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Punta Arenas Overview
Punta Arenas is no longer the important stop on South America trade routes it once was, but the gateway to Chilean Patagonia still has some stuff to strut: a couple of penguin colonies, a trippy municipal cemetery and some surprisingly good restaurant choices.
With roughly 150,000 inhabitants, Punta Arenas – or Sandy Point – bills itself as the southernmost city on the planet. (The far smaller Ushuaia, Argentina, a day's cruise away, is the southernmost "town.") And if it feels like you're in the middle of nowhere, that's because you are.
Looking out over the Strait of Magellan, this windswept shore marks the dividing line between Patagonia to the north with its maze of fjords, rivers, steppes and mountains, and, to the south, the great frozen mass of Antarctica.
Until the Panama Canal was built in 1914, the Strait of Magellan was the main shipping route for commercial vessels traveling between the Atlantic and the Pacific. At the same time, it was also a major world supplier of wool. Today, as the center of Chile's only oil reserves and more than half of its lamb production, the region has rediscovered some of its previous grandeur. It doesn't hurt, either, that dozens of cruise ships call on Punta Arenas between November and March, the summer high season.
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Other South America Cruise Ports:
Buenos Aires • Lima • Manaus • Montevideo • Puerto Montt • Punta Arenas • Rio de Janeiro • Santiago (Valparaiso) • Santos (Sao Paulo) • Stanley • Ushuaia
Spanish. Very little English is spoken – even in museums and restaurants. Those eateries that do cater to tourists often have English translations on the menu.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Chile's currency is the peso. Visit www.oanda.com for current rates and a handy cheat sheet that fits nicely into a wallet. ATM's, and there are several located off the city's central plaza, tend to be the cheapest way to acquire pesos. However, there's no need to bulk up on local currency. Most sidewalk vendors, taxis, museums, restaurants and shops accept U.S. dollars and some will take euros. Credit cards are widely accepted as well.
Punta Arenas is a good place to stock up on souvenirs. Among the most popular items: lapis lazuli, alpaca sweaters, hardwood carvings, and all manner of penguin knickknacks – everything from key chains and paperweights to T-shirts and aprons. The best selection of handicrafts and souvenirs can be found at the central plaza, Plaza Munoz Gamero, and at the yellow marine terminal where the cruise ship tenders dock.
Where You're Docked
Passengers are ferried into town aboard tenders, a 10-minute ride.
The yellow marine terminal has restrooms, a coffee shop, souvenir stands and an internet café. Just around the corner from it is a nice handicrafts shop that also offers a respectable selection of Chilean wines. Other than that, there's not much to hang around for.
With its compact grid, Punta Arenas is imminently walkable. Plaza Munoz Gamero is a 10- or 15-minute walk or a $5 taxi ride. To get there from the terminal, walk up the hill one block on Avenida Independencia, then turn right on 21 de Mayo and continue for three blocks. The cathedral, museums, restaurants and main shopping avenue, Avenida Bories, all spin right off the square. There's also a tourism kiosk in the plaza, offering maps and other helpful brochures.
Watch Out For
While the vendors in Plaza Munoz Gamero offer a decent price point for their locally made goods, make sure you are in fact "buying local" and not purchasing a Chinese knockoff. Also, quite a few stray dogs tend to hang around the square, which can be a bit offputting. And don't even think about bringing ashore dairy products or any other consumable fresh food item or they will be confiscated upon arrival by agriculture department inspectors.
Some travelers do a South America cruise just to see the penguins – and no wonder. They're enchanting, uninhibited and entertaining creatures. It's kind of like street theater; we watch them, they watch us. Locally, there are two reserves: Otway Bay, a remote colony of about 4,000 warm-water Magellanic penguins and Isla Magdalena, an island that's home to 120,000 seasonal penguins, one of the continent's largest sanctuaries. Be warned: The penguins stick closely to an October-March schedule, generally migrating in early March.
To get a good feel for Punta Arenas, spend some time in the city center. The centerpiece is the tree-lined Plaza Munoz Gamero, dominated by a bronze statue of Ferdinand Magellan, or Hernando de Magallanes, as the explorer is called in Chile. Magellan's ship was blown through the strait that bears his name by a series of gales in 1520. He was the first European to disembark on the famously windy shore. There are two museums worth visiting: Palacio Sara Braun, a national landmark located just across from the plaza, and, just one-half block away, Museo Regional de Magallanes. The Braun mansion, built over a four-year period in the 1890's, is a throwback to the city's Golden Age with its pressed Italian leather walls, hand painted ceilings, French chandeliers, bronzes, and gorgeous parquet floors. The regional museum, no slouch either, was the summer home of a prosperous family at the start of the 20th century. It also has some neat displays of Punta Arenas' past and a natural history exhibit. Unfortunately, neither museum has signs or brochures in English. The cost of admission at both places: 1,000 pesos. The Braun mansion accepts dollars but not euros.
We stumbled across the Cemeterio Municipal almost by accident – and what a great find. After visiting the Sara Braun mansion, we thought we'd pick up the thread and search for her mausoleum. The cemetery, nine blocks north of Plaza Munoz Gamero at Avenida Bulnes 949, looks like a stage set with its elaborately sculpted cypresses, crypts planted in marigolds and pansies, and ornate mausoleums. Punta Arenas, situated at the foot of the Andes, reflects a great mix of cultures – from English sheepherders to Portuguese sailors to Croatian and Spanish colonists. Nowhere is that history more apparent than in this sprawling cemetery, which has one section devoted solely to the English. Braun, a Russian who married a Portuguese wool baron, lies here in perpetuity as well – and the story surrounding her has become such a tourist draw that the Punta Arenas tourism bureau recently rebranded this “open museum full with symbols, art and human feeling” as the Sara Braun Cemetery.
Been There, Done That
You can't visit Chile and not enjoy the national cocktail, the pisco sour. Nowhere better to do that than at Taberna Club de la Union, a cozy and hugely popular cellar bar on the ground floor of the Sara Braun mansion. For the record, a pisco sour typically is a concoction of pisco brandy, lemon or lime juice, syrup or sugar, bitters and egg whites to create a froth. Some Chileans add a spicy green chile pepper for good measure.
The only problem with La Tasca is deciding what to order. The Spanish restaurant, in a charming second-floor space overlooking Plaza Munoz Gamero, offers regional specialties such as Patagonian lamb, centolla or fresh king crab, and conger eel. But what about the grilled Basque beef loin, the paella, the squid in ink or the salmon ceviche? With its festive red and yellow tablecloths, attractive murals, and huge windows overlooking the square, La Tasca is a great place to eat, drink and unwind. A typical full lunch, including bread, bottled water and wine, costs roughly $20. Located at Plaza Munoz Gamero 771 in the Sociedad Espanola building.
Want trendy? The stylish Restaurant Puerto Viejo would easily feel at home in any urban restaurant district. All glass and wood and nautical in design, the aptly named “Old Port” restaurant features lamb and steak but specializes in seafood such as its signature abalone salad, eel's cheeks in mustard sauce, king crab, and Chilean sea bass, or corvine, in garlic butter. Lunch costs about $20. If you don't feel like a meal, it's worth stopping by for a drink and an appetizer. On the menu: local beers, a selection of pisco sours, and a wide array of Chilean wines. Best yet, Puerto Viejo, on Avenida O'Higgins 1166, is located just a few blocks from the port terminal.
Best for Penguin Watchers: The tour to Otway Sound, on the mainland about one hour from Punta Arenas, is probably the easiest way to visit the penguins. Visitors must walk roughly one mile along an exposed uneven shoreline path to the penguin burrows. What you'll see on the four-hour excursion: penguins awaiting their mates, Patagonia sheep ranches and possible wildlife including guanacos, rheas, wild geese and flamingos. The trip to Isla Magdalena, in the middle of the Strait of Magellan, is close to six hours and includes a chartered ferry cruise. On the island, declared a national monument in 1982, penguins nest in sandy burrows with both parents taking care of their chicks. Editor's note: It's advisable to dress in layers. Even in summer months, it can get chilly.
Best Overall Introduction: There's no better way to get to know Punta Arenas than to walk it with a guide. With so little English spoken in town, it may be the only way. A typical walking tour, which lasts about three hours, includes a stroll to the city center, a pause for souvenir shopping at Plaza Munoz Gamero, and tours of the regional museum and the Sara Braun mansion. Many excursions conclude with tea and finger sandwiches at the mansion.
Best for Adventure Travelers: To fully appreciate the Strait of Magellan, active travelers may want to kayak it. Many of the cruise lines offer guided trips on the fabled body of water in two-man tandem kayaks. Another way to enjoy the dramatic seascape is to observe it from Club Andino, a ski club. Travelers ride a chair lift 4,500 feet up the slopes, then trek down with a professional guide.
Staying in Touch
Internet access is easy to come by in Punta Arenas. The marine terminal has several computer stations, ranging in price from $1 to $2 for 30 minutes, depending on the time of day. Close to the city center, at Jose Nogueira 1179, E-Green Cibercafe is open daily.
For More Information
Visit the Punta Arenas tourism bureau at www.puntaarenas.cl/turismo.html
--By Ellen Uzelac, Cruise Critic contributor