Punta Arenas, the Magellanic port
Next to the Strait of Magellan, the city facing magical Tierra del Fuego tells stories of colonists and natives.
Monday, July 27, 2009
Punta Arenas (Photo: Municipalidad de Punta Arenas)
The largest city in Patagonia and one of the southernmost in the Americas is inhabited currently by 130,000 people whose ancestors took possession of this important enclave of the national territory starting in 1848. Its historic center exhibits magnificent centennial mansions, a testimony of Patagonia’s most productive sheep-rearing period.
At present the city, located almost 3,115 kilometers south of Santiago, is the regional capital and main port of the famous Strait discovered in 1520 by the Portuguese seaman Hernando de Magallanes. Modern and with sufficient attractions notwithstanding its distance from the Chilean capital, it invites visitors to tour its center and the large commercial areas, such as the Duty-Free Zone.
It is recommendable to walk through the park located on Avenida Colón with its enormous trees pruned in circular shapes that ends up at the ocean front. The presence of the Strait of Magellan is vital: the entire city communicates with the world mainly through this route, that was used by all merchant ships until the creation of the Panama Canal. The port is currently used by large ships and transatlantic tourist vessels that make a stop in the city.
The powerful presence of nature in the Punta Arenas area deserves special mention. It is surrounded by several national reserves. During each season the area elicits different sensations: the spring winds generate gusts of over 100 kilometers an hour; in the summer the climate is mild, not as cold but with strong solar radiation; autumn announces that the lenga forests will change from green to red, giving rise to a marvelous spectacle, and in winter the peaks are covered with snow and offer skiing with an ocean view.
Muñoz Gamero Plaza
Inescapable rituals occur everywhere. In Punta Arenas it is essential to kiss the foot of the statue of a Selk’nam indian that is part of a sculpture in honor of Hernando de Magallanes. It is said that the kiss makes it certain that you will return to Patagonia. The monument is in the center of the Muñoz Gamero plaza, the main square of the city, where old conifers grace the area, as well as the 1912 Victorian kiosk that houses a tourist information center. The buildings surrounding the plaza are unique: the Cathedral, the Union Club and the Administration Building, among others, have led it to be declared a Typical Zone.
There are two areas that will allow you to get a feel of the Strait of Magellan; both start off from the port zone situated three blocks away from the Muñoz Gamero Plaza. Toward the north the coastal border has been recovered and there are a series of statues alluding to Patagonia that mark the limit with the ocean. The southern route leads to the Chilean Navy neighborhoods, the María Behety Park with ice-skating rinks in the winter, and the hull of the old English frigate Lord Lonsdale. Both tours provide beautiful panoramic views of Tierra del Fuego.
Sara Braun Palace
Considered an architectural jewel, the palace was built in the European style between 1895 and 1899. It was the home of Sara Braun, perhaps one of the most powerful women in nineteenth-century Patagonia. The construction is neoclassical; a luxurious palace that still has frescoes on the ceilings, original furniture, French marquetry and sculptures. It is currently occupied by the Union Club and a hotel.
Punta Arenas possesses a major patrimonial heritage. The Salesian Museum displays indigenous crafts, flora and fauna, ethnology and mineralogy. The Naval Museum contains part of the abundant historical wealth of this area of the world and a replica of an entire ship. The Military Museum exhibits samples of the campaigns that took place over sovereignty of the area. The Patagonian Institute – the regional intellectual center – houses the Museo del Recuerdo (Heritage Museum) with machines, tools and carriages of the colonial period. Also recommended is a visit to the Regional Museum, formerly the Menéndez Palace, that displays important archaeological collections such as those of Fell and Marazzi, as well as bibliographic, ethnographic and photographic collections.
Cerro Mirador (Overlook Hill)
Situated in the Magallanes Forestry Reserve and with a total surface area of close to 209 hectares, of which approximately 18 correspond to skiing slopes, Cerro Mirador is the southernmost skiing center in the country. Located 9 kilometers away from Punta Arenas, it has 11 slopes with altitudes rising to almost 600 meters, which gives the area its singular feature: its view of the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego. In the summer there are trekking and mountain-biking trails and canopy runs for sports buffs. Telephone: (56-61) 241479.
Inaugurated in 1894, it has huge mausoleums, some very lavish such as that of José Menéndez, and pine trees pruned in geometrical shapes that lend it an enigmatic air. Ideal for photography.
An old fort that was built on the site where the Chilean army took possession of the Strait of Magellan in 1843, during the presidency of Manuel Bulnes. It was quickly abandoned after Punta Arenas was founded. It is a National Monument and is situated slightly over 55 kilometers south of the city.
Pali Aike National Park
Pali Aike means Country of the Devil in the language of the Tehuelches, a people who inhabited the area up to the time of the western colonization. It is one of the less-known spots in the area close to Punta Arenas. It covers around 5,030 hectares of protected land on the border with Argentina and the landscape is cold Patagonian steppe. Human bones dating back nine thousand years were discovered in this territory.
Points of interest are the Pali Aike cave, the Morada del Diablo (Devil’s Home) volcano, and the crevices and basaltic lava formations of the Escorial del Diablo (Devil’s Slagheap). There are trekking trails, four of up to 2-kilometers long, and it is necessary to wear appropriate footgear. The Chilean state has applied for World Heritage status for this site. It is situated 192 kilometers east of Punta Arenas.
Seno Otway (Otway Gulf): It is one of the best spots in the continent to observe Magellanic penguins, Spheniscus magellanicus. Sixty thousand colonies come to the area every year to procreate between the months of October and March. There are several trails to observe the activity of these birds, as well as other animals such as ñandú (South American ostrich), caiquenes (ashy-headed goose: Cloephaga poliocephala), flamingos, swans, gulls, foxes, skunks and coipos (Chilean otter: Myocastor coypus). The gulf is located 70 kilometers north of Punta Arenas.