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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:

  • People generally fly into Trelew, a very missable city (unless your children are interested in the renowned dinosaur museum, Egidio Feruglio Paleontologic Museum) of over 100,000 people that’s about 105 miles from Puerto Pirámides. You can also fly into Puerto Madryn (we flew on Andes Airlines for US$220), one of the country’s fastest growing cities of over 80,000 people, which is 60 miles from Puerto Pirámides.
  • From October to the end of March is high season, and you'll pay high season prices. November is Temporada Alta Especial, or “high high” season, which means extra high prices. It’s worth it, as it's the only time you are likely to see babies of both whales and penguins.
  • Our itinerary was for two half-day tours in Península Valdés with a private guide and transport; one group tour (11 hours) to Punta Tombo; and a free day in Puerto Madryn. To lower costs we stripped out all the luxury hotels agents often put tourists in (such as Las Restingas and Territorio) and arranged our own transfers.
  • Go straight to tourist boards for information: They speak English, are helpful and well-organized with up-to-date lists of accommodations, car rentals and tour agencies that they can e-mail to you (informes@madryn.gov.ar). All Buenos Aires travel agencies will sub-contract with agencies in Puerto Madryn—so eliminate the middle man and get the list from the tourist board. Our tour guide was from Argentina Vision (correo@argentinavision.com).
  • Where to stay: If you want city life, stay in Puerto Madryn; hotels range from two stars to four stars. If you want peace, quiet, and less traveling, stay in Puerto Pirámides. It’s a village of about four streets and a wide stretch of so-so beach (not white sand), but we loved it. The playground has a couple of climbing walls and a skateboarding ramp, as well as the usual swings and slides. There are more places to stay than the guidebooks indicate; contact the tourist board.
  • Gravel roads: All the roads on the peninsula are gravel, so travel is slow (it takes at least an hour to get between any two points on the peninsula). If you are renting a car, expect to pay around A$200 per day (US$66 per day) and make sure you understand what the insurance covers, as cracked windshields are common. It’s isolated driving, but not dangerous. Wild Skies (wild.skies@gmail.com) has good terms and a very clear contract. Budget is supposed to be the best of the big names.
  • Getting to Puerto Pirámides: From Trelew there is a shuttle bus to Puerto Madryn for A$20 (US$7) per person. From Puerto Madryn’s bus station, there is one shuttle a day at 9:30 a.m. to Puerto Pirámides, and one shuttle back at 6 p.m. for A$12 (US$4). We arrived too late for the shuttle; our taxi from Puerto Madryn airport cost A$200 (US$66). If you ask a travel agent to book it, it’s US$100.
  • Avoid January on Puerto Pirámides: This small town is overtaken by 20-somethings on holiday who camp on the beach and nearby.
  • Check for cruises: Some large cruise ships dock at Puerto Madryn, so try to avoid visiting the main attractions when they arrive. Two days after we left, two cruise ships with a total of 3,000 people were due in.

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!

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