We took a very expensive, 24 hour, bus from Puerto Madryn to Rio Gallegos. Then, we made the choice to go to Punta Arenas in Chile and not Ushuaia where Jenny had already been a few years back. We decided to take a direct bus to the south of Patagonia and skip the east coast as there were not many places on the map where we could stay, and without a tent, we thought it would make our life more complicated than it needed to be. Also, we were at the end of February and autumn was about to start in this side of the world. We didn’t have much time to loose as cold, rain and snow could hit us while ascending on the west side of the continent. So we arrived in Punta Arenas on the 1st of March after more than 30h of travel. Exhausted.
When we arrived to Punta Arenas we looked for accommodation everywhere, walking up, down and around town. But it seemed that all the places we had found online and on our apps were either closed, very expensive, or full of workers. Not the chilled and relaxed backpacker places we were expecting. Some places were open, but nobody was there to check us in. It was a very strange place for our first day in Chile where everything seemed new and different from Argentina. We ended up going to the last place we had on the list, a party hostel… We barely had the choice so when the manager warned us people were partying until late at night we faked a big smile saying that was no issue but were strongly thinking we were glad to have earplugs in our bags !
We quickly made friends and after a night of beer pong and straight rum with a Russian guy, we woke up fresh and ready to organise our next adventures. First of all, we had to find a car and some travel mates to go to a place where we could see penguins and then, book our trek in Torres del Paine. There are two options to see penguins from Punta Arenas, the first and most popular is to see Magellanic Penguins on Isla Magdalena and the second is the lesser known option of seeing King Penguins. We choose the King Penguins as we had already seen 1,000,000 Magellanic Penguins in Punto Tumbo plus Jenny had done some research and found out a colony of King Penguins have settled all year long in Tierra del Fuego, in a Bay called “Inutile” (Useless). However to get to this natural reserve, we had to hire a 4WD, travel first through the famous Strait of Magellan to the little remote town of Porvenir on Tierra del Fuego and finally drive 2 hours on dirt road.
There are 1 day tours that visit the King Penguin colony, so it is not necessary to rent a car. However, the price of the 1 day tour was working out to be similar to what we could arrange ourselves for two days and the tour only stays one hour with the penguins, with 10 hours of travel. We didn’t think it was worth it.
Koen, a Dutch guy travelling South America for a few months joined the crew with Anais, a freshly arrived French girl. The four of us set up a plan to leave the next morning early enough to catch the ferry. Jenny drove. At first, she was not confident but once on the trails of Tierra del Fuego, she really enjoyed driving the 4×4 into mud and holes full of muddy water.
We arrived at the natural reserve, Parque Pingüino Rey, around lunch time. The weather was not the best, but what can we expect in such a place ? There are no palm or coconut trees here ! The landscape is rough. The land is used to aggressive wind, rain, snow and trashing seas. Whatever, we would brave anything to be able to see penguins and moreover when it is probably our only chance to see this species.
In fact, King Penguins are usually only found in the sub-antarctic islands. This means to see King Penguins a very long and expensive trip to the South Georgia islands is usually the norm…
Note : There are other islands where they can be seen. The largest colony is actually found on Crozet island. The King penguins also inhabit Kerguelen, Macquarie and Prince Edward islands (New-Zealand).
But lucky us, a colony of about 40 individuals has set up camp in Bay Inutile. Researches have demonstrated the King Penguin had been visiting the islands of Tierra del Fuego for hundreds of years, it’s only in 2010 that a first group of 8 arrived and stayed for the breeding season. Since the opening of the park and their protection, their number has increased. This group, breed and give birth at the same place.
We only stayed a couple of hours but that was enough to get an idea of the place and learn about the penguins. The park had placed limitations to visitors and set up observation points about 40 m away from were the colony was gathered that day. A chance for us, pictures don’t give the place or the birds justice. At this period of the year, the chicks had already well grown up but were still wearing their hairy brown fur, which contrasted much with their parents suit like feathers. We noticed a few were monitored by scientists as they had small trackers on their back.
We went back to Porvenir where we decided to spend the night as the only daily ferry had already set sail. The other option could have been to drive back all the way around the Strait of Magellan, meaning a drive of about 5 hours. Nobody was feeling like it so we looked for a place to stay and to eat. Same story as Punta Arenas, the only places with an online presence were closed or were fully booked by the nearby mines for their employees.
We finally found a cozy place to spend the night. Regarding food, we ended up sharing a “Pichanga” at the corner chipper consisting of a massive plate of fries, eggs, pickled onions and carrots, sausages, chicken and lamb. This is a very traditional hearty specialty of Chile that would feed an ogre !
With our full belly we went back to our room, slept like babies and woke the next day fresh and ready for a new day of adventure. We drove around and hopped on another 2 h ferry.
Once again, Jenny had done some research and knew that we might have some chances to see Orcas, Dolphins and Whales. On the deck, looking around like a Meercat, Jenny and Anais heard a woman screaming “Ballenas”. They ran off and immediately shot photos of 2 Sei whales passing by. Steven, Koen joined them after Anais quickly ran down to alert them. We got the chance to witness several blows that seemed to be minke whales. Jenny is not entirely sure so if there are professional out here, let us know.
It was enough to finish off a great road trip into the Chilean Tierra del Fuego, the southern most point we would reach on this year long trip. We drove the car back and started to book our next adventure : a 7-day hike in the national park of Torres del Paine. From now on we are going north !
Costs and useful information
Currency (average) :€1 = 16.38 ARS = 713.45 CLP
Bus Puerto Madryn – Rio Gallegos : 1,654 ARS (€100 pp)
Bus Rio Gallegos – Punta Arenas : 350 ARS (€21.5 pp)
Hostel Backpacker Paradise – dorm : 10,000 CLP (€14 pp)
Hostel Porvenir – dorm : 12,000 CLP (€17 pp)
Rental 4WD – 2 days – Recasur : 128,000 CLP (€180)
Ferry (car + 3 pax – driver included – Return) : 116,800 CLP (€164 /€41 pp)
Entrance King penguins’ park : 12,000 CLP (€17 pp)
Fuel for about 400 km : 16,000 CLP (€22)
=> Total per person for 2 days / 1 night : 89,200 CLP (€125)