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254km (158 miles) SE of Puerto Natales; 3,090km (1,916 miles) S of Santiago

Punta Arenas, with a population of 113,000, is the capital of the Magellanic and Antarctic Region XII, and it is Patagonia's most important city, founded where the forest meets the steppe. The streets hum with activity, and its airport and seaports bustle with traffic. The town has made a living from coal mines, wool production, oil and natural gas, and fishing, and as a service center for cargo ships and the Chilean navy.

Punta Arenas' post-colonial wealth is reflected in the grand stone mansions that encircle the main plaza, which were built with earnings from the sheep estancias (ranches) of the late 1800s. Gold fever followed, and subsequently, hundreds of immigrants from Europe poured into the region from Britain, Germany, Yugoslavia, Russia, Spain, and Italy. Today Punta Arenas' streets are lined with residential homes with colorful, corrugated rooftops; business offices and hotels downtown; and an industrial port. The main waterfront area is undergoing a massive redevelopment project. The Magallanes region considers itself somewhat of an independent republic due to its isolation from the rest of Chile -- you'll see its attractive blue and yellow flag often -- and this, in turn, has affected the personality of its people, an indefatigable bunch who brace themselves every summer against the gales that blow through this town like a hurricane. The wind, in fact, is so fierce at times that the city has fastened ropes around the plaza for people to hold on to. If that weren't enough, residents here now have to contend with a paper-thin ozone layer, which nearly dissipates for the summer around November.

Although for most travelers, Punta Arenas is simply an arrival and departure spot, the history of this region and the extremity of Punta Arenas' location on the famous Magellan Strait make for a fascinating place to explore. The most appealing reason to stop here is to visit one of the nearby penguin colonies (possible roughly from Oct-Mar). But if you have a few hours to kill, you'll find the human history on display in the mansions and museums also very intriguing and, in their own way, exotic.