Penguins, Parks, & Ports ~ Punta Arenas, Chile

04 March – 07 March, 2018

Patagonia’s largest city and the regional capital, Punta Arenas, can be approached by air, a long bus ride, or sea. We opted for the 3.5 hour flight from Santiago on Sky Airline. From the air we got a peek into what was in our future – glaciers and brilliant turquoise lakes.

Although the magnificent granite needles of the Torres del Paine put Chile’s most southerly region on the international map, today many tourists come to this city on the Strait of Magellan to see penguins in all shapes and sizes, or continue to Ushuaia and Antarctica. Our original intent was to head to Ushuaia, the southernmost city in South America, but our plans changed as we continued to fill in the empty spaces on our travel calendar. “Can’t see it all” became our mantra as we narrowed the scope of our trip, so instead we settled for the southerly most city in Chile, Punta Arenas. This industrial city relies on fishing, shipping, petroleum, duty-free retail, and tourism for its continued economic health. Our intent was to take a tour to Isla Magdalena to see the delightful burrowing Magellanic penguins and visit the Chilean sector of Tierra del Fuego National Park, to see the majestic King penguins.

After a short taxi ride to our hostel, we tossed our bags into our room and took to the streets for a short walk along the water.

Bronze and stone statue along the waterfront

Day 1 Punta Arenas

The next day before dawn we set off for the office of Solo Expediciones, where we began our tour that took us to Isla Magdalena and Isla Marta. We chose this tour company because of the size of their fleet and their ability to get closer to the sea lions that live on Isla Marta.

Jonathan was our wonderful guide as we boarded the Isla Isabel speedboat and traveled across the choppy channel to Isla MagdalenaHe gave us some history on the burrowing Magellanic penguins that we would spend the next hour with, explaining that 80% of them had begun their migration north about 30 days ago and almost all of the chicks had left. There were still plenty to see and a welcoming committee to greet us as we docked. This year they had ~ 44,000 pairs of penguins on the island and we were able to find one fluffy chick that remained behind with mom and dad.

The welcoming committee!

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Our time had ended and we were back on the boat to hopefully get close to Isla Marta, in search of sea lions. Weather allowed our approach and we climbed to the outside bow of the boat for some photo ops.

Day 2 Punta Arenas

Rainy day in Punta Arenas allowed us time to explore, book our tour for the next day, and enjoy some of the local fare. La Marmita Restaurante was highly recommended and was so wonderful that we dined there twice. Braised lamb in red wine, guanaco, sweet corn pie, local greens, and figs stuffed with nuts and a spun-sugar crown dazzled our palates.

Day 3 Punta Arenas

A recommendation from Alison of Adventures in Wonderland led us to Turismo Laguna Azulwhere we booked our much-anticipated King penguin tour. Another early morning for us and what would prove to be a late night brought us to our first national park in the country, Tierra del Fuego National ParkA large island off the southern coast of South America houses what is one of only three King penguin colonies outside of Antarctica, or so we were told by our colorful guide Diego. As a side note, when I asked our guide Diego where he would visit in the United States if he could, his response was “Burning Man”, which is an annual gathering in northwest Nevada. It is described as an “annual experiment in temporary community dedicated to radical self-expression and self-reliance”. 🙂

Terry & Diego

You really have to want to see King penguins to do this tour, unless you love crazy-long days (7:30 am – 10:30 pm) traveling across wind-swept steppes, on gravel roads strewn with potholes, in close quarters with 12-15 of your newest best friends, and on crowded ferries. Yes, we wanted to see them that much, even though our time with the penguins was for only an hour of this day. Would we do it again? Heck yes!

The colony of King penguins we saw had established themselves at Estancia San Clemente on Bahía Inúit (Useless Bay) and have made their annual pilgrimage for the past 11 years. This colony consists of ~ 150 penguins, although we weren’t sure just how many we were viewing from our secure platform across the inlet. Besides the majesty of these wild creatures, the sound they exhale as they throw back their heads to sing is eerie and beautiful all at once, an odd-pitched whirring clamor. We were in awe.

A short stop in the port town of Porvenir rounded out our day. Although it looked like an interesting little borough, we had little time to visit the small museum and grab dinner before we had to leave for the ferry. One of our German travel mates almost caused us to miss the boat as he disappeared and couldn’t be found until minutes before it was time for the ferry to depart. He was not the most popular guy on the shuttle after his disappearing act. 😉

Next Up: Time to Hike in Torres de Paine National Park

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