Chile, Destinations, Travel log

Punta Arenas: stopping for Penguins

Punta Arenas, Chile is a small city of the south of the Chilean Patagonia. It is a well deserved stop on the road from Ushuaia to Puerto Natales and the main interest of this stop is to go on an excursion for observing the local fauna, which is magnificent.

There are different possible excursions departing from Punta Arenas. Among the main ones, you can go see King Penguins (the one you would normally find in Antarctica), Magellan penguins and whales. We opted to go see the Magellan penguins as it is the only half-day excursion, but more importantly it is the only one where you are sure to get quite close to the mighty penguins. Indeed, the King Penguins can only be seen from behind a fence (good binoculars are recommended) and of course you cannot be guaranteed to see whales, despite spending a full day navigating.

Our (very long) journey to Punta Arenas

Crossing the border

We left Ushuaia around 7:30 am with the plan to cross the border before midday. We would soon discover that crossing the border between Argentina and Chile is not as smooth as the other borders we have crossed so far. We had to pass all our bags in an X-ray and fresh food is strictly forbidden: we had brought some salami and apples for lunch that we hurried to eat before passing the border, which is, of course, allowed 🙂

If you have any doubt about what kind of food is allowed or not, it is better to declare that you do have food and let the sniffing dog decide if it is ok or not (yes they have dogs trained to smell fresh food!). If they find something and you happened to have declared “YES” you are good (they will just confiscate it). But if you had not declare it you will have to pay a significant fine! So remember: any doubt, declare “YES”!

So goes the wind

We then continued our route up to the Strait of Magellan that we will need to cross by ferry. Bad news: there is too much wind to attempt the crossing! Oh, and there is wind in the flats of Magellan, with normal winds of > 100 km/h (62 MPH)

Here we are, in the middle of nowhere, stuck for 3 hours. There are only 2 buildings around: a small cafeteria and an empty administrative building with a few seats available and a very limited Wi-Fi. We ended up passing 2 hours there, reading (for me) and working (for Silviu). We then decided to face the wind and go for an exploration walk around. The wind is still strong but less than before and we finally got to see the ferry leaving the other side, coming in our direction. Yeah baby!

Crossing the Strait of Magellan!

Passengers have to board separately and stay on the side while vehicles park in the middle of the ferry. Most people tried to get shelter from the wind and we were only a few to stay in the front. Silviu and I were quite excited about crossing this mythical detroit, so we packed our wind-stoppers. We definitely got rewarded for staying strong in the wind: thanks to eagle-eye Silviu we spotted 2 Commerson’s dolphins! These dolphins are very particular due to their camouflage colors: they are black and white! They are so beautiful!

Once on the other side we finally got back in the bus for the last part of our journey and we ended arriving in Punta Arenas around 8pm. Our first glimpse of the city was therefore by night. A 10 minutes walk allowed us to arrive to our hostel, ready for a good night of sleep!

Visiting Punta Arenas

We were planning to go see the penguins on our first morning. But because of the delay and the fact that the sea had been relatively bad we decided to postpone this by one day. So we ended up having one free day in Punta Arenas, more than enough to explore this small city. We took that opportunity to have a lazy morning. Then, following the recommendations of our host we started by visiting the cemetery (nice but we are generally not big fans of cemeteries), before heading to the main square and going up to the viewpoint de la Torre (a few blocks behind the cathedral). We ended walking a bit along the Magellan Detroit.

On the practical side, we withdrew some money, which took us some time. As usual we needed to try different banks to see where it is the most interesting in terms of fees. First bad news: fees seem unavoidable in Chile. Second bad news: banks close early in this area and even access to ATMs was locked. After having finally managed we decided to celebrate with a nice dinner. Third bad news: everything is much more expensive here…

Disappointment of our first dinner in Chile!

Silviu feeling like some meat we ended up in parillada place where he ended up opting for… fish! No comment.

So instead I decided to take some meat. However my beef turned out to be a total disaster: full of nerves, hard as a shoe sole. For one of the first time of my life I returned the dish. The waitress proceeded to tell me that the piece of meat I ordered was always like that, nothing wrong with it. So I told her that I was used to order this exact same piece in Argentina, to which she answered “yes but in Argentina they cut the meat differently so it is usually better”. We could not help laughing thinking maybe they should learn more from their neighbor. Luckily we agreed on them bringing me another piece of beef (much better for the same price). At least they were professional. But lesson learnt for Chile: no more meat for us.

Observing the Magellan Penguins

The next day, we woke up early to have some breakfast before heading to our excursion. We needed to be at their office at 6:30 am! Upon arrival, we realized that we were not alone: there was a huge line! This company, Solo Expediciones, is one of the only having the authorization to board the island. We ended up being 3 buses heading to the port of embarkation, about 30 minutes up North. But the buses were then split into 3 boats of maximum 40 people. Each boat departing by interval we realized that we luckily would not be with everyone on the island. We were on the last boat.

On the Magdalena Island we had 1 hour to follow the circuit. We were not allowed to get out of the path but in the end many penguins stay close to the path or even cross it in the middle of people! They were so cute!! The circuit is not long so we could take our time to take pictures and observe them. But 1 hour definitely goes fast and soon enough we were back on the boat. From our understanding visitors are allowed more or less within a 2 hours time frame every morning and that’s about all, which we believe is a relatively good balance for the birds to have peace.

On the way back the boat got very close to Marta island, full of sea lions. An opportunity for us to observe them one more time and… enjoy the smell…

We booked our bus ticket to Puerto Natales for the afternoon, so we just have the time for a quick lunch (better experience!) before passing by our hostel to pick up our bags and heading to the bus station. Goodbye Punta Arenas! Hello Puerto Natales!

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