I’d quite like to be a Magellanic penguin. The ladies seem to have it pretty easy. The male penguins head here to Chiloe in September to get the nest ready, tidy up and sort stuff out before the girls swim over in October. While the boys have only one life partner until the day they die, the girls get the odd free pass when a handsome stranger waddles into town. Once the little ones are born, it’s the girls that get to go shopping and get the food in while the men stay home, pay the gas bill and take the kids to swimming classes. Plus you get to eat fresh sardines all day. It really can’t be a bad life.
I came here to see the penguins. Chilean friends had told me that Chiloe was a special, beautiful, magical place like nowhere else on earth. Meanwhile an English friend described it as ‘exactly like Wales with Welsh weather’, whilst another thought it was ‘a bit boring’. After a couple of days on the island I’ve concluded that they’re all right, although it reminds me more of Scotland or Ireland.
It would be completely unfair for an English girl to complain about the weather, so let’s just say that Chiloe is green and lovely and I won’t mention the squally rain and dark clouds. If you come, just remember to bring waterproofs, a brolley and warm layers.
It starts to feel pretty special even before you arrive. To get here you have to cross the water from mainland Chile. The bus pulls up onto a long cargo boat and the low-flying cormorants and playful sealions help to guide it into the bay across the water. Then it’s mile upon mile of green nothingness before you arrive in Ancud.
It was general election day when I went to see the penquins. That meant that all the local buses were being used to ferry voters in and out of town (if you’re registered to vote in Chile you can be fined for not voting so the buses were popular) and I had to go with a tour. It was more expensive but Manuel the driver was full of useful titbits. Judging by how many times he honked his horn, he seemed to know just about everyone on the island.
After a 40 minute drive from Ancud through rural farm land and protected wildlife areas, we drove onto a rugged windswept beach fiercely guarded by giant seagulls. Local fishermen doled out the lifejackets and giant waterproof ponchos (you clearly have to look your best for the dinner-jacketed residents) and in choppy waters we headed to the Pinguinera Puñihuil.
These three tiny islands of the coast are the penguin equivalent of a small town nightclub on a Saturday night. If you are a penguin and you need some loving, Chiloe is where you come. This is the only place in the world where Magellanic penguins from the south and Humboldt penquins from the north meet. Though you might think this might be a West Side Story of bar brawls and wounded egos, they seem to get along pretty well. However as Pedro the fisherman made startlingly clear with a range of insightful hand gestures, they are only friendly up to a point. There will be no inter-species marriages on this rock anytime soon.
After a short but delightful half an hour of penquin, otter, cormorant, gull and sea crow spotting, our time was up and we headed back to the beach for empanadas de loco (abalone in English, apparently). I left with few decent photos of the penguins. It was one of those moments when I realised that I could try in vain to take photos from afar with no professional lens or I could just enjoy watching these fabulous creatures in their natural habitat. I went for the latter. Look them up on google if you want a proper gander.
In the afternoon I finally got my first taste of Curanto and a personal guided tour of Ancud from Juan, a Santiago Couchsurfer who grew up in Chiloe and was back for the weekend. Ancud is a wonderful wee place, full of rugged empty beaches, wildlife and colourful houses. For me though, Ancud wil always be the place where I got to watch the waddling gait of those tiny penguins.
I’ll leave you in Castro where the sun is doing its level best to shine and I have just had one of the best meals of my life – Cerviche de Erizo (that’s raw sea urchin for you Brits). If you want to know how much I liked it, check out my happy, contented little face.