There are two places to see penguins in the wild near Punta Arenas, Chile. One is Magdalena Island, where small Magellanic penguins roam free. We decided to go to Magdalena Island because it’s close to Punta Arenas and the entire island is run over by these little penguins.
The other is Parque Pingüino Rey, where king penguins live, but it’s a four hour drive from Punta Arenas and the penguins are quite far from a fence that visitors have to stay behind, so you need binoculars or a telephoto lens to be able to see them well.
Ferry to Magdalena Island
The ferry to Magdalena Island is run by TABSA and makes two trips a day from November to March, at 8am and 3pm, but not every day of the week, so you should check their schedule. Tickets are 55,000 Chilean pesos (about $70 USD). You can buy them in advance at the TABSA ferry terminal or one hour before the ferry’s departure.
We had read that sometimes the ferry gets full, so we decided to buy our tickets the day before. That way we also didn’t have to arrive an hour early on the day of the trip.
The ferry ride is two hours each way through the Strait of Magellan. We were lucky to see whales surfacing for air during part of the trip.
On the Island
Once on the island, you’re allowed one hour to walk a designated path. Park rangers will give a brief introduction after everyone gets off the boat, then they’ll unrope the start of the path.
Most people will congregate near the beginning of the path as they spot the first penguins on the pebbled beach, but we decided to walk ahead a little to avoid the crowd.
One hour may seem short, but it’s actually plenty of time to explore and take pictures, and it limits the amount of human interaction with the penguins, which is important for their wellbeing.
It happened to be hatching season when we went, so we saw baby penguins as well as baby gulls. We hadn’t timed it this way, but it’s definitely a special time to visit.
The eggs begin hatching in December; by the time we arrived in the first week of January the babies were already climbing out of their burrows, but still under the protection of their parents. Hatching season is a sensitive time for these penguins, so keep some distance from the burrows and the babies especially.
How Many Days Do You Need?
Punta Arenas itself is skippable. You can treat it as simply a base. There’s hardly anything good to eat and the grocery stores have the most lackluster selection of produce. We didn’t love any of the food in Chile, but Punta Arenas was the worst. There’s also nothing to see. Other than Magdalena Island, the cemetery seems to be the star attraction.
We stayed three nights, but in retrospect I’d advise staying two nights at most. If you can fly in before 1:30pm on a day the ferry runs, you can make it on the 3pm trip, as the Tres Puentes ferry terminal is only a 14 minute drive from the airport. As a backup, you can take the 8am ferry the next morning and schedule your departure for after 3pm, or build in an extra day if you’re really concerned about weather (occasionally the ferry does cancel a trip if the water is too choppy).
We were a bit constrained because we were flying in from Puerto Williams and our flight out was to Colombia, but most likely you’ll just be stopping in Punta Arenas for a night on your way to or from Torres del Paine.
How Much Does It All Cost?
As dumpy as Punta Arenas is, accommodations can be surprisingly expensive. We spent $322 for a three night stay at a basic Airbnb, nothing fancy, plus 110,000 Chilean pesos ($140 USD) for two ferry tickets to Magdalena Island. An Uber to and from the airport costs about $15 USD.
In total, we spent approximately $500 extra USD to add this experience to our Patagonia trip. In retrospect, we probably didn’t need to build in an extra day for bad weather, but that’s easy to say since we ended up getting great weather on the first day.
There are an estimated 120,000 Magellanic penguins on Magdalena island, and they are really fun to watch. They’re not shy and several waddled across the path right in front of us.
If you’ve come this far in a country that sometimes feels like the end of the earth and you’ve never seen penguins in the wild before, then you should just go.