Within Patagonia, Pensinsula Valdes is the best place to observe marine life, in particular whales: hundreds come here between September and March to breed their calves: if you manage to be in Argentina in that period, a visit to Peninsula Valdes is a must!
There are two options for exploring the Peninsula and its wildlife:
- take a hotel in the city of Puerto Madryn outside the peninsula, then early in the morning get on a tour bus that will take you there and back in a day.
- rent a car, drive onto the peninsula, stay 4 days and sleep in Puerto Piramides
Obviously I went for option number 2. I think Peninsula Valdes is a delicate ecosystem that deserves at least few days to be fully appreciated. Let me explain why. First take a look at the peninsula map:
To protect wildlife, in Valdes you can also stop and get out of your car or bus ONLY at those points I marked on the map: Puerto Piramides, Punta Delgada, Caleta Valdes and Punta Norte. Each one is roughly 70 km away from the next closest point, and here comes the trouble: as you see there are basically three roads and all of them are dirt tracks. There is no tarmac at all, just gravels, sand, even mud if it rained. This realistically limits your cruise speed to max 40-50 km/h on average. The official limit is 30 km/h, but I found it a bit too extreme if you are a good and vigilant driver. There are two problems here: if you speed, you might miss the turn ahead and roll over. If you speed, you might not be able to stop when a guanaco decides to cross the street in front of you. And it happens OFTEN! I found that keeping an average of 50 km/h was good to enjoy the landscape. You will see buses and minivans driving faster than that, but hey, who cares?
The point is that it takes at least 60-90 minutes to move from one spot to another. Which totals 3-5 hours lost just traveling on gravel roads: out of an 8 hour guided tour, what is really left to meet the animals? Not much.. I bet you get my drift: don’t miss it, just spend few days here and relax! I found that 4 days were ok to do everything I wanted.
So let’s start!
Puerto Piramides and whale watching
The overnight coach from Buenos Aires dropped me at Trelew, a chaotic city founded by Welsh settlers at the end of 19th century. Still nowadays, Gaelic is fluently spoken in this area. (I was not particularly attracted by this place, but if you are interested to spend a night here, I suggest to drive 20 minutes further to Gaiman: cute little town with cute little Welsh tea houses). But back to the trip: I rented a car at the airport and I drove towards the Peninsula.
Very important note!
In fact, as soon as I entered Peninsula Valdes, a huge hail storm hit me so hard that I had to stop and wait as I could not see anything. I waited a long time: in this part of the world, when it rains it rains a lot. But finally the sky opened up and I resumed my trip and suddenly a sign informed me that I arrived in Puerto Piramides. No, wait.. where is it??
Yes, you guessed it right: Puerto Piramides is just few houses, a couple of shacks and lots of boats. There is not much to do here, it is just a good base (virtually the only one) to visit the peninsula and join a whale watching tour. There are a handful of restaurants, but nothing to go crazy for. But what I REALLY REALLY loved is a tiny coffee shop where I used to have breakfast: the place is run by extremely friendly people, surprisingly coffee and cappuccino are very good, as the cakes that they bake. There is a good selection of vegan cakes too. You can’t miss it, it is the only one in the main square: “El viento viene, el viento se va” and here is the Tripadvisor page.
As soon as you arrive in the village, you will see the main square: this is where you access the bay and where all tour shops are located. I chose the first one on the right, as it was suggested by my guide but I believe all tours are the same and the price is regulated. I went on the first tour at 8.30 am: this is the best time as the whales are active and swim on the surface early in the morning, while they tend to stay deeper in the sea as the day gets warmer. There are two types of boats: a regular one (see picture below) or a large dinghy. There are advantages and disadvantages to both: more people fit in the normal boat (so it is noisier) but there is a handy observation desk to watch the whales below the surface (if waters are clear). In a dinghy you are much closer to the water and to the whales, less people fit on board, but you miss the deck. If you have a strong preference for one or the other, ask in advance!
You get on board on dry land, then boats are towed into the water with huge caterpillars. In a few minutes you will be in the mid of the bay and the captain will switch the engines off when approaching a whale. From that moment on you will be very close to these giant marine mammal.
Just a brief National Geographic moment 🙂 The specie swimming here is called Southern Right Whales, recognizable by the callosities (white calcified patches) on their heads. On average they reach 15mt in length and 47 tonnes in weight.
Although there are hundreds of whales in this bay, they are solitary mammals and only a mother and her calf stick together. Despite that, they are very curious animals and it will not be long until they get closer to the boat. In few occasion, one calf touched the dinghy with his head before disappearing underwater. Few other times one mother raised from the waters just in front of us. In this situations you are sitting less than 2 mt away from them: completely amazing! Now let me specify: when I say they are active, I do not mean (unfortunately) that they jump out of the water like in the best documentaries. These whales actually suck, they are lazy 🙂 But the level of “interaction” you have with them is enormous: apart from “seeing” them, “hearing” them is an integral part of the show. You hear their cry, you hear the water powerfully ejected from their blowhole and you hear their cry.
When you start enjoying it, the tour will probably be almost over: to avoid stress for the whales, there is a limited number of boats that can stay in the bay at any time. We must be grateful to have the opportunity to see them so close in their natural environment, but we must ensure that these animals do not become spoiled so that they change their behaviour – or next year they might not come again. The tour lasted over an hour and it was well worth. I took another after a couple of days.
Punta Delgada and the sea elephant colony
Days in October were very cold and the hail storm did not help: after the boat tour I had to stop at my favorite coffee place. I spent there an hour sipping a cappuccino and eating a couple of slices of a delicious orange cake. Then at 11am it was time to move to my next destination, Punta Delgada in the south-eastern corner of the peninsula. Punta Delgada is the only other location on the peninsula where you will find accomodation: the whole area is a restaurant and hotel. It is however quite expensive and I think it is not really worth it: the village offers a better atmosphere and at least the choice of where to sleep and eat. The sea elephant colony is within the hotel private property (yeah, surprisingly enough, the whole peninsula is private property but any activity is highly regulated by the Government): you have the choice to either pay an entrance ticket or buy lunch here. I opted for lunch, which was good and fairly priced. Just try to finish lunch at around 2pm – you will avoid all other tourists and groups coming from Puerto Madryn.
Once you finish lunch, one guide will escort you to the elephants. You have to climb down quite some steps and then you arrive on the beach just few meters away from them. You can spend here as much as you like, and it is actually a quite good experience: the guide was quite knowledgeable and we had the chance to witness a (short) fight between the alpha male and a challenger to his harem. Yes, they kind of have 20 females each.. !
It was already getting late and about time to go back to the base, have a shower before dinner and go to bed early to be able to get up at dawn for orcas watching!
Peninsula Valdes is famous because there is a family of orcas that has learned a new hunting technique: they exploit the low tide to get very close to the shore and grab one of the seal puppies that are adventuring in the water alone. This mostly happens in April, when new puppies are born: in other months of the year you must be very lucky to witness it. SPOILER : I was not lucky.
Very important note 2!
The preferred spot is Caleta Valdes, a streatch of coast that gently curves into a gulf, where sea lions generally rest and swim: the perfect spot for orcas hunting! There are a couple of observation points in the area as well as a simple trekking trail that run along the caleta: the best place is however next to the ranger’s house. Stick with the rangers all the time as they know best where to look and where to go: as part of your stakeout you must be ready to get into the car and follow the ranger’s rover to other observation points. This seems easy, but in reality it is nerve destroying: I spent more than 8 hours the first day looking around, moving around, drinking hot mate, tea and coffee, standing against a cold and strong wind to get nothing! Just a penguin. The second day same story: get up at 5am, be at the ranger’s at 6am, wait. Wait. Until at around 2pm.. there she was! An orca! Over two days I spend more than 16 hours just to spot an orca for few minutes. You can argue if this was worth the trouble and the answer would be Yes! The stakeout was a very social experience: I met many people with similar interest, got a couple of travel buddies and received very helpful tips for the rest of my journey! People sharing the same pain get friend easier. A really sad part was when a bus approached, tens of tourists came down, took a picture and left – all within few minutes and without knowing what we were waiting for.
Final day: Doradillo beach
I spent the third day starting with my second whale tour and then just wandering around. On the forth day I had to leave, but I wanted to check something before returning the car. I heard very good things of an alternative route back to Puerto Madryn, running along a beach called Doradillo extending for something like 10 km. I was not disappointed: nobody was standing on the beach and the best was that whales were swimming 20-30 mt away! Just fantastic and the best way to end my time in Valdes.