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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: Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins and Puerto Natales.
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