Published February 2020
On September 20, 2020, we will commemorate the feat of Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who changed the history of world navigation by sailing the globe, discovering the strait named after him.
Punta Arenas is getting ready to celebrate the date and here you can check out some can’t-miss attractions in the southernmost city in Chile so you don’t miss out on all the fun.
Since the celebrations revolve around the passage route between the Atlantic and the Pacific, a good start is appreciating the greatness of the Strait of Magellan from the Cerro La Cruz overlook.
To get there, from Plaza de Armas head to Calle Fagnano and walk up the hill for 15 minutes. From the highest spot in the city, you can also see Isla Grande de la Tierra del Fuego and Monte Sarmiento.
Nearby the overlook, you’ll find a few cafés and restaurants where you can also enjoy a lovely panoramic view of the strait.
If you want to catch a glimpse of what Ferdinand Magellan experienced aboard a 1520 ship, then you must visit the Museo Nao Victoria. This private institution has an exact replica of the ship that completed the circumnavigation of the globe.
Some 4.5 miles [7.5 km] north of Punta Arenas, the museum also has other important replicas for the history of navigation on display: the James Caird, a small boat led by Ernest Shackleton that crossed the South Atlantic; the HMS Beagle, a boat used by naturalist Charles Darwin — when he was young — for his research; and the Ancud schooner, a war ship sent by Chile to claim sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan.
Being in Punta Arenas and not visiting Torres del Paine is a mistake you should never make! From the city’s airport, you can take a bus to Puerto Natales. There, just drive for 1 mile [1.5] to start feeling Patagonia in your face: pampa magallánico, guanacos — similar to llamas — and, in the distance, in the background, the huge rock towers. The first stop is Cueva del Milodón, a cave where you can get an up-close look at the region’s great rock formations. In the park, a good idea is to check out the overlooks first, like the overlook on the lake. Lake Pehoé and Cascada Paine are also excellent options. If you decide to stay one more day, you can complement your experience by taking the trail that circles Lake Grey. Enjoy the native flora and fauna until you reach the spectacular overlook on Glacier Grey. You definitely won’t forget a postcard sight like this one!
A 90-minute drive south of Punta Arenas, Parque del Estrecho, located in a strategic place for Chilean sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan, is worth a visit.
The park is also home to Fuerte Bulnes, a structure that was essential for the patrolling of the region in the mid-19th century. It still maintains surveillance towers and has a museum with a modern multimedia exhibit that explains to visitors the territory formation processes, the life forms that live there, and the history of human presence in the area.
From there you can also appreciate the immensity of the strait and see Puerto del Hambre. For anyone who loves nature, there are also two easy trails to explore the native woods and observe different species: Sendero Bosque del Viento and Sendero de la Costa.
Tierra del Fuego, the big island across from the strait, hides a treasure. Parque Pinguino Rey is a private reserve that protects a king penguin colony that lived in the region in 2010. It’s still possible to observe some 40 animals, and this is the only stable colony in South America, as king penguins live mainly in Antarctica and on subantarctic islands.
This activity takes the whole day, leaving from Punta Arenas at around 7 a.m. and returning at 9 p.m., approximately.
As it was the main path for merchant ships and cutters between the Atlantic and the Pacific before the Panama Canal, the Strait of Magellan attracted several immigrants, many also drawn by the gold rush in the region, from 1883 to 1909.
Rich men turned Punta Arenas into a European city at the end of the world. The city’s glorious past has two important milestones: Palacio Sara Braun and Palacio Braun Menéndez. Both French-style structures portray the luxurious lifestyle of the European families that arrived there in the early 19th century. The two manors still maintain the era’s original furniture.
Some 46.5 miles [75 km] south of the city is the last lighthouse on the continent. To get there, you need to take a 2.5-mile [4 km] hike from the end of the road to Fuerte Bulnes. It takes about 4 hours to get there and back. Without a doubt, walking with the strait on one side and the native woods on the other is an unforgettable experience. Protected as a National Monument of Chile, the lighthouse had its heyday when sailors on the Liverpool-Valparaíso commercial route stopped in Punta Arenas. Inaugurated in 1904, it’s located in a strategic spot to guide ships coming to the city.