Coastal Patagonia’s single most important historical site, windswept San Julián was where Magellan’s crew wintered in 1520 during the first circumnavigation of the globe.
Both Magellan and Sir Francis Drake (half a century later) faced mutinies that they repressed ruthlessly, while Antonio de Viedma founded a short-lived Spanish colony at nearby Floridablanca—southern Patagonia’s first European settlement—in 1780.
Darwin, who found the countryside “more sterile” than Puerto Deseado , uncovered a llama-like fossil with an elephantine trunk here.
In the 1890s, British settlers from the Falkland Islands  and Scotland finally established a permanent presence through the powerful San Julián Sheep Farming Company. Even in the late 1930s, according to John Locke Blake, “English was spoken freely round town,” and the company’s extensive holdings—175,000 hectares of pastureland—dominated life into the 1960s. Today, it’s a secondary ecotourism destination for its dolphins and penguins, and a common stopover between Caleta Olivia and Río Gallegos.
San Julián (pop. 6,152) is 351 kilometers south of Caleta Olivia  and 355 kilometers north of Río Gallegos  via RN 3. Avenida San Martín, the main thoroughfare, is an extension of the eastward lateral than connects the town with the highway.
In the bay just north of town, Isla Cormorán has a Magellanic penguin colony; there’s a king cormorant colony nearby at the sardonically named Isla Justicia, where Magellan stopped a mutiny by decapitating one rebel, quartering another, and leaving two others to starve.
Headquartered in an adapted shed, Pinocho Excursiones (Avenida Costanera and Mitre, tel. 02962/45-4600, www.pinochoexcursiones.com.ar ) takes visitors on harbor tours (US$25 pp), with English-speaking guides, that include dolphin- and penguin-watching; when winds are too strong, the rigid inflatables may not sail.
At the foot of Avenida San Martín, San Julián’s most conspicuous waterfront attraction is a Disneyish scale model of Magellan’s ship that holds the Museo Temático Nao Victoria. It’s tempting to describe this as “Pirates of the South Atlantic,” but it makes an effort to cover local history. Admission costs US$1 for kids, US$2 for Argentine adults, and US$3 for foreigners; and it’s open from 8 A.M–10 p.m. or dark, whichever is earlier.
The archaeological and historical Museo Regional y de Arte Marino Rosa Novak (Avenida Hernando de Magallanes s/n) continues to occupy temporary quarters on the waterfront as it awaits the remodel and expansion of its permanent quarters in an archetypal Patagonian house at Vieytes and Rivadavia. Summer hours are 9 a.m.–noon and 3–7 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m.–1 p.m. and 4–9 p.m. weekends. Even these are kept inconsistently, and winter hours (weekdays only) are shorter.
Immediately across from the museum’s permanent site, the memorial Plazoleta Albino Argüelles commemorates one of the army’s victims in the 1921 Anarchist rebellion. From here, the coastal Avenida Hernán de Magallanes leads north past the marked grave of Beagle crewman Robert Sholl, who died on the voyage prior to Darwin’s. The road continues to the Frigorífico Swift, a mutton freezer that operated from 1912 to 1967; its crumbling shell and pier appeal to postindustrial photographers.
The waterfront Autocamping Municipal (Avenida Hernán de Magallanes 650, tel. 02962/45-2806, US$1.25 pp plus US$2.50 per vehicle) has well-sheltered sites with picnic tables and fire pits, clean bathrooms, hot showers, laundry facilities, and even a playground.
Hospedaje La Casona (Avenida Hernando de Magallanes 650, tel. 02962/45-2434, US$29 s, US$39 d) is a B&B in a recycled waterfront house—the most distinctively Patagonian lodgings in town. It has comfortable beds, spacious and attractive common areas, and a kitchen for a basic self-serve breakfast.
Under the same ownership, the 12-room Hostería Miramar (Avenida San Martín 210, tel. 02962/45-4626, miramar146 [at] speedy [dot] com [dot] ar, US$34 s, US$40 d) looks better on the surface, but the interior workmanship shows some shortcomings, even if it’s not a desperation choice.
Under new management, Hotel Sada (Avenida San Martín 1112, tel. 02962/45-2013, www.hotelsada.com.ar , US$34 s, US$46 d) has 18 rooms with private baths, but it’s their new Posada Drake (Mitre and Rivadavia, tel. 02962/45-2523, www.posadadedrake.com.ar , US$34 s, US$40 d) that deserves attention for immaculate new quarters that include a teahouse.
Government-run hotels are notorious for shoddy service and maintenance, but the Hostería Municipal de Turismo (25 de Mayo 917, tel. 02962/45-2300, www.costanerahotel.com , US$47 s, US$55 d) is an exception. Its renovated rooms are simple but comfortable and spotless, and the staff are proud of it, but those renovations have meant higher prices.
Hotel Bahía (Avenida San Martín 1075, tel. 02962/45-4028, www.hotelbahiasanjulian.com.ar , US$58–65 s, US$62–71 d) is an attractive new hotel that fills up fast. Its only drawback is its location on the main avenue.
Crowded even on weekdays, La Rural (Ameghino 811, tel. 02962/45-4066, lunch and dinner daily) specializes in beef and lamb, but its own factory produces fine pastas (particularly sorrentinos). It has expanded its fish and seafood offerings and also prepares outstanding salads. Prices are reasonable and service excellent.
Right on the waterfront, Naos (9 de Julio 1106, tel. 02962/45-2714, lunch and dinner daily) has a new name and new ownership, but it’s still a quality fish and seafood restaurant.
(Zeballos 1134, tel. 02962/45-2074, lunch and dinner daily) has made good impressions with relatively expensive home-style cooking. Popeye (Moreno 1070, tel. 02962/45-2045, lunch and dinner daily) has the best pizza.
M&M (Avenida San Martín 387, tel. 02962/45-4419) has superb ice cream.
LADE (tel. 02962/45-2137) occupies an office in the Terminal de Ómnibus (Avenida San Martín 1552), with occasional flights to Comodoro Rivadavia , Gobernador Gregores , and Río Gallegos ; flights leave from the airfield near the highway junction.
On a highway the length of RN 3, somebody has to draw the short straw, and nearly all San Julián buses arrive and leave between midnight and 6 a.m., mostly between 1:30 and 4 a.m. There are several services to Buenos Aires and intermediate towns, and also south to Río Gallegos.
Cerro San Lorenzo (Berutti 970, tel. 02962/45-2403) goes to Gobernador Gregores (US$15) at 7:30 a.m. Monday–Saturday.