March 3, 2014
Not p-p-p-picking up penguins in Porvenir.
Tierra del Fuego, Chile. I’d always known it to be a mystically mysterious place if ever there was one, after having images of it seared into my brain as a child from being absorbed in the travel thrillers of Jules Verne and the like. Fast-forward three or four decades, and here I am – almost – in the Land of Fire itself. (Where the ‘Fire’ quite comes from I’ve yet to fathom, as there’s nothing hot about this place.) Actually, we’re just across the Strait of Magellan from it – in Punta Arenas, from where the fiery archipelago can be viewed with the naked eye! Once observed from over the water, that was it – we just had to get over there and check it out, if only to cure our curiosity…
But we had another reason. Penguins! Proper penguins! Genuine King Penguins – a whole colony thereof; penguins as mysterious as their surroundings – for apparently no one knows how they got onto the archipelago.
It’s only possible to get to Tierra del Fuego by ferry, and they don’t go often; however, if you get in line in good time, then manage to squeeze your motor in among all the other tightly packed vehicles, in two or three hours it’s realistic to find yourself on the other side of the Magellan Strait.
We arrived at the small town of Porvenir (Spanish for ‘future’), which is the capital of the Chilean Tierra del Fuego, and also one of the southernmost towns in the world. It has a population of around 5000, 2000 of which are soldiers. The rest, if Wikipedia is to be believed, mostly come from… no, not Portugal, Spain, England, France, Holland, etc… but Croatia! Really! They were the ones who founded the settlement in 1883 during the gold rush here. Never had the Croats down as colonizers!
Outside Porvenir there’s not much going on. No, scratch that… there’s absolutely nothing. Infinitesimal nothingness… apart from tundra, grey skies, and unsurfaced roads tracks to nowhere. Hallucinogenic landscapes. Unusual. Unreal.
Ah yes, penguins – to help make up for the gloomy emptiness… or so we reckoned…
First, there weren’t all that many. Second, they were on the other side of a stream, so there was zero chance of trying to p-p-p-pick up a penguin or at least getting up close to them! And we’d come all this way? Boo.
Turns out the riskiest part of a trip to Tierra del Fuego is making sure you get back to the mainland. We were lucky as, due to the penguin setback, we got in line for the ferry early. But judging by the number of cars, buses and wagons, it looked like not everyone would find a spot on one of the few ferries and some folks would be stranded and have to spend the night.
Though it’s a surreal and mystifying place, with a real harsh northern southern energy about it, it just had to be tried. Just once in a lifetime. No regrets.
All the pics are here.