Punta Arenas owes its name to old English nautical charts showing the sandbank on the Brunswick Peninsula as a “sandy point”.
The southernmost city on the mainland in the world on the Strait of Magellan was founded in the middle of the 19th century, after the settlement of Puerto del Hambre (Port Famine) with the Fuerte Bulnes, located just 60 km further south, had to be abandoned after a military revolt. Today some buildings still remind of the wealth of the sheep barons who came to the end of the world with the herds imported from England after the new masters had systematically exterminated the indigenous peoples of Tierra del Fuerte. Sheep farming still plays an important role for the capital of Region XII Magallanes y Antártida Chilena, with its 120,000 inhabitants, but other important economic sectors have also been established: Services for coal mining, the fishing industry and above all the port. After all, Punta Arenas is both the most important airport and seaport for Antarctic expeditions.
From the Cerro de la Cruz, one has the best view over the city that runs in a flat arch along the Strait of Magellan, also over the harbour and weather permitting up to Tierra del Fuego and the Darwin Cordillera.
The sights outside the city include Cape Froward as the southernmost point of the American mainland, the San Isidro lighthouse, Fuerte Bulnes with its restored fortifications and above all the penguin colonies of Otway Bay, Isla Magdalena and Tierra del Fuego.
The infamous history of the pioneer city of Punta Arenas:
In 1875 José Menéndez, a small accountant and debt collector from an Asturian family of small farmers, came to Punta Arenas to collect the debts of the estanciero Luis Piedrabuena. In the end he bought up the remaining possessions himself.
At that time Punta Arenas was regarded as Siberia of South America, a place of forced exile or punishment, with hardly more than 1000 inhabitants. “With the soul of a missionary and the spirit of a conqueror” Menéndez set out to increase his fortune. When, in 1877, a prison mutiny actually ended in the destruction of the city and the murder of its most influential citizens, Menéndez’s hour struck. With the only remaining competitor, Elias Braun, who had immigrated from Kurland, he began to graze imported flocks of sheep on the tufted grass steppes, which had previously been reserved for wild animals such as guanacos. The livelihood of the indigenous Tehuelche (Aonikenk) and Ona (Selk’nam) was threatened by the displacement of wild animals, so that they now hunted “white guanacos” (sheep) until they became a prey of headhunters. The new masters Menéndez and Braun (since an interfamily marriage also merged in business to the “exploitation society” Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego) placed bounty on the natives. (The head of a murdered man yielded one pound sterling). Only the Salesian mission under Father José Fagnano tried to save the natives from the genocide by equally paying one pound per head for locals brought to them. Ultimately, this desperate attempt was unsuccessful, and already at the beginning of the 20th century, “Tierra del Fuego” was considered “Indian-free”. With the Portuguese entrepreneur José Nogueira, who was bound to the extended family by a Braun marriage, from now on three families ruled over an area of 10,000 square kilometres, two million sheep, slaughterhouses, shipping companies, banks and behaved as patrons towards the compliant inhabitants.
Ideologically, the extermination policy of the sheep barons against the indigenous population was based on Charles Darwin, who as the spiritual arsonist had described the natives of Tierra del Fuego as “the most miserable race in the world”.