Peninsula Valdés — Two Ways

The Península Valdés is known primarily as the home of the southern right whales during the season for baby whales - though the whales, big attraction that they are, are not the only reason to come here. The Peninsula sticks out from the mainland like a clenched fist, with a very narrow wrist, creating two almost completely enclosed bays, which are much deeper than the surrounding ocean.  These golfos are completely-protected natural “swimming pools,” and the whales flock to them.  Some 300 to 600 whales come to the Península from June-July to December, and there may be as many as sixty baby whales.  You may actually see the whales, or at least the great fountains of water caused by their cavorting - from your plane as it comes in to land over the great cliffs - which resemble the chalky cliffs of Dover.  Once away from the water you notice the extreme aridity of the landscape, with virtually nothing but small and scruffy brush (except where human intervention has planted some trees, mostly within the town).  This unrelieved steppe is what you will see in your travels around the area, with nothing much over a meter high.  If you have not been in Patagonia before this visit, the Peninsula is a brusque but compelling introduction.

On our first visit, we arrived in Puerto Madryn’s newish airport around mid-day and proceeded into the city itself for a visit to the Ecocentro, a very nice small interactive setup with good displays about the whales - how, for example, they can be identified from the unique patterns of the calluses on their bodies, which appear from birth - and about the sea lions and penguins that also inhabit the fringes of the peninsula.  Here you can have a snack and in good weather sit out on the deck and observe the marine life; there’s a small gift shop as well.  Informed, we headed for a town at the neck of the Peninsula some 50 miles/80 km off, Puerto Pirámides, named for the pyramid-like forms of the cliffs., where we’d stay at the Patagonia Franca, a new lodging in town.  Piramídes is a tiny spot, no more than 300 people - and the inn is small, just 12 rooms.   Elsewhere on the peninsula there are no towns, only large estancias, with just a few dozen people in thousands of acres.  A couple of these offer lodging, and it’s quite a different experience - just you and the sheep.  We wanted to be handy for the whale-watching trips, which depart from the beach of Pirámides; the weather changes almost by the minute, and the only sure way to get a good trip is to be there and wait.

And that’s what we did.  When there was nothing to do for a whole day, while a storm blew through, it was extremely pleasant to be forced, essentially, to do nothing.  Others less fortunate, who had no slack in their schedule, were determined to go out, regardless of the rough sea or the all-too-probable lack of whales - the whales wait out the storms as well.  Most of those who tried their luck came back muttering “what a waste of money” or similar expressions of annoyance.  I was glad I could just sit and wait and read my book.

The second day we did go out - the bay was not entirely smooth but the sky was blue.  We were not lucky in our sailing companions - a tour group of retirees who acted something like 10-year-olds let out for the day without their teacher.  Most of my photographs ended up being shots of one of these folks’ noses, fingers, or other body parts as they hurled themselves around the boat, completely disregarding the captain’s instructions.  I finally gave up and decided to just watch the whales, which was much more rewarding - and a sight of two waving tails going under together, mom and baby, was particularly special.  At this point in the season (early November) the males had all departed to their winter feeding grounds on the edge of the continental shelf.  In another month all the mothers and young ones go way south, to Antarctica; the mothers have not eaten anything in about two months and have transferred a large part of their own body weight to the babies as they nurse them.  So, they’ve got to hit the larder!  And for a lady whale, Antarctica in the summer is the place to graze.  The name in English, right whale, apparently originated in the characterization of them as “the right whales” to hunt because they were so easy to find, and so full of oil that they floated once harpooned and were very easy to haul to shore.  They are quite interesting and a pleasure to watch, though their lumpy faces and strangely exaggerated mouths give them a very odd appearance.  They appear graceful despite their size and heft - babies weigh in about two tons at birth! 

In the afternoon we hired a car and toured the peninsula, where we saw some of the local fauna, such as the camel-relative guanacos, the small ostrich-relative choiques, huge rodents known as maras, or, incorrectly, as Patagonian rabbits — and then, along the shore, the dozing sea lions (seals) and sea elephants (somehing like a walrus), rebuilding their strength after an exhausting season of harem-building and -maintaining, which includes vigorous defense against intruders.  These creatures, both male and female, were so exhausted that they appeared to be dead bodies littering the shore, except for the very occasional grunting or scratching activity that showed them to be still among the living.  During this excursion we stopped at Estancia La Elvira’s coastal tourist post for a “fast-food” lunch, which consisted largely of huge chunks of grilled baby lamb (there are other options, including vegetarian).  Two nice trails here at the end of the Caleta Valdés, a long formation like the Outer Banks of North Carolina, lead to various points above the beach where you can see colonies of sea lions and elephants.  Another very beautiful spot on the route for observing marine life is Punta Delgada, where there is a fine old lighthouse and a hotel.  And along the route from Punta Delgada to Pirámides you pass two large salt flats, or salinas, which are nearly 40 meters below sea level.

And so to bed, with plenty of time for reading, as there was nothing to do at night except have dinner.  The next morning we were due to leave, but when we got up the bay was like glass and we could not resist another trip to see whales.   It was a splendid outing; the water glittered under the sun, and the whales were playing around, jumping fully out of the water, splashing their big fins, and generally appearing to have fun.  Every sighting was a mom with her now-toddler baby.

We then moved back to the “mainland” and stayed in Puerto Madryn, a pleasant sea-side town with quite a few nice restaurants and a small shopping district offering a relaxed pace for souvenir shopping - which could include clothes and leather goods!  From Madryn it’s a short drive to the Chubut valley, the center of Welsh immigration.  The key idea of course is to visit the Welsh teahouses and we did that - choosing the one where Princess Diana visited in 1995 (there is a little shrine to her, including her tea-cup).  Trelew also boasts the Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio, a fine small museum displaying the fossil record of hundreds of millions of years in the region; from the Mesozoic Era there are fantastic dinosaur finds, including a perfectly preserved nest of dinosaur eggs.  If you really want to do justice here you’ll need two hours, to take the time to see the museum’s film as well as the exhibits.

Last, in Gaiman there is an amazing example of art brutal, the Parque Desafío.  Here Sr. Joaquín Alonso is creating his personal vision of a park, using plastic bottles, aluminum cans, and other recyclable/discardable objects to make a strange fantasyland .  There are visual plays on words, and ironic mottos attached to the objects.  For example, there’s “ the real palo borracho,” consisting of a stick to which are attached hundreds of wine and beer bottles.  The palo borracho or “drunken stick” itself is a beautiful tree (with a wine bottle-shaped trunk that apparently gave rise to the name).  The artist is 80+ years old and great fun to talk to.  In one spot he has a plaque with a motto: “ I only know that I know nothing (and I’m not sure about that).”  His park is in the Guinness Book of Records; he used some 30,000 aluminum cans, 50,000 wine or beer bottles, and countless thousands of discarded items such as washing machines, in the first ten years of its creation.  Gaiman has other attractions, related to the long history of the Welsh colony in this valley, or to its long prehistory - the park Bryn Gwyn (Loma Blanca), 8 km south, offers a walk through 40 million years of fossil records.

A second, March, visit to the Peninsula took us to Punta Norte, about as far away from it all as you can get.  The point itself houses a provincial nature reserve, but the land is part of the Estancia La Ernestina, where we stayed.  La Ernestina is sought-after in February and March for its superb location as an observation point for orcas (the so-called killer whales).  Many colonies of sea lions are located along the beaches here, and the babies are left for several days at a time while mom goes out to sea to gorge on fish before returning to feed junior.  The combination of young sea lions, or lobitos, and beaches that lend themselves to orca beaching creates a unique opportunity for the orcas; they come in at high tide, almost stranding themselves, to snatch the tiny lobitos as an addition to their normal fish diet.  Photographers from all over the world come to record this grisly behavior - fellow residents at the estancia regaled us with tales and shots of the activity, which is not essential for the orcas’ diet; it’s more like a gourmet snack, as one remarked.  A Belgian researcher was counting the seal pups every day to keep track of the orcas’ prowess.

Rough seas kept the orcas away from shore on the days we were there, and I was not entirely regretful!  The setting is magnificent, regardless, and there is an abundance of other wildlife, which you see from La Ernestina’s Land Rover as owner Juan Coppello takes you around the estancia.  One morning we spent crawling on the beach to get up close to a seal colony, and the afternoon found us creeping on hands and knees around the huge penguin colony on the estancia’s beaches.  This was a great pleasure, as it eliminated the need to drive for hours on ripio roads south of Rawson to get to the big colony at Punta Tombo.  There is nothing like a sunset over the gulf, seen from the Punta Norte lighthouse - with accompanying martinis or glasses of wine provided by Juan.  Rooms are comfortable and you’ll be plied with food and drink for breakfast, lunch, tea and dinner.  Tranquility reigns - there is no telephone (your cellphone will not work out here) and no TV.  Several of the guests return every year for the orca season, so book early.

Recommendations

Whale-watching:   All trips leave from the beach at Puerto Pirámides.  There are many different types available.  Some examples:  Tito Bottazzi and Peke Sosa offer boats with capacity of about 50, and do the basic trip - no frills.  You can get info at the tourism office in Madryn, or just go to their booths in Pirámides.  Peke Sosa and Moby Dick offer semi-rigids (you’ll wear a wetsuit).  Moby Dick also has large boats, with capacity of 85, that have a heated indoor salon, with toilets and bar, and a large outdoor area that has wrap-around views.  Next time I think I’d be tempted by that!  Moby Dick has an office at Corrientes 753 in Buenos Aires (4322-7474); check <www.mobydickmarine.com.ar>.  Estación Ballenera in Pirámides also has the semi-rigids and the larger open boats, plus an enclosed catamaran; we did not see any of these boats go out.  The key is to decide what kind of boat you are most comfortable in, and find an operator who has it.  The larger boats go out only on the high tide, as they cannot come ashore to the landing at other times.  Smaller boats are drawn up on the beach and pushed out by tractors.  Regardless of your choice, if you can possibly wait for clear weather and a smooth sea, do so - it’s not nearly as much fun to be out in a boat that’s pitching up and down, and your ability to take any photos is just about nil.

Gear: The whale-watching companies will supply ponchos - which you will need if you are going on any but the calmest of seas; you will get wet.  However, the ponchos are heavy and constraining; if you have a lightweight waterproof jacket, take that - and a hat if the jacket does not have a hood.  Make sure your clothing has a pocket or two to carry your camera etc - and you need those pockets to be accessible after the life-jacket is tied around you!  A bag that attaches to your waist is useful.  Don’t even THINK about just carrying a plastic shopping bag for your stuff, as we saw some folks do; once aboard, you’ll regret it.  Keep in mind that if the boat is rocky, you need one hand for the boat and one for the camera . . you won’t have any extra hands to hold on to bags, hats, etc.  And the boat will be full - count on that.   (The companies do not go out with half-full boats; every one we saw was full, and one or two companies seemed to be overstuffing theirs.)  It is cooler out on the water than you think when you’re on shore; but the sun can burn - take sunscreen.  We did not need insect repellent, but a tiny tube is probably not a bad idea all the same.  If you are staying in Pirámides, remember that there are virtually no shops, except for a few selling crafts and souvenir sweatshirts/t-shirts).  By the same token, if you are making the trip over from Madryn, take what you need for the day - film, medicine, etc.

Dining:  Unless you really really don’t like seafood, eat seafood!  All those sea lions and whales can’t be wrong. . . The local langoustinos are divine; especially langoustinos a la milenesa which are very lightly breaded and flashfried; if they are on the menu at Patagonia Franca, do not hesitate!  For a special treat in Puerto Madryn, take the seafront boulevard south.  At Rotunda 7, nearly to the bend at the base of the hill crowned by the Tehuelche statue, you’ll find a simple quincho on the left, in front of the beach.  This is the Centro de la Pesca Artesanal, a restaurant set up by the local small-scale fishermen, with cooking and serving done by the women of these families; there’s no doubt, they get the best seafood right off the boats.  There’s no room for a crowd - there are maybe eight tables.  It’s not romantic; just great seafood, very reasonably priced.  Closed on Tuesday (the fishermen don’t go out on Mondays).  Cel 15-538-085

Another spot to try in Madryn is the Mar y Meseta, on Roca 485 at Sarmiento (tel 458-740).  This is a new restaurant, dedicated to the idea of serving only Patagonian ingredients.   They are working on getting a source for ñandues.  There are some very rich dishes here, and unusual ones too.  It’s bright and colorful inside; worth a stop.  Tel 458-740

Shopping: Puerto Madryn has a small and pleasant shopping area around the Shopping mall - 28 de Julio/Roca area.  There are also some nice shops for crafts, including Nativo on the waterfront Examples include Taller de los Artesanos, 28 de Julio #1, local 7; Taller de la Casa de Cultura, 25 de Mayo at 28 de Julio & Peña. .  On the waterfront, Nativo (there’s a small Nativo shop in Trelew at San Martin 127 just before the main plaza.)  Shop early; stores close at 1 or 1:30 p.m. and do not reopen for about three hours.  Shop closing is your signal - time for lunch!

Lodging:  On the peninsula we were quite happy with both La Ernestina and the Patagonia Franca (although sorry to see that both are following the growing practice of charging substantially more to non-residents); tel (02965) 471 143 for La Ernestina <www.laernestina.com.ar> and (02965) 495-006, for Patagonia Franca <www.patagoniafranca.com>.  In Puerto Madryn the Hostería Sol de la Costa is a fine small inn with very reasonable prices (02965) 458 822, <www.solardelacosta.com>., There are other estancias and inns in the Peninsula if you cannot find room in the ones we chose; e.g., Rincón Chico, in Punta Delgada, (02965) 471-733 or 15-688303,  - 8 rooms with private bath, highly recommended by friends who have stayed there, <rinconchico@infovia.com.ar>.  A second is El Deseado, just 30 km from Puerto Madryn (02965) 456 030, <www.eldeseado.com.ar>.  La Elvira, 100 km from Puerto Pirámides, full range of activities, (02965 15 698703, <www.laelvira.com.ar, mail to laelvira@laelvira.com.ar.  The lighthouse inn at Punta Delgada, (02965) 458 444, <www.puntadelgada.com.ar> offers a different kind of lodging.   In Puerto Madryn the Nueva Bahía, closer to the town center on Avenida Roca, looked very promising (02965) 450 145..

Museums:  EcoCentro: opening hours vary by season; winter, 3 p.m. to 7 p.m.. Thursday to Saturday, check with www.ecocentro.org.ar, or call (2965) 457 470  The Paleontology Museum (MEF), Fontana and 9 de Julio, just a short walk from the center of Trelew, 10-8 p.m. in summer, 10-6 in winter, open daily.  www.mef.org.ar.  Its Bryn Gwyn park has guided tours along with a visitor center/snack bar, and is open from 11 am. to 5 p.m..  Madryn also has an oceanographic museum, installed on three floors of an historic building - at Domecq García & Menéndez, Tel 451 139, summer 4:30 to 9 p.m., winter 2:30 to 7.

Scheduling: Our first visit was scheduled for a mid-day arrival in Puerto Madryn and evening departure from Trelew.  We intended to do the same for the second trip, but sudden airline schedule changes caused us to reverse the program, and at present there are no flights to Puerto Madryn, the only airline that stopped there having suspended all flights due to bankruptcy.  The key factor is to coordinate opening hours of spots you wish to visit with arrival times, working with your travel agent to keep up-to-date on schedules; when in doubt spend the most time you can in the Península itself!

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.