Introduction

A sprawling metropolis on the edge of the Strait of Magellan, Punta Arenas defies easy definition. It's a strange combination of the ruddy and the grand, with elaborate wool-boom mansions and port renovations alongside urban sprawl. Set at the bottom of the Americas, it is downright stingy with good weather – the sun shines through sidelong rain.

Magellanic hospitality still pervades local culture, undeterred and even nurtured by nature's inhospitality. Recent prosperity, fed by a petrochemical industry boom and growing population, has sanded down the city's former roughneck reputation. It would be nice if it were all about restoration, but duty-free shopping and mega-malls on the city outskirts are the order of the future.

Easy connections to Tierra del Fuego, Torres del Paine and Argentina and good travelers' services make Punta Arenas a convenient base. A growing volume of cruise-ship passengers and trekkers has effectively replaced yesteryear's explorers, sealers and sailors.