Punta Arenas is the southernmost city of the American Continent landmass, that is, without needing to cross any arm of the sea. It is located more than 3,000km (1,850mi) south of the Chilean capital, Santiago, and about 2,500km (1,550mi) away from Buenos Aires, the Argentinean capital. The large distances and lack of paved roads, common to Patagonia, make the city most easily accessible by air. Several daily flights connect Punta Arenas to Santiago and Puerto Montt, while during the high season (southern summer) it might also be possible to fly directly to Ushuaia, in Argentina. Other alternatives to reach the city include taking a ship from Puerto Montt (around 4 days) or driving, keeping in mind that anywhere in the Chilean territory north of Puerto Natales and the Torres del Paine National Park can only be reached driving through Argentina (the border lies 200km, or 125mi, away from Punta Arenas).
This is the largest city in Patagonia, home to 130,000 people, and located on the shores of the Straits of Magellan, it used to be the main port of call in the route of ships sailing between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans before the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Nowadays Punta Arenas is one of two tax free ports in the country (the other one is in Iquique, in the far north of Chile).
One of the city’s landmark is its Municipal Cemetery, considered to be one of the prettiest of the world and declared a National Monument in 2012. Occupying an area of 4 hectares (10 acres), the cemetery quietly tells part of the city’s history, presenting fine architecture and landscaping. Built in 1894, this is the resting place of many of the most important personalities of the area.
Still in the city, not far from downtown, Cerro de la Cruz (Cross Hill) features a viewpoint that allows for comprehensive views over the city. From there you will be able to observe the city’s colorful roofs, besides obtaining a privileged view over the Straits of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego.
One of the most sought after experiences around Punta Arenas is the opportunity to see penguins from a close range at their natural habitat. Two main destinations are suitable for this activity: the first of them, easier to visit, is Seno Octay, 60km (37mi) northwest of the city, while a much greater quantity of penguins and an even closer contact with them may be possible at the second option, the Magdalena Island. Part of the Los Pingüinos Natural Monument, Magdalena Island can be reached after sailing from 37km (23mi) from Punta Arenas. Between November and March, a trail among tens of thousands of penguins and their nests can be followed. It is very common for penguins on the different stages of their life to cross the trail designed for visitors and get very close to tourists.
Another very interesting side trip near Punta Arenas will focus on history rather than nature. This is a route towards Fuerte Bulnes, located some 60km (37mi) south of the city. This fort was raised in 1843 in Punta Santa Ana as part of the efforts by the national government to promote the settlement of the country’s southernmost lands. Due to the hostile climate of the area, the new colony was never able to attract a significant stable population and only five years after its establishment, it was moved to a place of more generous climate, giving birth to the city of Punta Arenas. The fort seen today is actually a reconstruction finished in 1943 and restored several times ever since.
Ciudad del Rey Felipe, also known as Puerto del Hambre (Port Famine), lies just 2km (1.2mi) from Fuerte Bulnes and is the scenery of one of the saddest chapters in Chilean history. In this place, in March 1584, the Spanish crown tried to establish a settlement. The unpreparedness of the new immigrants to face the hostile conditions of this place caused the death by hunger or freezing of all of its more than 300 settlers. When a group of English explorers arrived here three years later there was no sign of survivors. Cape Froward, the southernmost tip of the American Continent main landmass is located just 30km (19mi) south from there, but can only be reached on foot or by boat.
It is possible to keep exploring Patagonia after leaving Punta Arenas. Puerto Natales is 250km (155mi) to the north, while Porvenir, in the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, is just a quick ferry ride across the Straits of Magellan away. Alternatively, you can drive (or bus) 620km (385mi) to Ushuaia, the southernmost city of Argentina, near the extreme south of the Americas.