I have seen penguins at the zoo but seeing animals in the wild is a totally different experience. Some of the Australis routes take you to Isla Magdalena but mine did not so I started researching alternative ways to check out the penguins. It is part of the Monumento Nacional Los Pinguinos and tourists can visit from October to March. You can reach the island two different ways.
One expedition choice is less risky. It’s a ferry run by Comapa. Between December and February, it goes almost every day. But by March it only goes twice per week. It takes more time in transit and there can be 200 other passengers with whom you need to share the island.
The sexier option is Solo Expeditiones. They potentially go twice a day so you can get the better morning light for photos. The reviews on trip advisor are a bit mixed and it was hard to know what I was signing up for but I decided to take what seemed a mitigated risk and choose that as my option.
It fit well into the spirit of Punta Arenas. It is not a climate for wimps. :). Luckily I grew up in a climate probably even more severe and had packed various levels of fleece, raingear to cover my entire body and assorted gloves and toques. In the end, I wore it all! Punta Arenas can be seductive though. I arrived to beautiful blue skies and only minimal winds.
Everything looked promising for the 6:30am expedition I had reserved. Shortly after I arrived I found the office so I would know where I was headed in the wee hours of the following morning. Punta Arenas is a frontier town. It’s more sophisticated than its origins as a penal colony and its blossoming as a port en route to the California gold rush as well as a home for sheep farming barons. Nevertheless, it’s more an overgrown small town in a part of the world that doesn’t attract a large population.
It’s a place to access the Strait of Magellan and Antarctica so it has important geopolitical significance despite the weather. It’s also where you need to go to get on the Australis ship. If you are not obsessed with penguins, then you can just use it as a transit hub.
I appreciated the challenges of the climate and REALLY wanted to see some penguins so
ended up spending close to three days there. It meant I had a bit of time to kill but the pinguinos made it totally worth it! Do learn how to say their name in Spanish – it makes them even more adorable 😉
So… back to my adventures with pinguinos…
I got a ridiculously early wake-up call and scarfed down some breakfast while they were still setting up the room. It was all in vain. During the handful of hours I had been sleeping, the infamous winds had picked up and the harbour was closed so I could go back to bed for a nap before showing up at 3:45pm for a second try.
I kept a watchful eye on the weather as I roamed around Punta Arenas. It certainly wasn’t clear it was improving but I had two days to try and find penguins so I showed up as instructed with fingers crossed. After a decent waiting time, it was declared a “go” and we paid our money and filed into the minibus.
I had done some research so knew the boat would be small but some of the other participants seemed surprised. It was not ideal but I had to trust the crew didn’t want to die so would only take us out if they felt we could all get back to shore safely.
It wasn’t a trip for the faint of heart. I would not recommend it to anyone who is claustrophobic or prone to seasickness. It was a rough passage but the crew were great and there were only a few of us intrepid enough to make the journey… so we arrived just as the ferry was departing and had an entire hour to roam the island on the well-delineated human path.
The island belongs to the penguins. We could look but not touch and they had right of way at all points.
The water had been so rough they couldn’t guarantee we would be able to land so, when we did, it was phenomenally exciting. It was pinguino paradise – for them and for us 🙂
Most of the others headed to the lighthouse but most of the penguins were near the shore and the best light was shooting toward the water so that is where I stayed. I almost got tired of taking pictures of penguins. It was that amazing!
As an added bonus, we also got to sail around Isla Marta where there are more penguins
and also sea lions.
The crew had decided we were hardy (or they just wanted to get home faster :)). They sent anyone who might get seasick to the back of the boat where they would be outside in fresh air and able to vomit into the sea in a worst case scenario. Then they gunned the boat and we surfed the waves instead of gently trying to avoid them by taking a more meandering path.
Patagonia has never been a place for pussies 🙂 I was a little worried I might die at sea and my hands were almost falling off from frostbite getting the photos but it was totally worth it!!!