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Flights to Punta Arenas, at the tip of South America, feel like a journey to the edge of the world. (For centuries, Patagonia was the end of the known world.)

The LAN Airlines flight between Santiago's airport (code: SCL) and the Punta Arenas airport (code: PUQ) is four hours long. Looking through the plane windows, it's easy to see why it feels so remote.

No road has ever penetrated the Andes that separate Punta Arenas from the rest of Chile. Glaciers inch their icy way over jagged peaks and snow drips over their sides like thick, white frosting.

The only way to get to Punta Arenas by land from the capital Santiago is through Argentina. And it's a 3,200-kilometer (1,988-mile) drive. We're talking isolated.

View from the Hill of the Cross of Punta Arenas, Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego
View from the Hill of the Cross of Punta Arenas, Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Tierra del Fuego

Views of Punta Arenas (population: 127,000) from the Hill of the Cross, however, are far from bleak. Roofs, the color of cherries, blueberries, apricots and grapes, brighten homes above the steel-blue Strait of Magellan, which joins the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The island of Tierra del Fuego anchors the horizon.

Punta Arenas was founded in 1848 as a penal colony. After gold was discovered in California, the outpost grew as a supply port for maritime traffic between the US west coast and Europe.

When the opening of the Panama Canal reduced the number of ships making the long journey, entrepreneurs turned to sheep-farming for their livelihood. Today, you can still see the opulent mansion once owned by the Braun-Menéndez family, which made a fortune from wool. It's now a museum, housing artefacts from the early European settlers.

Imported steam engine used by early settlers. Patagonian Institute Memory Museum.
Imported steam engine used by early settlers. Patagonian Institute Memory Museum.
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

The wool boom brought in immigrants from Italy, Spain, Germany, Scandinavia, Britain and Croatia. The Patagonian Institute's Memory Museum displays the imported steam engines and wagons that they used to colonize the area, as well as a reconstructed pioneer home and sheep-shearing shed.

The Municipal Cemetery speaks volumes about the region's history. Here are the extravagant mausoleums of José Menéndez, and the other wool barons, surrounded by the much more modest, but well-tended tombs of the European immigrants who worked on the sheep ranches.

Magellanic penguins

There are few other tourist attractions in Punta Arenas, other than the Salesian Museum, which was founded by the missionaries who helped settle the area. Its hodgepodge collection includes stuffed condors and guanacos (llama-like animals), a shrunken head from Ecuador, and pottery, baskets, arrowheads and necklaces from the four indigenous ethnic groups that once inhabited the area. All were largely decimated by the loss of their hunting grounds, disease and alcoholism brought in by whalers and seal hunters, and outright slaughter.

Municipal Cemetery
Municipal Cemetery
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Most tourists don't come to Punta Arenas to see the city. Some are in transit to Tierra del Fuego for fishing and horseback riding. Others are awaiting embarkation on cruises to the Beagle Channel and Antarctica.

Visitors who are not venturing as far as the southern continent can still see penguins on the city's outskirts. Between October and March, Magellanic penguins come ashore to breed and lay their eggs. On tours to the colonies, you can watch the birds pop out of their burrows like so many tuxedo-clad jack-in-the-boxes.

World Biosphere Reserve

Without a doubt, the most popular excursion and the reason most people come to Punta Arenas is to visit Torres del Paine National Park, the UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, named after its soaring granite pinnacles or paine.

While you can rent a car for the five-hour journey to the park, it's easier to buy a package that includes room, meals, guided excursions and transfers to and from Punta Arenas.

The eco-friendly Explora Hotel, for example, offers surprisingly luxurious accommodations for such a remote location. Guided hiking and horseback tours bring participants to alpine meadows to see cascading waterfalls, grazing guanacos, soaring condors, turquoise lakes filled with icebergs, and robin's egg-blue glaciers shaped like Gothic cathedrals.

All well-worth the journey to the bottom of the world.


Chile Tourist Board: www.chile.travel

More things to see and do in Chile:

San Pedro de Atacama Tours

El Tatio Geysers Chile

Cruises of Chile's Inside Passage

Puerto Natales - Giant Milodon Cave

Chilean Food