is the city’s cathedral. The María Auxiliadora Sanctuary is a much larger church, and next door to it is the Salesian Museum.
See the Penguins
There is a penguin colony located 65 kilometres north of Punta Arenas on Seno Otway (Otway Inlet), along the northwest of the Brunswick Peninsula. The Magellanic Penguins return annually to this spot between October and March to lay eggs and raise their young. The tourist leaflet I picked up at the local bus station told me that, “at the site, you will walk approximately two kilometres to the middle of a natural reserve filled with penguin burrows to see the comic antics of these delightful and defenceless creatures at close range.” If you only do one thing in Punta Arenas, do this. From my diary:
‘…the bus ride out to the penguin colony takes us through incredible moonscapes of twisted and shattered rocks which are dotted with lesser Rheas and quick Patagonian foxes. It is perhaps the most bleak and disturbing landscape I have ever seen and the crude strip mines which punctuate the land look like livid scars. The sea is the only splash of colour and it looks like distilled jewels. Saskia wakes up and stares out of the window – as an ecologist she is in rapture. I am lost for adjectives.’
The bus to the research centre and sanctuary costs about US$6 and entry to the park costs another US$4. However, I would have paid much, much more (I was disappointed the research centre didn’t have a donation boxes and I wasted a long time trying to make a donation to support the research). From my diary:
‘…a two kilometre walk through blistering wind and then I spot my first penguin. He is wiggling purposefully across the tufted grass with his chest puffed out and head held high. He is obviously late for a very important meeting.’
When I was there (December 2000), there were a lot of chicks that were even cuter than the adults. From my diary:
‘…the chicks, who may stay with their parents for up to three years, have soft downy grey fur and spend most of their time laying in their burrows. When they do venture out under the watchful gaze of their mothers they look like wind-up dolls and its hard to remember that this is Mother Nature in all her glory and not the latest Disney theme park.’
The park is well laid out with clearly fenced off walkways that separate the penguins from the tourists and the tourists from the penguins. A visit to the park involves quite a lot of walking and it is essential to take plenty of warm clothes with you. Occasionally a penguin crosses the path and forces all the tourists to a stand still. Whilst the penguin ambles past all you can hear is the click of cameras and gentle murmurs of appreciation. From my diary:
‘Mrs. Penguin: Hello dear, you’re late home today.
Mr. Penguin: Yes, the A40 was heaving with bloody tourists. What’s for dinner, I do hope it’s not fish again…’
On the edge of the beach is an open-air hide where you can watch the penguins frolicking in the sea. From my diary:
‘…I was so enthralled by the penguins that I stood, oblivious to the blistering cold, for an hour. I was transfixed by their antics.
They waddled backwards and forwards to the sea in little groups of puffed up importance. It reminded me of rush hour at Tokyo station. I could have stood there all day watching these fascinating animals.’