The southernmost city in the Americas, Punta Arenas, Chile is seen by most travelers as merely a gateway to the Antarctic. But this convenient town at the Chile’s glacier carved tip, overlooking the Straits of Magellan, has plenty to recommend.
The hard-working, hard-playing port town is the capital of Chile’s southernmost administrative division, Magellan and Chilean Antarctica, built on the oil and fishing industries. But it is also your first stop en route to Tierra del Fuego and several spectacular cruises. There’s plenty for travelers to do in and around town, so plan to stay a while.
1) Sail through History
While Punta Arenas may seem disappointingly modern for such a historic spot, head over to the Nao Victoria Museum for a look at what the brave seafarers once sailed through in these storied straits. Replicas of the Nao Victoria, which circumnavigated the globe in 1520; the James Caird, which carried the doomed Shackleton Expedition in 1915, and the HMS Beagle, which took Charles Darwin on his enlightening adventure, are on display. The Museo Salesiano de Mayonino Borgatello displays local indigenous and European religious artifacts collected by early Italian missionaries.
2) Waddle with the Penguins
Not far from Punta Arenas is the wonderful Penguin Sanctuary of Otway Sound, home to some 5,000 Spheniscus magellanicus penguins, who come to nest here every October. Baby penguins, and human visitors, begin to arrive in November. More adventurous penguin lovers can take the ferry over to Isla Magdalena, home to a much larger colony of more than 100,000 fearless feathered friends.
3) Explore the Antarctic Forest
Just 15 minutes from Punta Arenas are the Magellan Forest Reserve and Parque del Nandu, which can be explored separately on your own, or together on this tour (click the link for more information). The thickly forested reserve, with its beech groves threaded with hiking and biking trails, offers stunning views over the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego. Parque del Ñandu, nearby, is a working sheep farm and minizoo featuring native Patagonian species.
4) Hit the Slopes
Skiing in the Antarctic? Why not? Club Andino Centro de Ski has 12 serviceable runs, Nordic trails and a ski school open all winter long, when most tourists avoid the Antarctic. In summer months (when you should still bundle up!) the mountain offers trekking, mountain biking and even a zip line canopy tour, all accessible on their ski lift. Fun for the whole family.
5) Test Yourself
Punta Arenas’ biggest sports event is the Patagonian Expedition Race, a grueling 10-day endurance challenge where teams from all over the world take on trekking, sea kayaking, orienteering—using only a map and compass in unknown, unforgiving terrain—and mountain biking. The “Race to the End of the World” sets off every February, so get your friends together and start training (or just come down as a spectator).