Península Valdés: On A Road to Nowhere

Renee Zellweger and her fake British accent kept us from sleeping as Bridget Jones’s Baby played in the background on the overnight bus taking us to Puerto Madryn. At least this was an improvement over Twisted Sister that was blasting loudly earlier. We were riding in semi-cama class (think economy) crammed in on the upper deck with 60 other passengers but we weren’t supposed to be here. We had tickets for executive class (think business) on the spacious lower deck, but the bus taking us from Rio Gallegos to Puerto Madryn got cancelled and we had to take a later bus, losing our seats in the process. This was just one of a long series of unfortunate events (losing our seats being #1) that would plague us during our time in the Península Valdés.

Located on the Northernmost part of Patagonia on the Atlantic coast, the Península Valdés is one of the best places for exceptional marine life viewing in the world. It’s an important breeding ground for the endangered southern right whales and nearby to the largest breeding colony of Magellanic Penguins in the continent. But we weren’t here to see the whales (not the right season) or the penguins (been there, done that) but to experience our own Nat Geo moment: Orcas beaching themselves to grab juicy tender baby sea lions.

For anyone who ever saw footage of orcas snatching sea lion pups from the shoreline it was filmed here, as the Península Valdés is the only place where this unique hunting technique occurs. The whole spectacle takes place in Punta Norte, the Northernmost corner of the Península Valdés, between mid-March to late April-ish when the seal pups are active. It’s about 75 miles or 1.5 hour drive over well-groomed dirt roads from Puerto Piramides, the only town in the peninsula.

Witnessing an actual attack, however, is highly unpredictable because the conditions have to be right:

  1. High tide
  2. Clear weather
  3. Calm seas
  4. And of course yummy seal pups

So although we were here during the right season we would need incredible timing plus a whole lot of wildlife viewing karma to see an actual attack.

Puerto Madryn to Puerto Piramides

Península Valdés Mapa

After spending a day in Puerto Madryn, where torrential rain and loud thunder put on an impressive lightning show the night before, we picked up our rental, a white VW Golf, and drove towards the town of Puerto Pirámides, our home for the next 3 days.

At the entrance to the peninsula we were told that the roads were closed due to the rains from last night and the furthest we could go was into town (event #2). We were told to check in with the tourist office the next morning for updates on road closures. We stopped at the Ranger station to get more info on high tide and orca hunting activities. That’s what we were here for after all and we were anxious to hear if there were any attacks. Apparently, the first reported attacks happened just 2 days ago.

The town of Puerto Piramides was pretty empty and quiet at this time of the year. It was off-season for the southern right whales (Jun to Dec) so no one was around except for the die-hard visitor hoping to experience their own Nat Geo moment.

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Beach at Puerto Pirámides

In the early evening we visited a small outlook to check out a small colony of sea lions. Within 10 minutes the winds picked up and a storm blew in throwing sand into our face and driving everyone away (event #3).

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A sign telling us not to mark our territory? Or maybe not to climb over the fence. Not sure.

Argentina Peninsula Valdes

The storm created spectacular, dramatic-looking clouds

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We’re On A Road To Nowhere

High Tide:  10:30am

It rained again last night.

We were driving south to Punta Delgada (route 2 on the map) to connect to the coastal road to Punta Norte (route 47 on the map) and the orcas. These were the only roads that were opened and unfortunately this was also the longest possible way to get to Punta Norte and would take about 3 hours (event #4).

Although we would not make it before high tide we were hoping to spot the orcas patrolling the shoreline terrorizing the young seal pups.

The terrain on the way to Punta Delgada was mainly flat with grass and shrubs on both sides which made for easy wildlife spotting. We spotted a pair of Patagonia maras, martineta tinamou (elegant crested tinamou), rheas and the ubiquitous guanacos.

Argentina Peninsula Valdes
Patagonia Maras
Argentina Peninsula Valdes
Rheas

Elephant seals and a small left-over colony of Magellanic penguins at Caleta Valdes. We were able to get really close to the penguins. They didn’t seem too disturbed by our presence.

About 45 minutes from Punta Norte we came across a large puddle blocking the road and couldn’t go any further (event #5). We threw rocks into the water trying to calculate whether it would be too deep to drive over without stalling. We turned around not wanting to take the chance of getting stuck.

Argentina Peninsula Valdes
Would you chance this?

Late lunch at Punta Delgada. Afterwards, we stopped off to check out Isla de los Pájaros (BirdsIsland) near the visitor center where we spotted flamingos out in the distance.

Argentina Peninsula Valdes

Hoping for better wildlife viewing karma tomorrow.

Taking that ride to nowhere

High Tide: 11:45am

No rain but low fog and drizzle made visibility non-existent.

Even if we made it all the way to Punta Norte would we see anything?

This time we ignored the tourist office and took the direct route to Punta Norte (route 3 on the map) taking our chance that the route will be open and that we will reach Punta Norte before high tide.

About 14km from Punta Norte we were blocked from going further by an even larger puddle than the one we encountered the day before (event #6). It was definitely impassable, so we turned around. Refusing to give up we drove towards the coastal road on the off-chance that the puddle from the day before had receded.

Back on coastal road (route 47) the puddle from yesterday was definitely shallower as we saw the rocks that we threw in the day before sticking up. As we contemplated whether to go across, a truck coming from the opposite direction stopped and warned us that there were even larger puddles further up and there was a minibus stuck on the road (event #7). They did manage to get to Punta Norte but didn’t see any orcas because visibility was so poor and high winds prevented the orcas from getting close to the shoreline (event #8). As the truck left, a passenger car came along and said the same thing. They didn’t go all the way to Punta Norte as they were afraid they would get stuck.

So accepting that our wildlife viewing karma was expended, we got back in the car and drove away without ever reaching our destination.

Transportation:

Andesmar
First Leg:  1:30pm El Calafate to Rio Gallegos
Approx. travel time: 5 hours

Tramat
Second Leg: 7:00pm Rio Gallegos to Puerto Madryn
Overnight bus with a transfer in Trelew
Approx. travel time: 18 hours

The bus system in Argentina and Chile is very well developed and is the best way to get around the two countries cheaply.  From our starting point in El Calafate, the only bus company going to Puerto Madryn was Andesmar, required a transfer in Rio Gallegos on a different bus company. The first leg of the trip to Rio Gallegos was uneventful but comfortable. However, the bus ride to Puerto Madryn on Tramat was a micro-disaster. We lost our executive class seats, staff communication was poor/confusing and music /video and passenger’s marathon conversations made it hard to sleep. G vowed to never take an overnight bus again. Yep that’s how bad it was.

Accommodations:

Yene Hue
Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Great, reasonably priced hotel in the heart of Puerto Madryn. Clean, comfortable. Breakfast included. Our room faced the golfo.

Puerto Madryn, right on the Golfo Nuevo, is an industrial port city that also serves as the tourism hub for the Peninsula Valdes and Punta Tombo, home of the largest colony of Magellanic penguins. The town is bustling with hub of shops, tourism offices and restaurants.

View of the city from the pier

Argentina Puerto Madryn

Motel ACA
Puerto Pirámides, Argentina

Motel ACA was a throwback to the 60s and looked like it hadn’t been updated since then. Our room was dated and worn with cracks in the floor but otherwise it was fine. For this time of season this was one of the few places in town that was available.

Eats:

Overall the meals during this trip were pretty average and not memorable. Below is a list of the places we tried.

Olinda Resto
Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Seafood restaurant with nice outdoor seating. Unfortunately we couldn’t really enjoy the outdoor seating as within 10 minutes of being seated a thunder and rainstorm hit. There was a spectacular lightning show and then the rain came down hard flooding the streets and sidewalks. G got the paella and D had gnocchi with mushroom cream sauce. The paella was very fishy.

Puerto Palos Resto
Puerto Pirámides, Argentina

Food was OK. Nothing special. D ordered the chicken milenesa and G ordered chicken ravioli.

Punta Delgada Hotel De Campo
Peninsula Valdes, Argentina

Nice restaurant. Late lunch so by the time we got there the restaurant ran out of lot of dishes. D had the milanese and G hake. Again nothing special.

La Estacion
Puerto Pirámides, Argentina

Small hip eatery in town that looked promising. Our young, hip waiter was surly and impatient with us. Split a salad and green spaghetti with basil and tomatoes. Bland!!!

Lizard Cafe
Puerto Madryn, Argentina

Nice modern brew pub. We ordered the fugazzeta pizza.

Mr. Jones Pub
Puerto Madryn, Argentina

An English pub highly recommended for their stouts and homemade pies, we decided to take our chances on this non-Argentine place. Huge mistake! Food was incredibly bland and inedible. D ordered yakitori and G pot pie. G couldn’t finish the pot pie it was that bad.

 

 

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