The sprawling city of Punta Arenas, situated on the historic Ferdinand Magellan route, is not easy to define. It’s possible that the city itself is confused about its identity. Once a penal colony, it is today part roughneck, part modern metropolis, part open-air maritime museum.
The town’s position overlooking the coarse and inhospitable Strait of Magellan – the most important natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – makes it essential to Chile’s maritime trade and provides access to the Antarctic peninsular.
Whalers, Antarctic explorers and sheep farmers were once the backbone of the city but, today, glitzy shopping malls and casinos fill the suburbs and the galvanised tin roofs are being replaced with hotels and restaurants serving the swelling cosmopolitan population.
Today, cruise-ship passengers, trekkers and backpackers on their way to Tierra del Fuego have now replaced yesteryear’s whalers, sailors and explorers.
Ferdinand Magellan route
The Magellan Strait is named after Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who organised the Spanish expedition to the East Indies from 1519 to 1522, resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth. Magellan didn’t survive the entire voyage but left behind a legendary legacy: the Ferdinand Magellan route.
His name is dotted around the globe and adorns innumerable statues, monuments, bodies of water, islands, polar regions, astronomic observations and even a breed of penguin. Punta Arenas itself was once named Magallanes.
The Spanish expedition sailed from Seville, Spain, in 1519 under the command of Magellan in search of a maritime path from the Americas to East Asia across the Pacific Ocean.
As Magellan sailed out of the stormy passage of the strait into the Pacific Ocean, he named it Mar Pacifico which in both Portuguese and Spanish means “peaceful sea”.
Five ships with 270 men left Seville under Magellan but the circumnavigation was completed by just one ship, the Nao Victoria, then under the command of Juan Sebastián Elcano and the surviving crew of just 18 men. Magellan was killed in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines.
The survivors arrived in Spain in 1522, three years after they left having sailed an epic 37,560 miles (60,440km) along what is now known as the Ferdinand Magellan route.
Museo Nao Victoria
Today, Punta Arenas is dotted with memorials to the epic expedition and the Ferdinand Magellan route. The best by some distance is the Museo Nao Victoria. Opened in 2011, the privately owned museum houses a full-sized replica of the first ship to complete the circumnavigation and spearhead the so-called Ferdinand Magellan route.
Arguably one of the most famous ships in the history of navigation, the Nao Victoria along with its crew and commander played a part in discovering and naming Patagonia, Cape Virgenes, the Straits of Magellan, Tierra del Fuego and the Pacific Ocean among others.
The museum also houses the James Caird lifeboat of the Endurance, adapted by Harry McNish and sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia during Sir Ernest Shackleton’s failed 1916 Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition.
The feat, considered by many to be the most impressive of all global navigation, has gone down in history and is brilliantly recounted in Shackleton’s personal account, South: The Endurance Expedition.
There are vast collections of historic and antique sailing instruments, documents and weaponry, but perhaps the crowning exhibition will be the replica of the HMS Beagle currently under construction.
The British Navy ship was converted into an exploration vessel and commanded by Captain FitzRoy. On board was the young Charles Darwin. It was on this ship that Darwin began developing his theory of evolution, visiting Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and of course, the Galápagos Islands.
Punta Arenas: the essentials
What: Visiting Punta Arenas, Chile.
Where: We stayed in the simple, friendly and cosy Hostal Patagonia. The hostel is central and just a few minutes’ walk from the bus station, shops, restaurants and seafront.
When: This part of the world is frugal with its good weather so do not visit during South America’s winter (June to September). The best time to visit is between November and April, but be warned: Patagonian weather is capricious all year round and can change in an instant so come prepared for all eventualities.
How: The museum is located 7.5km north of Punta Arenas, on Route Y-565 to Rio Seco. There are public buses running regularly from Punta Arenas town centre towards Rio Seca from 8am to 8pm. Just tell the driver you’re heading to the museum. Alternatively, taxis are a quicker and easier option but more expensive.
Punta Arenas is well connected by air to the rest of Chile. We flew directly from Santiago to Punta Arenas with Sky Airline although LAN fly there more regularly. Both can be booked through skyscanner.net. There are minibuses and taxis available at the airport that will drop you in town or at your hotel.
There are several bus companies to choose from. We have used and can recommend Buses Fernández and Bus Sur. There are bus connections to other parts of Chile as well as destinations in Argentina such as Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego and El Calefate for Perito Moreno Glacier.
For more information on visiting Chile, get the Lonely Planet Guide to Chile.
(Additional photography: Dreamstime)