Located on the Brunswick Peninsula north of the Strait of Magellan, Punta Arenas was originally established by the Chilean government in 1848 as a tiny penal colony to assert sovereignty over the Strait. During the remainder of the 1800s, Punta Arenas grew in size and importance due to the increasing maritime traffic and trade traveling to the west coasts of South and North America. This period of growth also resulted from the waves of European immigrants, mainly from Croatia and Russia attracted to the gold rush and sheep farming boom in the 1880s and early 1900s. The largest sheep company, controlling 10,000 square kilometres in Chile and Argentina, was based in Punta Arenas, and its owners lived there.
Since its founding Chile has used Punta Arenas as a base to defend its sovereignty claims in the southernmost part of South America. This led, among other things, to the Strait of Magellan being recognized as Chilean territory in the Boundary treaty of 1881 between Chile and Argentina. The geopolitical importance of Punta Arenas has remained high in the 20th and 21st centuries because of its logistic importance in accessing the Antarctic Peninsula.
Since 2017, the city and its region have their own Time Zone: they use the summer time during the whole year.
The English 18th-century explorer John Byron is sometimes credited with naming this area, calling it Sandy Point. However, it was not until 1843 that the government tried to establish a fort and settlement at Fuerte Bulnes. The name Punta Arenas was derived from the Spanish term Punta Arenosa, a literal translation of the English name "Sandy Point". The city has also been known as Magallanes. Today that term is normally used to describe the administrative region which includes the city.
Punta Arenas has been nicknamed "the city of the red roofs" for the red-painted metal roofs that characterized the city for many years. Since about 1970, the availability of other colors in protective finishes has resulted in greater variety in the characteristic metal roofs.
Located on the Brunswick Peninsula, Punta Arenas is among the largest cities in the entire Patagonian Region. In 2012, it had a population of 127,454. It is roughly 1,418.4 km (881 miles) from the coast of Antarctica.
The Magallanes region is considered part of Chilean Patagonia. Magallanes is Spanish for Magellan, and was named for Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer sailing for Spain. While circumnavigating the earth for Spain, he passed close to the present site of Punta Arenas in 1520. Early English navigational documents referred to this site as "Sandy Point".
The city proper is located on the northeastern shore of Brunswick Peninsula. Except for the eastern shore, containing the settlements of Guairabo, Rio Amarillo and Punta San Juan, the peninsula is largely uninhabited. The municipality of Punta Arenas includes all of Brunswick Peninsula, as well as all islands west of the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego and north of Cockburn and Magdalena channels.
The largest of those are:
Except Dawson Island, which had a population of about 301 in 2002, the islands are largely uninhabited. Clarence Island had a population of five.
Due to its far southern latitude, Punta Arenas has a subpolar oceanic climate (Köppen climate classification Cfc) bordering on a tundra climate. The seasonal temperature in Punta Arenas is greatly moderated by its proximity to the ocean, with average lows in July near −1 °C (30 °F) and highs in January of 14 °C (57 °F). This is not to say that it is known for stable constant temperatures, only small variability with season. Rainfall is most plentiful in April and May, and the snowy season runs all through the Chilean winter (June until September). As in most of Patagonia, average annual precipitation is quite low only 15 inches (380 mm) because of a rain shadow created by the Andes. The average temperature does not go below +1 °C (34 °F). Among Chileans the city is also known for its strong winds (up to 130 km/hour). Winds tend to be strongest during the summer; city officials have put up ropes between buildings in the downtown area to assist pedestrians with managing the strong downdrafts created in the area.
Since 1986, Punta Arenas has been the first significantly populated city in the world to be affected directly by the thinning in the ozone layer. Its residents are considered to be exposed to potentially damaging levels of ultraviolet radiation.
Two early Spanish settlements were attempted along this coast (on the Straits of Magellan). The first was founded in 1584 and was called Nombre de Jesús. It failed due to the harsh weather and difficulty in the settlers' obtaining food and water, and the enormous distances from other Spanish ports. A second colony, Rey don Felipe, was attempted about 80 kilometres south of Punta Arenas. This became known later as Puerto del Hambre, sometimes translated as Port Starvation or Famine Port. Spain had established these settlements in an attempt to protect its shipping and prevent piracy by English pirates, by controlling the Straits of Magellan. An English pirate captain, Thomas Cavendish, rescued the last surviving member of Puerto del Hambre in 1587.
In 1843 the Chilean government sent an expedition to build a fort and establish a permanent settlement on the shores of the Strait of Magellan. It built and commissioned a schooner called Goleta Ancud. Under the command of John Williams Wilson, Chilean Navy, it transported a crew of 21 people (captain, eighteen crew, and two women), plus cargo, to accomplish the mandate. The founding act of the settlement took place on 21 September 1843.
The fort was well-positioned on a small rocky peninsula, but the location could not support a proper civilian settlement. With this in mind the Military Governor, José de los Santos Mardones, decided in 1848 to move the settlement to its current location, along the Las Minas river, and renamed it Punta Arenas.
In the mid-19th century, Chile used Punta Arenas as a penal colony and a disciplinary posting for military personnel with "problematic" behavior. It also settled immigrants there. In December 1851, a prisoners' mutiny led by Lieutenant Cambiaso, resulted in the murder of Governor Muñoz Gamero and the priest, and the destruction of the church and the hospital. The mutiny was put down by Commander Stewart of HMS Virago assisted by two Chilean ships: Indefatigable and Meteoro.
An 1877 mutiny, known as El motín de los artilleros (Mutiny of the Artillerymen), led to the destruction of a large part of the town and the murder of many civilians not directly associated with the prison. In time the city was restored. The growth of the sheep farming industry and the discovery of gold, as well as increasing trade via sailing ships, attracted many new settlers, and the town began to prosper.
Between about 1890 and 1940, the Magallanes region became one of the world's most important sheep-raising regions, with one company (Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego) controlling over 10,000 square kilometres (3,900 sq mi) in southern Chile and Argentina. The headquarters of this company and the residences of the owners were in Punta Arenas.
Visitors today can tour the Sarah Braun museum, established at the former Braun-Menéndez mansion, in the center of Punta Arenas. Other popular attractions include the two nearby rookeries for Magellanic penguins, and the reconstructed fort of the failed Fuerte Bulnes settlement.
The Punta Arenas harbor, although exposed to storms, was considered one of the most important in Chile before the construction of the Panama Canal. It was used as a coaling station by the steamships transiting between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Today it is mostly used by tourism cruises and scientific expeditions.
The city is often a base for Antarctic expeditions, although Ushuaia (Argentina) and Christchurch (New Zealand) are also common starting points.
Punta Arenas has a population of over 127,000 inhabitants (2012 Census). According to the 2002 census of the National Statistics Institute, the Punta Arenas commune has 119,496 inhabitants (60,616 men and 58,880 women). Of these, 116,005 (97.1%) lived in urban areas and 3,491 (2.9%) in rural areas. The population grew by 5.1% (5,830 persons) between the 1992 and 2002 censuses. It further rose to 127,454 at the 2012 Census.
The city was populated by many colonists from Spain and Croatia in the mid-nineteenth century and many of their descendants still live there. Other national ethnic groups represented are German, English, Italian, Swiss, and Irish.
Croatian immigration to Punta Arenas was a crucial development in the region of Magallanes and the city in particular. Currently, this influence is still reflected in the names of shops, streets and many buildings. According to some references, some 50% of the population of Punta Arenas are ethnic Croats.
By 2006 the economy of Punta Arenas and the region had diversified. Chile's principal oil reserves are located here, along with some low-grade coal.
Agricultural production, including sheep and cattle, continues to play a significant role.
Tourism has contributed to the city's economy and steady growth. Tourist destinations include the Cathedral and other notable churches, the city cemetery, and the statute of Magellan. Some cruise ships to Antarctica depart from Punta Arenas's port, which also serves as a hub for many cruise lines that travel along the channels and fjords of the region.
There is fishing and silviculture.
A scheduled ferry service connects Punta Arenas with the main island of Tierra del Fuego, and a less frequent ferry runs to the Chilean town of Puerto Williams.
Since the Falklands War, when transport ties were severed between the Falkland Islands and Argentina, Punta Arenas has become a major outside link to the archipelago.
University of Magallanes (UMAG) is in the southern Chilean city of Punta Arenas. It is part of the Chilean Traditional Universities. The University of Magallanes was established in 1981 during the neoliberal reforms of Chile's military regime as the successor of Universidad Técnica del Estado's Punta Arenas section. Universidad Técnica del Estado had established the Punta Arenas section in 1961.
The University of Magallanes has campuses in Punta Arenas and Puerto Natales as well as a university center in Puerto Williams. University of Magallanes publishes the humanities and social sciences journal Magallania twice a year.
There is a German school, Deutsche Schule Punta Arenas.
This museum exhibits a full-size replica of the first ship ever to circumnavigate the world: Ferdinand Magellan's Nao Victoria. Since October 2011, the museum has added a full-size replica of the James Caird, used by Ernest Shackleton during his Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition with the Endurance. The museum is located 7.5 km north on Route Y-565 to Rio Seco.
As a "comuna" (commune) Punta Arenas is a third-level administrative division of Chile administered by a municipal council, headed by an alcalde who is directly elected every four years. The 2016–2020 alcalde is Claudio Radonich (National Renewal).
Within the electoral divisions of Chile, Punta Arenas is represented in the Chamber of Deputies by Carolina Goic (PDC) and Miodrag Marinovic (Ind.) as part of the 60th electoral district, which includes the entire Magallanes and Antartica Chilena Region. The commune is represented in the Senate by Carlos Bianchi Chelech (Ind.) and Pedro Muñoz Aburto (PS) as part of the 19th senatorial constituency (Magallanes Region).
The city has sea, land, and air connections.
Carlos Ibáñez del Campo airport is located 20 kilometers from the city centre. Rental car services, duty-free shops and custom office services are available in the building (there is no duty-free shop in the terminal, despite the representations of tourist literature). Airlines serving the airport include LAN Chile and Sky Airline, as well as charter flights. The civilian airport and the military airport make up the larger complex.
By road, a connection to other regions of Chile requires passing through Argentine territory Chile Route 5, a vital link in the Pan-American Highway passes through the city. Note that the Panamerican highway terminates in Buenos Aires and does not come anywhere close to Punta Arenas.
By sea, several cruises and ferries can take visitors to the city, although the costs are higher because they include stops at tourist sites along the route.
Punta Arenas has the following sister city