This article has been updated on December 25, 2020
Near the southernmost tip of the Americas and northwest Tierra del Fuego archipelago, across the Strait of Magellan, you’d find the town called Punta Arenas. This largest human settlement in the region (pop. 110 000) is an outpost town with friendly locals, rich marine exploration history and marine life. From the tourism point of view, Punta Arenas is on the map mainly because of the latter, as it offers rather a popular penguin tour on a nearby island Isla Magdalena but you can also opt to visit a different penguin colony and that is pretty much the subject of this post. So let’s talk about Punta Arenas and the Penguin Tours.
Things to do in and around Punta Arenas
Tip: Start creating your own itinerary by saving the red-highlighted Google Maps location links provided bellow. If you are signed into your Google account and if any of the listed places sounded like your cup of tea, just click "want to go". Personally for me, seeing the "Want to go" places helped me to determine my journey, when I was planning my trip across Latin Americas.
Before visiting Isla Magdalena, the biggest tourist attraction in the area, one can get educated in one of the town’s museums that are mostly dedicated to the naval exploration and local history. I’d say that particularly Braun Mendez and Naval y Maritimo museums deserve some attention. For the naval transport history enthusiasts, there are also some historical shipwrecks to be seen on the shore in the area, which you will learn about in the above-mentioned museums.
Well, and if you like beer, you can head to the world’s southernmost brewery (Cervecería Austral) to try the tasty lager or IPA they make in town. Other than that, Punta Arenas has very strong winds (hold onto your hats), a massive ugly looking oil industry and rather flat/boring surroundings.
Isla Magdalena Penguin Tour
As mentioned above, the biggest attraction that puts Punta Arenas on the tourist map is the town’s close proximity to Isla Magdalena, an island that hosts a large colony of Magellanic penguins (estimated population of 120 000). You can visit Isla Magdalena with multiple agencies offering the tour for 60 000,-CLP (€68), if the weather permits. FYI, in high season (Dec-Feb), the tours should be apparently cheaper but then there are more people.
It is wise to get your ticket as soon as you get to the town to ensure that you’ll get on the nearest tour as the places are limited due to the protection of the species, which could cause cues in high season. Your hotel receptionist should be able to sort you out with the ticket.
Except for limiting the visitors’ numbers, there are also extreme weather conditions that can stand in your way of visiting the island. Particularly the wind can get very intense and authorities are sometimes forced to block the sea traffic for safety reasons.
The Pingüino Rey Park AKA Bahia Inútil Penguin tour
And the windy weather was exactly the reason why I’ve ended up on a different penguin tour, that takes you to Tierra del Fuego‘s Bahia Inútil‘s Pingüino Rey Park to check out a small nesting colony of the more rare King Penguins. Unlike the speedboats that are used for Isla Magdalena trips, this tour boards a large ferry, which is more likely to withstand the winds. It’s therefore apparently nearly guaranteed that you’ll be on your way in the early morning.
After getting picked up from our hotels, we drove straight to the port in order to board a ferry to cross the Strait of Magellan. It took us about 2 hours, and for me, it was by the way one of the highlights of the whole tour. The ferry headed to the settlement on the main island called Porvenir. The town itself, takes “there’s nothing to do” to a whole new level, especially if we’re taking the social and cultural aspects of life into consideration.
There’s a “square” that commemorates the original inhabitants of the island and a small museum with some artefacts from how life used to be in the archipelago in the past and a cool old-time shop with displayed goods and old till. In contrast with all that, across the road from the museum, there’s a skate park, most likely built by the local government in an attempt of preventing the youth from leaving the island, which I’m not entirely sure about its success.
Same like with the Isla Magdalena tour, Bahia Inútil tour also cost 60 000,-CLP (€68) + the park entrance fee of 12000,-CLP (€13.50). It’s a whole day tour (8:00-21:00+) and you get to see penguins from about 50 metres as a measure of protection of the species. Other than that, the tour is actually a lot of driving through the boring flat northwest side of the island and few stops on the way.
The weather can also affect the large ferries and the return journey could get a bit complicated as well. For example, the tour was using a different crossing to get back to the mainland in the north of the island and we had to wait there for a couple of hours for authorities to open the sea traffic to get back to the mainland.
In conclusion, I’ve to say that the Bahia Inútil Penguin tour is not something I would exactly recommend to people but at the same time, I must say that I am glad I went for it. At the end of the day, I’ve seen the super cool and cute Penguins and I didn’t have to stay in Punta Arenas the whole day.
On a positive note, Diego, the tour manager was very informative and it was him, who made this trip more interesting than it would otherwise be. I’ve learned a lot about the region’s history, including the tragic fate of the original inhabitants of the islands Selk’nam, Yaghan, Ona and Alakaluf people. In case you were interested, I’ve talked about them and their miserable fate in this piece about Tierra del Fuego.
Safety and get around
The downtown area is IMHO explorable by foot. However, the usual suspects like taxis, collectivos and uber are available. There are also buses but I haven’t managed to work out their routes and schedules. As for safety, Punta Arenas is a rather safe place, like the whole region. For instance, Numbeo gives the city 92,15 safety index as opposed to for example 53,18 index of New York City…
How to get there
There are very cheap flights to Punta Arenas from Santiago de Chile starting at €25 operated by Sky Airlines. Needless to say – the flights are stunning if it’s not cloudy – one can observe the Andes and later also lakes and fjords below, given the window seat was an option. To get to the town, there’s transport from the airport to the centre for 5000,-CLP (€6,50) or taxis that start at about double of that amount.
If you wanted to visit the smaller Tierra del Fuego islands, there’s also a ferry sailing from Punta Arenas to Puerto Williams (Isla Navarino) that could apparently be rather stunning, if the weather permits, from what I gathered reading about it. Be aware that prices rise steadily with the remoteness of the location. For more options about ferry travel in this part of the world, please click here where I listed and described all the possible public ferry transport routes in the region.
Please note that unless you have your own SUV vehicle, it is impossible to get from the Chilean Porvenir to Argentinian Ushuaia on the main island. This way you would be obviously able to visit the Pingüino Rey Park individually and carry on south afterwards. If you’re considering renting a vehicle, please make sure that you’ll be allowed to cross the border with it and mainly consider the fact that the island has only a few gas stations and cash points and accommodations are not very common either so get stocked up 😉
The only other option to get to Ushuaia is to return all the way to Punta Arenas and take the 12hrs bus from there to Ushuaia around the eastern part of the island the next day, unless you’ll get off at the border in San Sebastian and board (the same) bus the next day, which didn’t come as some great prospect to me, considering how deserted the place was.
Central Punta Arenas has plenty of hotels and various Airbnb or Booking places to pick from. I’ve stayed in Airbnb place (which appeared to list cheaper alternatives than its competition in this part of the world) called Austral Logging. In spite of placing me into a different place much further away from the centre if compared to the initial booking, Peter was a good host, constantly improving his accommodation, which made it look like a building site a bit. In case he had finished doing what he was doing, it might now be a good place to stay. For about $17, I’ve had my own comfy room, which was btw one of the cheapest places in this pricey town at the time btw.
Sort of epilogue
Punta Arenas comes with everything any outpost should come with, from both, positive and negative points of view. Personally, I found the city a bit miserable, with all due respect but I can not deny experiencing certain excitement from being so remote, as remote as I ever was up to that point. I am sure that if you are a nature lover and manage to get the Isla Magdalena tour, you’d be satisfied with your short trip to the city. Overall, I’d say 2,5 days tops should do and that’s if you’re crazy about the history of naval exploration and local legends (see the link below).
Useful and interesting links
- Welcome to Chile Punta Arenas website: things to do in the city
- History and legends on Interpatagonia
Other popular destinations near by
North: Puerto Natales
South: End of the World
Only about 12hrs away from Punta Arenas south-east-ish would take you to Tierra del Fuego and “The End of the World” AKA southernmost city in the World: Ushuaia. More details, including popular treks and activities in the area, could be found here.
Traveller’s Guides to Chile and Argentina
For more complex information about both countries that are home to Patagonia, please click here, respectively here. Expect learning about basic history, cuisine, general tourism info and safety, popular as well as off the beaten path places to visit and more.