Second in a series: Looking for a penguin colony with a view? Try “the end of the world” at the southern tip of Patagonia.
We figured that our visit to the island home of two varieties of penguins would be the highlight of our two-day to Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego province. But our penguin encounter on Martillo Island had plenty of competition.
Our hiking posse 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. Striding with great anticipation from the bus into a shallow-rooted lenga beech forest, we stopped at the first clearing we encountered to eat our boxed lunch. An inauspicious start to a big adventure? Nah. It had been six hours since breakfast in Buenos Aries. Hikers gotta eat!
The Tierra del Fuego countryside offers deep beauty without threat of poison oak, ivy or sumac. No blood-sucking ticks or venomous snakes. The Geek called it “hiker nirvana.” We anticipated the grand topography but were stunned by the biodiversity of the park and the clarity of the Beagle Channel’s salt waters, gently lapping beaches of flaky schist and shiny quartz. We were grateful someone had turned off the notorious wind for our visit.
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 4-mile hike along the coastline through trees covered in lichens, holly and a hint of fall color was easy, but we we ran a bit hot on our first day out. Overdressed in fleece and rain gear with temperatures in the 50s and occasional drizzle, we confirmed that merino wool works as advertised by christening our base layer with perspiration.
After an evening of “bonding” – aka eating, drinking and chatting – with our fellow travelers and a good night’s sleep, we were up and out by 8:30 a.m. for the 90-minute bus ride to Estancia Harberton, where we hopped and shimmied our way aboard a covered Zodiac for the short ride to the soft, peat-lined trails of Gable Island.
The biggest environmental issue on the island apparently involves beavers. Back in the day, the government introduced 26 buck-toothed couples to create a pelt industry. No one considered, however, that the temperate climate wasn’t conducive to thick fur. The business venture failed, but the beavers flourished and now threaten inland stands of beech and the natural flow of the island streams. We used their dams as bridges on several occasions to cross shallow creeks.
Our visit to Gable Island ended with more “bonding” at a shepherds 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. MontaraManDan thinks our chef could bottle and sell the corn juice, though it might need a rebrand.
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.
Not far 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. There was no shortage on Martillo Island, but apparently pebbles are a hard to find and frequently purloined by desperate males 600 miles south on the Antarctic Peninsula. Best pebble gets the girl.
The day was hot for this cold-weather variety, and we saw several waddle to the beach before belly-flopping into the water to leap and jet in the cool shallows.
Sea birds looking for stray eggs and chicks cruised the sky with little luck. Eggs and chicks were out out of season. Tourists, however, must have been in season as an Andean condor with a 10 foot wing span buzzed by just 30 feet over our heads.
The day’s adventure appeared to be done 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 school children. 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.”
So, let’s inventory the sights and sounds of our visit to el fin del mundo: 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 … whoa! Forget the penguin dream, we were living the Tierra del Fuego dream.
This is the second in a series of posts on our hiking tour of Patagonia, booked through Berkeley-based Wilderness Travel. We have received no compensation for writing these posts. The observations and opinions expressed are entirely our own. Your results may vary.