The black-and-white welcome committee
The island’s black-and-white welcoming committee waits patiently. From a distance, it resembles a dinnersuited group of guys ready for a wedding. A fellow tourist on deck disagrees. “They remind me of nuns in Italy,” she insists.
We are on a half-day excursion with local operator Pira Tours to Yecapasela Reserve on the uninhabited Isla Martillo, which is famous for just one reason: penguins. In the Beagle Channel on the outskirts of Ushuaia, the world’s most southern city, the isle is home to about 6000 Magellanic penguins, far outnumbering its population of about 30 gentoos.
Ushuaia, the capital of Argentina’s Tierra del Fuego province, and which styles itself as Fin Del Mundo (“end of the world”), is closer to Antarctica than to Buenos Aires. More Antarctic voyages leave from here than anywhere else. Many of the 24 passengers on our 15-minute boat ride to Isla Martilla are either poised to join Antarctic cruises or have returned from the ice yet are not, as one snap-frozen voyager puts it, “all penguined out”.
Our outing begins at Estancia Harberton, near touris- ty Ushuaia (with its hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops), a city framed by pine forests and snowy peaks. The estancia (the province’s oldest) is now a cattle ranch and was named after an English village. It’s still run by descendants of the British missionary who established it 129 years ago. Penguins are the main attraction, but it’s also worthwhile touring the property and homestead, as well as dropping in at the farm’s Museo Acatushun with its exhibits of Tierra del Fuego’s mammals and birds.
An agreement between wildlife authorities and cruise operators allows 80 passengers a day on to the island. We keep to designated trails. Antarctic rules apply: we mustn’t approach wildlife but if penguins come close (as they do) that’s fine. One delightfully ridiculous-looking critter waddles alongside me throughout my visit.
Back on the boat, I chat to a German visitor. “No polar bears!” he complains. “I’ll have to wait until Antarctica.” I try to let him down gently: “You won’t see them there either. Plenty of penguins and seals. Perhaps whales. No polar bears … head north to the Arctic, not the Antarctic.” He nods but clearly is unconvinced.
Several companies also run half-day Beagle Channel tours in regular boats and catamarans. It’s important, I’m told, to check itineraries. I pick a catamaran visiting several islets. At Isla Alicia we anchor offshore, watching yawning sea lions sprawled on spray-drenched rocks. At Isla de los Lobos and several other islets we visit colonies of sea lions as well as their smaller (and more playful) American fur seal cousins.
Then, at Isla de los Pajaros we moor at a pebbly beach for a guided walk with fauna and flora explanations. In the distance is Ushuaia and the Tierra del Fuego shoreline from where icy winds blow off snowy peaks, whipping warm-clad but shivering travellers. We round a French-named island lighthouse called Faro Les Eclaireurs, a historic 95 year-old red-and-white striped structure. Albatrosses soar above. Cormorants, terns and gulls form a feathery carpet on the ground.
Near Ushuaia’s port I find a maritime-themed bar and, seconds later, I’m cradling a warmed balloon of Spanish brandy. • piratour.net