After I had recovered from my hiking trip in Torres del Paine, I made my way further South to Punta Arenas, one of the biggest cities in the Chilean part of Patagonia. There was one main reason for my visit, other than that it happened to be on the way from Puerto Natales to Ushuaia, my next destination: Punta Arenas offers the chance to see penguins up close!
However, I was confronted with a very difficult decision: Did I want to visit the Magellanic penguin colony on Magdalena Island or the King penguin colony in Tiera del Fuego? The first allowed you to walk right past the adorable little penguins and get up close. The second represented the only King penguin colony on the South American mainland.
Choosing one proved impossible, so I did the only sensible thing: I visited both! Prepare for heaps of penguin pics.
Chile’s majestic King penguins
The King penguins were the first I went to see. The visit was part of a day trip that included some other stops along the Tierra del Fuego. We visited museums, old farmsteads and shipwrecks, as well as crossing the Strait of Magellan on the ferry. But to be honest, none of that mattered much to me. All I really wanted to see were the penguins.
We finally reached the Pingüino Rey Park in Bahía Inútil after lunch. The King penguin is the second biggest penguin species in the world (after the Emperor penguins, which you’ll only be able to see in Antarctica and sub-polar regions). For conservation and protection reasons, you’re only allowed to watch the colony from behind a fence that’s about 30-40 metres away. The fences have special openings to see through as well as magnifying glasses, but you see the animals perfectly well without those. Honestly, 40m is close enough to observe without bothering them in all their penguin activities.
The many adults were mostly chilled, standing around in groups or lying on the grass. In between, you could spot the furry little chicks. At that time of year, they had almost reached the size of their parents but still had their fluffy baby fur. It makes them look about twice as fat as the adults, like giant fluff babies!
I couldn’t get enough of just watching them walking around and constantly forming new groups. Must have been a lot of interesting conversations going on that day, by the looks of it.
The little cuties on Magdalena Island
The second option to see penguins in Punta Arenas is on Magdalena Island. Plenty of tourist groups go there by little boats. Once you reach the island, you follow a laid out path that takes you once around the colony. Obviously, you need to stay behind the fence and keep your distance when a penguin crosses the path. However, that doesn’t mean you won’t see plenty of them right next to you and super-close.
You have one hour to complete the path, then every group has to leave the island again. That time restriction is meant to protect the penguins by keeping the number of tourists in check. The penguin’s welfare is generally a top concern, despite the heavy tourism on the island. We were given an extended briefing on how to behave (and how not to behave) around the penguins before landing. Also, our guide told us about studies currently being carried out to determine whether those penguins nesting closest to the path are affected by the tourists in any way.
Nestbuilding and little chicks
At the time of our visit, it was nesting period and the chicks close to hatching. In fact, I spotted one little baby chick that must have hatched early! At the same time, a few penguins were still running around carrying grass to their nests. I thought this was adorable until our guide told me that these guys are way too late with their nest building. Even if they still manage to lay eggs, the chicks will be too young to survive by the time the penguins leave Magdalena Island to head north, into warmer waters. Poor little buggers!
Being this close to all these penguins on Isla Magdalena was such a special experience. I took the whole one hour I had to complete the path around the island, not wanting to miss out on a single minute I could spend goggling these cuties. It was even worth getting seasick on the way back (I don’t normally do, but the waves were very heavy). Everything to see penguins, right?
How to see the penguins in Punta Arenas
Plenty of agencies offer day trips to one or the other of the penguin colonies. You can either book online in advance or just walk around the town and pop into one of the agencies. This has the added advantage that you can check the weather for your preferred day. Especially the boat trip to Isla Magdalena is weather sensitive and might not be possible if it’s too windy.
Prices are very similar across all agencies. I had booked the Isla Magdalena tour with Solo Expediciones for 69.000 Chilean Pesos (ca. €88 / $100). The King penguin/Tierra del Fuego day tour was 59.000 Pesos (ca. €75 / $85), plus an extra 12.000 Pesos (ca. €15 / $ 17) entry fee to the actual penguin colony, thus ending up at about the same price in total.
Have you been to the penguins in Punta Arenas? Or seen them up close somewhere else? Would you like to? Share in the comments?