Punta Arenas, Chile: Magdalena Island & The Magnificent Magellanic Penguins
“More penguins?” my husband Herb asked as we were finalizing plans for our day in Punta Arenas. “Aren’t you penguined-out by now?” The truth was that I would never completely tire of watching the antics of such delightful creatures. And the other truth was that the Magellanic penguins would be new to us, a species we hadn’t seen in Antarctica.
Like the famous waterway around Punta Arenas, the Magellanic penguins are named in honor of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, who encountered them in 1520 on his historic expedition that resulted in the first circumnavigation of the world. Today about 50,000 pairs live on Magdalena Island, an uninhabited island in the Strait of Magellan, about 22 miles northeast of Punta Arenas.
It’s a 45-minute ride by powerboat to reach Magdalena Island, with the caveat of weather permitting. Punta Arenas is notoriously windy, and the Strait of Magellan can be too rough for small tour boats to operate. Early morning conditions looked favorable for our trip as the Seabourn Quest arrived at the Port of Punta Arenas, and Herb and I joined a group of about 30 for the short bus ride to the dock.
The “powerboat” turned out to be more of a covered zodiac, with a narrow submarine-like doorway that led to the seating area below. Life jackets were casually tossed on bench seats, a stark contrast to the extreme safety precautions we had experienced in Antarctica. A crew member welcomed us on board, and off we went! The little yellow craft sped through the Strait of Magellan, bouncing and bobbing its way to the island. With the splashing water blocking any chance of a view out the window, I was beginning to wonder what I had gotten us into.
Any concerns about the ride quickly melted away when we arrived at Magdalena Island. Thousands of penguins dotted a barren, windswept terrain, their nests burrowed in the landscape like rows of houses in a neighborhood. A rocky gray-blue shoreline ran along the island’s periphery, and a red-and-white lighthouse looked out from a distant hill. Seabirds were soaring, the wind was howling, penguins were screeching and I was convinced this had to be one of the most captivating settings in the world!
A gravel path marked with colored posts and ropes separated people from penguins. The penguins, of course, had free rein in their world, and just as we’d experienced in Antarctica, they were unfazed by their human visitors.
The Magellanics were a curious bunch…incredibly curious! They pecked at our shoes and checked out our cameras and looked at us with such earnestness it seemed as if they were trying to carry on a conversation.
Before returning to the dock, we made our way to the lighthouse and looked out over the treeless landscape to the Strait of Magellan beyond. The wind was continuing to whip around the island, but the skies were clearing, casting a brighter light. The ferry from Punta Arenas and other tour boats had not yet arrived, and I marveled that our group was still the only one there, grateful for the abundance of time in this remarkable habitat.
On the way back to Punta Arenas, we cruised by Marta Island, a long, narrow, mesa-like rock that is home to more than a thousand sea lions, elephant seals and sea birds. Visitors are not permitted on the island, but our boat cruised along the edge, allowing us to step outside and take photos.
It was early afternoon when our tour group returned to the Quest. With plenty of time before the ship sailed, Herb and I took the shuttle to Plaza Muñoz Gamero, in the center of Punta Arenas. The tree-lined public square is anchored by a 1920 memorial to Ferdinand Magellan, commemorating the 400th anniversary of his voyage. Market vendors’ stands line the sidewalk around one side of the plaza, and Palacio Sara Braun, an 1895 mansion that was home to one of Punta Arenas’ wealthiest and most prominent residents, is across the street.
Rain was starting to fall as we walked to our last stop in Punta Arenas, La Chocolatta Café on Bories Street. With cozy tables, friendly servers and an impossible-to-pick-from dessert menu, it was a perfect spot to take a break and end our day.
That night on the ship, Herb laughingly confessed that spending time with the Magellanic penguins on Magdalena Island was one of his favorite moments of the trip. He was grateful I had pushed us to go, and it supported one of our tried-and-true travel tenets: The best moments are often unexpected, something you didn’t plan on, something you weren’t excited about or perhaps didn’t even want to do. I continue to believe that it’s the things we didn’t do that we regret. It doesn’t matter if it’s penguins or palaces. Always give it a chance. You may never pass that way again.