Punta Arenas, Chile was the southernmost place I’ve ever visited. The city, located in the far south some 2200 km from the capital Santiago, is the getaway to Antarctica and a tourist hub for those who want to visit Patagonia.
This was also the reason why I’ve decided to visit Punta Arenas. The nearby Torres del Paine National Park has been on the top of my bucket list since I was a teenager and when I eventually found cheap tickets to Chile I knew I have to include this place in my Chile itinerary.
The city seemed like the most logical base for this trip and I ended up spending three days in Punta Arenas. I knew next to nothing about this place but it turned out there are a few fine things to do in Punta Arenas and I actually enjoyed the city much more than I expected.
If you are planning a trip to Punta Arenas during your trip to Chile here is my guide to visiting Punta Arenas. The city is definitely much more interesting than it seems at first!
A brief history of Punta Arenas, Chile
First Spanish settlers arrived in the area of Punta Arenas at the end of the 16th century but the difficult climate and the remote location didn’t keep them there for a long time.
The town was eventually founded in the mid-19th century to enhance the Chilean presence in the Strait of Magellan area and to protect the region from the attacks. Also in the 19th century, Punta Arenas was used as a penal colony for difficult military personnel.
The town developed economically around 1890 when the region became an important center of the sheep-raising industry. Before the Panama Channel was built, Punta Arenas was considered one of the most important harbors in Chile and South America.
Today, the town is a popular tourist destination and a base for Antarctic expeditions.
How to get to Punta Arenas
Even if the city seems to be located at the end of the world, getting to Punta Arenas isn’t that difficult. The getaway to Punta Arenas and Chilean Patagonia is the local airport, located some 20 km away from the city.
Three main Chilean airlines: LATAM, Sky, and JetSmart serve Punta Arenas airport with a few daily flights from Santiago as well as a couple of other destinations in Chile and Argentina. There are also charter flights to King George Island in Antarctica.
Getting from the airport to the city isn’t difficult – shared transfers and taxis are available, respectively for 5.000 CLP and 10.000 CLP. As soon as you leave the arrivals hall you will find people holding signs with both options – approach what interests you and soon you will be on your way to your destination in Punta Arenas.
You can also reach Punta Arenas by bus from many destinations in Patagonia as well as Ushuaia in Argentina.
How to get around Punta Arenas
The city is compact enough that you can easily walk to most of Punta Arenas attractions. This is what I did and that way I managed to find some cool places in Punta Arenas (more about them later).
More distant locations, like Fort Bulnes, can be reached by taxi or with a tour.
Where to stay in Punta Arenas
Since the city is a popular tourist destination, there are plenty of accommodation options to choose from. Here are some recommended ones:
- Budget: Hostal Chalet Las Violetas (8.5/10) / Hostal Fernando de Magalhaes (9.1/10)
- Mid-range: Apart Hotel Endurance (9.1/10) / Hotel Albatros (8.7/10)
- Luxury: Hotel Cabo De Hornos (8.9/10)
- and more!
Things to do in Punta Arenas
While the city itself isn’t the main reason why people visit Punta Arenas, it is nice enough to spend here a day and see what it has to offer. Punta Arenas surprised me and I actually enjoyed it pretty much.
Here are the best things to do in Punta Arenas:
Visit Plaza de Armas and its surroundings
The center of Punta Arenas is Plaza Muñoz Gamero (known also as Plaza de Armas) – the small, green square with the statue of Ferdinand Magellan in the middle. It’s probably the most pleasant place in the city and numerous trees and benches invite you to sit down, relax and observe the world around. The legend says that those who kiss in front of Magellan’s statue will return to the city.
While you are at Plaza de Armas take a look at some grand houses around. Many of them date back to the end of the 19th or beginning of the 20th century and are the most beautiful buildings you can find in Punta Arenas.
The one that catches an eye is Palacio Sara Braun, built for the owner of Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego and his wife. Today this is a national monument and a museum.
Walk along Costanera del Estrecho
The coastal road, Costanera del Estrecho, is a good place for a walk. It distends along the whole town and offers some nice views of both, Punta Arenas and the Strait of Magellan.
You can find there some interesting monuments, such as Monumento A Tripulantes Goleta Ancud – the Chilean schooner Ancud sent claim sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan in 1843. If you are lucky you might even see cormorants or penguins relaxing at one of the piers.
Take a picture with the “Punta Arenas” sign
Each city has its own sign that attracts tourists and Punta Arenas is no exception here. The “Punta Arenas” sign is located at the Costanera del Estrecho, at the end of Pdte. Pedro Montt (one of the streets going from Plaza de Armas).
The sign is there to commemorate 500 years since the discovery of the Strait of Magellan in 1520. Taking a picture with this sign is one of the must things to do in Punta Arenas.
See Punta Arenas from above
Cerro de la Cruz ( the Hill of the Cross), located a short walk away from the center, is the most popular viewpoint in Punta Arenas. Getting up there isn’t very difficult and the views are really nice.
You can see the colorful city in its full glory, the landscape beyond it as well as the Strait of Magellan with ships crossing the passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
Cerro de la Cruz is also a popular place to leave lovelocks.
Visit Cementario Municipal
The local cemetery was my biggest surprise and probably my favorite place to visit in Punta Arenas. It was established in 1894 and today the cemetery is like a live history lesson of Punta Arenas.
Some of the most notable local aristocratic families, as well as immigrants from Europe, found the place for eternal rest here. Many of the graves are actually grand mausoleums of beautiful architecture. This, together with shaped pine trees, make the municipal cemetery such a highlight of Punta Arenas.
A few years ago the Punta Arenas cemetery was chosen by CNN to be among the most beautiful cemeteries in the world, it is also a national monument of Chile.
Find street art
As a big fan of street art, I was over the moon when I found some really fine murals around Punta Arenas. There is actually plenty of street art works all over the city, many of them refer to the coastal location of the city or with the maritime motive.
My favorite murals were near the coast, across the street from the “Punta Arenas” sign but you can find artworks on the wall all over the city.
See interesting modernist houses
Another thing that really surprised me in Punta Arenas was interesting modernist architecture, like from a modernist manual. I’ve never expected to see this architectural style in such a remote location as Patagonia.
Since I couldn’t find any information about modernism in Punta Arenas my only explanation is that European migrants brought this style to Chile at the times when Punta Arenas was developing rapidly hence you can find modernist residential houses there.
I saw them when I was arriving from the airport and so soon after I went to find them. They are located in the area between the coast, the cemetery, and Av. Cristobal Colón.
Find Croatian traces
And yet another surprise in Punta Arenas – there are so many Croatian traces in the city!
From the end of the 19th century, European immigrants were arriving in Punta Arenas, many of them were originating from Croatia (although at first they were considered Austro-Hungarians since the Habsburg Empire was still present on the territory of Croatia).
Since Croatians were good at all things maritime they were very much needed and welcomed in Punta Arenas to develop the city. At one point they were the largest groups of immigrants arriving in Chilean Patagonia and some sources say that now 50% of the city’s inhabitants are ethnic Croatians.
Today you can find many traces of Croats in Punta Arenas – from the graves at the municipal cemetery, to surnames still present in the city. There is even a Croatian house or Croatian restaurant.
Enjoy local cafes
Since I had some time to kill in Punta Arenas I set off to explore the local cafe scene (that’s always one of my favorite things to do in places I visit). And, to my great surprise, Punta Arenas had some really fine cafes.
My favorite one was Cafe Inmigrante, founded by the Croatian immigrants – it was charming and cozy, with good food and drinks.
Other good cafes I visited included Wake Up – Coffee & Brunch (a bit more hip, with excellent coffee), Kallfucafe (with cool interior), Tapiz (with great sandwiches), and La Chocolatta (the best place for hot chocolate). But there are so many fine cafes in Punta Arenas!
The local food scene isn’t bad either, besides the local food you can try some international cuisine here. During my time in Punta Arenas I had a very good pizza (at Mesita Grande) and Asian food (at Buda Express). There are really so many options to choose from!
Visit Fort Bulnes
Located some 60 km south of Punta Arenas, Fort Bulnes is an easy day trip from the city.
It was founded in 1843 on a rocky hill, to protect the Strait of Magellan as part of the colonization process in southern Chile. The original plan was to establish a town there but due to the harsh weather conditions, the settlement was moved to Punta Arenas.
Today you can visit Fort Bulnes and see how the place used to look like. You can find there a church, chaplain’s quarters, jail, powder magazine, post office, and stables.
See Lord Lonsdale shipwreck
A bit away from the center, next to the coastal road, you can find the Lord Lonsdale shipwreck.
The ship left for its final journey from Hamburg (Germany) in 1909 and was bound for Mazatlán (Mexico) via the Strait of Magellan. During the stop in the Falkland Islands, the ship caught the fire but it’s a mystery how it ended up in Punta Arenas, some 900 km further. Most likely it was supposed to be transported to Puerto Natales but was abandoned in Punta Arenas.
Today it is a tribute to all the sailors who crossed the Strait of Magellan.
Visit Nao Victoria Museum
If you are interested in the Strait of Magellan, its discovery and development be sure to visit Nao Victoria Museum.
The main reason, besides the interactive exhibition, is to see full-sized replicas of ships that were present in the area. They were built using traditional techniques and are really impressive.
Besides the ships, you can also see in the museum original documents, old sailing instruments or antique weapons.
See penguins at Isla Magdalena
Another popular day trip from Punta Arenas is to the nearby Isla Magdalena, home to the colony of over 100,000 Magellanic penguins. This is the best way to see these cute little creatures in their natural environment.
You can combine the trip with Isla Marta where you can see other lovely animals – Patagonian sea lions. During the trip you might also spot cormorants, dolphins, or whales.
Unfortunately, when I visited Punta Arenas it was already too late for the trip to operate (they run only in the season) and this is my biggest regret I couldn’t see the penguins (I love them with my whole heart after seeing them in South Africa).
Don’t miss the penguins when you visit Punta Arenas, they are the best! Click here to find more details about the tour to Isla Magdalena.
Visit Torres del Paine National Park
This was the main reason why I went to Punta Arenas (or even to Chile). Torres del Paine has been on the top of my bucket list since I was a teenager but I’ve never really dreamed of seeing the magnificent mountains in a real life. Yet there I was, in Punta Arenas, ready to make my dream come true.
Torres del Paine National Park is located quite a drive from Punta Arenas but it is possible to see it in one day (that’s what I did) to give you a taste of this spectacular place. The day trip from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine departs early in the morning, around 5 am, and arrives to the national park some 4 hours later.
During the day you visit a few viewpoints with incredible panoramas as well as Mylodon Cave and Puerto Natales. Each of the views I’ve seen took my breath away and I had to pinch myself this is real. I can compare Torres del Paine National Park only to the views of Mount Cook in New Zealand, both places were so unreally beautiful.
If you have more time in Chilean Patagonia you should spend a few days hiking in Torres del Paine but you can see a bit even during a day trip from Punta Arenas. These are the views you will never forget!
Here are recommended Torres del Paine tours that depart from Punta Arenas:
Final thoughts on visiting Punta Arenas
I didn’t expect anything special from Punta Arenas, it was supposed to be only a base for Torres del Paine. Yet the city surprised me, in the most positive way, and I actually really enjoyed all the great things to do in Punta Arenas.
When you plan your trip to Chile do yourself a favor and schedule at least one day in Punta Arenas to get a taste of life in this remote location and to see all the attractions and interesting Punta Arena sights.
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