Best locations to see penguins in South America
Think of penguins and the first thing which comes to mind is probably a colony of black and white birds huddled together during a blizzard in a snow-covered Arctic landscape. It’s a common misconception. While Emperor penguins do reside in the freezing realms of the Antarctic, as anyone who’s been entranced by Disney’s Happy Feet will know, most other species prefer the southern hemispheres as their natural habitat.
Think of South America and rather than penguins, the first image which pops into your head will probably be one of humid, steaming jungles or feather and sequin clad girls in bikinis dancing a samba at carnival time. Are there penguins in South America? You might be surprised to discover that, yes, there are penguins in South America and quite a lot of them too. In fact, from the less than twenty species of penguin in existence, seven of them live and breed in various countries throughout the South American continent. That alone doesn’t make them South American penguins as the same species also inhabit such diverse locations as Australia, New Zealand and China.
Where can penguins be found in South America?
Contrary to popular belief, penguins much prefer to live on rocky islets or by a gently sloping shoreline with easy access to the sea rather than in below zero temperatures. Large penguin colonies can be found in four of the major South American countries, Chile, Argentina, Peru and Ecuador. Not many of the colony sites are accessible to visitors because of their remoteness or for conservation reasons, but there are a few places which are reachable and where it’s permitted to get up close to the South American penguins.
Penguins in Argentina
The most common species of South American penguin is the Magellanic penguin. Their squat physique combined with their distinct markings also makes them one of the cutest. While they have breeding grounds distributed throughout the Patagonian region, the natural area shared by Argentina and Chile, one of the best locations to see penguins actually in Argentina is at the Punta Tombo Provincial Reserve.
Punta Tombo is a rocky peninsula which juts out into the Atlantic Ocean from the central eastern coast of Argentina. A national reserve since the late nineteen seventies, it is home to the largest colony of penguins not only in Argentina, but in the whole of South America. The reserve is reachable by road. It’s around a two and a half hour drive from Puerto Madryn or from Trelew. Expect to pay an entrance fee of approximately $20, but it is all in a good cause as the fee goes towards helping with the maintenance and vigilance of the environment. There are strict rules about sticking to the marked pathways which run through the reserve and it’s not permitted to approach the penguins, but that doesn’t detract in any way from the sight of so many penguins all together. They are just amazing.
Penguins in Chile
Chile hosts several species of penguin, including colonies of Magellanic, Macaroni and the Humboldt, but they mostly reside way off shore on tiny islands which are just too difficult to visit for even the most adventurous of travellers. But there is one special place in Chile which combines penguins with some of the most stunning picturesque scenery in the world. That place is Chiloe Island and it’s one of the best places to see penguins in Chile.
Chiloe Island, the largest in the Pacific archipelago, lays just half an hour away from the Chilean coast by ferry. Its stunning mountainous interior is clad with pine forests, its shoreline rimmed with swathes of beautiful beaches and colorful wooden houses. Chiloe Island’s natural ruggedness draws many visitors to the island, but it’s the rocky coves of Puñihuil on the north west of the island which attracts the penguins.
The Puñihuil Penguin Colony is the only place you are able to see Humboldt penguins, which are in danger of extinction, nesting alongside the Magellanic species. While Puñihuil beach itself is easy enough to get to, you’ll need to take a zodiac boat out to see the penguins. Take a good pair of binoculars if you want to see them close up as it’s not possible to go ashore.
Penguins in Peru
Penguins may not rate as highly as Machu Picchu on Peru’s list of top attractions, but there are some great places to see penguins in Peru. Some are visitable and some are not. One site which is the most important conservation area for Humboldt penguins in Peru, the Punto San Juan Reserve, has reserved it’s schedule of guided tours for residents of the local area only. Disappointing for avid penguin fans, but their essential work which includes involving the local community in the conservation of the area, will hopefully help take the Humboldt penguin of the threatened species list.
There are still a couple of other amazing places to see penguins in Peru, but you will need to board a boat to do it. The Ballestas Islands are a group of rocky islets situated off the coast of Peru near the town of Paracas in the south. The penguin populations there can be so dense it’s impossible to see the rocks for bodies. There’s still room though for other species to cohabit alongside them and as you sail around you’ll see sea-lions as well as other marine birds like cormorants.
The closest place Peru’s capital, Lima, to see penguins is on the Pachacamac Islands. Visible from the coastline near the town of Lurin, it takes around an hour to get to the islands by boat. You might need to charter your own or use your best persuasion techniques on one of the local fisherman, but it’ll be worth it.
Penguins in Ecuador
To get to see penguins in Ecuador, you’re going to need to be prepared to travel to the isolated archipelago known as the Galapagos Islands. Yes, it is a bit of a trek as the islands are over six hundred miles from the coast of Ecuador, but they’re a natural haven for penguins as well as a plethora of other exciting wildlife and a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
You’d be right in thinking getting there is not a task for the faint hearted penguin spotter, but it is the only place to go to see the Galapagos penguin which is endemic to the islands. Only two of the islands have airports, Baltra and San Cristobal, which you can fly into from Ecuador. After you’ve landed you’ll need to take the public ferries to either of the islands Fernandina or Isabela where the colonies are.
Walk the peninsula Punta Espinosa, on the island of Fernandina, which has been marked as a visitor site and you’ll see not just Galapagos penguins, but sea lions and land iguanas too. If you really want to get up close, get in the water at Concha de Perla bay on the island of Isabella and snorkel as the penguins and sea lions going about the business of catching their dinner. Penguin spotting really doesn’t get any better than that.