Patagonia: From Punta Arenas to Tierra del Fuego [Plus Penguins]

Country Chile | Dates May 21-23 | Accommodation Hospedaje Magallanes 

I took the bus from Puerto Natales to Punta Arenas, where 2 unsavory characters with bristly facial hair sat behind me and drank copious amounts of beer on the 3-hour ride. I was bored so I made some travel bracelets from the shells I collected, and sewed a patch onto my hat. I was served vile sweet coffee, too, in a styrofoam cup that was less than sanitary and I soon regretted drinking.

I was dropped off on a city street, meaning no bus station Wi-Fi. My map had not updated to the local area, so I just wandered around until I found the hostel. A nice lady greeted me and upgraded me to a private room!

Downtown Punta Arenas

The day I was there it was a national holiday I’d never heard of, “Día de las Glorias Navales,” so everything was closed (including the famous Austral brewery 🙁 ). I wandered and took photos, nonetheless. While seeing some sights in Plaza Muñoz Gamero I was approached by a “police officer.” He stated: “I am a police officer, look at my uniform” and pointed to a patch. He then asked me if I was foreign and if I could help him by participating in filming a “national video” for Chile — aka a propaganda video! I declined participation in the questionable video. Upon later comparison, I noticed his uniform did not appear to match that of those in other parts of Chile….

I headed to Cerro de la Cruz viewpoint overlooking the (again) brightly painted houses of the city. A couple was practicing an animated dance, the girl’s purple hair whipping as she moved. Then down to the waterfront for some final sights, including a small dock with lots of albatross (birds), street murals, and more buildings than expected. On my way in I had glanced the replica of Magellan’s ship from afar. Overall Punta Arenas was much bigger than expected; hardly a tiny town at the end of the earth.

That night, a German dude I previously met arrived at my hostel unexpectedly. Later, I barricaded my room door with my backpack. In the meantime I hung with some fellow travelers (including a girl drinking shelf-stable milk), playing cards and discussing the US healthcare system.

Tierra del Fuego & King Penguin Colony

My main reason for going to Punta Arenas was to see penguins! As it was the off season, I had to go way further than the nearby island to see them (that colony had migrated away), but obviously I went. The guide did not speak English at all, attempting incomprehensible “translations” and treating me like a child-slash-celebrity, telling every person we met I was “the American.” At one point, he randomly stood up in the bus and sang a verse from “oh my darling clementine” while pointing to me.

We took a ferry across to to Tierra del Fuego. I knocked myself out with Dramamine and slept the duration and for once did not puke (gripped bag just in case)! We stopped in the Selknam Plaza, which commemorates the native Pre-Columbian people who were killed off long ago. We also went to a museum about their history. Luckily, a very nice Mexican couple on the tour translated everything for me, as the guide’s attempts (pointing at items and repeatedly yelling the word in Spanish), were not effective. We stopped at various viewpoints along our drive, at which time fellow tour-goers suddenly produced from their pockets large flags from their respective countries and started taking rampant staged photos with them.

I was told there was no food and to bring lunch and snacks. Imagine my surprise when we entered a restaurant! Without pause, the guide told the owner, an old woman in purple with greasy, balding dark hair, that I was The American! I cemented my child/celeb status by eating my pre-packed lunch silently in the corner while everyone else chatted in Spanish and ate overpriced fare such as huge meatballs/rice.

Parque del Pinguino de Rey

Finally we drove 1.5 hours to the main event – the king penguin colony! Situated in a remote area near the end of the continent, we entered the park via a newly built wooden house. It was freezing in the whipping winds as the lady explained about the penguins (second largest variety after emperor) and sent us down a short trail to the viewing area. Wooden boards with slats for viewing and binoculars were there. We peered at the penguins very close by, and saw the grown ones with vibrant orange and white and black (obviously) and even some precious babies! I felt strong love, which countered my desire to die as it was 20 degrees and my lower calves were numb.

We stayed nearly an hour until… More driving! More viewpoints! And another ferry (this time we stayed within the van; I did not get ill either go me). We stopped finally at an old, abandoned estancia building and at some washed up ships. In my freezing state I was shaking and bundled up a lot (5 layers). The guide kept laughing at me and, from what I gathered, told a story about the winter tradition of swimming in the icy lake and how I should come back for it while the entire group joked about me in Spanish.

It was certainly a long trek to see the penguins at Parque del Pinguino de Rey, but worth every minute! The king penguins are much different and more amazing than any of the other penguins I have seen before.

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