Big Skies and Silly Birds Abound in Argentina’s Península Valdés

What do whales, penguins and seals do if they’re not in the zoo or aquarium? They go to Península Valdés.


Arranging our family vacation to Península Valdés was a nightmare—travel agents didn’t return calls or e-mails; some suggested tours that lasted 11 hours (at least half of that in a vehicle—with a 3-year-old); and the first one who did respond quoted a staggering US$1,700 for four days. Per person. Not including flights.

Some five weeks later, after consulting endless guidebooks, various Web sites, different travel agencies and downing several pint-sized glasses of Malbec, I negotiated and agreed upon a per-person price of $700, including flights, with the first travel agent. This was the day before we took the two-hour flight from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn, the gateway to Península Valdés.

Phew, Touchdown

Luckily, all the trauma was worth it. Península Valdés is a UNESCO World Natural Heritage site located on the Argentine coast of Chubut province in Patagonia. It’s as if someone folded Argentina in half and tipped all the country’s marine life into this one spot.

Huge colonies of penguins, sea lions and elephant seals return each year for rounds of feasting, mating and birthing. Pods of dolphins and whales play offshore. Mother orcas (killer whales) teach their babes some cruel but strategic hunting games with seal pups. It’s all happening in this one place.

The skies—the skies in Patagonia are enormous; the land is flat, scrubby steppe with little to distract the eye. Clouds seem to wisp away into eternity. You turn 360 degrees and see such similar landscape that it seems only the sky is changing. The wind whips tension right out of you. It’s the perfect place to unwind.

Whale Watching

The highlight was definitely a sunset whale-watching expedition—female Southern Right Whales carry their babies for a year, then spend the next one teaching them how to maneuver their bulk in the water, hold their breath for long stretches submerged under water and escape from the pesky seagulls that like to peck their backs for the blubber under their skin (I know, gross). I can’t imagine how much fat is in whale’s milk—the babies drink 100 liters a day and double their weight from one ton to two in their first year. 

But choose your tour carefully—sightseeing boats vary from a capacity of 70 pushy people to 20 relaxed ones (we encountered both). Our first tour with Jorge Schmid (puntaballena@puntaballena.com.ar) involved a large boat, choppy water and only one sighting of a whale and its baby. However, our daughter was thrilled to be on a boat, and her keen eyesight meant she was better than us at spotting the whales. However, the concept that one of those huge, torpedo-like creatures was a baby was a bit of a stretch for her!

Our second tour, a two-hour sunset cruise with Tito Bottazzi (A$150/US$49; sunset@titobottazzi.com), was booked on the spot five minutes before the boat left. It was fantastic: four different whales with their babies, a small group of sea lions and the most amazing skies as the sun flamed across the horizon. One whale was very playful, swam close to the boat and thrilled us with the classic tail flip. Others were a bit more coy, poking their heads above the water and turning sideways to flap their fins.

Penguins

When the guides have to tell you not to touch the penguins, you know you are going to get close. Magellanic penguins are mid-sized (around 11 pounds), with black-and-white bodies and pink circles around their eyes that make them look a bit ditzy. Apparently when the explorer Magellan visited Patagonia, he and his crew found the penguins a bit useless, with meat that tasted like rotten pork—all fat and nerves. So they called them pájaros bobos, or silly birds.

We went to both the San Lorenzo penguin rookery (entrance US$40) near Punta Norte on the peninsula, and the much-touted colony of one million penguins at Punta Tombo (a long bus ride away, three hours from Puerto Madryn). My advice is, stick to the peninsula. Once you’ve seen 30,000 penguins (San Lorenzo), you’ve seen all you’re going to. Penguins waddle about to the beat of their own drum and don’t act any differently in groups of a few thousand versus a million. Not that I was expecting a choir of penguins on the rocks while others were doing Tai Chi at the beach—I just thought they might be more impressive all massed together. Not really.

It’s the proximity that’s so engaging—the penguins barely acknowledge your presence. My daughter crouched in front of nests to watch mother penguins feeding their fluffy gray babies, one foot away. She asked over and over why she couldn’t touch them—sure that anything that didn’t run away from her was fair game. However, like most 3-year-olds, after about half an hour she was onto something new—picking up stones, playing with sticks and counting the penguins in Spanish. 

Sea Lions and Elephant Seals

One has ears, one does not. One sleeps on land, the other sleeps in water. One set of mothers operates a nursery for the pups. The others feed their pups for just three weeks and take off, never to see them again.

The first group is sea lions; the second is elephant seals. I know this, thanks to our guide Marta. She spent two days entertaining us with strange and interesting tales about the animals, their behavior and their sex lives. Most unexpectedly, I found myself fascinated by the sea lions and elephant seals lying on the beach, lazily flipping sand onto their stomachs to cool down and occasionally cuddling up to their neighbor. To my daughter, however, they were distant and dull. Good thing there were so many sticks around. Uno, dos, tres…

Other Wildlife

On our two days on the peninsula we also spotted guanacos (like llamas), rheas (like ostriches), an armadillo, maras (patagonian hares), petrels, oyster catchers, cormorants, turkey vultures and elegant crested tinamous—without really trying.

What You Can See, When

The animals come and go, so timing is important. We wanted to see baby whales and penguins, so early December worked well. This useful table comes from the Tourism Board of Puerto Madryn:  http://www.madryn.gov.ar/turismo/en/general_information/fauna_calendar

My Pain, Your Gain

Here are some things I wish I had known beforehand:


Destinations: Argentina, Puerto Madryn

Themes: Family Travel, Outdoor Adventures

Activities: Bird Watching, Whale Watching


User Comments

Great! This article shows that even a seasoned traveller has weed through and deal with lame travel agencies, to negociate great deals. I really enjoyed your personal touch and view of each site. Thanks

Next stop Península Valdés Excellent article – well-written and telling the traveller what she needs to know in an entertaining and enjoyable piece - thanks a lot!