Of the 17 species of penguin that occur worldwide, seven can be seen in South America. Their breeding grounds range from the Galapagos Islands along the equator to the Pacific coasts of Peru and Chile and further on down to the continent’s frigid southernmost tip…
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Galápagos Islands, Ecuador
When people think of wildlife in South America, the Galápagos Islands are often front and center. And when it comes to penguins, these Ecuadorian islands are special indeed. Not only does the Galápagos penguin live close to the equator — a zone not normally considered penguin territory — it is also the only wild penguin that lives north of the equator. At about 49 centimeters long, the Galápagos penguin is the second smallest penguin in the world. Groups live across the Galápagos archipelago, but you’ll find the most concentrated populations on Fernandina Island and Isabela Island. Sadly, the Galápagos penguin remains an endangered species, with a total population of about 1,500. They are not found outside the Galápagos Islands.
Ballestas Islands, Peru
Humboldt penguins live and breed along the Pacific coastlines of Chile and Peru. In Peru, the best place to view these penguins in reasonably close-proximity is on the Islas Ballestas (Ballestas Islands), a group of small islands near Paracas in the south of the country. The rocky islands provide a perfect habitat for the medium-sized penguins, as well as blue-footed boobies, red-legged cormorants, Peruvian pelicans and sea lions. Tours to the islands leave every day from Paracas. For conservation reasons, visitors are not allowed to step foot on the islands, but you can spot sea lions and penguins from your boat all year round. If the penguins are waddling along the shoreline, you can get quite close. Pack binoculars so you can also watch them further up on the rocks.
Magdalena Island, Chile
Four species of penguin can be found in Chile: southern rockhopper, macaroni, Magellanic and Humboldt. You can see Humboldt penguins along much of the coast. Southern rockhopper and macaroni penguins breed on offshore islands and can be hard to spot. The best sites for seeing penguins in Chile are Seno Otway (an inland sound) and Magdalena Island near Punta Arenas, as well as Playa Mar Brava on the island of Chiloe. Colonies of Magellanic penguins live at all of these sites, and can be visited through organized tours. The best time to spot penguins, especially on Magdalena Island, is from November to March.
Punta Tombo, Argentina
The peninsula of Punta Tombo is one of the best places in the world to view Magellanic penguins. Located near Trelew in Argentine Patagonia, the Punta Tombo Provincial Reserve is home to one of the world’s largest congregations of Magellanic penguins, with thousands gathering to breed and nest between late September and April. If you arrive at the tail end of the nesting season, you might see the penguins with their newly hatched chicks before they migrate. Another hotspot for seeing penguins is in Ushuaia in the extreme south of the country. Here you’ll see Magellanic penguins, and with a bit of luck the rarer and larger gentoo and king penguins. Some tours from Ushuaia allow you to walk among the penguins, which is always a fun and memorable experience. Emperor penguins are occasionally seen along Beagle Channel off Ushuaia. But if you really want to see emperor penguins, consider taking a tour from Ushuaia to their breeding grounds in Antarctica.
Few tourists travel out to the Falkland Islands, a British overseas territory with a human population of about 3,000 people. But if you like penguins, this remote southern archipelago, about 300-miles east of Argentina’s southern coast, is a true hotspot. Five penguin species breed on the islands: king penguins, rockhopper penguins, Magellanic penguins, gentoo penguins and macaroni penguins. The gentoo population is the largest on earth. From the island’s capital of Stanley, you can easily reach penguin colonies within 30 to 45 minutes. The Falkland Islands are not only famous for flightless birds: More than 200 species of bird have been sighted on the archipelago, of which 60 breed on the islands.
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Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer based in Peru since 2009. He’s the owner of New Peruvian and also writes for various magazines and websites. When he’s not walking his dog in the jungle town of Tarapoto, he’s off exploring other parts of Peru and South America.
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