I was doubly blessed that Christmas Eve. December in the Southern Hemisphere is a time of lingering twilight and balmy summer air, or what passes for “balmy” in southern Chile. I was in Punta Arenas, where the Chilean Andes meet the Straits of Magellan.
The first surprise of the day was the Cementerio Municipal, a walled, flower-riot of a gem where the paths are marked with street signs. Los Gladiolas and Las Margaritas (the flower, not the drink) speak to the beauty that lies therein. Family members were busy this day scrubbing grave markers, trimming bushes and planting flowers. Voices were lifting in song, blending with the hum of bees and the ka-thump of hand mowers.
I lingered, strolling through the neat rows of elaborate headstones, reading names that sounded more like a European cemetery than one in Spanish-speaking Chile. Anglo, German and Scandinavian surnames spoke of the worldwide maritime importance of the Straits of Magellan.
The sun was still high, when, at 3:30 pm, I boarded the Barcaza Melinka Ferry for the two-hour journey to Isla Magdalena, for the second treat of the day. There I would spend a delightful hour among the more than 100,000 Magellanic Penguins who live on the island. The time of day is ideal. Penguins spend most of the day in the water, fishing. I arrived just as they were returning for the evening. When I say that Isla Magdalena is only one square kilometer in size, understand when I say that there were penguins everywhere.
The ferry returns in one hour, so it is necessary to plan time accordingly. There is an interesting visitor center at the research facility on the island, but, understandably, the penguins are the main attraction.
Sadly, the time passes quickly, the ferry arrives and the captain sounds the horn impatiently. I suppose the sight of all those penguins is just part of his day’s routine. I was back at the Tres Puentes Terminal by 8:30 pm where I hailed a cab to drive me to the larger port across the island. There I re-boarded my cruise ship for a Christmas Eve sail toward Ushuaia, Argentina.
Most cruise ships offer tours to the much smaller penguin colony at Otway Sound. Their tours take place in the morning when the penguins are out to sea. I was fortunate that our ship did not sail until late evening, so I took full advantage of the Isla Magdalena opportunity. The ferry trip not only offers the chance to mingle closely among the “jackass penguins” – as they are called because of their braying – but the cost is a fraction of a cruise ship’s tour. Bon Voyage!
Susan Tornga has undergraduate and graduate degrees in Business Administration, but prefers travel to tax forms, and finds the world a much better teacher than any classroom. Her fiction and non-fiction has appeared in numerous publications, including the Chicken Soup and Patchwork Path anthologies.