Almost everybody who takes a Patagonia expedition hopes to see penguins, and there are many places to do so. Passengers sailing Cape Horn from Punta Arenas to Ushuaia, though, sometimes miss one of the top penguin-watching destinations, on Isla Magdalena in the Strait of Magellan. Still, that doesn’t preclude a trip to the island – which has more than just its famous flightless birds.
While passengers on the eastbound leg of the cruise, from Ushuaia, make an early morning stopover on the island, westbound passengers from Punta Arenas – who see other spectacular sights – may take advantage of a free day to see the tens of thousands of Magellanic penguins that breed there from early October. There are many other birds, including kelp gulls and great skuas – egg-robbers that sometimes buzz uncomfortably close to hikers as well.
Magdalena is not just for the birds. It also offers a landmark lighthouse, built by Scottish engineer George Slight in 1901, that’s been converted into a visitor center by Conaf, Chile’s national park service. Humans may not be the only visitors there – sometimes the penguins themselves waddle in for a look as well.
In summer, Isla Magdalena is accessible by the ferry Melinka, which sails every afternoon from the ferry harbor at the east end of Punta Arenas. En route, the wildlife includes penguins and dolphins in the water, and black-browed albatrosses, cormorants and other seabirds in the air. Covered rigid inflatables sometimes do the trip more quickly from another nearby departure point.