It is early November 2008 and the sun is setting at 10 p.m. and rising (directly south) at 5 a.m. Around Christmas there will be 18 hours of sunlight. You are in Punta Arenas, Chile (tr. Sandy Point). As you can imagine, at the beginning of winter in late June there will be just over 6 hours of sunlight. Located just south of the 53rd parallel, the tip of Antarctica is only a 3 hour flight away, making Punta Arenas the midway point between Santiago and Antarctica. Looking into the sky one would think that the clouds almost touch the ground.
While I cannot recommend living in Punta Arenas, it is a great place to see penguins, visit a multi-cultural cemetery (with tombstones etched in some 20 different languages), do tax-free shopping, and view other rich history. Punta Arenas is also the jumping-off point for visiting Torres del Paine national park and Puerto Natales, a quiet town with some hotels, a supermarket and a little casino. One will also find a relatively large number of caucasians in the area, derived from all parts of Europe in previous centuries, and prettier-than-average young Chilean women (often with light hair and blue or green eyes).

Punta Arenas, Chile is a low-taxed city on the Strait of Magellan, literally at the end of the world. There are perhaps 135,000 residents who bear the constantly-blowing wind and cool or cold weather. Many of them work for Chile’s (only) national oil company, Empresa Nacional de Petróleo (ENAP). Nearby Tierra del Fuego, is home to Chile’s vibrant but small oil and natural gas productio , and the small city of Porvenir where gold was discovered in the 19th century. Other residents work in service industries, the tax free mall and wholesale areas, or for the port and shipping. ENAP workers often have to do 7 day shifts in the town of Cerro Sombrero, located across the Strait of Magellan on the Tierra del Fuego island, while others work in ENAP offices or holding facilities closer by.

As the photos below show, there are some nice homes but mostly what appears to be squalor. Like in parts of New York and Philadelphia, the interiors of houses often look much better than their exteriors. Nevertheless, I have never had a bad meal in the city and its history is rich. There are pleasant things about Punta Arenas. A new boardwalk and casino have been built and the shipping business continues to be brisk. There are many pubs, nightclubs, and music bars. As one might guess, much of the life of people in Punta Arenas is indoors. Food is reasonably-priced but things like auto mechanic’s services are very expensive. You just cannot drive over the Strait of Magellan to another city to find better prices or services like one can cross the Hudson to New Jersey if the service is bad in New York. Alternatives are far away.

Residents imagine that their city and the rest of the 12th region, if not the lower part of Argentina too (Provincia de Santa Cruz down to Ushuaia), will be able to peacefully secede and form a new nation of Patagonia. The flag of Patagonia is frequently flown alongside the Chilean flag. If there is any place in Chile that is ripe for a League of the South chapter it is Punta Arenas and perhaps Puerto Natales!
Some photographs of the downtown residential areas, with its varying quality of homes and businesses, mostly under blue sky, are presented below. It does rain or snow a lot in Punta Arenas but the constant wind is more noticeable. The surrounding area must have great sites for wind farming.

And, of all things, here is the Consulate of the Croatian embassy. A lot of Croatians immigrated to Chile during its Porvenir gold rush.

The new boardwalk along the Strait of Magellan and close to the casino (shown in November 2008, prior to being finished).

The “Zona Franca” or tax-free zone (also known as ZonAustral) is perhaps only half of the size of Iquique’s similar “Zofri” mall but provides the same sorts of items (i.e., consumer durables, finished goods but not parts) like cars, construction materials, furniture, groceries, and electronics. The photos below were taken on a day when most of the shops were closed for a long weekend.

P.S. Ever heard of this Chinese car manufacturer?

If you enlarge these shots you can see the prices. Divide by 630 to get the dollar equivalents in November 2008, but only 480 if you were using the exchange rate in November 2010.

Notice that the flag of Patagonia below is standing straight out sideways. Think the wind is blowing pretty hard?

Below are photos of Punta Arenas’ historic plaza and surrounding buildings.

A very wealthy lady in the 19th century owned this mansion (Sara Braun’s home), now a hotel and club (semi-museum). The photographs are from November 2008.

Wealthy agricultural baroness Sara Braun’s home on November 20, 2010 is pictured below. She had 500,000 sheep (see her portrait next to her then late husband’s below). The entire house, including all materials, was shipped in from France and designed by a French architect. The house included an indoor glass patio where, in spite of the mostly cold weather, a hearty grapevine grew. The same vine can be seen today, along with many antiques and artifacts.

The following photos were taken on November 19th and 20th, 2010. First, inside the new Zofra tax-free mall.

Tree-lined Avenida España in northern Punta Arenas:

Cemetery with its impressive bushes.

Tombstones in English, German, Croatian, Italian, etc., mostly Roman Catholic but also some Eastern Orthodox and Protestant.

Looking down from a higher, inland part of Punta Arenas over the Strait of Magellan.

More of the Strait of Magellan:

The next set of images comes from Puerto de Hambre (“starvation port”), a famous site along the the Strait of Magellan, about 40 minutes south of Punta Arenas. Under the direction of Capitan Pedro Sarmiento, after which a lake in the Torres del Paine is named, Spaniards arrived here in 1584 to bring “civilization” to the area. But all of them ended up dying from starvation. The photographs show the monument and the surrounding area, including explanatory signs.

Close to Puerto de Hambre one can see the (reconstructed) Fuerte Bulnes, a Chilean fort which had been used to defend the territory in the 19th century. The construction was of logs and straw-reinforced mud. The fort was named after early Chilean President Bulnes.

A Penguin colony can be seen about 90 minutes north of Punta Arenas. The Penguins arrive in late September and leave in early March. Admission and road toll amount to a hefty $13 per person.

A bit further north, on the road toward Puerto Natales, lakes and ponds with flamingos are seen.

Puerto Natales (a few hour’s north) looks like this:

Border crossing (Argentine side) at Cerro Castillo, going from Tores del Paine to the Perito Moreno glacier.