Patagonia and other adventure travel destinations

The Penguins of Puñihuil


Visitors on a Patagonia adventure cruise are usually well-traveled people, and may notice that South America’s Pacific coast is a mirror image of North America’s. Southwest of Puerto Montt, the island of Chiloé has a geography similar to Canada’s Vancouver Island – a verdant, densely forested Pacific coastline that alternates rocky headlands and seemingly endless beaches. Like the Olympic Peninsula, Chiloé has a climate that can make drizzly Seattle feel like the Mojave Desert.

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One day, not so long ago, I took advantage of an unusually brilliant morning to drive from the bayside city of Ancud to the oceanside locale of Puñihuil, where the Monumento Nacional Islotes de Puñihuil is one of Chile’s smallest protected areas – barely nine hectares of offshore islets.

Those islands, though, have something the Pacific Northwest can’t match. Here is where the ranges of the northerly Humboldt penguin and the southerly Magellanic penguin overlap. Their summer breeding colonies are almost intermingled and, though the two species closely resemble each other, it’s fairly easy to distinguish them side-by-side (the Humboldt has a single black stripe across the breast, the Magellanic two).

I arrived fairly early at Puñihuil, where divers and fishermen who can’t take locos (false abalone) at this time of year supplement their income by shuttling tourists out to view the penguins, four species of cormorants, kelp geese and other seabirds (though landing on the islets is prohibited). I was in no hurry, but soon wondered whether anyone else would take advantage of such a magnificent day.

As it happened, about an hour later, the vans and buses started arriving. Still, as the several operators here now cooperate on filling their launches and then share the day’s earnings, there are never so many boats on the water as to disturb the birds. The half-hour tour is inexpensive, but photography can be awkward in the choppy waters around the penguin colonies.

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