Punta Arenas was the southernmost city I reached during my travels. While walking around, I occasionally saw signs that indicated we were in the “Región de Magallanes y de la Antártica Chilena.” OK, so I was in Magallanes and not Antarctica (no way was I gonna swing that on a backpacker budget), but it was still cool to see references to Antarctica.
Punta Arenas was freezing, even in the “summer” (early February). Since I was spending a few weeks in southern Chile and Argentina, I picked up a fleece, hat, and gloves. The consensus (i.e., the Google machine and travel guides) was that Punta Arenas offered better deals on clothing than Puerto Natales, my next stop. That might have been true, but it didn’t make forking over 79,990 CLP ($130) for a fleece any easier. I was weak: when I entered a boutique, a saleswoman pulled a couple of fleeces from a rack that I pointed out. I totally could have pulled those fleeces myself, but, after receiving help, I felt guilty leaving empty-handed. So, yeah, I dropped more than $100…on a sweater. Gets me every time (see, e.g., pineapple cake tasting in Taiwan).
Armed with my new $$$ fleece, I walked around the city. It might have been just in my head, but Punta Arenas had an ends-of-the-earth vibe.
Punta Arenas is on the Strait of Magellan. Even though it was chilly and windy, I walked by the strait and was awed by the massive clouds overhead.
One afternoon, I visited Cementerio Municipal, which was filled with large tombs.
Based on the names on the tombstones, a number of nationalities were represented. Initially, I was surprised to see a lot of Croatian names, but then I learned that Croatians had a long history of immigrating to Chile, particularly Punta Arenas.
Penguins inhabit Isla Magdalena, which is about a two-hour ferry ride from Punta Arenas. Visitors can walk around the island for an hour to observe the penguins. Since I have eyes, I love penguins, so Isla Magdalena was my top priority. I bought a ferry ticket from Comapa’s office in the city.
If there’s a slight breeze or drop of rain, odds are good that the ferry will be canceled. If penguin watching is important to you, it’s a good idea to have one or two extra days in Punta Arenas to have a better chance of being able to take the trip to Isla Magdalena. The clouds looked ominous on the morning of my ferry ride, but I – ever the optimist – took a colectivo to the port. Sure enough, the ferry was canceled, so I was offered a refund or a ticket to another ferry. Since I was staying in Punta Arenas the following day, I rebooked the ferry.
The following afternoon was still overcast, but the ferry was cleared for the trip to Isla Magdalena. As usual, I passed out during most of the cruise and woke up as we were approaching the island.
As we got ready to disembark, a few instructions played over the PA system:
- No drones or selfie sticks (the PA announcer became my hero at this moment).
- Visitors had to stay on a designated path and maintain at least a meter distance from the penguins.
- Penguins had right of way. Let them do their thing.
Most visitors were prepared for the cold and had hats and gloves (you bet I was wearing my fleece – I was going to get my money’s worth). I don’t know if any of us were prepared for the awesomeness of a whole island of penguins, though.
Guides were scattered through the group to make sure everyone followed the rules. Most of the penguins didn’t seem to care about visitors, but a few crossed the walking path.
The hour limit was strict, so guides at the back of the group made sure we kept moving. The path was about a mile long, so it would have been easy to complete the circuit in less than 30 minutes under normal circumstances. But who’s going to power walk when penguins are waddling all around you?
After the hour was up, we boarded the ferry for another easy trip back to Punta Arenas. 10/10, would do again.