Penguins & the Local Van

Penguins were a demanded requirement by yours truly when Heather and I first started planning the trip to Chile. I have a bit of an obsession, done encounters with the fluff nuggets at the Long Beach aquarium in the past, but to see them in their natural habitat was not an opportunity I wasn’t going to miss. After pouring over travel books we thought we knew which tour we would take but when we got there the prices were double per person than what the travel books quoted. As we were traveling on a budget, we started to scramble to figure out how we could cut costs another way to allow for these overpriced penguin encounters.

A kind bilingual traveler at a table across from ours was talking about a penguin tour he had just got back from and how it was the cheapest of all the tours. Heather approached and enquired further so we walked to the office and paid in cash. The next morning, we got up at 5am to shower, blow-dry our hair and put on makeup for the penguins. By 7am we promptly had our booties on the curb ready for a tour bus to pick us up for a day of penguin activities. Three hours later, near tears and cursing the lady who sold us tickets we retreated back into the hostel. Thinking, “this is what we get for being cheap… NO DAMN PENGUINS.”

As the owner of the hostel consoled us about our tragic loss of cash and our hurt feelings over being taken advantage of (yes, we are girls) as tourist, a small broken down van pulled up to the curb. The driver hopped out and pretended to not be over three hours late. A convincing performance which he let consume him as he acted exasperated that he had to wait a minute for us to walk out and meet him. He pointed to us and barked out, “Penguino Rey.”

Eyes wide, we asked no questions and jumped in and squeezed into the back bench with a father son team who were staring at us as if we were zombies. Exhausted from our rollercoaster of emotions we fell asleep only to wake up in the middle of nowhere. As I came to, I rubbed my eyes and as they started to focus I saw Heather looking back at me with a peculiar look on her face. I started to take in more details and followed Heather’s gaze to the man in the passenger seat wearing a Britney Spears headset microphone speaking in rapid Spanish to a bus full of Chilean natives who were looking from the left and right side of the van soaking in every word I can only assume was a riveting story about animals that use to populate this now desolate scenery.

Looks like we should have paid better attention in Spanish class in high school. The father and son next to us translated some of what the clearly annoyed tour guide was saying to us. We got to a dock and then drove onto a ferry which took us on an hour long ride to an island where we were told the penguins were located. The little boy took our map out of our hand and tapped his finger along our path and yelped “penguino” then gave us the thumbs up. Sweating due to the lack of airflow at the back of the bus we slid open the window. Taking pictures of the fuzzy camel deer (we later learned were called… ) through the cracked window, without warning or slowing down the driver veered left onto a dirt road. Heather and I have a distinct nervous laugh and it was futile to try and suppress it as we traveled 40 miles an hour down bumpiest narrow dirt road with a sheer drop off on my side of the vehicle. After an hour or so, we arrived at the penguin protection park which consisted of two trailers and port-o-potty. The park employees required everyone (all eight of us) sign in before we headed down to the shore line to see the penguins.

Walking over the crest, I could feel my heart beating against my rib cage, hear my pulse throbbing in my ear drums, smell the excitement the air (this particular excitement smelled like salty water and bird poop) and taste the bad breath I developed from napping on the ride. My senses felt heightened as I ran towards my family.

I mean penguins. PENGUINS! Four foot tall, male, king penguins. Gorgeous bursts of orange and yellow on the sides of their throats giving indication to their maturity level. I couldn’t help but squeal a little. I swear Heather did too, though she denies it. As we got closer, we could see the eggs they balanced on their feet. The male incubators didn’t move much though this didn’t stop them puffing up their plumage, honking back and forth at each other and flapping their flippers if anyone ventured too close. Standing there in complete awe, Heather and I watched in silence as two penguins used their beaks as swords to duel each other. The silence was broken when in unison, we cooed over how adorable the penguins looked when the did walk. I mean WADDLE. We took pictures and videos of the penguins, some of which were more candid than others. Heather caught me tap dancing because it was the only thing missing from this real life version of Happy Feet. Waving goodbye, I kept thinking there had to be a way to bird-nap one of these adorable creatures and smuggle it back to my home in California but Heather knowingly grabbed me and dragged me back to the van, telling me she would disown me if I tried to steal a penguin. I got onto the “bus” looking back over my shoulder dramatically, like I was in a Taylor Swift music video. My glassy gaze only broken when the little boy in the van told me the next stop was a restaurant with french fries. When we got there, the boy had to translate to a husky woman that we wanted two plates of fries and then to save time just grabbed the money out of our hands and finished the transaction, handed us the change, gave us the thumbs up and walked out. We got on the nerves of an eight year old? Damn Daniel.


To kill time before loading the ferry home, we were instructed to explore the small town. Heather and I walked up and down the streets where brightly colored houses and over grown gardens sandwiched a tiny market clearly sponsored by Coke and a gaming room with a sign in the window that gave hourly pricing for playing on different video game consoles. Wild dogs roamed the street and soon the smell of our boxed fries attracted us a posse. One of which mistook my finger for a french fry when I attempted to share.

By the time we got on the boat home, we were exhausted but couldn’t rest of feet because the locals had mistaken us for Swedish twins and had us take pictures with each of their children, mothers, fathers, husbands and wives.

We shared some of the snacks we packed but not the box wine we had cleverly transferred into a giant Evian water bottle. It is incredible how entertained the passengers on the boat were, watching the little boy teach Heather and I Spanish words. By the time we got dropped off at our hostel, we had exchanged Facebook info with several of the Chileans, mastered a few new conversational terms in Spanish and changed all eight passengers perception of us. We hugged, tipped the guide and waved back to the smiling faces pressed against the window, as the van backfired and drove away. Turning to face each other, alone for the first time since we embarked on this adventure, and smirked. “Well we made it back alive.” “We made some new friends too.” We swiped our card to get into the hostel, walked up the creaky wooden stairs and flopped down on the couch next to each other. Turned on our camera and instantly started to reminisce and recap the past 14 hours.

The Lesson: Um… Sorry Mom, Heather and I were eavesdropping even though you taught us it was rude. AND LEARN SPANISH!

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