Punta Arenas is a small city along the Strait of Magellan, near the southern tip of Chile. The town made a name for itself as the central base for exploring Patagonia. If your travel plans include Torres del Paine National Park, Perito Moreno Glacier, or El Chalten, in Argentinia, chances are you’ll land in Punta Arenas. Most travelers to Patagonia spend at least a couple of days in this bustling town, which at first glance may not seem like much of a destination in itself. But if you have a little time to walk around, you’ll discover some very interesting things to do in Punta Arenas.
One of the things that will strike you as you walk through Punta Arenas is the eclectic architecture. Old mansions (built during the wool boom of the late 19th century) next to high rise office buildings. Modern hotels next to modest homes with colorful grooved rooftops.
Visit Palacio Sara Braun
Some of the old mansions in Punta Arenas are great examples of colonial-style architecture. Among them is Palacio Sara Braun, built in the late 1800s by a French architect.
Sara Braun Hamburger and her husband, Jose Nogueira, were part of Punta Arenas’ most notable and successful families. In 1983, the descendants of the Braun-Menéndez family donated the mansion to the Chilean State, with all its original furniture and ornaments. Today, besides the museum, the palace includes a hotel, a clubhouse, and a restaurant.
Walk by Magellan Memorial
At the center of Punta Arenas’ old town is Plaza Muñoz Gamero. This park-like square is surrounded by tall, trees and a lush vegetation. In the middle of the plaza is a statue dedicated to Ferdinand Magellan. Magellan was a Portuguese explorer who set out from Spain in 1519 with a fleet of five ships. His goal was to discover a western sea route to the Spice Islands. But en route he discovered what is now known as the Strait of Magellan, thus becoming the first European to cross the Pacific Ocean.
Take a stroll along the Waterfront Promenade
One of the best things to do in Punta Arenas is walk along the city’s waterfront promenade. In the distance you can see the Strait of Magellan and the island of Tierra del Fuego.
The promenade is beautiful even in the rain. There were hundreds of cormorants resting on the beach when we were there. We loved watching these sea birds taking off from the shores into the ocean!
The promenade seems to be a relatively new addition, stretching all the way from one end of town to another. At the south end of the promenade you can see Hotel Dreams del Estrecho, a modern and impressive building. Also on the promenade is the Maritime Monument, representing the first settlers to the area who arrived on the Ancud. A replica of this ship is at the Nao Victoria Museum.
Visit the shipwrecks along the shore
The rusted hulks of several abandoned ships lie partially submerged in the shallows along coast of Punta Arenas. Vestiges from the time when this frontier was one of the world’s major shipping routes. They are a desolate sight, yet beautiful to photograph.
There seem to be hundreds of sunken vessels in the Strait of Magellan. Ships that fell victim to the rocks and sandbanks, or the violent storms in this treacherous passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans.
The closest to the shore –Lord Lonsdale– is just outside of town. The ghostly shipwreck rests on the rocky shore with its bowsprit pointed to the highway.
The Lord Lonsdale was a British sailing vessel that caught fire in the Falkland Islands in 1909 and sank. Later on, a company of traders bought the steel hulk planning to move it to their warehouse in Puerto Natales. But they only managed to move it to Punta Arenas, where they eventually abandoned it. Lord Lonsdale floats today along the beach at Maria Behety Park.
Step back in time at Museo Nao Victoria
If you like history, you will appreciate a visit to Museo Nao Victoria. The museum is particularly interesting for those who appreciate genuine replica ships.
Museo Nao Victoria is relatively new (only 7 years old). The funds for the museum came entirely from local donations. The museum houses a replica of Nao Victoria, the ship which first sailed around the World. The original Nao Victoria –a Spanish carrack– was part of an expedition commanded by the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan. After Magellan’s death during the voyage, Juan Sebastián Elcano took command of Nao Victoria.
Nao Victoria played a large part in the discovery of this area of Chile.
In the museum there is also replica of Ancud, the ship that under a mandate of the President of Chile, Manuel Bulnes, claimed the Strait of Magellan on behalf of Chile’s newly independent government, building Fort Bulnes.
A replica of the HMS Beagle can be also seen in the museum shipyard. This British Navy war ship was converted into an exploration vessel. The most famous of her three trips was the second one under the command of Captain FitzRoy. On board was the young Charles Darwin. HMS Beagle remained in this region for almost three years.
Mingle with penguins at Isla Magdalena
Located slightly off shore of Punta Arenas, Isla Magdalena is home to a huge colony of penguins. The island is the number one attraction of this area, so visiting it is undoubtedly one of the best things you can do in Punta Arenas. I can’t imagine anything cutter than walking amongst these tuxedo clad birds.
You can get up pretty close to the playful penguins. They are not shy at all. Unfortunately, when we were in Punta Arenas, most of the penguins had already left for the winter. We only saw a few.