On barren South Atlantic shores, 126 kilometers south of Trelew, some 200,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins waddle ashore every austral spring to nest on only 210 hectares at Punta Tombo. Despite its isolation, more than 100,000 visitors a year, and up to 2,500 in a single day, find their way to Área Natural Protegida Punta Tombo (Sept.-Apr., US$8 foreigners, US$3 Argentine residents, plus a small fee per vehicle), following RN 3 and a shortcut to a dusty southeasterly lateral and the continent’s largest single penguin colony. Besides penguins, there are giant petrels, kelp and dolphin gulls, king and rock cormorants, and shorebirds including oystercatchers and flightless steamer ducks—not to mention offshore whales.

A pair of Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo, Argentina.

A pair of Magellanic penguins check each other out at Punta Tombo, Argentina. Photo © Alexander Ludwig/123rf.

Tours from Trelew (around US$52 pp) arrive around 11am, but the birds are so dispersed that it rarely seems crowded. Authorities have marked off the nesting grounds, and human visitors must stay on marked trails and boardwalks. Still, since penguins do not respect fences, it’s possible to get up-close-and-personal photos. Just respect the birds’ space (their beaks can inflict a nasty gash).

Tombo’s infrastructure remains limited, though the new Centro de Interpretación de Pingüinos has recently opened. No camping is permitted. The season runs from September to April; the park is closed for visits outside of that period. Despite their numbers, penguin populations here and at Península Valdés may be in trouble. An article in Science concluded that continued overfishing of the Patagonian anchovy, which constitutes half the penguins’ diet (and also sustains elephant seals, dolphins, and other South Atlantic species) could cause a population collapse.

While it’s also possible for a group to hire a taxi for a day trip to the reserve, renting a car in Trelew or Puerto Madryn would make it possible to follow the scenic desert coastline south past the ghost town of Cabo Raso to the picturesque fishing port of Camarones and Cabo Dos Bahías, a reserve with both penguins and sea lions. From Camarones, it’s possible to return to Trelew or Puerto Madryn via paved RN 3.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Patagonia.