Puerto Natales is a small harbour city, with approximately 20,000 inhabitants, located in one of the arms of the Almirante Montt Gulf. It is the capital of the Última Esperanza province (which translates to Last Hope province, in English), a place that received this name from a 16th century Spanish explorer called Juan Ladrillero, who considered this location to be his “last hope” of finding the Strait of Magellan. The strait is actually found further south, next to the present-day city of Punta Arenas, some 250km (155mi) from Puerto Natales.
Nowadays Puerto Natales relies heavily on tourism, and is considered to be one of the top South American destinations thanks, mostly, to its proximity to the Torres del Paine National Park. Despite of that, the city can be also used as a convenient base to explore a few other attractions both in the Chilean and in the Argentinean side of Patagonia.
The city itself is pretty friendly to tourists in general and offers several options for lodging and food, with a higher density of services found in the vicinities of the Plaza de Armas, the central square. An interesting hike for those willing to get acquainted to the area consists of a 2km (1.2mi) walk from the Plaza de Armas to the Señoret Canal and then continuing by the coast a few blocks north before returning to the square.
The main highlight of any trip to the Chilean Patagonia is definitely a visit to the Torres del Paine National Park. This park can be reached by bus in about 2 hours from Puerto Natales and can be visited either as a day-trip, which allows from 5 to 7 hours inside the park proper, or, in much more depth, in multi-days programs. Day-trips are worth it and offer beautiful panoramas of the mountainous landscape, especially if you are lucky enough to visit in a sunny day, as well as allowing time for some sailing and to visit a glacier. For this particular park, however, I would strongly recommend you to at least consider the possibility of dedicating more time to the visitation. In case you can afford a few extra days in here and you feel in adequate shape, try to trek one of the main trails of the park: either the W, which takes form 3 to 5 days to complete, or the Big Circuit, completed in up to 9 days.
Torres del Paine is frequently cited in lists of the world’s most beautiful places and, deservedly so, it is usually featured on the front page of brochures and travel magazines related to Chile. Its key attractions are, of course, the three Paine Towers (Torres del Paine), besides lakes Sarmiento, Nordenskjöld and Paine, the Gray Glacier and the French Valley. Except for the French Valley, all other highlights can be visited on one-day tours (not all of them in the same day, though).
Another very beautiful day-trip from Puerto Natales will have you sailing through the Last Hope Fjord to the Serrano and Balmaceda glaciers. They are both located inside the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park and are part of the Andes. During the cruise you will be able to admire the diversity of Patagonia’s wildlife, particularly cormorants (a bird species) and sea lions, besides several species of the local flora. While Balmaceda is usually just seen from the boat, reaching the Serrano glacier requires a 1km (0.6mi) walk following an easy trail that borders an interior lake formed by the glacier’s melting.
Leaving Puerto Natales, it is possible to keep moving south, to Punta Arenas, or then cross the border and head to El Calafate, in Argentina, 270km (165mi) away.