Península Valdés

Whatever time of year you visit Península Valdés you'll find a wonderful array of marine life, birds and a profusion of Patagonian wildlife such as guanacos, rheas, Patagonian hares and armadillos. But in spring (September-November), this treeless splay of land is host to a quite spectacular numbers of whales, penguins and seals, who come to breed in the sheltered waters of the gulf south of the narrow isthmus Ameghino, and on beaches at the foot of the peninsula's chalky cliffs. The land is almost flat, though greener than much of Patagonia, and at the heart of the peninsula are large salt flats, one of which, Salina Grande, is 42 m below sea level. The peninsula is privately owned - many of its estanciasoffering comfortable and wonderfully remote places to stay in the middle of the wild beauty - but it is also a nature reserve and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. The beach along the entire coast is out of bounds and this is strictly enforced. The main tourist centre for accommodation and whale trips is Puerto Pirámides, on the southern side of the isthmus.

Getting around

Península Valdés can most easily be visited by taking one of the many well-organized full-day excursions but if you'd rather see the peninsula independently, you can hire a car relatively inexpensively for a group of four, and then take just the boat trip to see the whales (September to November) from Puerto Pirámides. Note that distances are long on the peninsula, and roads beyond Puerto Pirámides are ripio, so take your time - hire companies charge a heavy excess if you damage the car. A cheaper option is the daily bus to Puerto Pirámides with 28 de Julio, leaving the terminal daily at 0930, returning at 1900, 1½ hrs, US$4 each way. This would only allow you to see the whales though, since there is no public transport to other areas of the peninsula. The island is almost entirely undeveloped, and the only tourist centre is at Puerto Pirámides, where there's one good hotel, a few hostels, places to camp and a handful of restaurants. Otherwise, the most comfortable accommodation is in one of several estancias on the island, recommended for a longer stay as it offers closer contact with nature and the incredible wildlife.

Tour operators in Puerto Madryn offer full-day trips that usually include a whale-watching boat trip, which departs from Puerto Pirámides , together with a stop or two on the eastern coastline to see sea lions, penguins and other wildlife at close hand. Minibus travel, the boat trip and transfers to your hotel are included, but not lunch or entrance to the peninsula.

Wildlife

Isla de los Pájaros, is in the Golfo San José, 5 km from the interpretation centre. Its seabirds can only be viewed through fixed telescopes (at 400 m distance). Only recognized ornithologists can get permission to visit. Between September and April you can spot wading birds, herons, cormorants and terns. Caleta Valdés, 45 km south of Punta Norte in the middle of the eastern shore, has huge colonies of elephant seals which can be seen at close quarters. In the breeding season, from September to October, you'll see the rather unappealing blubbery masses of bull seals hauling themselves up the beach to make advances to one of the many females in their harem. During the first half of August the bull seals arrive to claim their territory, and can be seen at low tide engaging in bloody battles over the females. At Punta Cantor, just south of here, you'll find a good café and clean toilets. There are also three marked walks, ranging from 45 minutes to two hours. Estancia La Elvirais a short distance inland from here, and is clearly signposted.

Punta Delgada, at the southeastern end of the peninsula, 110 km from the entrance, is where elephant seals and sea lions can be seen from the high cliffs in such large numbers that they seem to stretch out like a velvety bronze tide line on the beautiful beach below. It's mesmerizing to watch as the young frolic in the shallow water, and the bulls lever themselves around the females. There's a hotel nearby, Faro Punta Delgada, which is a good base for exploring this beautiful area further.

Punta Norte, at the northern end of the peninsula, 97 km from the entrance, is not often visited by the excursion companies, but it has colonies of elephant seals and sea lions. Killer whales (orca) have also been seen here, feeding on sea lion pups at low tide in March and April. Estancia San Lorenzois nearby.

Puerto Pirámides

Puerto Pirámides, 107 km east of Puerto Madryn, is the centre for visits to the peninsula, and whale-watching boat trips leave from its broad sandy beach. Every year, between June and December, 400 to 500 southern right whales migrate to the Golfo Nuevo to mate and give birth. It is without doubt one of the best places in the world to watch these beautiful animals, and in many places these whales come within just a few metres of the coast. From Puerto Pirámides, boat trips take you gently close to basking whales, and if you're lucky, you may find yourself incredibly close to a mother and baby. Sailings are controlled by the Prefectura (Naval Police), according to weather and sea conditions (if you're very prone to sea sickness, think twice before setting off on a windy day). There's one four-star hotel, right by the beach where boat trips begin, and plenty of other places to stay strung out along the road from the beach in this touristy little place, plus a campsite, and a good range of places to eat.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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