As we wound our way south down the spine of the Andes and towards the Southern terminus of the continent we ended up stopping in the small Chilean town of Punta Arenas.
Our visit was more functional than anything as we were only in town to try to catch a ferry even farther south, but an accident of planning and an on-and-off bus and ferry schedule led us to stay several days in town with no plans.
Some people would use this opportunity to hop on a city-tour bus or maybe go to a museum, but for a couple of National Park enthusiasts, our next step was clear: We opened up a map of the area and searched for green spots- parks, reserves, monuments or conservation areas.
We were not disappointed.
Punta Arenas seems to mainly serve as a stopover for Antarctic cruise ships and those on their way to Torres del Paine, but is actually host to a couple notable natural attractions itself. One is a several day coastal hike to an area known as Cabo Froward and the other is Isla Magdalena Natural Monument, where we visited.
In short, Isla Magdalena is a small island a couple hours outside of Punta Arenas that some 60,000 pairs of Magellan Penguins call home. It is only open for 5 months a year and any of the tours only get you one hour on the island- the main goal of the monument is conservation and everything else comes second, which we appreciated. We had only seen a couple penguins when we were in the Galapagos (literally, we only saw 2 penguins) so we set on our sites on getting to Isla Magdalena Natural Monument.
As with many of the National Parks in South America, you can easily book a tour with any number of agencies online or in town. Both of our hostels in Punta Arenas tried to sell us tours and all of the guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Rough Guide, Tripadvisor, etc) recommended various companies through which to book passage to Isla Magdalena (2 hours each way, with 1 on the island). Digging through a travel blog, however, we discovered that we could book a space on the public-access ferry ourselves with no third-party agency and no money up front.
Transbordadora Austral Broom is the name of the public ferry service that leaves from Punta Arenas (to many destinations, actually) and tickets for the ferry of your choice can be reserved online.
On the day of our trip to Isla Magdalena we arrived at the Punta Arenas public dock an hour and a half before our scheduled departure time and were confronted with a line reminiscent of something you’d see at Disneyworld. The ticket had recommended a two-hour head start and we could see why- it took us almost that long to make it to the counter, where the very patient box-office lady let us pay with a credit card (about $60 USDpp) and gave us our tickets, which were appropriately printed all over with images of penguins. Giddy at having made it through the line and to finally be on our way, we exited the office and headed towards the small boat we thought we had reserved and were immediately redirected to a much, much larger boat.
A bigger boat than we were expecting was a nice change for once!
The ferry was actually so big that it felt a bit like a small cruise-liner, with 3 floors, seats inside with videos playing tourism videos from the 80s and a small, not-too-overpriced café. We immediately grabbed a spot on the railing at the rear of the ship and got ready for the 2-hour journey.
Here is a tip: You can either decide to relax and enjoy the trip out to Isla Magdalena or you can spend all your time trying to document it. As the boat drew farther and farther from Punta Arenas and we began to put more and more distance between us and the surrounding shores, Chilean dolphins began to emerge, in pairs and groups of up to 6, jumping and playing along the sides of the boat. These dolphins were easy to spot from above with their mottled white and black markings but were exceptionally difficult to photograph. Some dedicated folks who held their cameras up the entire time may have gotten a couple pictures but we leaned back on the railing, shared a chocolate bar and enjoyed the salty breeze over the choppy waters and the dolphins’ show.
Even though neither of us are birdwatchers, another surprise on the ride out to the island came in the form of more birdlife. Years ago in Alaska, I had seen Arctic Terns swooping and diving as they fed outside of Denali National Park before beginning their long migration South and here they were again- this time in the dozens! These little birds have the longest annual migration of any animal on Earth and to see them again on the other side of the world was an unexpected thrill.
Isla Magdalena first appeared as a misty red streak on the horizon, and as the ship pulled closer we could actually begin to see penguins on its shores, small white dots that were lined up or clustered on the shore under clouds of swooping gulls. As the ship docked and the drawbridge to shore lowered onto the stony beach, we were greeted with more than a view of the penguins- their loud braying calls echoed down the beach and the distinctively pungent smell of penguin wafted over the deck.
Here is about where you can start smelling the penguins
Getting pumped up for their evening fishing, I assume
The beach was full of birds, and as we walked the roped-off circuit around the island we watched as penguin families slept and waddled about, lined up on the shore to fish and chased each other and fought all around us. More than once, one crossed the roped path and cause a tourist traffic jam that snapped pictures wildly.
The burrows were mainly on the interior part of the island but as we rounded some small hills we could see more and more of the large penguin colony that lives, fishes and breeds on the island, relatively undisturbed by human traffic. Large gulls patrolled the shores in their hundreds and artic terns clustered on the water’s edge, seemingly not bold enough to venture further inland since they were just passing through. Despite the large crowd from the boat slowly making its way around the circuit, the place had a wild, pungent feel.
Our hour was much too short as we could have stayed all day watching the birds go about the daily dramas of their lives. Cold from the ever-pressing wind and hurried along by the ferry staff, we re-boarded the ship and set back off toward Punta Arenas. The ride back was relatively quiet, with many of the other passengers huddled over their cameras reviewing their pictures, but we opted to stay out on the deck a bit longer and watch Isla Magdalena fade into the golden sunset, the calls of the distant penguins drowned by the sound of the waves.
Isla Magdalena Natural Monument, By the Numbers
Total Time Needed: 2 hours in line + 30 minutes in the harbor + 2 hour navigation + 1 hour on the island + 2 more hours + 30 more minutes = 8 hours
On a Scale of 1-10: 10 for the penguins plus 2 for the dolphins, terns, etc, so 12 total
Layers Worn on the Ferry Ride: 4 (baselayer, shirt, jacket, raincoat, still not warm enough on the return ride)
Penguin Selfies: 23
Actual Penguins: So, so many
Penguins Observed Having Adorable Tiny Penguin Brawls: 6
Penguins Observed Wistfully Watching Other Birds Flying Above Them: 1