Human beings have inhabited the Chilean Patagonian region for thousands of years. Archaeological artifacts show that migrants over the Alaskan land bridge during the last Ice Age probably made it down to the southern tip of Chile around 10 to 12 thousand years ago. Various tribes have held control of the region, though their migration patterns are still not well understood at this point.

The first documented European sighting of this area of the world was by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer whose crew circumnavigated the globe in 1520 and 1521. He passed through the straits that now bear his name, not far from present-day Punta Arenas. Later, as more European explorers made their way to Cape Horn, the land in this region gained the name “Sandy Point,” a Spanish translation of which became the name of the city.

Spain made a few major attempts to colonize the area in the 1500s, including one settlement known as Puerto Hambre, or Port Starvation, founded to prevent English piracy, but which eventually failed so badly that survivors had to be rescued by an English captain.

Later, Chile used Punta Arenas as a penal colony, but the town soon grew into a major trade center when the California Gold Rush brought a wealth of shipping across Cape Horn. Today, the city’s harbor is used more by Antarctica expeditions and tourist cruise ships, but the city’s economy remains well-anchored to the Strait of Magellan.