Looking for a penguin colony with a view? Try “the end of the world” at the southern tip of Patagonia.
We arrived by plane at Ushuaia, the breezy capital of Tierra del Fuego, packed and dressed for a coastal warm-up hike along the Beagle Channel.
The Tierra del Fuego countryside offers deep beauty without threat of poison oak, ivy, or sumac. No blood-sucking ticks or venomous snakes. We anticipated grand topography, but were stunned by the biodiversity of the park and the clarity of the Beagle Channel’s salt waters, gently lapping on beaches of flaky schist and shiny quartz.
The birds were magnificent. We saw sleek white-bellied Magellanic cormorants streaking above the channel, flightless steamer ducks with bright orange bills bobbing noisily, dappled upland geese preening; a bored chimango caracara (a variety of falcon), and huge Magellanic woodpeckers pounding away in the trees.
The four-mile hike along the coastline through trees covered in lichens, holly, and a hint of fall color was easy. After an evening of “bonding”—eating, drinking, and chatting —with our fellow travelers and a good night’s sleep, we were up and out by 8:30 am for the 90-minute bus ride to Estancia Harberton, where we hopped aboard a covered Zodiac for the short ride to the soft, peat-lined trails of Gable Island.
Our visit to Gable Island ended with more “bonding” at a shepherd’s hut over freshly grilled fish and vegetable souffles, washed down with red corn juice and wine. There was no shortage of food or beverage on this trip.
Back on the Zodiac, we traveled to Martillo Island to explore a pair of non-competitive penguin colonies. The Magellenic penguins settled on the island in the 1970s. Standing lookout above nesting burrows that dotted the high ground, the colony looked like a community of feathered prairie dogs in tattered evening wear, ogling us sideways through goggle eyes. Molting season had left them a bit raggedy.
Farther up the beach, we visited a colony of gentoo penguins. Less accustomed to land predators in their native Antarctic environment, this variety nests atop piles of highly prized pebbles.
Sea birds looking for stray eggs and chicks cruised the sky with little luck. Eggs and chicks were out of season. Tourists, however, must have been in season as an Andean condor with a 10-foot wingspan buzzed by just 30 feet over our heads.
The day’s adventure appeared to be finished as we headed back to the mainland in our Zodiac, but nature had one more surprise in store—scores of dusky dolphins leaping and racing for a mile or more in all directions.
One dolphin leaped a body’s length up and out of the water repeatedly as we all cheered like a bunch of schoolchildren. Our captain had been driving Zodiacs in the channel for 30 years and had seen a similar spectacle only a couple of times previously. Rob, our trip leader, was so inspired that he dubbed our group “Team Dolphin.”
Snow-capped mountains, magical islands, dramatic clouds, crystal-clear waters, soaring condors, chortling steamer ducks, zippy cormorants, plus-sized woodpeckers, frisky dolphins, amiable hiking companions—our time in Ushuaia had it all!
—Text and photos by WT adventurers Dan and Dawn Page, In Patagonia. You can see more of their adventures from this trip on their blog, coastsideslacking.com.