Monumento Natural Los Pingüinos
From early October, more than 60,000 breeding pairs of Magellanic penguins paddle ashore and waddle to burrows that cover nearly all of 97-hectare Isla Magdalena, 20 nautical miles northeast of Punta Arenas, before returning to sea in April. Also the site of a landmark lighthouse, Isla Magdalena is the focal point of Monumento Natural Los Pingüinos, one of Conaf’s smallest reserves.
While the mainland Otway colony gets upwards of 40,000 visitors per year, Isla Magdalena gets fewer than 9,000—90 percent of them foreigners—because of its limited accessibility. In summer, though, the ferry Melinka visits the island three times weekly from Punta Arenas. Though more expensive than Otway tours, these excursions also offer penguins and dolphins in the water, as well as black-browed albatrosses, cormorants, kelp gulls, skuas, South American terns, and other seabirds in the surrounding skies.
From a floating dock on the island’s east side, a short trail leads along the beach and up the hill to Scottish engineer George Slight’s Faro Magdalena (1901), a lighthouse whose iron tower rises 13.5 meters above the island’s highest point; still functioning, the light has a range of 10 nautical miles. A narrow spiral staircase ascends the tower.
For its first five decades, a resident caretaker maintained the acetylene light, but after its 1955 automation the building was abandoned and vandalized. In 1981, though, the Chilean navy entrusted the building to Conaf; declared a national monument, it has since become a visitor center. It boasts remarkably good exhibits on the island’s history (discovery, early navigation, cartography, and the lighthouse’s construction) and natural history in both Spanish and English (the English text is less complete). U.S. archaeologist Junius Bird, best known for his 1930s work at the mainland site of Pali Aike, also undertook excavations here.
For ferry excursions to Isla Magdalena, contact Turismo Comapa (Magallanes 990, tel. 061/200200, fax 061/225804, tcomapa [at] entelchile [dot] net). In December, January, and February, after its regular Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday run to Porvenir, the Melinka makes a passengers-only trip to Isla Magdalena (US$33 pp, half that for children) from Terminal Tres Puentes; sailing time is 4 p.m. (bring food—the Melinka’s snack bar is pretty dire). Visitors spend about 90 minutes on the island, returning to Punta Arenas around 9:30 p.m.
Passengers on the Mare Australis and Via Australis cruises through Tierra del Fuego’s fjords stop here on their return leg, but an intermediate alternative is more frequent than either of the above. New in late 2005, Solo Expediciones (José Nogueira 1255, tel. 061/243354) offers half-day excursions (US$58 pp) that shuttle passengers from the mainland in Zodiacs and include an approach to nearby Isla Marta, where the overflow from penguin-saturated Magdalena has migrated.
© Wayne Bernhardson from Moon Chile, 2nd edition