by Chris Moss, The Telegraph, February 8, 2019
Before the Panama Canal opened this was a vital port for the Americas and a safe harbour for any ship that had transited the blustery Strait of Magellan or, indeed, the South Pacific. The gateway to southern Patagonia’s natural wonders, it’s a fascinating hotchpotch of maritime, indigenous, sheep farming and espionage history. Shackleton and crew came to Punta Arenas after their 1916 rescue. Cruises stop here en route to/from Chile and Argentina, but Punta Arenas is the embarkation port for Chilean operator Australia's cruises to Cape Horn and Ushuaia.
Cruise port location
Punta Arenas is on the Brunswick Peninsula, separated from the island of Tierra del Fuego by the Strait of Magellan. The city’s Mardones shipping terminal is four miles north-east of the city centre. Cruise vessels moor or use tenders; the long jetty can accommodate two large cruise vessels but there are often smaller Chilean cruise ships in port as well as naval vessels. There’s no cruise terminal and disembarking can be cold and very windy. Note: the Prat jetty close to the city is only used by ferries hopping across the Strait to Porvenir.
Can I walk to any places of interest?
Need to stretch your legs? Then do a bracing one to one and a half hour walk to the city centre along the waterfront. The only (somewhat) interesting attraction near to the port – half an hour’s walk – is the Museo del Recuerdo or Museum of Remembrance, a nostalgic collection of farm tools, carts, vintage cars and machinery. Catch a cab or minibus to main square Plaza Benjamín Muñoz Gamero (aka Plaza de Armas) to see the main sights.
Punta Arenas is small. You can walk everywhere, just about, thought you’ll need a vehicle to get to the airport. The main cementery, a popular and historically very important site, is around 20 minutes’ walk from Plaza Benjamín Muñoz Gamero.
Cabo de Hornos, on the main square, has 110 smartly decorated rooms, some with views of the Strait. It’s a large business-like hotel run by an efficient team used to large groups, and the rooms are cosy and warm. Grander on the outside than the interior, the José Nogueira, on the same square, has a more laid-back, friendly vibe. The suites are somewhere between staid and “classic”.
Hotel Rey Don Felipe is on a quieter road two blocks away from the plaza. There’s a gym and spa and an excellent breakfast. Everything is close by wherever you stay. Note that a lot of people spend time in Puerto Natales – for Torres del Paine – before taking cruises from Punta Arenas; Natales has lots of good hotels.
What to see and do
Chile’s southernmost city, Punta Arenas has a feel of being out-there, a little forgotten. On a cold, sleety night it can be downright gloomy. But anyone interested in the history of exploration, Patagonia and shipping will find plenty to entertain them for a day or two, as well as easy excursions south to the Strait of Magellan Park or north to Torres del Paine.
What can I do in four hours or less?
The cruises that make regular stops at Punta Arenas – including Holland America Line (HAL), Norwegian Cruise Line, Princess Cruises, Seabourn and Viking river cruises – offer three to four hour walking tours that take in Cerro La Cruz (for a hilltop view), the Plaza de Armas and its striking monument to Magellan, the grand Palacio Braun Menéndez (once occupied by a rich landowning family) and city cemetery, where there are mausoleums of pioneer families and a gravestone marking where the last native Fuegians lie buried. A cultural highlight is the Maggiorino Borgatello Museum, run by Salesian Friars, which has exhibits of the region’s flora and fauna, and crafts relating to the (sadly extinct) indigenous cultures.
An active alternative is to go kayaking in the Strait. Waivers signed, groups are shown how to gear up and paddle a double kayak, plus safety instructions. Birdlife in the area includes steamer ducks, upland geese, cormorants and gulls; lucky kayakers might be accompanied by austral dolphins that seasonally migrate here.
What can I do in eight hours or less?
A one and a half hour ferry ride across the Strait takes passengers to Magdalena Island, home to one of the largest penguin colonies in southern Chile, as well as cormorants and many other birds. The Magellan penguins return every year between October and March to lay eggs and raise their young.
Some cruise operators offer a (pricey) all-day excursion to Torres del Paine National Park, HAL, for instance, involving a 30-minute bus ride to the airport, and a 60-minute flight from Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales. Two hours by coach across the Patagonian pampas is the scenic prologue to entering Torres del Paine National Park, named for its three eye catching granite peaks (torres). Established in 1959, it’s a Unesco Biosphere Reserve, and a wonderland of mountains, glaciers, lakes, and wild rivers. Going there, and back, is quite a trip, but if you’re not able to see the national park before or after a cruise, and have the readies, go for it. Viking River Cruises can arrange helicopter flights over the spectacular peaks of the park and drives around Punta Arenas for the less mobile.
HAL offers its passengers an 11 hour, “$$$$”-graded outing to… Antarctica. This long, possibly tiring excursion involves two 2.5 hour flights, in a BAE-146, to King George Island and the Chilean Frei Base. See the full account at hollandamerica.com.
Eat and drink
Punta Arenas is known for its seafood – centolla (spider crab) is a local delicacy. Patagonian lamb is also a classic, served grilled with salads and sides. Wines from northern Patagonia are getting better and better and there’s a small craft ale scene too.
Don’t leave the Punta Arenas without…
A Patagonian rug – made from sheep’s wool – or a sweater will be a nice reminder of your chilly time here and out on deck, and great for the British winter. Local jams and honey are also nice gifts. Patagonia is a “literary” destination; browse the bookshops for history and cultural guides.
Need to know
Latam and Sky fly Santiago-Punta Arenas in three hours, 20 minutes. Punta Arenas is also the point of departure for weekly flights between Chile and the Falkland Islands.
Punta Arenas is a small town and has no serious crime problems. As ever, avoid the city’s margins, and dark streets; use ATMs by day.
Best time to go
Cruises – and tourists – come down here in summer. At a southern latitude comparable to central England or northern Poland, the climate here is at the mercy of three oceans as well as polar currents and it can get very cold and windy.
Museums are generally closed Sunday and Monday; shops are closed in Chile on Sundays; malls stay open.