Reserva Provincial Península Valdés: Coastal Patagonia’s Top Destination

A right whale breaches, showing off the white and black markings on its belly.

A right whale breaches the surface of the water in Península Valdés. Photo © Nicolas De Corte/123rf.

Coastal Patagonia’s top destination, the World Biosphere Reserve of Península Valdés is the place where the great southern right whale arrives to breed and birth in the winter months. Protected since 1935, the ballena franca occupies a nearly unique position as a “natural monument”—a designation normally reserved for territorial ecosystems—within the Argentine national park system.

Península Valdés itself, a provincial reserve rather than a national park, has more to offer than just whales. Some marine mammal species—ranging from sea lions to elephant seals and orcas—cover the beaches or gather in the Golfo San José, Golfo Nuevo, or the open South Atlantic all year. There are also concentrations of burrowing Magellanic penguins and flocks of other seabirds, plus herds of grazing guanacos and groups of sprinting rheas in the interior grasslands.

The main activity center is the hamlet of Puerto Pirámides, which, like Puerto Madryn enjoys a longer tourist season because of the whale- and orca-watching periods. Once the export point for salt from the Salina Grande depression, it has grown haphazardly, and water continues to be a problem in this desert environment.

Sometimes called Puerto Pirámide, the village has since reasserted its plurality. According to local accounts, when the Argentine navy used the area as a firing range, they destroyed two of the three pyramidal promontories that gave the settlement its original moniker.

Map of Península Valdés, Argentina

Península Valdés

Geography and Climate

Connected to the mainland by the narrow Istmo de Ameghino, Península Valdés is 56 kilometers northeast of Puerto Madryn via RP 2, but visiting the major wildlife sites involves a circuit of roughly 400 kilometers to Puerto Pirámides and Punta Delgada via RP 2, Caleta Valdés and Punta Norte via RP 47, and RP 3 back to Puerto Pirámides. Beyond Puerto Pirámides, loose gravel and dirt can be hazardous to inexperienced drivers, especially with low-clearance vehicles.

Broad sandy beaches line much of the coast, but unconsolidated sediments make the steep headlands that rise above them dangerous to descend. Sheep estancias occupy most of the interior, whose Salina Grande depression (42 meters below sea level) is one of the world’s lowest points. The climate is dry, with high evaporation due to long hours of sunlight and perpetual winds.

Flora and Fauna

Most of Peninsula Valdés consists of rolling monte (scrubland) with patches of pasture that expand in wet years. The stocking rate for sheep is low, permitting guanacos and rheas to thrive alongside them.

Marine mammals—whales, orcas, elephant seals, and sea lions—are the big draw, along with Magellanic penguin colonies. In addition to penguins, there are breeding populations of Dominican gulls, white herons, black-crowned night herons, olivaceous and black cormorants, steamer ducks, Patagonian crested ducks, and Magellanic and black oystercatchers. Several species of gulls, terns, and plovers are visitors, along with the Chilean flamingo and the snowy sheathbill.

Whales: From June to December, the breeding, breaching, blowing, and birthing of Eubalaena australis brings whale-watchers to the warm shallow waters of the Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San José. Since the first census in 1971, the population has grown from 580 to over 3,000.

Inhabiting the South Atlantic at latitudes from about 20° to 55° south, the southern right whale reaches 17 meters in length and weighs up to 100 tons; females are larger than males. They are baleen whales, filtering krill and plankton as seawater passes through sieves in their jaws.

Right whales acquired their English name from whalers who sought them out because dead specimens, instead of sinking, floated to the surface; hence, they were the “right whales” for hunting. Identifiable by keratin calluses on their heads, about 1,300 of Valdés’s population have names; this has allowed researchers to follow their movements and even trace their kinship.

After the cows give birth, their calves get closest to the catamarans that do commercial whale-watching from Puerto Pirámides. Over the season, though, it’s possible to see all stages of the mating and breeding cycle.

Orcas: For much of the year, Orcinus orca swims the South Atlantic in search of squid, fish, penguins, and dolphins, but October–April, pods of these “killer whales” prowl the Punta Norte shoreline for sea lion pups—a nine-meter orca can consume up to eight pups per day. The largest of the dolphin family, the 950-kilogram animal is conspicuous for its sleek black body, white underbelly, and menacing dorsal fin, which can rise two meters above the water.

Elephant seals: Valdés’s sandy beaches are the only continental breeding site for Mirounga leonina, though there are also breeding colonies on sub-Antarctic islands in Chile, the Falkland (Malvinas) Islands, and at South Georgia. Largest of the pinnipeds, it’s a true seal with no external ear, but its distinguishing characteristic is the male’s inflatable proboscis, which truly resembles an elephant’s trunk.

Ungainly on land, 2,500–4,000-kilogram “beachmaster” males come ashore in spring to dominate harems that number up to 100 females (who weigh only about 500 kilograms). Reaching seven meters in length, the beachmasters defend their harems in fights with younger bachelors that leave all parties bloody, scarred, and even disfigured.

Females spend most of their pregnancy at sea, giving birth on returning to land in spring. Pups spend only a few weeks nursing, gaining weight quickly, before the mother abandons them (some die crushed beneath battling males). At sea, the elephant can plunge up to 600 vertical meters in search of squid before surfacing for air half an hour later.

Sea lions: Present all year on the beaches and reefs beneath the peninsula’s headlands, Otaria flavescens is common from southern Brazil and Uruguay all the way around the tip of South America and north to Perú. With its thick mane, the 300-kilogram 2.3-meter male resembles an African lion, but Spanish speakers call it lobo marino (sea wolf). The female, about 1.8 meters long, weighs only about 100 kilograms.

Unlike the larger elephant seal, the sea lion has external ears. Also unlike the elephant seal, it propels itself on land with both front and rear flippers, and the male is quick enough to drag away elephant pups. More often, though, it feeds on krill and the odd penguin.

For Spanish speakers, by the way, this is the lobo marino de un pelo; the lobo marino de dos pelos, or southern fur seal (Arctocephalos australis), whose pelt was more valuable to commercial sealers, is found farther south.

Penguins: Spheniscus magellanicus, the braying and burrowing jackass, is the only penguin species here. From September to March or April, it breeds and raises its young at isolated Caleta Valdés and Punta Norte, but summer swimmers have had close encounters at Puerto Pirámides.

Sights and Recreation

Many visitors book excursions in Madryn, but day trips are too brief for more than a glimpse of the best—especially if the operators spend too much time at lunch. Staying at Puerto Pirámides and contracting tours there is ideal for whale-watching, as you have the flexibility to pick the best time to go out.

Five Pirámides operators, some with offices in Madryn as well, offer whale-watching in semirigid rafts (which get closer to the animals) or larger catamarans: Tito Bottazzi (Primera Bajada, tel. 02965/49-5050), Hydrosport (Primera Bajada, tel. 02965/49-5065), Pinino Aquatours (Primera Bajada, tel. 02965/49-5015), Punta Ballena (Segunda Bajada, tel. 02965/49- 5112), and Peke Sosa (Segunda Bajada, tel. 02965/49-5010). Prices start around US$30 but can cost more, depending on the vessel and the tour’s duration.

In Golfo San José, 800 meters north of the isthmus, penguins, gulls, cormorants, and herons all nest on Isla de los Pájaros, an offshore bird sanctuary; it’s off-limits to humans, but a stationary shoreline telescope magnifies the breeding birds. Near the telescope is a replica chapel of Fuerte San José, the area’s first Spanish settlement (1779, but destroyed by Tehuelches in 1810).

Puerto Pirámides has the major concentration of services, including its most affordable accommodations and food. June–December, whales are the main attraction, but beachgoers take over in January and February. Carless visitors can hike or bike to the southern sea lion colony at Punto Pirámide, four kilometers west, for vast panoramas and sunsets over the Golfo Nuevo.

Beneath the headlands at the peninsula’s southeastern tip, Punta Delgada is home to elephant seal and sea lion colonies, reached by trail from the lighthouse at the former naval station (now a hotel-restaurant). Hotel concessionaires provide English-speaking guides to lead tour groups and individuals, but they collect a small charge for those who do not eat at the restaurant. They have also turned the lighthouse into a museum and offer horseback tours of the area.

On the peninsula’s eastern shore, about midway between Punta Delgada and Punta Norte, Caleta Valdés is a sheltered bay that’s fast becoming a lagoon as its ocean outlet fills with sediment. Meanwhile, though, Magellanic penguins swim north to a breeding colony and elephant seals haul up onto shore in the mating season. Even guanacos may be seen along the beach.

Where RP 47 and RP 3 meet at the peninsula’s northern tip, Punta Norte features a mixed colony of southern elephant seals and sea lions, but October–April this is also the best place to see orcas that lunge onto the beach to grab unwary pups. Punta Norte also has a museum that places marine mammals in both natural and cultural context, thanks to exhibits on the aboriginal Tehuelche and a historical account of the sealing industry.

Near Punta Norte, reached by a northwesterly road off RP 3, Estancia San Lorenzo conducts tours of its own Magellanic penguin colony but does not offer accommodations.

Information

At El Desempeño, at the west end of the Istmo de Ameghino, a provincial toll booth collects an admission fee of US$13 for most foreigners, US$4 for Argentines and nationals of neighboring countries. Immediately east, the Centro de Interpretación (8 a.m.–8 p.m. daily) exhibits a complete right whale skeleton but also historical materials ranging from Tehuelche times to Spanish colonization and Argentine settlement for salt mining and sheep ranching. An observation tower offers panoramas across the northerly Golfo San José to the southerly Golfo Nuevo, and east across the peninsula’s interior.

Turismo Puerto Pirámides (Avenida de las Ballenas s/n, tel. 02965/49-5048), the municipal tourist office, serves visitors from 8 a.m.–6 p.m. daily.

Getting There and Around

In summer, from Puerto Madryn, Mar y Valle (tel. 02965/45-0600) has daily buses to Puerto Pirámides (1.5 hours, US$4.50) at 8:55 a.m. and 6 p.m.; return buses leave at 11 a.m. and 7 p.m. In winter, there may be morning departures only, but in summer there is an additional evening bus.

On a space-available basis, tour buses may allow passengers to disembark at Pirámides and return another day, but make advance arrangements.

Distances from Pirámides to other peninsula destinations are too great for nonmotorized transport, so it’s worth considering a rental car in Puerto Madryn. Many consider day trips from Madryn too rushed.


Excerpted from the Third Edition of Moon Argentina.

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