The Best and Worst Days in Patagonia

Walking with penguins and hiking the W... with the flu

Nov 2019

Filed under: patagonia

It was the worst of times; it was the worst of times.

  • Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins, Nicolae

One of the things we were looking forward to most about traveling to South America: seeing penguins in Patagonia. In fact, we booked two nights in Punta Arenas, Chile, solely in order to have an entire day to go to one of the spots where you can walk among penguins.

Booking our penguin excursion was actually pretty difficult. First, we waited until the day before to officially book our excursion (not actually a huge deal in Patagonia - see the second reason - but an added stressor). Second (and this was a lesson we would learn again and again in Patagonia), companies in Patagonia don’t really care about making things easy. Things move at a slow and deliberate pace and interactions are best conducted in person. Hence, information on the web is limited and inconsistent and mostly hearsay, booking processes with tour groups are often done over email or through web forms of questionable security that resemble Geocities templates, and the tour groups through Viator will gladly let you pay a few hundred dollars per person to take the same tour that you will only learn later you can actually do for a fraction of the cost, if you know where to look.

So for four hours in the Santiago airport, we were trying to figure out how to get to the Monumento Natural Los Pinguinos, or to Parque Pinguino Rey, or an overland penguin tour. When we settled on a public ferry to Monumento Natural Los Pinguinos, we weren't completely sure the ferry tickets were legit, the ferry schedule was accurate, or that the ferry would actually take us to see penguins.

But let’s back up, because you may be wondering why we spent so long at the Santiago airport. We had changed our itinerary from staying in Santiago to staying in Lima, due to the ongoing strikes and unrest in Santiago, but kept our same flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas. So we just added a leg and a layover from Lima to Santiago, but it made for a long day.

In order to get to Patagonia from Peru we had to leave our Airbnb in Lima at 5 am, fly to Santiago, spend 7 hours in the Santiago airport (ample time to frantically research penguin excursions), eat McDonald’s (the only restaurant open in the Santiago airport’s domestic terminal after 8pm), take our 11 pm flight to Punta Arenas, and arrive groggily at our Punta Arenas Airbnb at around 2 am local time (2 hours ahead of Lima).

The next morning we woke up at 6:30 am (4:30 am Lima time) to catch the ferry which would take us to see penguins in the wild, as long as the ferry was legit and the schedule we found online was accurate, of course.

Once we got to the ferry terminal it was smooth sailing (no pun intended). Just a quick 2-hour ferry ride mostly populated by German tourists. We spent much of the time reading and napping. There was occasionally commotion, and we would go to the window to see dolphins swimming past.

Finally, the ferry approached Isla Magdalena, home of Monumento Natural Los Pinguinos. It’s incredible to see and to hear the penguins and the gulls as you arrive - there are birds everywhere. Over 60,000 pairs of penguins call the island home; along with Dominican gulls, and in some seasons sea lions, they are the only residents of the island. The National Park Service limits the number of people who can visit every day before they close the park, so visiting Los Pinguinos is immersing yourself in a world of penguins in their natural habitat.

We got to spend over an hour walking amongst the penguins. AN HOUR. WALKING. AMONGST PENGUINS. Truly a bucket list item achieved.

As part of the penguin preservation effort, you’re kept on a roped path and ushered along by the park rangers so you don’t overstay your welcome. You’re carefully instructed to stay at least 5m away from penguins, and to stop and back up in the event a penguin crosses the path, as the penguins often do. The cute little monsters just waddle around wherever they want, not terribly concerned about all the gawking humans. As it should be.

It was at this island that we discovered that despite Tiffany’s best efforts, she is very much smitten with penguins. Their little waddle is even cuter in the wild. The penguins also make a ridiculous noise, possibly a mating noise or something of a territorial yell.

Our other favorite penguin behavior is their nesting. They use their little beaks to rip tufts of grass out of the ground and then waddle back to their dwelling with a beakful of grass. Some penguins are very particular about their grass and walk very far from home to find the perfect tuft and carry it back, while others are more efficient and go back and forth between their hole and a local area of grass. A penguin with a large clump of grass in its beak is indeed a very endearing sight.

When we got back to town, we took an Uber to the bus station to buy tickets for the next day’s journey to Puerto Natales. Based on what we read online, we had worried this might be difficult, but turned out to be simple to purchase tickets in person. We also made small talk with our Uber driver and got his strong recommendation for a local pizza joint, so we decided to grab lunch after buying our tickets.

Dino’s Pizzeria was crowded. We looked around and everybody seemed to be eating sandwiches. But it was a pizzeria, so we decided to get a large mushroom pizza. It was legitimately the worst pizza we have ever had. Basically it was a Lunchable pizza thrown in a microwave for three minutes. We estimate three minutes in the microwave because there was no color on the bottom or the top of the pizza. The cheese was definitely not mozzarella. The mushrooms were canned mushrooms, an insult to mushrooms. The most agreeable thing was probably the sauce, and there wasn’t enough of it. The pizza was so bad that Tiffany resorted to dipping it in mustard to mask the natural/unnatural flavor of the pizza. There’s no way to spin this positively: it was terrible. Here’s a photo, completely unedited for your enjoyment.

Worst Pizza In the World

Did we mention that it was Thanksgiving? Yeah… Sad. Anyways, for the rest of the day we went to a local supermarket to buy groceries for our upcoming camping trip and generally prepped for four days of trekking through the Torres del Paine National Park.

After our awful pizza experience, we decided to consult the internet for help on choosing a place for dinner. We learned that Dino’s Pizzeria was among the highest-rated restaurants in Punta Arenas, so our expectations were low for the gastropub we chose. But at least they would have beer.

One thing you learn abroad is that Google Maps can be consulted, but should not be relied on for directions or actual physical addresses. We wandered the somewhat deserted streets of Punta Arenas before finally finding the gastropub we were looking for. We were impressed by the lamb chops, octopus, and king crab, and we were confused by a succession of magicians roaming around the restaurant performing card tricks at the tables. They must have read our minds, because they stayed away from us. We also saw the most epic unibrow. No photo but trust us, it was noteworthy, like Frida Kahlo or Anthony Davis.

Despite being around 10 pm, the sun was just starting to set as we walked back to our Airbnb. Exhausted from the day’s adventures, we packed our stuff so we could sleep as long as possible before catching the 8 am bus to Puerto Natales.

Unfortunately, Tiffany didn’t sleep long, as she tossed and turned for a while before finally getting sick at around 2 am. We immediately suspected some sort of intense food poisoning, likely from the pizza (just trust us when we say it was intense). Happy Thanksgiving!

Neither Tiffany nor Brian got much sleep that night, and in the morning Brian made the executive decision to change our bus ticket to 10:30 am. He ran into town to change our tickets and search for an open store for some saltines and Gatorade to help Tiffany recover.

Somehow we made it onto the bus. Unfortunately, our neighbors in the row in front of us immediately reclined their seats all the way back, and we were treated to a strong aroma of weed from their wake and bake. Brian enjoyed the scenery during the bus ride, seeing many sheep farms and even some wild flamingos, while Tiffany tried to sleep for the entire three-hour trip.

After arriving in Puerto Natales, we were supposed to immediately pick up a rental car and some camping equipment and then drive a couple hours to the national park and our campsite. The whole time Tiffany was super weak and moving very slowly, so it was mostly up to Brian to figure things out and carry our luggage, which now also consisted of five days of provisions.

Somewhat amusingly when we arrived at the rental car office they were closed, presumably for siesta/lunch, but without a sign indicating when they would be back, so we went across the street for lunch and kept an eye on the rental car office, where many anxious people were gathering.

Between Tiffany’s sluggishness, taking the 10:30 bus, and waiting for the rental car office to reopen, we were about four hours behind schedule. We also needed some additional food for camping, but found the most depleted supermarket ever. We decided this was the final sign that we shouldn’t push farther, and instead of camping, found a last-minute Airbnb in town for the night. Tiffany slept for the next 12 hours on what seemed like the best bed in the world. Meanwhile, Brian ran around town renting camping equipment and finding more food for our camping adventure.

The next day Tiffany felt 207% better - still not to normal but an incredible improvement from the day before. After figuring out how to pack all of our food, camping equipment, and necessary clothes into a couple of backpacks, including the gigantic trekking backpack we rented, we headed for the national park.

The drive consisted mostly of gravel roads. By roads, we mean gravel-covered potholes. When we picked up our rental car, the first thing the agent showed Brian was the spare tire, and we quickly understood why. Driving mostly involved staying in the direct center of the two lanes, often swerving back and forth to avoid a massive crater. It was quite fun.

Meanwhile, we passed by incredible vistas of the rugged Patagonia landscape.

The Famous Torres del Paine (Towers of Paine)

We also saw guanaco, which seem like wintery llamas. We would eventually see guanaco on restaurant menus but waited until Buenos Aires to try it (stay tuned for our review).

We spent the first part of the day exploring the north part of the national park, making our way towards the ferry to our booked campsite. There are only 3-4 of these ferries per day, so we wanted to make sure we got a spot. Luckily, we arrived at the lake right before an unscheduled ferry was about to leave (again, don’t believe every schedule you read online about Patagonia).

The ensuing ferry ride was one of the coldest/windiest boat rides we have ever taken but also probably one of the most stunning boat rides ever.

We pitched our tent in a very crowded campground, where there did not seem to be any bit of flat ground, and then decided to go on a short hike. It was very steep and very short because both of us were getting tired. We headed back to rest and work on depleting our large supply of food.

When we sat down to dinner, Brian wasn’t feeling terribly hungry, and over the course of dinner it got worse and boom! It turns out it wasn’t food poisoning that Tiffany got! Instead, the same 24-hour flu that had knocked Tiffany out the previous day had now claimed Brian as a second victim.

Luckily we knew what to expect so the next day we spent all day in our tent as Brian slept most of the day (ie 20+ hours) and Tiffany read an entire book. For those keeping track at home, that marked three consecutive days of adventuring upended by a nasty flu. Also, we were now carrying way too much food for two people recovering from a stomach flu.

As a quick aside, the weather in Torres del Paine National Park is a wonder in itself. The temperature fluctuates from around 30 degrees at night to mid-60s during the day, with mostly constant gusty winds, so they say you can experience all four seasons in one day. In November/December, the days are super long, with nearly 18 hours of sunlight -- not the longest days we would experience, but very long when you’re camping. When you go to sleep, sunlight still streams in through the top of your tent, and when you wake up, the sun is already up and makes you think it could already be past 10 am. With the sunlight on the tent, in the afternoon, it felt like about 90 degrees inside. Not the most pleasant conditions to spend an entire day while recovering from the flu, but we endured.

Early Morning Light on Patagonian Peaks

Anyways, the following day we did get to do a 7 mile hike. We had planned to do an 11 mile hike but backed away from that since neither of us had eaten much for the past couple of days. It was beautiful and we were passed by many intense hikers who were through-trekking the entire park.

Us and the Mountains

That afternoon we decided to give our bodies a break and instead of sleeping on the awful rental pads, we took the ferry back a day early to find an Airbnb in town. We were sad to leave the breathtaking beauty of Torres del Paine National Park, but glad to put an end to this strange chapter and start looking forward to the next one.

And thus ended our surprisingly eventful Chilean camping flu adventure. The worst we have ever felt seeing some of the most awe-inspiring bucket list locations. Guess we will have to come back to actually do some hiking.