After hours of travelling through the barren steppe of Patagonia, Punta Arenas comes as a surprise. With a grand plaza surrounded by neoclassical mansions and several fine monuments, Chile’s most southerly city has an affluent history. Its strategic position on the eastern shore of the Brunswick Peninsula made it a thriving port of call when trading ships sailed through the Magellan Straits. Landowners Braun and Menéndez made their fortunes from sheep, building a sumptuous palace, filled with treasures: one of the city’s two fascinating museums. The other recounts the more sombre history of the ousted indigenous peoples, and their own rich culture. While the cemetery, an oddly beautiful place, also deserves a visit.
Although no longer as wealthy on natural resources, Punta Arenas remains an upbeat breezy place, with traditional bright tin houses away from the handsome architecture of the centre. It’s a good place to spend a couple of days, with plenty of decent accommodation, and some excellent fish restaurants. However, it’s also the starting point for visiting the Magellanic penguins at Isla Magdalena, and the mysterious landscape of Pali Aike, as well as more challenging expeditions into the wilderness of Tierra del Fuego. For more information on Punta Arenas see www.welcome chile.com.
After its foundation in 1848, Punta Arenas became a penal colony modelled on Australia. In 1867, it was opened to foreign settlers and given free-port status. From the 1880s, it prospered as a refuelling and provisioning centre for steam ships and whaling vessels. It also became a centre for the new sheep estancias as it afforded the best harbour facilities. The city’s importance was reduced overnight by the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914. Although immigrants from Britain and Croatia were central in the growth of Punta Arenas (their influence can be seen to this day), most of those who came to work in the estancias were from Chiloé; many people in the city have relatives in Chiloé and feel an affinity with the island (the barrios on either side of the upper reaches of Independencia are known as Chilote areas); the Chilotes who returned north took Patagonian customs with them, hence the number of maté drinkers on Chiloé.
Calle Pedro Montt runs east to west, while Jorge Montt runs north to south. Buses and colectivos in Punta Arenas tend to go either north along the 21 de Mayo–Magallanes– Bulnes axis, south down Chiloe, or east to west up Independencia. In either case, Punta Arenas is not a huge city and walking about is a pleasant way of getting to know it. Buses and taxi-colectivos (shared taxis) are plentiful and cheap (US$0.70 a ride): a taxi is only really necessary for out-of-town excursions.
Punta Arenas is cut off from the rest of Chile. The only road connections are via Comodoro Rivadavia and Río Gallegos either to Coyhaique and the Carretera Austral (20 hours; one or two buses weekly in summer), or to Bariloche and on to Puerto Montt (36 hours, daily buses in summer); it is quicker, and often cheaper, to take one of the many daily flights to Puerto Montt or Santiago instead. Carlos Ibáñez del Campo Airport is 20 km north of town. Buses Transfer (Pedro Montt 966, T061-229613) and Buses Pacheco run services to Punta Arenas, scheduled to meet flights, for US$5 Buses from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales will only stop at the airport if they are scheduled to pick up passengers there. There are also minibuses operated by Sandy Point costing US$5, which will drop you anywhere near the city centre. DAP have their own bus service to town, US$6. A taxi ordered at the airport costs US$14, but a Radio Taxi ordered in advance from the city is much cheaper. Transport to Tierra del Fuego is on the Melinka ferry to Porvenir (six weekly) or, further north, at Punta Delgada (many daily) to Cerro Sombrero. There are also direct flights to Porvenir, Puerto Williams and Ushuaia. Puerto Natales, 247 km north, is easily reached on a paved road (many buses daily).