Many tour operators run conventional city tours and trips to the penguin colonies, as well as short visits and multiday, all-inclusive trekking excursions to Torres del Paine National Park; but for excursions within the park I recommend that you stick with one of the outfitters listed under tour operators in the Puerto Natales section. A city tour here provides the historical background to this region and undoubtedly enriches a visitor's understanding of the hardship the immigrants and native aboriginals faced during the past century.
Turismo Yamana, Errázuriz 932 (tel. 61/710567; www.yamana.cl), offers full-day city tours (about $75/£50 per person), penguin tours ($98/£65 per person), and tours to Pali Aike National Park ($275/£183 per person), as well as multiday kayaking and whale-watching expeditions. They also have an exhausting 14-hour "Torres del Paine in a day" tour ($417/£278 per person). Prices drop significantly for groups of four or more. The company also offers multiday trips to Lago Blanco in Tierra del Fuego for trekking, horseback riding, and fishing.
Turismo Comapa, Magallanes 990 (tel. 61/200200; www.comapa.com), is the leader in town for conventional tours such as city tours and visits to the penguin colonies. Turis Otway, Mejicana 122 (tel. 61/224454), also goes to the Seno Otway penguin colony for the bargain price of $25 (£17).
Turismo Viento Sur, 585 Fagnano (tel. 61/613845; www.vientosur.com), is another respected company offering more outdoorsy excursions in and around Punta Arenas, including hiking to the San Isidro lighthouse, horseback riding, kayaking, fly-fishing, and bird-watching.
Fantastico Sur, José Menéndez 858 (tel. 61/615794; www.fantasticosur.com), has naturalist tours including a day-long bird-watching tour where you can spot condors, penguins, waders, and passerines. They also have multiday naturalist tours of Patagonia, and their guides are passionate, professional, and superb.
Whale Sound, Lautaro Navarro 1163, 2nd floor (tel. 61/710511; www.whalesound.com), is a new company offering multiday whale-watching tours in the distant waters off Carlos III Island, a breeding ground of the humpback whale. They also have a day-long helicopter whale-watching trip to the Francisco Coloane Marine Park, appealing if you have the time and, perhaps more importantly, the money. A 3-day, 2-night trip starts at $680 (£453) per person.
In 1843, Captain Juan Williams, the naturalist Bernardo Philippi, 16 sailors and soldiers, and two women set sail from Ancud in Chiloé to the Strait of Magellan to plant the Chilean flag in this region before other powers could beat Chile to it. They chose a rocky promontory that dominated the strait and named it Fuerte Bulnes. Although this promontory was strategically appropriate for monitoring seafaring traffic, the location proved undesirable, and they pulled up stakes and moved 25km (16 miles) north, founding what is today Punta Arenas. In recognition of the historical value of Fuerte Bulnes, the Chilean government reconstructed the site in 1943, its centenary anniversary, and made it a national monument. At the gorgeous location, you'll find reconstructions of the log cabins that housed the settlers, a chapel, and several cannons. It is approximately 60km (37 miles) south of Punta Arenas on Rte. 9, the Panamericana. There are no set hours, and admission is free.
Just before Fuerte Bulnes is a short road leading to Puerto Hambre. The site was founded as Rey Felipe by Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa in 1584, and settled by 103 colonists who were tragically stranded after tremendous storms prevented their ships from returning to shore. The name Puerto Hambre (Port Hunger) was given by the British captain Thomas Cavendish, who found only one survivor when he docked here in 1587 (the rest had died of starvation and exposure). In 1993, the Chilean ambassador José Miguel Barros found the plan for Rey Felipe in the library of the Institute of France in Paris, and it is the oldest known document of urban history in Chile. The only things you'll find here are a plaque and the remains of a chapel, but imagining yourself in the place of these settlers on this forsaken plot is worth the short detour from Fuerte Bulnes. Admission for both sites is free, with unspecified hours. To get here, sign up for a tour with Comapa or Viento Sur.
Penguin Colonies & Estancia Lolita
If you have a day or a half-day to kill in Punta Arenas, from October through March, the most appealing activity is a visit to one of the penguin colonies at Seno Otway or Isla Magdalena. Both colonies allow visitors to get surprisingly close to the amusing Magellanic penguins (also called jackass penguins, for their characteristic bray) at their nesting sites. November through February provides the best viewing. Isla Magdalena is by far the best place to view the penguins, but the trip here involves a ferry ride and will take up more of your time and Isla Magdalena isn't open as long.
Penguins form lifelong partnerships and divide their chores equally: Every morning around 10am and in the afternoon around 5pm, the penguin couples change shifts -- one heads out to fish, the other returns from fishing to take care of their young. When this changing of the guard begins, the penguins politely line up and waddle to and from the sea.
Seno Otway is accessible by road about 65km (40 miles) from Punta Arenas. A volunteer study group has developed the sight with roped walkways and lookout posts, including a peek-a-boo wall where you can watch the penguins diving into the ocean. Tours are offered in four languages, and there is a tiny cafe here, too. It's open October 15 to March 31 daily from 8am to 8pm. The best time to visit is between 9 and 10am and 5 and 7pm, when the majority of activity takes place (the crowds of visitors are thinner during the morning shift). Most tour companies in town will provide transportation with daily departures in the afternoons, but if you have a rental car you can go on your own. The cost of a tour here is about $12 to $15 (£8-£10), plus a $9 (£6) entrance fee (free for kids; tel. 61/224454; www.turisotway.cl). It's open daily from 8am to 8pm. Give yourself 3 hours. Take Rte. 9 toward Puerto Natales, then turn left on the dirt road that branches out near the police checkpoint. Keep your eyes open for the ostrichlike Darwin's rhea on the ride here.
Isla Magdalena is much larger than Seno Otway, with an estimated 150,000 penguins sharing nesting space with cormorants, compared to 3,000 penguins at Seno Otway. These penguins are more timid than those at Seno Otway, but the sight of so many of these birds bustling to and fro is decidedly more impressive. To get here, you need to take a ferry, which makes for a pleasant 5-hour afternoon excursion. Turismo Comapa, Av. Magallanes 990 (tel. 61/200200; www.comapa.com), puts this tour together. Its boat, the Barcaza Melinka, departs from the pier at 4pm and returns at 9pm on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, from late October to the end of March ($50/£33 for adults; $26/£17 for children under 12).
Estancia Lolita (tel. 61/233057; www.faunapatagonica.com; adults $6/£4, children $4/£2.70) is a wildlife refuge and zoo for Patagonian fauna and the best place to view rarely seen species; it's 42km (16 miles) north of Punta Arenas. Josefina, a tame, rambunctious culpeo fox who loves to play with visitors, is one of the most charming living souls you'll meet in Patagonia. Guanacos, pumas (who seem happy enough, though their pens are on the small side) and other wild cats, and parrots and other endemic birds are among the denizens of the estancia, which has over 30 species in all. The refuge can provide lunch and arrange round-trip transportation, but it's on the expensive side.
Pali Aike National Park
You may not be the only who finds the Patagonian steppe bleak and forlorn: In the language of the Aonikenk, or Tehuelches, the original inhabitants, the name Pali Aike means "Desolate Place." Though windswept and strewn with volcanic craters, the starkly beautiful area was inhabited thousands of years ago, with cracks in the lava forming caves that served as shelters and were excavated in the 1930s. The Cueva Fell has Stone Age cave paintings 9,000 years old. Fauna in the 5,000-hectare (12,350-acre) park include guanaco, fox, puma, armadillo, and waterfowl; Pali Aike also has several easy hikes, though the Cueva Pali Aike-Laguna Ana is a long 9km (5.5 miles). It's a fine side trip en route to or from Tierra del Fuego or Río Gallegos, but unless you have your own transportation, you'll need to book a tour in Punta Arenas, and you'll hardly see a thing on a foggy day. Note the minefields not far from the park entrance; the rustiness of the warning signs will chill your spine.