A Traveller’s Guide To Punta Arenas: Gateway To Southern Patagonia

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Punta Arenas View - distance markers from

Punta Arenas –  the view from near  Mirador Cerro La Cruz – the distance markers for various cities from “the end of the world”

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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.

southern-chilepatagonia

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.

another collection of Punta Arenas markers - paid for by visitors to the restaurant nearby

another collection of Punta Arenas markers – paid for by visitors to the restaurant nearby

a view of Punta Arenas from the mirador

a view of Punta Arenas from the Mirador  Cerro la Cruz- that is Calle Pantano on the right leading down to the waterfront

One of the first things I did was go for a 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.

Looking down Calle Pantano from the Mirador in Punta Arenas

Looking down Calle  Fagnano from the Mirador in Punta Arenas

looking down to the downtown area of Punta Arenas from the mirador

looking down to the downtown area of Punta Arenas from the mirador

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.

my home in Punta Arenas

my home in P.A. – the Tragaluz B & B owned and run  by Lorena and Dan

returning to my casa after dinner at La Marmita

returning to my casa after dinner at La Marmita

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 Cementario 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.

chilean-peso-to-u-s-historical

2. Walk Around the central square (the 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 –

Map of Punta Arenas downtown- with places I mention circled in red

Map of Punta Arenas downtown with places I mention circled in red

downtown Punta Arenas scene

downtown Punta Arenas scene –  some grand buildings on display

downtown Punta on a work day

downtown Punta on a work day

view of downtown Punta Arenas

view of downtown Punta Arenas – looking south to the water

cathedral at Plaza de Armas

the cathedral on one corner of the main square

the Sara Braun Palacio/ Braun-Menendez Residence in Punta Arenas

the Sara Braun Palacio/ Braun-Menendez Residence in Punta Arenas

Braun-Menendez residence interior - grand salon

Braun-Menendez residence interior – grand salon

hallway in the Braun-Menendez residence in Punta Arenas

hallway in the Braun-Menendez residence in Punta Arenas

La Casa Espana facing Punta Arena's main square - Plaza Munoz Gamero

La Casa España facing Punta Arena’s main square – Plaza Muñoz Gamero

central square in Punta Arenas- statue of Columbus (Colon in Spanish)

Plaza Muñoz Gamero in Punta Arenas- statue of Ferdinand Magellan

Columbus (Colon) standing on his cannon in Punta Arenas main square

Magellan standing on his cannon in Punta Arenas main square

Punta Arenas Colon statue up close

Punta Arenas Magellan statue up close

kissing the feet of one of the native figures sitting below Columbus

kissing the feet of one of the native figures sitting below Magellan- it apparently brings good luck

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.

recognizable brand names onthe main street of Punta Arenas

recognizable brand names on the main street of Punta Arenas

La Marmita - a veg-friendly restaurant in P.A.

La Marmita – a veg-friendly restaurant in P.A.

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.

cosy corner of La marmita Restuarant in Punta Arenas

a cosy corner of La Marmita Restaurant in Punta Arenas

a page from la Marmita's menu

a page from la Marmita’s menu

Another restaurant I visited a couple of times was Lomit’s, which came across like Punta’s version of a friendly neighbourhood restaurant.

Lomit's - my choice for lunch in Punta Arenas

Lomit’s – my choice for lunch in Punta Arenas

an unexpected chance to read some German in Punta Arenas!

an unexpected chance to read some German in Punta Arenas!

taking a break in Punta Arenas

taking a break in Punta Arenas- the beer is a local favourite

colourful house fronts in Punta Arenas

colourful house fronts in Punta Arenas

a slice of colour in Punta Arenas

a slice of colour in Punta Arenas

looking down from Mirador Cerro at a rooftop in Punta Arenas

looking down from Mirador Cerro at a rooftop in Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas'

Punta Arenas’ “The British School”- testament to another time

nieghbourhood shrine to the Virgin on a Punta Arenas side street

nieghbourhood shrine to the Virgin on a Punta Arenas side street

front yard of a kindergarten in Punta Arenas

the front yard of a kindergarten in Punta Arenas

a schoolyard mural in Punta Arenas

a schoolyard mural in Punta Arenas

a rare piece of graffiti in Punta Arenas

a rare piece of graffiti in Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas Hotel Ritzi has seen better days

Punta Arenas Hotel Ritz has seen better days

a cat allows me to take her picture

a cat allows me to take her picture

a clever trompe d'oeil in Punta Arenas

a clever trompe d’oeil in Punta Arenas

Punta renas trompe d'oeil - the full-disclosure shot!

Punta Arenas trompe d’oeil – the full-disclosure shot!

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.

punta Arenas waterfront promenade

punta Arenas waterfront promenade

remnants of a dock on the Punta Arenas waterfront

remnants of a dock on the Punta Arenas waterfront

the gravel beach on the Punta Arenas waterfront

the gravel beach on the Punta Arenas waterfront

Punta Arenas waterfront looking west

Punta Arenas waterfront looking west

a view of Dreams Hotel/Casino/Convention Center/Spa from the waterfront path

a view of Dreams Hotel/Casino/Convention Center/Spa from the waterfront path

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 and 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!

Map showing Penguin Colonies near Punta Arenas

Map showing Penguin Colonies near Punta Arenas – Seno Otway and Isla Magdalena

an old fishing boat at the bost launch for Isla Magdelena

an old fishing boat at the boat launch for Isla Magdelena

the boat which took us to the penguin island and past the sea walrus island

the boat which took us to the penguin island and past Isla Marta with its sea lion colony – there is also a ferry which does the trip…this shot was taken as we were leaving Isla Magdalena

sign at entrance of the penguin preserve

sign at the entrance of the penguin preserve on Isla Magdalena

roped-off path through Isla Magdagena penguin colony

the roped-off path through Isla Magdalena penguin colony… we (12 of us) were the only visitors

isla magdagena penguins out for a stroll

Isla Magdalena penguins out for a stroll

lighthouse and penguins on Isla Magdalena

lighthouse and penguins on Isla Magdalena

Isla Magdalena penguins looking at me

Isla Magdalena penguins looking at me

Isla Magdalena penguins up close

Isla Magdalena penguins up close

the Isla Marta Sea Lion Colony

sea lions on Isla Marta

sea lions on Isla Marta

Isla sea lions lounging on the beach

Isla sea lions lounging on the beach

Click here to see the website of the Turismo Aonikenk tour I took. The actual page on the tour has disappeared since 2012.  Our tour group left town at 9:00 a.m. and we were back around 1:30.

6. A visit To Punta Arenas’ Cementario 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.

cypress row in Punta Arenas cemetery

parallel rows of cypresses  in Punta Arenas cemetery

a view inside the Punta Arenas Cemetery

a view inside el Cementario Municipal de Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas Cemetery

Punta Arenas Cemetery view

Memorial to Graf Maximilian Von Spee and his crews set up in 1926 by Punta Arenas' German community

Memorial to Graf Maximilian Von Spee and his crew set up in 1926 by Punta Arenas’ German community – see here for the story

grand mausoleums in Punta Arenas' Cemetery- note the Serbo-Croatian names

grand mausoleums in Punta Arenas’ Cemetery- note the Serbo-Croatian names

7.  Take pictures of the many dogs you will see wandering around the city

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.

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”.

Southern Patagonia: Hiking Adventure At “The End of the World”

Argentina’s Hiking Capital: El Chaltén and Monte Fitz Roy

The Torres Del Paine Circuit: Patagonia’s #1 Hike

Punta Arenas Airport terminal

Punta Arenas Airport terminal

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8 Responses to A Traveller’s Guide To Punta Arenas: Gateway To Southern Patagonia

  1. Nela says:

    Pantano Street?, I think you mean ‘Fagnano Street’, nice blog by the way 😀

    • true_north says:

      I checked the Google Map and I see Pantano! I’ll dig out my Lonely Planet guide and see if it has a map of Punta Arenas. I met some nice people in P.A. – the city doesn’t deserve the put-downs that some guidebooks dish out.

      P.S. The google map has Pantano but even my non-google map which is part of the post has Fagnano! I changed it. Thanks for pointing it out.

  2. aude says:

    Hi,
    I got on your blog by chance, browsing interesting places to hike in Patagonia. Thanks for your detailed input!
    I come from the Northern Alps in France and therefore grew up surrounded by mountains and hiking.
    I am planing a 2-3 weeks trip to Patagonia (end of October) after a stay in BsAs for other reasons.
    Do you think it is reasonable to think that during this time, I can hike a bit in Parque National Los Glacieros and then go south to Ushuaia region? Would you have recommendations? Any tip would be really really appreciated! Cheers Aude

    • true_north says:

      Aude, three weeks should allow you lots of time to experience Parque Nacional Los Glaciares – two days for El Calafate and the Perito Glaciar visit and then one week for El Chalten and various hikes in the shadow of Fitz Roy. Do note that the only place hikers are allowed to camp is at the northern end of the Park. By the way, there is really not a lot to do in El Calafate. I got the impression its existence hinges on the attention it gets from politicos from B.A.- i.e. the Kirchners.

      That would still leave you ten days to visit Ushuaia. Not having visited, I really cannot offer any advice. My impression from speaking to other travellers is that a better use of your time would be to skip Ushuaia and visit Torres del Paine Park instead. Your ten days would allow you to do a circuit of the TDP – or if you are less ambitious, at least the W route in four or five.

      Bonne chance avec votre aventure. Patagonia est vraiment un pays enchanté.

  3. jon says:

    We will be flying in to punta arenas for 2 weeks to hike the Torres del Paine this December. We will have extra baggage we will not want to take with us on the hike. Is there any place we can store it in town

    • true_north says:

      Jon, this will not be an issue at all. You could leave it at your hotel in Punta Arenas. Chances are that you will bus up to Puerto Natales and leave the extra baggage at a hotel or hostal there before you set off for the park entrance.

      Any hotel will certainly be used to the idea of keepong stuff for their guests while they go off on a TDP walk. I left my locked duffel bag behind when I went off on my hike and gave them $5.tip on my return.

      Enjoy the walk and the scenery and good luck with the weather! December is considered prime time so it should be great!

  4. Kate says:

    Great tips! Thanks so much for sharing! I was wondering if you had any advice on how early to arrive at the Punta Arenas airport prior to flights to Santiago? It appears the airport only handles 1-2 flights/day so we assume 90 minutes early would be enough, but should we allow for more time?

    We’re hoping to go on the 7.00am Isla Magdalena boat cruise (vs. the later ferry cruise), which we’re told will arrive back in town at ~11.30am. The only flight that day (and the next!) is at 2.00pm. We don’t want to miss the flight, and if it’s too high risk, we’re thinking it’s better to skip the excursion to Punta Arenas and just fly from Puerto Natales since there is a new (same price!) nonstop on Sky Air to Santiago at 4.00pm that day, and it would allow us to relax in PN after trekking vs. getting on a bus on Punta Arenas, getting in late, and then having an early morning seeing the penguins before a flight north. Thanks for any recommendations you have!

    • true_north says:

      Kate, that is cutting it kinda close! I’d reluctantly pass on the Punta Arenas visit. While Puerto Natales is not the city that Punta Arenas is, you could certainly stroll around and find some neat things to frame in your camera viewfinder.

      I can see your post already – “A Traveller’s Guide To Puerto Natales: Gateway to Parque Torres del Paine”!

      Buen viaje!

Your comments and questions are always appreciated, as are any suggestions on how to make this post more useful to future travellers. Just drop me a line or two!

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