If you’re doing a fly-cruise to Antarctica (like I did when I partnered with the tour company Adventure Life) or if you’re exploring Patagonia and Torre del Paine National Park, then chances are you will spend at least some time in Punta Arenas, an unlikely tourist town if there every was one. At first glance it may not seem like there’s a lot to do, but there are some surprises lurking beneath the veneer of this southern Chilean city.
There are only a few ways to get to Punta Arenas, plane, cruise ship or car by driving from Argentina. Oddly enough there’s no way to drive there from Chile itself. When I first arrived I expected a sleepy port town, but instead was met with a city of more than 150,000 people. A drive through the downtown revealed restaurants, stores and lots of people going about their daily lives. There aren’t a lot of hotel options though in Punta Arenas and my Antarctic tour company booked all the passengers at the same hotel, the Hotel Rey Don Felipe.
Where to Stay
Hotel Rey Don Felipe – Is this the nicest hotel in town? No, not at all. But it is one of the nicer ones and it was definitely comfortable. Three of the best features of the hotel are its location close to the center of town, free WiFi access and complimentary breakfast. Proximity to the main street in town really was a great luxury and made it easy to explore the rest of the city on foot. The WiFi wasn’t perfect, but much better than I anticipated and the breakfast was fine, perfectly adequate. But the hotel is a little gloomy and while clean, the rooms felt dank to me. It didn’t help that it was relatively warm during my visit and a lack of air conditioning meant somewhat stagnant air. But the staff was nice and polite and I can’t point to any specific issues with the property. Just be forewarned, it’s not the nicest in town and does have its drawbacks.
What to Do
Once you’ve established your lodging, it’s time to explore the town. The first stop is a common one in Punta Arenas, the central square. The Plaza Muñoz Gamero is an explosion of green trees in the middle of the old part of town, surrounded by 19th century mansions highlighting great examples of Spanish architecture. In the middle of the plaza is a statue dedicated to the 400th anniversary of Magellan’s voyage, a fitting tribute given the fact the city sits on the Strait of Magellan. Surrounding the statue are local vendors selling arts and crafts clearly designed for tourists. The park is the perfect place to relax, share a picnic or just people watch.
After relaxing in the park, make the short walk through town to one of the most popular sites, the city cemetery. Built in 1894, the cemetery’s main portico and high walls were added later creating a solemn but beautiful space. One of the main features of the cemetery are the hundreds of meticulously sculpted cypress trees creating scenes of quiet beauty. Walking through the cemetery is to walk through the history of Punta Arenas. Elaborate tombs and mausoleums line the walkways, featuring names of the pioneers who made Punta Arenas their home. Chile had a hard time finding people to live in the city so in the 19th century they brought in hundreds of European settlers to establish new lives. The names may reflect a European heritage, but there’s no question they developed their own love for this city. The cemetery is an ideal spot to spend an afternoon, walking along the tombs and enjoying a few moments to reflect in peace.
As you leave the cemetery make the short walk to one of the many museums in town, the Maggiorino Borgatello Salesian Museum. Started in the 19th century by Salesian missionaries, the goal of the museum from the very beginning was to highlight the cultural and ecological richness of the region. Located on the corner of Bulnes Avenue and Bories Street, next to the María Auxiliadora Sanctuary, the museum fills its 1,700 square meters of space along four levels of themes: ethnology, archeology, history and wildlife. A visit to the museum is a great way to learn more about the history of the area.
For a panoramic view of Punta Arenas and the Strait of Magellan, head up to Cruz Hill in the middle of town. On a clear day you can see the misty mountains of Tierra del Fuego in the distance but no matter the weather you’re guaranteed an amazing view of the city.
Where to Eat
You have to eat though, right? A walk through the downtown reveals a number of small cafes and bakeries where you can get a snack or a freshly made empanada. For dinner, the restaurants seem to be clustered in the same part of town which took me a while to realize. My favorite is a place popular among the locals but thankfully largely ignored by tourists, Remezon. The atmosphere inside the restaurant is homey and comfortable, with an old fashioned wood fired oven heating the room. The house specialties are local and organic meats and vegetables, all cooked to perfection. This is my top choice for restaurants in Punta Arenas.
A close by restaurant that is also worth a stop is La Luna. The menu features fresh seafood and Italian inspired meals and a robust beer and wine selection. The night I visited there were a lot of tourists there, but the atmosphere inside was still fun and lively. The food wasn’t the best I’ve ever had, but it was fine for a nice dinner.
For a decent lunch at a fair price, check out Gyro’s Pizza. I know, it sounds horrible but it’s surprisingly good. In addition to decent pizzas they also feature a wide range of locally inspired sandwiches that are quite literally the size of your head.
So there you go, some suggestions on what to do in Punta Arenas. There are additional museums in town and lots of adventure activities in the region if you have even more time making this city a great way to start or end your vacation.