Punta Arenas, Chile
If there ever were a game of geographic limbo, Punta Arenas just might win the prize for “how low can you go?” This southernmost city in Chile, home to 130,000 residents, is also the world’s most southern city of its size, just over 1400 kilometers north of Antarctica.
The city is the capital of Chile’s Magallanes y la Antártica Chilena Region, an area named for Portuguese explorer Fernando Magellan who sailed near here in 1520. The name Punta Arenas didn’t appear until the 17th century, however, when English navigation maps called this “Sandy Point” or, in Spanish, punta arenosa.
In 1848, the town of Punta Arenas was established as a military garrison. During its early years, this was a sleepy outpost with some fur and hide trading and mining, finally rising in status during the California Gold Rush as a last stop before ships rounded Cape Horn. Later in the century, an experimental herd of sheep from the Falkland Islands proved successful and soon European immigrants were drawn here by the wool market.
Punta Arenas’ early connection with Magellan is not forgotten even today; a popular photo stop for travelers in Punta Arenas is a statue of the explorer who first successfully circumnavigated the globe and discovered the strait now named in his honor. A longstanding tradition holds that sailors crossing the Strait for the first time kiss the foot of the “Patagon” that sits beneath Magellan on the statue. And what is a Patagon? This mythical race of people, first described by Magellan during the circumnavigation journey, were said to stand as much as 15 feet tall. This myth provides the name for the region of Patagonia, one many believe is derived from the Spanish word pata or animal’s foot; Patagonia was then interpreted by many to be the land inhabited by “the big foot.” Today some believe the “giants” the crew witnessed were the Tehuelche Indians wearing furs to keep warm in the severe weather.
Today Punta Arenas remains a main jumping off point from which to explore the natural wonders of Patagonia including Tierra del Fuego and Torres del Paine although the city offers many attractions of its own. For many travelers, a good first stop and the best place to gain an introduction to Punta Arenas is the Cerro La Cruz promontory. This vantage point offers excellent city views and good photo opportunities of the city and its many red roofed buildings with a backdrop of the Strait itself.
Within the city, travelers can learn more about the region at the Museo Salesiano de Mayonino Borgatello. Housed in a former mansion, this museum was started by Italian missionaries and today showcases the rich history of the region. Another favorite stop is the Centro Cultural, located in one of the many mansions that once graced the city during its heyday. Today the center is filled with European antiques, a peek back at the lifestyle of the merchants and sheep barons that once fueled a booming economy here.
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