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.
Port of Punta Arenas
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Viking Sun86 Night the Americas & Chilean FjordsNew York , New York , Hamilton, Hamilton, Antigua, Dominica, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, Tortola, St. Thomas, San Juan, San Juan, San Juan, Barbados, Santarem, Manaus, Manaus, Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Stanley, Stanley, Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, Puerto Montt, Santiago , Santiago , Santiago , Lima, Fuerte Amador, Puntarenas , Puerto Quetzal , Cabo San Lucas, San Diego, Los Angeles, Los AngelesNow
Zaandam33-day Panama Canal Inca & S. America DiscoveryFort Lauderdale , Aruba, Fuerte Amador, Fuerte Amador, Lima, Lima, Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia, Stanley, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Santos , Rio de JaneiroNow
Viking Sun46 Night West Indies,Amazon & South AmericaSan Juan, San Juan, Barbados, Santarem, Manaus, Manaus, Rio de Janeiro, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Stanley, Stanley, Ushuaia, Punta Arenas, Puerto Montt, Santiago , SantiagoNow
Silver Cloud Expedition25 Night Expedition CruiseLima, Split, Santiago , Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, Buenos AiresNow
Seven Seas Mariner36 Night South America CruiseMiami, Curacao, Cartagena , Lima, Lima, Antigua, Santiago , Puerto Montt, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia, Punta del Este, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Buenos AiresNow
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.
Good to Know
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.
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.
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.
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.
Food and Drink
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.
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.