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At some point in your visit to southern Patagonia you will probably pass through Punta Arenas. It is, as the satellite image below shows, on the north side of the Strait of Magellan and is the most southerly city on the South American mainland. Across the strait lies the island of Tierra del Fuego and the Chilean town of Puerto Williams and, on the Argentinian side, Ushuaia.
Perhaps, like me, it will be your point of entry and exit from a three-week hiking adventure in the nearby national parks. Or you may be passing through on your way north from Ushuaia or on your way south from Puerto Natales after having taken the long ferry ride from Puerto Montt. Whatever the case, the following pix and information should give you an idea of what to expect when you arrive and some useful suggestions on how to make the best use of your time there.
Punta Arenas – it means “Sandy Point” in English – is a city with a relatively long history for this part of the world. Established in 1848 as the site of a penal colony, the city grew thanks to its location on the Strait of Magellan at a time when the Panama Canal did not yet exist. It became a major resupplying point for ships avoiding the much more dangerous journey around the south end of Tierra del Fuego at Cape Horn.
One of the first things I did was walk up to the lookout above Calle España – the Mirador Cerro (de) La Cruz. Looking south you see a sizeable city stretch out before you. These days Punta Arenas has a population of about 120,000. The city’s immigrant origins are revealed by the names of streets and in the Cemeterio Municipal by the names on the tombstones of people from a multitude of European nations – from Serbia to Croatia to Germany to Italy.
A wide range of accommodation is available in the city. The place I ended up spending four nights was the Tragaluz, a bed and breakfast run by a very welcoming couple who bring together the tail ends of the Americas – Lorena is from Punta Arenas and Dan is an American from Fairbanks in Alaska! The classic tin exterior of their guesthouse is in evidence in the image below; what you find inside is a beautifully renovated and artsy interior with four or five guest rooms available. The fabulous breakfasts kept me going for hours afterward. My hosts were very helpful in making my stay in their city an enjoyable one by pointing me in the right direction for things to do. Click here to see what other travellers have to say about their Tragaluz experience.
If you’ve got a bit of time to spend in Punta Arenas there are definitely a few things you should have on your checklist. Here is my random list of things to do:
- 1. Walk up the steps to the Mirador Cerro La Cruz
- 2. Walk Around the central square/ visit the Braun-Menendez Residence
- 3. Wander along some of the side streets away from downtown to see a grittier but colourful Punta Arenas
- 4. Walk along the waterfront promenade
- 5. Visit the Magellanic Penguin Colonies not far from the city
- 6. Visit the Cementerio Municipal
- 7. Take pictures of the many dogs you will see wandering off-leash around the city
1. Walk up the steps to the Mirador Cerro La Cruz
See the pix above. I actually went back a second time on a sunnier day because the view was so spectacular. I now regret not having visited the nearby restaurant and coughing up the 20,000 Chilean pesos for a sign indicating the distance to Toronto, Canada. See the chart below to see how many pesos you got for $1. U.S. over the years.
2. Walk Around the central square (Plaza Muñoz Gamero)
Walk around the downtown area and be amazed at the grandeur of the civic buildings and the private mansions which harken back to a time when the city was obviously rolling in money. That would be before 1914 when the newly opened Panama Canal drew away the ship traffic that was a major reason for its wealth. Still, what I saw was not what I expecting. The following pix will give you an idea of what I mean –
3. Explore the city beyond the Downtown Core:
Walk along some of the side streets and you’ll be struck by the use of bright colours on house exteriors. there is always some interesting to frame in your camera viewfinder as you wander. And when you need a break or some sustenance, there are some decent restaurants to choose from. I’ll admit that as a vegetarian I was working with a shorter list than you may, but I was still able to find a number of spots that served good food.
This cozy restaurant, though not exclusively a vegetarian one, had enough choices for me to visit it a couple of times during my stay in Punta Arenas.
Another restaurant I visited a couple of times was Lomit’s, which came across like Punta’s version of a friendly neighbourhood restaurant.
4. A Walk Along the Waterfront Promenade:
The city has been sprucing up its waterfront with what seemed like a relatively new addition, the promenade and bicycle path running all the way from one end of town to another. I walked its length and took in views of the Strait and distant Tierra del Fuego as I listened to the echoes of five centuries worth of explorers and plunderers and merchants and scientists like Charles Darwin pass by me in their various ships.
At the south end of the promenade sits the Hotel Dreams ( with a Casino and a Spa and a convention center and a few restaurants!). It didn’t seem terribly busy when I passed by. It struck me that Punta Arenas needs to be more aggressive about attracting some of that very lucrative cruise ship business that Ushuaia on the Argentinian side of Tierra del Fuego seems to own.
5. Visiting the Magellanic Penguin & Sea Lion Colonies:
Definitely worth a half-day or more is a visit to one of the two Magellanic Penguin colonies not far from Punta Arenas. If seasickness is a problem, then a bus ride to the Otway colony to the northwest of the city may do the trick. Much better though, because of the ten times greater number of penguins you will see, is the visit to Isla Magdalena. A bonus is a side visit to Isla Marta to see the colony of sea lions there. Take a peek below to see a few of the 100+ photos I just had to shot that day. A warning: this is definitely a situation where a DSLR with a fast telephoto lens will allow you to get shots that most people won’t get. My 16-80 mm just wasn’t long enough to get those National Geographic shots!
The Isla Marta Sea Lion Colony
The Turismo Aonikenk tour agency which I went with has disappeared since 2012. Our tour group left town at 9:00 a.m. and we were back around 1:30. An agency operating in 2018 is Solo Expediciones. The Tripadvisor reviews are overwhelmingly positive. (Click on the blue text to access the websites.)
6. A visit To Punta Arenas’ Cementerio Municipal:
The municipal cemetery was a nice thirty-minute walk from the Tragaluz B&B and made for a worthwhile destination. I spent over an hour wandering along the various paths, looking at the United Nations of names on the tombstones and marvelling at the grand mausoleums that some of Punta Arenas’ adopted sons and daughters could afford.
7. Take pictures of the many dogs wandering around
It turns out that not all the thousands of dogs wandering about the streets of Punta Arenas are stray dogs. Some actually had collars and tags and clearly belonged to someone who looked after them. Coming from a city where you would rarely see a dog without its owner, this took some getting used to.
What I couldn’t get used to were the obviously stray dogs who were hurting and hobbling their way around the city in packs. The locals seemed oblivious to their presence or their need for help. I should mention that I experienced this from the moment I left the airport on arriving in Punta Arenas; my next post will present a gallery of pix and videos of the dogs of southern Patagonia- from P.A. to Puerto Natales to El Chalten and El Calafate.
Update: I never did gather those dog images together and put them in one mega-post. Partly it was because I did not want to flog my North American view of dogs as family members as it collided with a different reality in South America. I also realized that getting all indigant about the dog situation down there was rather hypocritical while my own city of Toronto has hundreds of strays and homeless of its own wandering around downtown – and they are fellow humans! If fact, it is one negative thing visitors to my fine city notice. We may not be San Francisco but we have a problem.
Time Is Up! Off to the Aeropuerto…buen viaje!
And then it was time to go – first, back to the airport and then the flight to Santiago, where I waited for a couple of hours for the Air Canada flight from Buenos Aires to stop and pick us up – yet more “snowbirds” heading back to the end of a Canadian winter. Take a look at the following posts if you want to see exactly what it is that I did over a three-week span at the so-called “end of the world”.