Founded more than 150 years ago, Punta Arenas was Chile's first permanent settlement in Patagonia. Great developments in cattle-keeping, mining, and wood production led to an economic and social boom at the end of the 19th century; today, though the port is no longer an important stop on trade routes, it exudes an aura of faded grandeur. Plaza Muñoz Gamero, the central square (also known as the Plaza de Armas), is surrounded by evidence of its early prosperity: buildings whose then-opulent brick exteriors recall a time when this was one of Chile's wealthiest cities.
The newer houses here have colorful tin roofs, best appreciated when seen from a high vantage point such as the Mirador Cerro la Cruz. Although the city as a whole is not particularly attractive, look for details: the pink-and-white house on a corner, the bay window full of potted plants, and schoolchildren in identical naval pea coats reminding you how the city's identity is tied to the sea.
Although Punta Arenas is 3,141 km (1,960 miles) from Santiago, daily flights from the capital make it an easy journey. As the transportation hub of southern Patagonia, Punta Arenas is within reach of Chile's Parque Nacional Torres del Paine (a four-hour drive) and Argentina's Parque Nacional los Glaciares. It's also a major base for penguin-watchers and a key embarkation point for boat travel to Ushuaia and Antarctica.
The sights of Punta Arenas can be done in a day or two. The city is mainly a jumping-off point for cruises, and while tours to Torres del Paine do operate from here, a visit to Chilean Patagonia’s main attraction is much more pleasantly done from Puerto Natales, a town that's gaining ground over Punta Arenas as a vacation destination and will likely affect the traffic into Punta Areas as the new airport there gains traction.