Of all the possible wildlife encounters one could have in the lower Southern latitudes, perhaps the most sought-after – and definitely among the most charming – is seeing penguins in their native habitats; which aside from a small group of rebels in the Galapagos Islands, are exclusively found in the Southern hemisphere. Fortunately, they are quite social creatures, preferring to live in colonies that span icebergs, mountainsides and shorelines. A particularly accessible cluster is the Seno Otway Penguin Colony – a privately-owned piece of shoreline favored by the little critters – only about an hour’s ride from the port city of Punta Arenas in Chilean Patagonia. And if alliteration is your thing, you’ll find it super scintillating and satisfying.
Punta Arenas can be reached by air (quickest), road (accessible only via Argentina) or sea (arguably the most scenic). As the main city of the Magellanes region, Punta Arenas is a popular port of call for cruise ships running the ‘Round the Horn’ or Antarctic Peninsula itineraries. Once in town there are various activities available, but if you’ve come this far and haven’t spent time with any of those adorable locals, then a trip to Seno Otway is an easy day tour that can be arranged via your cruise line or hotel desk. Be advised that there is an entrance fee, so make sure that’s included (or at least disclosed) in your tour. You won’t want to chance any cheating charges.
What You’ll See
Seno Otway is a large sound in the intricate maze of Chile’s southern coastline. Every year (mainly September through March) thousands of Magellanic Penguins arrive to breed and feed in the grassy tussock that lines the shore. As one of the only penguin species known to burrow, they make their nests and take shifts caring for their extra-fuzzy babies. There’s a loop trail meandering through the site, and while you’re not permitted to interfere with the penguins, you’ll be plenty close to observe them and their endearing waddling between the nesting area and the shore.
A highlight is an overlook of the shoreline where the penguins cluster with all their awkward movements and social interactions. This is where you’ll see the penguins in greater numbers, and therefore will want to make sure you have an appropriate zoom lens for this great photo op. Your efforts here may just bag you the spectacular, scenic snapshot that will become the highlight of your album.
Patagonia – Chilean or Argentinian, is a ruggedly beautiful, relatively unspoiled part of the world. From the Beagle Channel to the National Parks to the windswept Pampas, you can go silly with alliterative terms to describe its bountiful, bucolic beauty; majestic, mountainous montages; and pleasant, pristine panoramas. But no list would be complete without seeing the playful, peregrinating penguins that populate the penultimate piece of property prior to the perilous, southernmost point of South America.
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If asked as to where in the world one would expect to see such alpine scenery as shown here, no doubt the usual suspects would come to mind: The Alps. The Rockies. Maybe New Zealand. But the answer lies both across and down in a seven letter word for ‘the end of the world’—Ushuaia.
Please note that the end of the world to which I refer here is not the battle of Armageddon but rather the tip—or end—of the South American continent. Calling itself the world’s southernmost city (made possible by ignoring the tiny town of Puerto Williams, Chile just across the channel) Ushuaia is the main tourist base for exploring the Tierra del Fuego area and is a far more pleasant destination than worldwide cataclysm. It’s even prettier than Armageddon too.
Ushuaia is most notably the primary departure port for vessels heading down to the frigid waters of the Antarctic Peninsula. It is here that most of the relatively few visitors to the White Continent get onboard for the often-dicey crossing of the Drake Passage. Flights to Antarctica are technically possible as well, but besides the hefty price tag ($1500 to $2000 roundtrip for a day excursion to a research base), rapidly changing weather conditions and gale force winds often prevent the flights from ever leaving the ground. Fortunately, there’s plenty to see and do nearby—and in temperate conditions as well.
A main attraction is the lovely Tierra del Fuego National Park, located at the end of Route 3, the Argentinean incarnation of the Pan-American Highway which ends somewhere in the neighborhood of Fairbanks, Alaska. The scenery is rather Alaska-esque as well, with snowcapped mountains and clear lakes amidst verdant forest. Bahia Ensenada is reachable via an easy trail and offers great views of the trailing edge of the mighty Andes Range.
Nearby and possible on a day excursion as well is a trip through the Beagle Channel, named after Darwin’s ship. This waterway of forests, mountains and magnificent glaciers would give any of the usual suspects a run for their money in terms of sheer beauty. The undeveloped vistas and remoteness are impressed upon you here, and this is where you realize the term ‘fin del mundo’ is not just a marketing phrase for the tourists.
So if your travels have taken you just about everywhere else, Ushuaia is a worthy destination. I’m certain that both the end of the road and the end of the world will be far more pleasant than you ever imagined.