Two days later our ship docked early on a cold and windy morning in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, about 825 miles (1,330 kilometers) southeast of Buenos Aires. From there we took a two-and-a-half-hour bus ride across the empty Patagonian plains to one of our most anticipated destinations of the trip: Punta Tombo, a nature reserve where tens of thousands of Magellanic penguins make their homes in the spring.
I’d seen penguins in their natural habitat two years earlier, on a trip to southern Africa, and I couldn’t wait to see them this time around. I used to love watching them do laps at the New England Aquarium in Boston, but to walk among them in their natural habitat is to see them for the wild birds that they actually are, not some cute animated figure on a Hollywood movie poster, or a Santa-hat-wearing mascot on a glitter-spangled Christmas card. On the bus ride to the colony our guide had joked that Magellanic penguins swam to Brazil in the winter “to do the samba,” and in that phrase, I think, she captured why the penguins have such appeal. I can hardly imagine a pigeon or a seagull doing the samba.
When we got to Punta Tombo, I must admit, I was disappointed. I was expecting to see thousands of them crowded on a beach, like the hordes of penguins in the famous Gary Larson cartoon in which a single penguin in the crowd sings “I gotta be me.” But it wasn’t like that. I needed a couple of minutes to spot my first penguin, then another, and then another, until I looked around and realized the colony stretched for miles. The landscape reminded me of a U2 album cover: black-and-white birds, about a foot-and-a-half tall, artistically spaced apart from each other on the scrubby, sandy, wind-lashed terrain. The penguins certainly acted like rock stars while we were there, seeming very much accustomed, and not at all concerned, about the human beings walking along the pathway, looking, pointing, leaning in as close as possible to snap one picture after the other.
Our penguin visit lasted all of forty-five minutes. We were given strict orders to return to the bus in order not to miss the ship. While we walked through Punta Tombo, trying to take as many pictures as we could, the cold wind sliced through us. And right before we were due to leave, a chilly rain began to fall. I had just traveled thousands of miles, first on a plane and then on a ship and then on a bus, to get forty-five measly minutes hiking around a bunch of birds who frankly couldn’t care less that I existed. Would I do it all over again? Oh, God yes.