I took two proper side trips from Santiago while in Chile. One of them – Easter Island – I booked months in advance because I really really really wanted to go. Obviously. The other, however, was a fairly last minute decision (as in, I think I booked flights about three or four days in advance). Chile is a big country, and by big, I mean long. LONGGG. So there were many options in many different types of climates. There was the desert up north at San Pedro de Atacama, but I figured I could more easily hit that up one day when I visit Bolivia, as it’s fairly close to the border. There was Chiloe Island with its UNESCO-listed churches, but recent trouble in the local fishing industry has caused protests and a bit of upheaval, so I decided to skip that… for now. Then, there was Punta Arenas. At the bottom tip of Chile, in the beautiful region of Patagonia, lies this little city which is the gateway to some gorgeous national parks. The only problem was: the national parks – while technically do-able on day trips – are about a minimum 5 hour drive away – so better on overnight expeditions. I only had 3 days to spare, so that wasn’t going to happen. It was also verging on winter and not the best time of year to visit, though cheaper because it was pretty much the opposite of peak season. Punta Arenas is known for its nearby penguin colonies, but those mostly clear out in March as the penguins migrate or feed or something. This was late May. So, really not the best time to go.
But I went anyway. Why? Because I wanted to. I’ve always wanted to travel to one of the Earth’s southernmost cities just to see what’s down there on the bottom. Plus, I’ve discovered that I like the cold. It’s nice and refreshing after being in so many disgusting hot climates on the trip. Being late May, it was cold in Punta Arenas, but not snowy yet – so actually really lovely to walk around. The city does have some sights itself and I did manage to swing one super cool day trip. Overall, I am super pleased I went to Punta Arenas despite it being off season. This was my Patagonia starter trip. Next time I’ll definitely spend more time in both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.
A few highlights of my time in Punta Arenas:
Despite the city’s small size (roughly 127,000 people live there), it boasts quite a few good museums. My favourite was the Museo Regional Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello which is by far the largest and most comprehensive, both in name and contents. It features displays on the history of Patagonia, stuffed local animals, and many other random relics of all aspects of Chilean and Patagonian culture. I also really enjoyed the Naval Museum of Punta Arenas. Here I learned about the country’s naval history (obviously) including much detail on the War of the Pacific (which Chile fought against Peru and Bolivia), lots of Antarctica stuff asserting Chile’s claim to part of it (they even have Antarctic ice on display in a glass freezer), and lots of historical information on Cape Horn (the southernmost part of the Americas which is surrounded by treacherous waters making it difficult and dangerous for passing ships). Speaking of ships, the Nao Victoria Museum features a full-size replica of Ferdinand Magellan’s ship (the Nao Victoria) along with Darwin’s Beagle and the Ancud – the ship that claimed the region for Chile in 1843. An excellent audio guide walks visitors through the ships and gives a plethora of history about the region, the boats, and the famed explorers.
Less interesting, but still interesting, was the Museo Regional de Magallanes which is housed inside the Braun-Menendez Mansion, which itself is an old Russian consulate. The building is half museum, half preserved mansion, and is a great way to see how the rich and famous of Punta Arenas lived a hundred years ago. The museum section is fine, but part of it was closed and I think the Museo Regional Salesiano does a better job. Similarly, the Palacio Sara Braun is smaller and not as exciting as the Braun-Menendez Mansion, though the majority of the house has been turned into a swanky hotel and restaurant with only a handful of rooms still preserved as they were.
Finally, there was the Museo del Recuerdo which was quite possibly the worst museum of my gap year. It’s basically a junkyard. For real. A big yard filled with old farming equipment which is supposed to be historical. But not. It also has a collection of old buildings on display but they are locked and not open to the public. I walked 45 minutes to get there. What a waste.
Punta Arenas is known for its monuments, and it has monuments for everything. Monuments for firefighters. Monuments for mermaids (I’m pretty sure). A monument of a condor and one to the wind (seriously) and a monument to the discovery of oil and one that was a gift from Uruguay and several of famous people and one to the indigenous people (which is totally good). And a big “monument to the act of possession” (when Chile claimed the region as its own). That monument features mermen with abs and a dog and a goat (WTF?). It’s the most bizarre thing, and the most ridiculous part about it is that it’s the largest of the monuments and features prominently on the coast.
The most famous monuments in the city are the monument to the shepherd and the moment to Ferdinand Magellan. The monument to the shepherd is one of the city’s main attractions and sits in the median of a big road that isn’t quite in the centre of town. It features a shepherd, his horse, his dog, and a herd of sheep. It was constructed because sheep farming is a big industry in the area and this makes the monument super famous. Right. Ok. The monument to Ferdinand Magellan sits in the middle of the city’s main square – the Plaza de Armas – and features not only Ferdinand Magellan (who discovered the Strait of Magellan on which the city sits) but also some indigenous persons, including an Ona person who has his leg hanging off the side of the monument. Legend has it that if you kiss the toe of the Ona, you’re guaranteed to return to Punta Arenas one day. I kissed the toe. Gross, I know. But I definitely want to come back one day! I think it’s safe to say that the monument to Ferdinand Magellan is the most appropriate and monument-like monument in the city.
There was also the Cementerio Municipal which was very pretty and full of nice sculptures and memorials, but pales in comparison to the Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires.
The town has some pretty views. I checked out the viewpoint Mirador Cerro de la Cruz to take in views of the city both in daytime and at night. A walk along the waterfront was also nice, and I even hopped onto the beach to stand in the Strait of Magellan for a minute.
Fuerte Bulnes lies 60 kilometres south of Punta Arenas and just 30 kilometres north of the very southern tip of the American continent. I took a day trip down to this historical site. The original was built in 1843 and was Chile’s original settlement in Patagonia. The site, however, had terrible weather and was abandoned and destroyed shortly after its founding. Punta Arenas replaced it. The current “Fuerte Bulnes” is a recreation of the original, complete with all wooden buildings based on historical records of the time. Punta Santa Ana – just a short walk on a trail south of the site – is the furthest south I’ve ever been – and further south than most of you readers have ever been, unless you’ve been to Ushuaia, Argentina or on an Antarctic expedition. Nearby, a lovely museum (including a café and gift shop) tells the story of the settlements, the strait, and the indigenous peoples.
In retrospect, Chile should have known that the site was crappy. Just 2 kilometres away lies Puerto del Hambre (Port Famine), the original Spanish settlement in the region founded in 1584. The 300-person strong settlement was visited by an English ship just 3 years later. There was only 1 survivor. Bad weather, freezing temperatures, lack of vegetation, and little fresh water spelled doom for the original Spanish settlers. Hence the name: Port Famine.
One more monument:
I thought some of Punta Arenas’ monuments were a bit silly, but then I saw the monument marking the middle of Chile. Now, this blog is about Punta Arenas. Which is at the bottom of Chile. This monument was not in Punta Arenas. It was further south – right near Fuerte Bulnes. So, the “middle of Chile” is a mere 30 kilometres from the bottom of the American continent. By that measure, the middle of the United States is at Fort Lauderdale, Florida and the middle of Australia is at Hobart, Tasmania. Right.
Because Chile claims a huge chunk of Antarctica, the bottom of Chile (in their minds) is the South Pole. The top of Chile is the border with Peru. So the middle of Chile is the halfway point between the South Pole and the Peruvian border. This just happens to sit near Fuerte Bulnes.
Come on, Chile. You have it together in so many ways. Stop being ridiculous.
The restaurant scene in Punta Arenas was… almost universally lacklustre. I say “almost” because I did have a really good pizza and brownie sundae dinner at La Mesita Grande (which, quite comically, translates to “the big little table”). I had a nice soup at a restaurant called La Luna, and there was a nice chocolate café in the middle of town (hot chocolate in super cold temperatures = WIN). But everything else sort of sucked. Basic sandwiches. Bad coffees. Only white bread. Can I skip all meals until I get back to Santiago?
So, I visited Punta Arenas without visiting any national parks and I’ve managed to fill up 2.5 pages of blog. I’ll stop now. But first, let me take a selfie.
To see more photos of my time in Punta Arenas, follow this link: