Magdalena island Chile Patagonia penguins

“It sounds like a donkey and a velociraptor are getting in on…”

After what felt like three days of air travel— yay shitty discount airlines— we finally arrived in Patagonia. Land of world class trekking. Of impossibly blue glaciers. Of 20 and 30-something year-olds donning designer sports wear of an apt name. While all of that is impending— including the reveal of my knock-off Patagonia vest from Nepal— we decided to take a breather and embrace our landing point, Punta Arenas.

The city of 130,000 receives little love from the digital world. It’s described as a lackluster seaside town with few natural attractions. Thus, most travelers zip straight up to Puerto Natales— the launch pad for Torres del Paine and other wonders of Patagonia. Maybe we are jaded from Colombia, but our rose-colored glasses saw Punta Arenas as inviting. And chill. And clean (plastic bags were banned here about three years ago). Plus, we intentionally stuck around for a purpose. A penguin purpose.

Magdalena Island Punta Arenas Chile penguins lighthouse

Magdalena Island is located about an hour off shore Punta Arenas, one of the thousands of islands breaking up the southern tip of South America. This particular oasis is home to a seasonal population of about 150,000 Magellan penguins, one of the largest colonies in Chile and a national nature reserve. The penguins are in residence from October until April, and depending on the time of year you go, will determine if you see fluffy babies or chill parents. We went with Solo Expediciones at 60,000 pesos a pop, based solely on TripAdvisor reviews and sheer laziness. Our Couchsurfer informed us that there were cheaper avenues, but after other South American fiascos, I was willing to pay more for guaranteed efficiency.

Us and about 45 of our closest friends— lots of older, richer Europeans— embarked on our fancy speed boat toward Magdalena. The ride was puke-free. In fact, the whole trip was sans hiccups and we were glad to have chosen the well-oiled system that is Solo Expediciones. I even learned a thing or two about penguins.

You see the penguins from a mile away, dotting the barren landscape with their monochrome colors and hobbit holes. That’s right, they have hobbit holes. Ones that they snuggle up in— usually with their better half— on a bed of their own feathers and trail of shit. Lots and lots of white streaks of shit. They return to the same holes each year, as if they were summer homes. (Though sometimes they confuse their holes, the tour guide says). It’s disgustingly endearing. The island is pretty much just a pock-marked moon of cuteness with a lighthouse perched at the crescent.

Anyway, the staff give you one hour to circumnavigate the island, unsubtly prodding you along. It’s hard not to fall behind. You get caught up in the penguins. Like when they start braying like a donkey who f*&$ed a dinosaur. Or when they start pecking the shit out of their lover (I get it). Or when they hastily cross your path and fall over when eyeing you with suspicion. The amusement was never ending. It also helped that the boy penguins were in their awkward molting phase. You had to give it to their ladies who stuck by them despite their appearance.

Magdalena island Punta Arenas Chile penguins molting

Tip: It gets cold and windy on the island. I regretted not bringing gloves which were exposed to the elements thanks to my camera wielding. You do get rather close to the penguins, so do not fear if you lack a ninja lens. Just remember not to accidentally kick the penguins. This was an actual warning.

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