Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Punta Arenas: Old Frontier in a New Chile the World's Southernmost Big City Used to Be One of Its Most Prosperous as Well

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Punta Arenas: Old Frontier in a New Chile the World's Southernmost Big City Used to Be One of Its Most Prosperous as Well

Article excerpt

BEFORE the Panama Canal was built, this little Chilean city at the tip of South America was a stopping point on the fastest route from New York to San Francisco.

Today Punta Arenas, located on a desolate coast along the Strait of Magellan, barely feels like it's part of the civilized world. It is the southernmost large city on the planet, with a little more than 110,000 residents.

Punta Arenas is marooned on a rock-strewn, wind-blasted stretch of Chilean Patagonia; the forbidding Andes Mountains line the horizon to the north, and Cape Horn and the wild waters of the Drake Passage lie to the south. Crowds of grizzled dockworkers, Chilean Navy personnel, and cargo-ship pilots still give the port a bustling air. But things are far different from Punta Arenas's glory days at the turn of the century. Fortunes were made here from sheep, coal, and shipping. During its heyday, Punta Arenas had more millionaires per capita than any other city in the world.

Today, thousands of free-grazing sheep roam the rugged landscape outside the city. And while container ships and fishing vessels regularly stop in this harbor, the shipping traffic is tiny compared to the freewheeling days before the Panama Canal stole the East-West ship traffic for good.

Up the coast a little north of Punta Arenas is a huge coal mine, designated on maps simply as la mina. The port used to serve as a coaling station for steamships on long voyages. The replacement of coal by diesel as the primary shipping fuel helped to undermine Punta Arenas's shipping role. But coal is still exported from the region.

Oil fields here and in nearby Tierra del Fuego are currently being expanded, giving new vitality to an otherwise sheep-oriented economy. In addition to sheep hides and wool, frozen mutton is exported widely from processing plants here. …

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