Penguins, tombs and duty free in Punta Arenas

(Full Punta Arenas photo gallery available here)

Having arrived in Puerto Natales on Monday after 4 days on the Navimag, I thought I needed just a few more days for my blisters on the back of my foot to heal. By Wednesday I had underestimated the time. I got the blisters from our first huge trek back in Cochamo. Still in pain wearing my treking shoes I find myself having to wear sandals and socks in a climate that is below 10C in the summer. Over the next few days we catch up with our Navimag buddies Karin, Peter, Paul and Carola for coffee and dinner and constantly bump into others also from the Navimag. Everyone is gearing up for the Torres Del Paine trek. However with sore blisters and bad weather forecasted we make an executive decision to delay our trekking to next week. In the meantime what to do…

We decide to head further south to Punta Arenas, a short 3 hour bus trip to the capital of the Straits of Magellan. There’s a penguin colony to see and also in need of some more gear to prepare for our trekking. Considering Puerto Natales is the gateway to the biggest trekking in Patagonia, camping gear and trekking clothes were surprisingly limited and expensive.

Punta Arenas is not exactly the cosmopolitan metropolis of the south and with a lack of choice of hostels due to the high season, we find one that is 2km out of town. They book the penguin tour for 4pm and the hostel owner kindly drives us to the new ferry terminal which also serves as the main overseas terminal for the numerous large cruise liners that cross these shores each year either departing for Antarctica or rounding Cape Horn.

The journey across the Straits of Magellan. was surprisingly smooth considering the standard conditions of rough seas and extreme wind down here. It’s a long way to see Penguins, 2 hours each way on the ferry and 1 hour on the island. But we have time on our hands and we spend it chatting to an English couple swapping travel stories and before we know it we are layering up every inch of clothing to brace the cold bitey Antarctic winds outside.

It’s somewhat bemusing to see us all looking like colourful penguins in our wind jackets, gloves and beanies waddling off the ferry gang plank onto the pebbled beach. The national park guides inform us to follow the roped path up to the lighthouse and to be back by the hour. The island is a baron arid island filled with 63,000 pairs of penguins. What no one tells you of these colonies is the sheer volume of noise 126,000 penguins can make. With cameras and zoom lens in hand we head up to the light house and the sounds of clicking cameras are quickly absorbed.

Ben and I have an instant urge to go into camera shooting overload with hopeful aspirations of being David Attenborough’s photographer or trying to get that perfect photo that may get the attention of National Geographic. There are often challenges in getting that perfect shot and ours is trying to walk head on into gusts of 70 kmph icy winds, camera to our face, gripping our feet into the gravel trying to stablise ourselves and take that perfect shot without blurring and dust particles on the lens. Oh and not to mention the 150 odd people on a narrow path all trying to do the same. Very very amusing and we just burst into fits of laughter.

We are fortunate to be in the season of witnessing additions to the penguin families, the penguin chicks. They are teenagers now, hatched back in November/December and are just an adorable ball of fluffy feathers. Most had shed their feathers but a few young chicks are still in puberty phase.


In awe of this large baron island uninhabited with the exception of penguins and several species of seagulls, what became fascinating was the amount of burrows dug into the hills and across the flatter parts of the island. The male penguin reclaims his burrow from the previous year. On this island, that’s 63,000 burrows! They mate with the same partner year after year. When they need to reconnect Mr Penguin calls out to Mrs Pengiun who then recognises her mates call. Simply incredible the voices of 63,000 males all yelling out…”I’m over here darling, the black and white one. 5th burrow on the left behind the grey rock”

The other fascinating thing was the vast distances from the burrows to the ocean. That’s a long way for a wee penguin to waddle down to the ocean and then waddle back to feed the family. I wonder what infighting occurs to get a water edge burrow. When we climbed to the base of the lighthouse I noticed one penguin had a burrow with a view. It took us at least 15 minutes to walk here so goodness knows how this one was going to commute with his little legs and get back in time for dinner. I took an interest in him and watched him for a while. He was sitting content gazing across the island out to sea over thousands of penguins below. As much as I approved of his choice to live with a grand view I’m not sure his mate would be too happy with the commuting. Perhaps he wanted to retreat from all the squawking noise below and have a burrow with a birds eye view (ha ha).

An hour flew by too quickly. On our return to the ferry the light was perfect and it was feeding time. So more photos and we wished we had more time. Although how many photos of penguins is enough.

Now filled with an experience out of a David Attenborough doco we board the ferry for another 2 hours sail to Punta Arenas. Ben reaches into his pocket and suddenly has a concerned look. His mobile phone is missing. He stands up and searches his other trouser pockets, spray jackets and day pack but to no avail. We backtracked our steps of when he had it last which was downstairs in the seats talking to the English couple. He raced back downstairs to the booth where we sat and a family were now sitting there. They all stood up and looked for it but no luck. Ben then went to the guide and asked if anyone handed it in. He returned to his seat upset at how it could have disappeared. We doubted very much of any pick pocketing and perhaps it dropped on the island trying to organise all our gear and camera equipment. Then an announcement in Spanish came over the microphone “A person on this boat has lost his iphone, if anyone has seen it please contact the office immediately”. Well this announcement went about 4 times over the 2 hour journey and each time Ben and I waited in hope that someone had picked it up. I accepted that it had dropped out of his pocket and now the penguins will be able to play angry birds with it. But Ben was adamant it was on the ferry still.

As the ferry approached shore, we take one more look around where we sat coming over and waited for the family to leave once the boat got to port. The father saw us standing near their seats and decided to take a second look for Ben. He pushed his hand down in between the two seats and low and behold there it was. Joy, relief and smiles all round and the father held it up in above his head for all to see and the entire ferry started clapping. A big phew!!! Note to self: check check and double check when leaving transport. Ben is a happy boy.

With only one day left we pop over to the Naval and Maritime museum. Punta Arenas holds a lot of maritime historic significance as it lies on the only natural and narrow passage between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It was a popular port before the opening of the Panama canal for steam ships to cross the oceans safely instead of around Cape Horn and the unpredictable Drake Passage. The museum held interesting information on the history of shipwrecks, old footage of Shackleton’s voyages and his connection to Punta Arenas, historic shipping navigation equipment including a photo of a block of ice from Antarctic. Only days prior we had decided to clip our budget and not go on an Antartic cruise so this was our only way of seeing Antarctic ice – in a museum with a stuffed emperor penguin.

One of the main attractions of the town was a cemetery set up by Sarah Braun, a very wealthy and influencial woman back in the early 1900’s. Cemeteries are always interesting but we had read this one was worth the visit. It holds ostentatious mausoleums of the dignitaries of Patagonia over the last 150 years along with graves of the early pioneer immigrants from Germany and Croatia. We were fascinated by the local graves no in the ground but built into concrete walls all lined in a row about 9 coffins high. If you were on the top there is a ladder for your family to climb and visit. The coffins are placed inside with a glass front. Seems everyone leaves a few of their favourite things behind the glass and this alone was interesting.

There were the other modern crypts with a door to open with a seat or altar. The coffins are often left on a shelf with lace coverings. Some even had skylights…obviously for those that needed some vitamin D. Ben was intrigued with these and would search them out. So as cemeteries go this consumed about 2 hours of our afternoon and gave us a historic insight into the immigrants who came out to this isolated part of the world.

We did have one final stop to make and that was the main reason for coming here was to seek out some additional trekking gear. We jumped in a taxi and headed to a bulky goods outlet called Zona Franca. This is the heartland of duty free territory for the cruise liners. A bit like going to 4 huge sized Bunning or Cosco warehouses filled with many retail shops selling electronic goods, cameras, perfume, cheap alcohol. But we did spot a one and only camping store and bought some gloves, thermals and waterproof pants. We then spotted an Abu Gosch supermarket warehouse that imports American and European products like peanut butter, swiss chocolates, spicy goods, soft package tuna and tomato salas all perfect for our camping trip. No vegemite sadly, but stocked up on swiss chocolates for sure. Zona Franca was like a casino with no clocks and lost track of time so Ben did invest in a cheap $30 watch.

The highlight of the next morning was skyping our friends back in Sydney who were on a weekend get together. The internet connection wasn’t perfect and the paper thin walls of the hostel didn’t give us the privacy but still it was fantastic to see everyone again on our ipad. Even though it is only 6 weeks into our trip we still miss our family and friends. Technology has changed so much since our last backpacking days and now we can skype for free from a hostel room in the deep south of Patagonia.

So ends our time in Punta Arenas. It filled in a few days before we head back to Puerto Natales. We did manage to get to the furthest southern point of our trip and are reminded of this by the extended daylight hours till 11pm and experienced a place where the summers only get to 15C. Now to plan our trek to the W circuit in Torres Del Paine next week.

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6 Responses to Penguins, tombs and duty free in Punta Arenas

  1. Josie says:

    Wonderful to view the penguins at close range.

  2. Petrea Barker says:

    What an interesting few days. I love the photo’s…as always. I think Sir davids film crewds should look out for you twoXX

  3. Barbara pleace says:

    Well done Michelle an excellent description of your experiences keep it up. We are proud of you and Ben much lve

  4. Patricia Foreman says:

    Hi Michelle and Ben, have thoroughly enjoyed reading about your adventures, some great pictures and the description of your travels is excellent. Patricia

  5. Pingback: Trekking the Torres del Paine National Park | Across the Andes by Blog

  6. Pingback: Trekking the Torres del Paine National Park | Across the Andes by Blog

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