After 9hrs on a bus over mainly dirt roads I was a little shell shocked and desperately in need of some sleep, exacerbated by another late night/early morning combo. I’d heard that accommodation in Punta Arenas was a little hard to come by, but hadn’t found anything decent available on line, so resorted to the time-honoured method of just turning up and having a wander.
This was fairly fruitless at first, until I stumbled across a sign advertising the “Fin del Mundo” hostel in the centre of town. Initial impressions from the street really didn’t look promising however once upstairs with the friendly staff and comfy sitting room I was definitely won over. Reasonable price too, in the scheme of non-reasonable Patagonian prices. Ideal.
So, back into Chile and with some life admin to attend to- Get cash and get food! Luckily both were accomplished at the local supermarket. £5 charge on all withdrawals in Chile though, ouch.
Straight away I noticed that the prices of lots of food products were higher than Argentina- Significantly so in some cases, however on the delicious flipside decent beer was as cheap as chips! I’ll take that. A six pack of Austral for £2.60 when you can only pick up single cans of the far, far inferior Quilmes in Argentina for a quid…
The next day I tried to book an afternoon penguin tour but all were sold out, so I booked up for the day after and resolved to stay in PA for another night. No great hardship as the town centre is beautiful in parts, and very well padded for arriving travellers with loads of restaurants, coffee houses and a beautiful main square.
Also it seemed that the Queen Mary 2 was visiting, anchored just off the coast. I chatted to some of the passengers who were leaving to Santiago the next day. Nice trip if you can afford it! Maybe to get home from New York, Rodney…
One of Punta Arenas’ main draws, particularly for visitors from Argentina, is the Zona Franca. I had heard about this in advance, and resolved to pay it a visit. Basically a duty free shopping area in the style of an strip mall, with some incredible bargains. Last week my camera developed a fairly fatal error and, in a show of solidarity, the wifi stopped working on my creaking iPhone- So I needed to replace one or the other ASAP. The cost of mobiles in Argentina is prohibitively expensive due to high import duty, so I was really pleased to pick up a Samsung Galaxy S4 for the equivalent of £190. Possibly not a bargain if you can summon Amazon to the rescue, but nearly a third or half the price of Argentina and with no other alternatives- I’ll take that!
Along with this I picked up a load of tat I probably didn’t need… Although I maintain that my mesh hammock for £3 is a cracking buy and WITHOUT DOUBT, somewhere between here and the US I will really, really appreciate it. Another pair of socks, too, since laundries seem to love stealing them. Grr! 2 pairs of Union Flag [pedant note: It’s only the Union Jack when flown on a ship] socks stolen since China, damn you laundries!
Travel advice part: Definitely get to Punta Arenas if you need to stock up on anything and you’re nearby. You can even fly cheaply from Santiago. There was a really good range of cheap outdoor stuff within the Zona Franca and electronics are comparable to UK prices. Oh, and there’s loads of branded cheap booze.
So then, enough of duty free shopping, but time to introduce you to another of Punta Arenas’ delights: The colectivo system. Now, there are a few buses, because I saw some, however I was fascinated to see that the town mainly works with a system of numbered, shared taxis plying the main routes. Pick your route, hail the cab and jump in with the other randoms in there! There’s a fixed flat fare of 45p. Brilliant system which seems to work pretty well.
So, the next day I hopped back into Colectivo number 15, which serves both the Zona Franca from the city centre, and also the port of embarkation for the ferries to Porvenir and Isla Magdalena.
There are two choices nearby for the avid penguin enthusiast: The iconic King penguin colony near Porvenir, and the Magdalena Island trip which I went on, with the colony of smaller but no less cute Magellanic penguins. I’d originally wanted to go to Porvenir overland from the Chilean border but with the hitching failure hadn’t managed to make it happen. Boats go from Punta Arenas to Porvenir, but you then have to get a further 90km on the Tierra Del Fuego, which means that the day tour is roughly double or more the cost of the Magdalena trip.
I paid £35, more or less, which included the boat to and from the island, it’s a 5-6hr round trip including an hour on the island. Main tour company is COMAPA with offices in town but most accommodations can get you booked up.
Departure time was 3pm, but we were delayed for a further hour. The main problem is the large proportion of idiots who can’t manage to get onto a boat without a life-or-death scrum, nevertheless we loaded up and steamed out into the bay.
The sea trip takes around 1.5-2hrs each way, it was relatively flat when we went. Arriving straight into a penguin colony is somewhat surreal. Thousands and thousands of them. You walk around the island on a clearly marked path, roped off from the penguins but this doesn’t stop them frequently crossing said path. They are completely accustomed to humans and you are seldom more than a metre from them!
Somewhat adorably, the penguins mate for life and remain monogamous. Every year they part ways upon migration however return to the same partner and the same nest. There were several points at which I struggled to maintain manly composure and the point at which I spotted a pair holding hands was one of them… I did have a photo but appear to have deleted it, so here’s one I took of of two penguins playing instead. Mummies and Daddies, I would imagine, was the game at hand.
And so passed a pleasant hour on Penguin Island. It’s incredible to be so close to the birds, right in the middle of an active colony. I’d call it a privilege, but that would be cheesy. But it really was. Watching them go about their daily business, taking the air, hanging around, fluffing the chicks… My internal struggle about whether to pop one in my rucksack was a bitter one.
Back into Punta Arenas by 9pm and back to, unfortunately, a different hostel- Fin Del Mundo didn’t have any space for my third night. It did show how important a good attitude and atmosphere in a hostel is though, the Hostal Chiloe possessed neither. Nor, indeed, breakfast, I was most annoyed to find in the morning. And for the same price as the brilliant Fin Del Mundo. Revenge was delayed but sweet with a very frank review on several websites.
Speaking of possessed, there were also 2 VERY weird resident poodles. Are their necks meant to bend like that?
I wasn’t terribly impressed about the large volume of signs forbidding fairly everyday kitchen behaviour, nor indeed the covert CCTV camera in the kitchen either. Luckily though I was leaving the next morning. Quickly.
On to pastures new- Next stop, Puerto Natales and the amazing Torres del Paine National Park.