Seeing penguins in the wild is an unforgettable experience and Patagonia, the southern tip of South America, is one of the best places to view them. From Magellanic, Humboldt, Gentoo, Southern Rockhoppers, to King Penguins, Chile and Argentina have them all. There are even more penguins in Patagonia than humans! You can view these adorable creatures in massive colonies at Tierra del Fuego, Punta Arenas, and Puerto Madryn. Here are the best places to find South America’s iconic penguins:
1. Punta Tumbo, Peninsula Valdes, Argentina (Northern Patagonia)
Punta Tumbo is Patagonia’s most famous penguin colony with over 100,000 visitors making the trip to the nesting ground each year. It is the world’s largest colony of Magellan Penguin with over 200,000 breeding pairs on the peninsula. Masses of inquisitive birds, preening themselves and scampering about, extend as far as the eye can see. It’s an inconceivable amount of waddling tuxedos; a ½ million pinguinos gathering on the shores, swimming in the waves, and burrowing under the small shrubs. Though it’s a 2.5 hour drive from the town of Puerto Madryn, it is completely worth the time to get there. In addition to the Magellan penguins, the reserve is also home to rheas, guanacos and armadillos. To make the most of this excursion combine it with a trip to see the tonina dolphins while keeping your eyes peeled for orcas that occasionally appear offshore. Though the Punta Tumbo colony is magnificent, if you’re short on time and need to see penguins, then consider visiting the smaller San Lorenzo colony,
Tip: Penguins crossing the boardwalk always have the right of way!
2. Tierra Del Fuego’s Martillo Island, Argentina (Southern Patagonia)
Isla Martillo is one of the best places in Patagonia to get up close and personal with penguins as well. This island is located in the Beagle Channel, and is easily accessible from Argentina’s city of Ushuaia. Visitors that are planning to visit Antarctica should also take advantage of seeing this colony at Patagonia’s southern tip! There are two species of everyone’s favorite flightless birds on Martillo, Gentoo and Magellanic penguins who number in the thousands. They can be observed doing penguin things i.e. nesting on the island’s rocky ridges, waddling in and out of the water, and searching for anchovies and sardines off the shore. Lucky visitors spot the occasional Emperor penguin having moseyed up from Antarctica. Photographers get great shots on the island from spectacularly close up as the most curious and fearless penguins approach within a few feet. It’s easy to see why the wild penguin rookeries on Martillo are the biggest wildlife draw to Tierra Del Fuego. The historic Haberton Estancia and the whale museum are also worth the visit.
Suggested Trip: 14 Day Ultimate Patagonia
3. Isla Magdelena & Useless Bay Outside of Puntas Arenas, Chile (Southern Patagonia)
Twenty kilometers outside of Puntas Arenas in the strait of Magellen lies the Isla Magdalena, home to the most significant breeding ground of the tuxedoed magellanic penguin. It is Chile’s largest penguin colony and one of the largest rookeries in all of Patagonia. Pass elephant seal and sea lion colonies on the boat ride from Punta Arenas to the extensive, healthy colony of over 120,000 penguins. The penguins migrate to Isla Magdalena from Brazil, Uruguay and Peru for the summer to lay their eggs and raise their chicks. Similar to the aforementioned penguins, these guys are uber friendly and often approach visitors while waddling on and off the tourist boardwalks. So be prepared for the most inquisitive birds to approach the walkways to get a closer look at you! As you explore the tiny island, you’ll see them waddling about, crowding the shores, burrowing into their sandy nests, and caring for their chicks. It’s a joy to have their high pitched squabbles and musical trills fill your ears. After you’ve explored the island, visit the lighthouse to learn more about the penguins’ habitat, breeding and ecosystem. Named the number one thing to do in Punta Arenas, visiting Isla Magdalena in the Los Pingüinos Natural Monument is a definite ‘do not miss’.
While in the area it is also possible to visit the “King Penguin Park” in Useless Bay. Though it is a significantly smaller colony with a population size of 100 penguins, it is the only colony of King Penguins on the South America continent. If you are not going to Antarctica then this will be your only chance to see these magnificent birds. King Penguins are the second largest penguins, easily recognizable by their bright orange cheeks. Whereas the other penguin colonies are only inhibited from October to April, this bunch lives in the colony year round.
Local tip: On the way back to Puntas Arenas keep an eye out for breaching dolphins and whales in the strait.
4 . Antarctica
If you’re taking an antarctic cruise you’ll start spotting penguins after passing through the Drake Passage and upon venturing into the Magallanes region. Rockhopper penguins nest throughout the region and are easily identified by their beady red eyes. King Penguins, with one of the healthiest penguin populations in Antarctica, are found in immense colonies everywhere from the Falklands to South Georgia. But the penguin that really owns the South Pole in terms of population size is the Gentoo Penguin, expect to be seeing a lot of these speedy swimmers. The Macaroni Penguins, with their distinctive head tassels can be found on the subantarctic islands and on the Antarctic Peninsula along with Chinstrap Penguins. Emperor and Adelie Penguin live on the continent year long and can be spotted nearly everywhere. These last two are perhaps the most exciting to spot as they are found nowhere else on earth but this icy continent. The Emperor penguins are particularly striking as they are the largest penguins and are the South Pole’s most famous resident. Regardless of which species you see, the thrill of spotting wild penguins in Antarctica never gets old!
Suggested Trip: Antarctica 8 Day Air Cruise
What’s the best time of year to see Penguins?
The best time to see the best dressed birds in Patagonia is from November to March. Keep in mind that most of Patagonia’s are there seasonally for breeding so it’s important to time it right. November to December is when the parents are building their nests and laying their eggs. January is when the penguin chicks are hatching or are newly hatched and it is certainly an exciting time to visit the colonies. In February the penguin chicks are learning how to swim in the icy waters and are beginning to molt. March is the end of the breeding season and penguins begin to leave the nest to migrate back North (unless they are Antarctic penguins). We hope you enjoy visiting Patagonia’s most adorable birds, or maybe even see their fuzzy chicks!
The beauty and scale of Patagonia’s penguin colonies is beyond words; every expedition leaves you with memories to last a lifetime. The experience of sailing to an island of friendly, waddling birds and peacefully watching them in their daily lives is truly unforgettable. You will not regret meeting these famous birds. To learn more about our Patagonia packages and Antarctic Cruises here are some suggestions for further reading. Do not hesitate to reach out to us if you need advice or any questions answered! Our adventure consultants are available to help at a moment’s notice.