The city of about 120000 inhabitants is on the shores of the Strait of Magellan, named after Ferdinand Magellan (Fernão de Magalhães), the Portuguese explorer sailing for Spain in search of a westward route to the Moluccas (the Spice Islands). In November of 1520, Magellan passed close to the present site of Punta Arenas and became the first European to navigate into the Pacific Ocean. British sailors crossing the Strait during the XVI Century referred to this location in navigational documents as "Sandy Point". The Spanish colonizers translated that to “Punta Arenosa
”, which later on was shortened to “Punta Arenas
The town was founded in 1848 as a penal colony for harden criminals and military personnel relegated for bad behaviour. The prisoners rioted several times between 1851 and 1877, destroying the buildings and killing the guards. When the government started allocating land concessions to Chileans and European immigrants, and sheep-raising activities were developed, the town began its way to growth and prosperity.
Punta Arenas is the southernmost continental city in the world. The climate in this region
is very harsh during the winter season; the city is exposed to severe winter storms, strong winds, regular snowfalls and temperatures around 0º C. Nonetheless, before the construction of the Panama Canal in 1914, it was considered one of the most important Chilean ports. The Strait of Magellan is sheltered between the tip of South America and the islands of Tierra del Fuego and it was considered a much safer route than the Drake Passage, a stormy stretch of turbulent sea between Cape Horn and Antarctica, often affected by icebergs and gale-force winds.
Until the beginning of the second decade of the XX Century, the booming town was used as a supply and coaling station by the steamships travelling between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Currently, is still a busy port during the summer (December-February) mostly serving cruise ships
and scientific expeditions to Antarctica.
Since most Chileans found the region excessively remote and the living conditions too harsh, the Magallanes Region was mainly colonized during the first half of the XX Century by European migrants, mostly British and Croatians. By now about half of the Punta Arenas population are descendants of Croats.
By the time the steamships’ traffic nearly stopped, the enterprising pioneers went to Tierra del Fuego in search of gold and many started large sheep farming enterprises. The initial herds were imported from the Falkland Islands. Within a few years, through successful sheep ranching and the concession and purchasing of extensive pieces of land, several prosperous businessmen and women became the owners of large haciendas, often as large a one million hectares. Splendid mansions were built in the city which were equipped with the latest and most luxurious European furnishings, tapestries and decorations. Many of those mansions, built around the main square of the city, still exist today and have been declared National Historic Monuments.
Among the many attractions in the city are the monument erected on the main square to Ferdinand Magellan, the Shepherd’s Monument, the legendary and prestigious Cape Horn Grand Hotel, the mansion of José Nogueira and his wife Sara Braun, the stylish palace of magnate José Montes, the Municipal Cemetery
with magnificent mausoleums showing the family history and wealth of the old colonizers, and the beautiful cast iron meteorological clock located near the harbour. Special mention deserves the Regional Museum
of the Salesian Order, one of most important museums of Patagonia, particularly because of its ethnographic collection on the indigenous tribes that lived in the Patagonia region, the Aónikenk, Yamanas, Kawéskar and Selk’nam, most of which have sadly become extinct.