Land of Fire and Penguins: Traveling to Punta Arenas, Chile

This is part four of my four-part travel series on Argentina and Chile. Today, we head to the city on the edge of the known world: Punta Arenas, Chile.

Standing on the hill overlooking the town of Punta Arenas, it’s easy to imagine Ferdinand Magellan sailing into the harbor, searching for a route through the archipelago of rocky islands and storm-tossed seas to the Pacific Ocean. Five hundred years ago, Magellan’s fleet entered a remote region at the bottom of the world which they dubbed “Tierra del Fuego,” or Land of Fire, so named for the many bonfires they spotted on the islands they passed. What was once home to the native Yaghan, Ona, and Alacalout peoples was later transformed into a penal colony, then a base of operations for Patagonia’s lucrative livestock industry, then a hub for oil drilling and the final port of call of ships departing to the Antarctic continent. And after two weeks and thousands of miles, this was where we found ourselves at the end of our South American excursion.

Punta Arenas is a small city at the southern tip of Chile. One of the southernmost cities on the planet, it is built on a steep hillside sloping down to the harbor and is beset with cold and wind, even on a sunny spring day. Along the esplanade, you can watch massive cargo ships steaming through the Straits of Magellan.

By the time we made it to Punta Arenas, we were weary from our travels and had made very few plans about what we wanted to see and do in town. We spent our first afternoon there holed up in a quaint bed and breakfast, reading and trying to chase the chill from our bones. Then, it was time to start exploring.

Anywhere you go in Punta Arenas, you are constantly reminded of this place’s precarious position on the edge of civilization. In the town square, a statue of Magellan stands triumphant. High on the hillside, posted signs point the way to distant metropolises — Sacramento – 11,298 km, Budapest – 14,042 km, Kazakhstan – 20,820 km — places so far away that they might as well be on another planet, while a marker on the sidewalk indicates that the icebound coast of Antarctica is a mere 800 miles away, closer than Chile’s own capital. From the vantage point, you can almost imagine ice sheets on the horizon.

History is on display throughout Punta Arenas, from a full-sized wooden replica of Magellan’s galleon, the Nao Victoria (which we only caught a glimpse of from the highway), to the opulent wool baron’s mansion turned museum which chronicles Punta Arena’s rise to prominence in the early 20th century, during which time settlers stripped the land and destroyed nearly all of the indigenous peoples.

Understanding the history of the places you visit makes each journey more than just another opportunity to snap a selfie; it connects you with the land you’re standing on and the deep roots of its people. But for all the fascinating and tragic human story that has played out in Punta Arenas over the centuries, if you’re going to come all the way to the farthest tip of South America, you’re probably interested in the region’s wild inhabitants. If so, the one thing you absolutely must do while you’re here is visit a penguin colony.

We left our hotel an hour before dawn, sprinting downhill under a starry sky because the taxi we had ordered never arrived and our tour was leaving soon. We showed up out of breath, but with plenty of time to climb aboard the bus and settle in. A screen at the front of the bus played an old Pavarotti concert as the sky turned fiery red over the low hills of Tierra del Fuego.

Disembarking from the bus, we climbed aboard a small boat and made our way several miles across choppy water to Isla Magdalena. The bare island less than a mile across houses an abandoned lighthouse and is home to upwards of 60,000 breeding pairs of Magellanic penguins. Access to the island is carefully controlled and tourists are only allowed on a short, designated path to avoid damaging the penguin’s habitat. Of course, that didn’t stop the penguins from walking wherever they pleased.

Our hour on the island seemed to be gone in an instant, with me happily photographing the birds as they went about their business waddling to and from their burrows and into the crashing sea to fish. I probably snapped more photos of the nature reserve than any other stop on our trip. On the trip back to shore in the belly of our tour boat with rough seas preventing us from visiting a second island, I felt a little seasick but was buoyed by the rush of seeing my favorite animal up-close in the wild.

For many people, Punta Arenas is just a stop along the way to some greater adventure. And while this place has always been a gateway, it is also much more. But if you take the time you can see it for what it truly is — a place where humans have not only scratched out a living, but thrived in the most inhospitable climate for thousands of years; a melting pot of prospectors, ranchers, convicts, and explorers from all over the world; a jumping off point to see some of the most remote wilderness on earth; all combined to make it one of the most unique cities in all of South America. It may not have the cosmopolitan energy of Buenos Aires or the staggering natural beauty of Puerto Natales, but it is absolutely worth the trip.

Punta Arenas Travel Tips

Where: Punta Arenas, Chile

Getting There: Punta Arenas is accessible via a 3.5-hour flight from Santiago, plus a stopover on most flights in Puerto Montt. From the airport, buses take you to the city center in about 20 minutes. However, if you’ve got the time, you might consider getting there by ferry from Puerto Montt and sailing the Patagonian fjords.

Where to Stay: We made the mistake of staying far up the hill and away from the city’s compact downtown. While our spot was quiet, it was too far from the heart of Punta Arenas. I’d recommend one of the closer-in hotels.

What to See: Penguins, of course. Several companies run tours, including half-day visits to Los Pingüinos Natural Monument or full-day excursions to the main island of Tierra del Fuego to see larger king penguin colonies. Be sure to check the company’s credentials to make sure you’re not doing unnecessary harm to the ecosystem you’re visiting.

What to Eat: If you’ve just arrived in Punta Arenas from Puerto Natales or another remote outpost, you’ll be amazed at the variety of cuisine available in the city. Patagonian food is warm, hearty, and filling, with plenty of meat, fish, and potatoes. We had a fantastic meal at La Marmita, a family-owned restaurant serving regional dishes.

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Jonny Eberle is a writer, podcaster, photographer, and world traveler. He lives in Tacoma, WA with his family, a dog, and three adorable typewriters. His fiction has appeared in Creative Colloquy, Grit City Magazine, and All Worlds Wayfarer. You can listen to his podcast, Dispatches with Jonny Eberle, and his audio drama, The Adventures of Captain Radio, wherever you find podcasts, and you can get monthly updates and reading recommendations by signing up for his email newsletter. Thanks for reading!

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