If you’re heading to Torres del Paine in Patagonia, you will most likely fly into Punta Arenas, the capital of Chile’s Magallanes region. Located on the Straits of Magallan – the waterway that cuts through the southern tip of South America – this remote outpost is a curious mix of shabby and stately, and worth spending 24 hours in.
The town is easy to get around on foot, that is to say if you not fighting a strong southerly wind. There is a reason everyone here is dressed from head to toe in high-tech trekking gear – wind speeds can reach a biting 100km per hour! Needless to say, come prepared! (See our packing list for tips!)
Punta Arenas – What to See
- 1 Punta Arenas – What to See
- 2 Punta Arenas – Where to Eat
- 3 Punta Arenas – Where to Stay
- 4 Getting Around
- 5 Pin for Later
On this occasion I visited without my children but spent two half days combing the town for things to do and see, and places to eat and stay, all with families in mind.
Keu Ken Ethnic Park
Before the European settlers arrived, the region was inhabited by a handful of indigenous groups including the Tehuelche (‘Fierce People’). They were first introduced to the west in the 1520s by Antonio Pigafetta, one of the few remaining survivors from Ferdinand Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world. In Pigafetta’s chronicles, he described the Tehuelche as ‘giants’ and noted that Magellan had nicknamed them the Patagones, on account of their large pata (feet). Since that time, Patagonia is often referred to as The Land of the Big Feet or The Land of the Giants.
During my visit, a promotional flyer for the Keu Ken Ethnic Park caught my eye – a thematic park detailing Patagonia’s history (from 12,000 years ago to the 19th century). Although I didn’t have time to check it out I thought it looked fun for kids and worth including in this guide.
Located 40km south of Punta Arenas (approx 30 minutes by car), the park belongs to Fundo San Fernando a ranch and outdoor adventure park that offers a range of tours including trekking, horse-riding, canopy, paintball and archery.
Bilingual guides lead visitors on a two-hour ‘historical hike’ across hanging bridges to 18 interactive theatrical sets. Each station depicts a scene from the Tehuelches (Aonikenks) and Kawesqar lives. Stories are told in chronological order by audio, paintings and videos and detail the life of the original inhabitants of Patagonia.
You can watch their video on YouTube here
Nao Victoria Museo
The first European to discover the area was Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who led the first circumnavigation of the world in the 1520s. Leading a fleet of five ships, Magellan found the narrow passage of water linking the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, now known as the Strait of Magellan.
Today, visitors can climb aboard a replica of Victoria – one of Magellan’s five boats and the first to successfully circumnavigate the world. From a crew of around 260 men across all five boats, only 18 made it back alive on Victoria.
Much like the replica caravels of Christopher Columbus that we saw in Spain, the Victoria felt very small and the decks claustrophobic. Kids can dress up in costumes from the time and take selfies next to life-size models of the crew members!
The Nao Victoria museum also houses three other full-size replica ships of great navigators and explorers; The Ancud which brought the first colonists to Punta Arenas; The HMS Beagle which brought Darwin to Patagonia on its second voyage and James Caird, Shackleton’s lifeboat that he and five crew members sailed to South Georgia in after the Endurance sank.
The replicas are fun to explore and help bring history to life for kids. Nao Victoria is around 7km from the city centre of Punta Arenas, in the direction of the airport.
Sara Braun Palace
In the 19th century the settlers introduced sheep farming to the area which created an enormous amount of wealth although at the expense of the indigenous population that were wiped out in the process, predominantly from European diseases. The Sara Braun Palace, possibly the most distinctive building in Punta Arenas, is an example of the kind of wealth that was accumulated. It belonged to Sara Braun who arrived in Punta Arenas from Russia with her parents in 1874, when she was 12-years-old. She later married José Nogueira, one of the early settlers in Punta Arenas, who created the largest sheep-ranching enterprise in Southern Patagonia.
Together they began building their house but sadly Nogueira died of TB before it was finished, leaving Sara with an enormous fortune. She proceeded with the building work – using materials, furniture and inspiration from Europe – and in 1895 it was finished. Today part of the property houses the Hotel Jose Nogueira. A separate section is open to the public and has four stately rooms on the ground floor and a further four upstairs. It doesn’t take long to look around but it’s well worth visiting.
The Cemetery of Punta Arenas
When Sara Braun died in 1955 (aged 92-years-old) she was laid to rest in this cemetery. Some refer to it as the Sara Braun cemetery because she donated the main walls and the gate. It’s said that she wanted the central doorway to remain shut once she had passed through it in death and, indeed, it remains bricked up and closed to this day.
Located a 15-minute walk from the Plaza de Armas, it is where many of the wealthy pioneers were laid to rest including the Menéndez, Braun, Kusanovic, and Blanchard families. It’s a pretty, peaceful spot and was even ranked by CNN as one of the 10 most beautiful cemeteries in the world. The majority of the tombs are very well-maintained, many with fresh flowers and photos of the deceased.
I enjoyed a lovely stroll here along the avenues created by neatly trimmed Cypress trees; I almost felt like I was walking the gardens at Versailles or Fountainebleu!
Positioned just a few minutes away form the cemetery is a small chocolate shop dating back to the 1970s. It was started by Nora Weisser, whose German grandparents came to Chile bearing old family recipes. Unfortunately, the shop was shut when I visited but I thought it looked great fun for Willy Wonka fans big and small. Parents will be even happier, all the chocolate produced here is entirely natural with no artificial ingredients or preservatives. If you’re looking for it, it’s worth noting that the chocolate shop was once known as Veronik and is sometimes referred to in travel guides as Chocolates Regionales.
Mirador Cerro La Cruz
For a spectacular view of Punta Arenas and the Strait of Magellan beyond, head to the top of Cerro La Cruz. From the Plaza de Armas, follow Ave Monseñor Jose Fagnano until you reach a flight of steps. The views are definitely worth the effort!
Eat King Crab
The local speciality in Punta Arenas is centolla (King Crab), scooped straight from the Strait! The bulk of the catch is shipped all over the world, but as with everything, it tastes ten times better at the source. There are a number of restaurants that offer King Crab, usually in the form of a salad or a bake. We say try both! I didn’t eat anything else while I was here. See recommended restaurants below.
Costanera del Estrecho
Button up your coats and take a post-lunch stroll along the blustery seafront. The wide, stroller-friendly promenade follows the coastal road and makes for an enjoyable walk. There are plenty of warehouses and buildings covered in colourful street art depicting scenes from the past (the pioneer days) and present.
Also along the Costanera is a monument to the crew of the Ancud, a schooner sent by Chile in 1843 to claim sovereignty over the Strait of Magellan. A full size replica version can be seen at the Nao Victoria museum (see above)
Drink Hot Chocolate
Feeling cold? Jet lagged? Escape the Patagonian wind for hot chocolate and churros! Founded by Swiss pioneers, Chocolatta is a cosy tea house has a wide range of chocolate and coffee drinks guaranteed to beat the chill. A great choice for a sugary pick-me-up.
Maggiorino Borgatello Salesian Museum
I didn’t get the chance to visit the Maggiorino Borgatello Salesian Museum but my understanding is that it’s well worth a visit. The museum was founded in 1893 by the Salesian missionaries and showcases the unique flora and fauna of the region. It also tells the story of the first inhabitants to the arrival of the cattle ranchers and explorations by Salesian priest, Father Alberto D’Agostini.
The Indian’s Foot
In the main central plaza sits the statue of Ferdinand Magellan. Legend says that if you touch (or kiss!) the foot of the Indian sitting beneath him you will return to Punta Arenas. The shiny, polished toes are a reflection of how many people want to return here. Myself included!
Punta Arenas – Where to Eat
Best For King Crab
La Luna This colourful restaurant has walls covered ceiling to floor in business cards from visiting customers but what you really come here for is the King Crab bake, which is delicious.
Parrilla Los Ganaderos Waiters in traditional gaucho uniforms serve good crab at this friendly restaurant. There is also a traditional grill with lamb turning over flames.
Sotito’s Restaurant What this restaurant might lack in atmosphere it more than makes up for in King Crab, it’s delicious.
Best for Budget
Kiosko Roca This local institution is the place to come for a chorizo sausage sandwich and banana milkshake.
Best for Pizza
Punta Arenas has some lovely cafes including Chocolatta, Cafe Tapiz and Cafe Sarmiento. All are great options for a coffee, hot-chocolate or even a cold beer. Cafe Sarmiento also makes decadent waffles with cream of dulce de leche.
Punta Arenas – Where to Stay
Hotel Cabo de Hornos
I stayed at Hotel Cabo de Hornos during my time in Punta Arenas and it was a great choice. The hotel is extremely well located, within easy walking distance of the main sights and restaurants. If possible, get a room that overlooks the Strait – the sunsets are magnificent!
The hotel offers Double rooms with King beds, Twin rooms or Queen rooms. For families the hotel allows one child under the age of 5 to stay free if sharing a bed with their parents. Families with two children can fit in a triple room. Adjacent rooms can be arranged although there are no interconnecting rooms. Rooms are smart, clean and comfortable.
For more information, take a look at the hotel website.
Check current rates and reviews on TripAdvisor.
Other Hotel Recommendations
An official airport taxi is $16 each way. Taxis can be booked through hotels, however most of the town can be covered on foot.
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