19th-23rd December 2018
Despite never crossing a border my flight to Punta Arenas from Santiago was over three hours long, demonstrating just how vast Chile’s boundaries extend from north to south.
And I noticed the difference in climate as soon as I stepped off the plane and into the cool Patagonian air. It was evening. I was worried that I wouldn’t find a place to pitch my tent before it got dark, but it was surprisingly light for 9pm.
As it turned out, I needed have. I had yet to realise just how far south I had just come, but they call this area Chile’s ‘Antarctic Region’ for a reason and it was the most extreme I have ever been on either of the hemispheres. Not only that, but summer solstice was just two days away.
I set up my tent in the yard of Hostel Independencia, which was a little rustic but one of my favourite places I have stayed in my entire time in South America. Eduardo, its owner, was very forthcoming with advice and the first thing he did was sit me down with a map and tell me about some of the local attractions. The kitchen had a large AGA-type oven which kept the living areas cosily warm. The wifi was faster than the dorm I stayed at in Santiago and the showers were hot.
There was still light in the sky when I when I climbed into my sleeping bag at 11pm and it never really went completely dark. I woke up at 3am a little confused because it was already getting light again. It took me a while to get used to this and I didn’t sleep very well the first two nights there, but the eerie twilight which occurred for just three hours each sunset was quite beautiful.
I began exploring the next morning. Punta Arenas is a charming place. It feels more like a small sea-side town than a city. The roads were never congested and there were boats rocking in the bay. Most of them seem were for fishing but no doubt some were destined for Antarctica.
There were a few museums worth visiting. Most notably the Regional Museum of Magallanes and the Salesian Maggiorino Borgatello Museum. Both of them have a focus on local history, but the Regional Museum also has an entire floor of displays showing how the European colonials who inhabited the area lived, while Maggiorino Borgatello has lots of information on natural history and native cultures.
There is also a world famous cemetery near to the Salesian museum which is definitely worth a wander.
It was the second day that I began to venture further afield. Originally I wanted to go to Magdalena Island to see its colony of Magellanic Penguins, but the boat was cancelled that day due to the strong winds which often sweep across southern Patagonia during this time of the year, so instead I caught a bus to the nearby Magallanes National Reserve where I got my first glimpse of Patagonian Forest.
When I registered at the ranger station I chose to do the ‘Las Lengas’ trail, a 10km circuit through the park. It took me about four hours, in all, and it passed through several different kinds of landscapes and viewpoints.
I also saw several species of bird, including a pair of caracaras which I stalked for a while and got very close to a few times but never managed to get a decent photo of because they always flew away just as my camera was ready. I did catch a fairly decent video of one of them which can be viewed here.
On my third day in Punta Arenas, the boat to Magdalena Island was cancelled again so I took some time to relax and do some shopping. Not only did I have Christmas coming up but the Torres del Paine trek too and I was worried about Puerto Natales – the next town I am going to – would not have as much variety.
On the fourth day, I finally made it to Magdalena and it was worth both the wait and the hefty price (my funds dwindling as they are, this late in the trip).
I mean, what can I say? It is an island full of penguins! The species here are Magallenic, which is the third kind I have seen this journey. Some of them had chicks too, which were easily spotted (despite not being too small) from their grey furriness. I have uploaded some videos which can be viewed here.
And a pair of skuas managed to capture a baby gull while I was there, which was a bit upsetting to watch but just as much a part of nature as seeing cute baby penguins. I have a video of this event you can watch here if you choose to click it.
I also saw a pair of Magallenic geese.
After the boat returned to the mainland I got onto a bus heading to Puerto Natales where I would spend Christmas before tackling an eight-day trek through Torres del Paine.
For more photos from Punta Arenas, Magallanes National Reserve and Magdalena Island, click here.