Punta Arenas and The End of the World Highway - The Maritime Explorer


Punta Arenas and The End of the World Highway

This is my fifth post from the fall 2024 tour of Chile with Adventures Abroad. Since I’m writing this in June, 2024 that seems like a rather absurd statement since fall is over three months away – so what am I, a psychic? Not at all. One of the things about travelling on the other side of the equator is that the seasons are reversed and in Chile fall comes before spring in any calendar year. But enough about that. Previously Alison I toured Santiago with Chris Whatmore, joined the others on the AA tour and visited the World Heritage Site of Valparaiso and in the last post we sampled wines at the oldest winery in Chile, Vina Santa Rita. In this post we’ll take the first of eight internal flights on this tour, from Santiago to Punta Arenas, a city I have long wanted to see. It is also the gateway to the Chilean portion of Patagonia via the aptly named End of the World Highway. So please join us on what promises to be one hell of an adventure to one of the nethermost spots on earth.

History of Punta Arenas

Punta Arenas Sign
In Punta Arenas

The flight from Santiago to Puerto Arenas via Latam, the Chilean version of Air Canada, (except that the Latam flights leave and arrive on time and your luggage doesn’t get lost), takes 3½ hours and we arrive too late in the day to do much exploring. We will return to Punta Arenas after visiting Torres del Paine, but for the purposes of this post I’m going to combine what we saw in Punta Arenas on both occasions into this one post.

Anyone who’s heard of Punta Arenas probably knows it’s claim to be the “Southernmost City in the World”, but actually Ushuaia in Argentina has that honour. However, Ushuaia is on the island of Tierra del Fuego so in terms of a city on dry land so to speak, Punta Arenas is the winner. Also adding to its remoteness is the fact that you can’t drive here. The Pan-American Highway ends at Puerto Montt some 1335 kms. (842 miles) further north. It also has the distinction of being generally cool and windy with summer highs of only 14°C (57°F), but the good news is that it seldom gets below freezing in winter. One of the first things you might notice on the way into the city from the airport is the ropes that are strung between telephone poles and other objects. These are to help pedestrians make their way when the winds get up, which they do up to 130 kph (80 mph.) The only thing I wasn’t looking forward to in Patagonia was the winds, but I’m happy to report that they stayed at bay during our visit and my fears were baseless.

Strangely enough Punta Arenas was not the original name for this place. It was actually named Sandy Point by an Englishman in 1669 and the name stuck until 1848 by which time Chile had built a penal colony here and translated the name into Spanish. However, if you know your history you will know that this area became renowned long before the 17th century when the Portuguese seaman Ferdinand Magellan, sailing under the Spanish flag, found his way around the tip of South America via the strait that now bears his name in 1520. That feat is commemorated with this statue in the Plaza des Armas which you will definitely want to visit while in the city.

With Magellan in Punta Arenas
With Magellan

Attempts to create colonies in the area were unsuccessful until the aforementioned penal colony in 1843 – it seems there all stops are pulled out when you want to build a prison. It was essentially a military prison akin to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas and there were several mutinies by the prisoners that led to widespread killing of civilians. Not surprisingly given the location and the presence of the sometimes mutinous prisoners, it was difficult to get colonists to move to Punta Arenas. That changed in 1867 when the first sheep farmers arrived from Britain and continued to do so for the next fifty years turning southern Patagonia into a giant sheep farm. Then came a huge number of immigrants from Croatia, fleeing persecution in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Others came from Spain, Italy, Germany and Switzerland. The result was that Punta Arenas has an ethnic mixture quite unlike other Chilean cities.

Like Valparaiso, Punta Arenas became a boom town in the mid to late 19th century as treasure seekers heading for the California, Australian and Klondike gold fields could only get there by passing through the Straits of Magellan. Also like Valparaiso, it went into a period of decline once the Panama Canal opened in 1914. Unlike Valparaiso, Punta Arenas had another attraction for spirited adventurers – it was about the closest they could get to the Antarctic and it was from here that many expeditions were outfitted. When you walk the streets you will see the names of Scott, Amundsen and most notably Shackleton on plaques and buildings.

It was in Punta Arenas that one of the greatest rescues of all time ended on September 3, 1916 when Sir Ernest Shackleton arrived with all 27 men of the crew of the Endurance which had been crushed in the Antarctic sea ice, setting off an almost too amazing to be true story of courage, fortitude and navigational skill that, unlike Sir Robert Scott’s, had a happy ending. I urge my readers to follow this link to read the full story because then you will fully appreciate this statue of Chilean Captain Luis Pardo who led the third and ultimately successful attempt to rescue Shackleton’s crew from Elephant Island.

Alison and Luis Pardo, Punta Arenas
Alison and Luis Pardo

Most people mistakenly think this is Shackleton, but in fact it is his Chilean benefactor which makes more sense from a Chilean perspective.

Today Punta Arenas has a mixed economy with tourism playing a large part as it is a gateway not only to the Antarctic, but also Chilean Patagonia. It has a surprising number of museums including one that has a replica of Magellan’s principal ship the Nao Victoria which I was able to see from a distance as we headed to and from the airport. Little did I know that only a few months later I would see another replica up close in Seville, Spain. This one had actually sailed the globe in a repetition of Magellan’s 1519-22 expedition.

The Nao Victoria, Seville
The Nao Victoria

Punta Arenas Cemetery Sara Braun

Cypress Avenues

While I was disappointed that we didn’t have time to visit one of the Punta Arenas museums, I was happy that we did get to visit the Punta Arenas Cemetery Sara Braun, named for the wealthy benefactor who donated the land. In 2013 CNN named it one of the ten most beautiful cemeteries in the world and having visited half of them on that list, I don’t think that is a stretch. Long filled up, it is now a Chilean National Monument and when you stroll through its verdant lanes and marvel at the great monuments erected by all of the nationalities that came to make up modern Punta Arenas, you can see why. Here is a small gallery of just a few of them. Double click to open and double click again to enlarge.

There are a couple of monuments that deserve closer attention. This is the one to the HMS Doterel which exploded at anchor in Punta Arenas harbour on April 26, 1881 killing 143 crew with only 12 survivors. Coal gas was ultimately determined to be the culprit.

HMS Doterel Victims, Punta Arenas
HMS Doterel Victims


This is the ‘Indio Desconocido Monument’, or The Unknown Indian, which is really quite unusual. Trying to find out its backstory is difficult, but apparently an unknown Indigenous person was buried here and at some point people began to attribute miracles to him. You can see that his hands and feet have been rubbed and kissed so much that they have developed their own patina. He is surrounded by plaques of gratitude for the cures and other blessings brought to people who prayed to him for help. Looking into his blank eyes definitely gives the twilight zone effect.

Indio Monument, Punta Arenas
Indio Desconocido Monument

The End of the World Highway

End of the World Highway

All too soon it’s time to leave Punta Arenas and follow the End of the World highway to Torres del Paine which is roughy 320 kms. (200 miles) to the northeast. Just outside Punta Arenas we find ourselves in the midst of a landscape unlike any I have ever seen. It is an open grassland apparently very similar to an Argentine pampas, but to me more akin to our fantastic Grasslands National Park in Saskatchewan. What makes it different from Grasslands of course is the Patagonian wildlife which is abundant. Before long we see our first guanacos, the largest of the wild camelids of South America. Hunted to extinction in Colombia and just holding on in Peru and Ecuador they are much more abundant in Patagonia, although still class as ‘vulnerable’.


The birdlife is particularly noteworthy with upland geese being plentiful.

Upland Geese

Every tenth telephone pole seemed to have a black-chested buzzard eagle perching atop it.

Immature Black-chested Buzzard Eagle

The bird I really wanted to see was my first ever rhea, the giant flightless bird of South America. In Patagonia a smaller subspecies, the Darwin’s rhea is found and sure enough we did spot some, but from the moving bus I could only get this very blurry shot. I was hoping we would see them again on the tour, but this was the one and only time they made an appearance.

Darwin’s Rhea

Puerto Natales

Esperenzo Sound, Puerto Natales

We had two stops to make before reaching Torres del Paine from Punta Arenas. The first was at the town of Puerto Natales which has an absolutely lovely location on Esperenzo Sound. We stopped here for lunch afterwhich I had some time to walk along the waterfront where I quickly got three new life listers.

Magellic Cormorants


Black Necked Swans


Coscoroba Swans

If you are a birder this drive, beautiful as it is, just got better with all the new sightings.

Old Pier at Puerto Natales

And if you are a birder and a photographer, well let’s just say there is an abundance of riches on this drive from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine.

Parked on the street in Puerto Natales was this massive RV with Canadian plates which belongs to world travellers Jeff & Kathy who describe their travels on this Facebook site. I didn’t run into them, but looking at the FB page, I wish I had.

Canadian Roam with a View Travellers - On the way from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine
Canadian Roam with a View Travellers

Milodon Cave

The Milodon Cave

Our second stop was at the Milodon Cave Natural Monument not far from Puerto Natales. Here in 1895 a German explorer found what he thought was the skin of an animal that had recently died or been killed. Turns out it was the skin of a milodon, aka giant ground sloth, that has been extinct for over 10,000 years. Later excavations have found the bones of many other extinct species, all wiped out by the first humans to arrive in the area. We are such great neighbours to have move into your neighbourhood – not!

Alison Heading to the Milodon Cave

It’s a short walk to the cave and there you can appreciate the size of these creatures that DNA has directly linked to being ancestors of the modern day two-toed sloth.

With the Milodon

The final part of the drive from Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine is the best of all as the majestic peaks of this UNESCO World Heritage Site come into view, but I’ll save that for the next post. However, here’a a teaser as we stop to look down at the Rio Serrano Hotel, our final stop of the day.

Rio Serrano Hotel

As much as I enjoyed Punta Arenas and the End of the World Highway what comes next in Torres del Paine is simply off the charts in terms of a life changing experience.