Southern Patagonia was inhabited from the end of the Ice Age, mainly by the Tehuelche people, who roamed from the Atlantic coast to the mountains . The first Europeans did not visit until the 16th century. When Magellan sailed through the Straits in 1520, the strategic importance was quickly recognized: soon Spanish ships were using the route, as were mariners from other countries, including Francis Drake on his world voyage (1578). The route became less important after 1616 when Dutch sailors Jacob le Maire and Cornelius van Schouten discovered a quicker route into the Pacific round Cape Horn.

At Independence, Chile claimed the far southern territories along the Pacific coast but little was done to carry out this claim until 1843 when, concerned at British activities in the area and at rumours of French plans to start a colony, President Bulnes ordered the preparation of a secret mission. The expedition, on board the vessel
, established Fuerte Bulnes; the fort was abandoned in 1848 in favour of a new settlement 56 km north, called Punta Arenas. The development of sheep farming in Patagonia and on Tierra del Fuego (with the help of arrivals from the nearby Falkland Islands), and the renewed importance of the Magellan Straits with the advent of steam shipping, led to the rapid expansion of Punta Arenas at the end of the 19th century, when it took the first steps towards being the city that it is today.

Sheep farming remains vital to the local economy, although wool exports have dropped in recent years. Forestry has become more important, but is controversial, as native forests are used for woodchips to export to Japan, Taiwan and Brazil. This is especially serious on Tierra del Fuego. Although oil production has declined, large quantities of natural gas are now produced and about 33% of Chilean coal comes from large open-cast coal mines on the Brunswick Peninsula. Tourism is growing rapidly, making an increasingly important contribution to the local economy.

Geography and climate

Chilean southern Patagonia stretches south from the icefields of the Campo de Hielos Sur to the Estrecho de Magallanes (Straits of Magellan), which separate continental South America from Tierra del Fuego. The coastline is heavily indented by fjords; offshore are numerous islands, few of which are inhabited. The remnants of the Andes stretch along the coast, seldom rising above 1500 m, although the Cordillera del Paine has several peaks over 2600 m and Cerro Balmaceda is 2035 m. Most of the western coast is covered by thick rainforest but further east is grassland, stretching into the arid Patagonian plateau across the Argentine border. Together with the Chilean part of Tierra del Fuego, Isla Navarino and Chilean Antarctica, this part of Chile is administered as Región XII (Magallanes); the capital is Punta Arenas. The region covers 17.5% of Chilean territory, but the population is only around 150,000, under 1% of the Chilean total.

People from Punta Arenas say they often have four seasons in one day. Frequently, however, the only season appears to be winter. Cold winds, often exceeding 100 km per hour, blow during the summer bringing heavy rain to coastal areas. Further east, the winds are drier; annual rainfall at Punta Dungeness at the east end of the Straits is only 250 mm compared to over 4000 mm on the offshore islands. Coastal temperatures seldom rise above 15°C in summer. In winter, snow covers the whole region, except those parts near the sea, making many roads impassable. Recent times, however, have seen a general warning trend and Punta Arenas has not seen heavy snow for years. Moreover there is little wind in the winter months, and this means that tourism remains possible for most of the year.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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