Chilling in Chile with penguins

PHOTO: SG Travellers

I LOVE penguins and have always wanted to see them up close.

Visiting Magdalena Island, the penguin paradise in Chile in South America, gave me the chance to fulfil my dream. Indeed, it was the hottest date that I have ever had.

Located approximately 50km from Punta Arenas in the middle of the Strait of Magellan, Magdalena Island is part of the Penguin Natural Monument, a nature reserve and park, which includes Marta Island as well.

Magdalena Island is the largest penguin colony in Chile. During summer, it is home to approximately 120,000 penguins.

The penguins draw tourists to Magdalena Island from November to March every year.

There are two options to get to the island.

The cheaper ferry ride costs 30,000 Chilean pesos (S$60) and takes about four hours for a return journey.

I joined the rigid-hulled inflatable Zodiac-type boat tour (52,250 pesos), which takes 40 minutes to reach the island and includes a visit to Marta Island.

As we approached Magdalena Island, we were welcomed by thousands of adorable Magellanic penguins, distinguished by two black bands across the throat and chest.

Visitors have an hour to explore the island, taking a designated path that leads to the Magdalena Island Lighthouse, the highest point on the island. We were told not to touch or feed the penguins.

Oblivious natives

As I wandered along, I saw hundreds of burrows in the ground, each cosily housing a pair of Magellanic penguins.

Our guide told us that these birds - which can live up to the age of 25 - are naturally monogamous, having only one mate for life.

It was a surreal experience to see so many penguins waddling around near us. They seemed oblivious to visitors, often crossing the designated trail we were on to head towards the waters.

Magdalena Island is a breeding ground for the seasonal Magellanic penguins. They start arriving from Brazil in mid-September to enjoy the longer days that are necessary to incubate their eggs and look after their young.

The male penguins arrive first. They find the nests dug the previous season and immediately go about "refurnishing" them to attract their mates.

About two weeks later, the females arrive and are led to their nests where they lay one to two eggs. By November, the chicks make their first appearance. Chilling in Chile with penguins

I was on the island in late December but did not notice the grey chicks in the burrows, until the guide pointed one out to my group.

He explained that the chicks learn to swim and fend off predators during the first few months of their birth.

They will then embark on their 4,000km journey to spend the winter on the warmer coasts of Brazil. By mid-August, they begin to head back to Magdalena Island to complete their reproductive cycle.

I had never heard penguin calls till now, and I was amused to discover what raucous sounds they made.

Apparently, they have different calls for communicating with their mates, offspring or fellow penguins, or laying claim to their territory.

They might even make the occasional aggressive call when they feel threatened during mating season, and to protect their young.

When we reached the lighthouse, we saw some exhibits explaining the penguins' habitat and breeding cycle.

After a quick visit, we went back to the boat and headed towards Marta Island, which protects about 1,000 South American sea lions that live there the whole year round.

We were not stopping at the island, so we had to be content with watching the sea lions and elephant seals from a distance.

The sound of silence

An hour later, we were back at Punta Arenas on the mainland.

It is a quaint town and easy to navigate. Its attractions can be visited within a day. I walked around the main square, Plaza Munoz Gamero, to admire the opulent mansions.

I also visited the Municipal Cemetery north of the city that houses a number of artistic tombstones belonging to the rich families of Patagonia. It is ranked by CNN as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world.

Walking down rows of tombstones and neatly trimmed pine trees, I suddenly thought of my "noisy" date with the penguins earlier.

What a stark contrast that was to this quiet place. But perhaps it was a fitting final stop to bid Punta Arenas farewell.

GETTING THERE

I travelled by bus from Ushuaia in Argentina to Punta Arenas in Chile, which included a short ferry trip across the Magellan Strait at Bahia Azul.

From Singapore, you can fly to Santiago, the capital of Chile. Airlines such as LAN Airlines, American Airlines and TAM Linhas Aereas fly from Santiago to Punta Arenas, the access town to Magdalena Island.

Traveller's tips

- It is advisable to book the penguin tours in advance during the tourist peak season from December to February.

- King crab is a speciality of Punta Arenas. I tried the king crab crêpes at La Luna restaurant, and they were delicious. The restaurant has a wall full of Chilean wines too.

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