A must do on my first trip to South America was to see whales and penguins. And really, it was more about the penguins than whales. And so we flew about two hours south of Buenos Aires to Trelew in Northern Patagonia. I booked our tours through a third party (who I would not recommend) but our actual tour company was Flamenco Tours. They were outstanding and I would use them again in a heartbeat.
****Valdes Peninsula is a UNESCO world heritage center and park near Puerto Madryn is where we went to see whales. While you can drive on your own, some of the park roads are fairly rough and the winds were strong. I was very glad not to be driving and was content to read in the back of the van or look at the scenery while someone else did the hard work. Most tours of the park are similar and approximately $80US. The fee for the park was $330AR (approx. $22 USD) and was paid in cash.
Whales watching trips are approximately ninety minutes. The traditional season to see whales in October through December. However, this year the whales were leaving earlier than normal and we just caught the stragglers. On our full day tour we also saw Sea Lions, Penguins, Llamas and sheep. But an unexpected highlight of the day (and the entire 16 day trip) was Punta Norte with its gorgeous vistas of blues and greens. I don’t have a vocabulary extensive enough to paint you a description, but I know I gave an audible gasp as I walked over the hill from the van expecting to see sea lions and being so distracted by the colors that is took me several minutes to even look at the sea lions.
*****Punto Tumbo is THE place to see Penguins and has the largest penguin colony outside of Antarctica. The park entrance fee is $250AR ($16USD). The males start to arrive in September and babies are born in mid-November (we saw one!). The Penguins begin to leave in February once the babies can travel. This was one of the main objectives of the trip and it lived up to (even exceed expectations). Again, while you can drive, I was happy not to as the last several miles of the trip are unpaved.
Most tours to see Penguins also include a stop for Welsh tea in Caimen (did you know there was a Welsh settlement in Argentina) and maybe a stop at the dinosaur museum in Trelew. Both stops are nice and well worth it but not a must do if not included in your tour. If you have more time in the area, there are lots of opportunities for active water sports and hiking.
Traveler’s Tip: I loved seeing the Penguins in the wild at Punto Tumbo and would highly recommend it. But if you are short on time and can only do one tour, then visit Valdes Peninsula as you will see a little bit of everything. If you have multiple days, schedule Valdes Peninsula and whales your first day as the cruises are often canceled due to high winds. Speaking of winds, regardless of the time of year, think layers! The wind is cold and strong. But when it dies down and the sun comes out, I considered taking off my coat (I only considered it but I did take off my hat and gloves for a while).
*****El Esta in Puerto Madryn was one of my favorite meals of our trip. They had fantastic lamb and salads. As an added bonus it was very affordable and I had lamb, salad and wine for under $20 US.
***Gran Madryn Hotel – this was a basic hotel that met all of the requirements. They have triple rooms and were extremely helpful and responsive before my trip. I would stay here again based on their customer service!
If you are looking for something truly spectacular and have the funds to spend, check out El Pedral. This is an early 20th century farmhouse on the Peninsula Valdes that has its own Magellanic penguin colony, seals and lighthouse. The photos are amazing and this looks like a wonderful place. While I was very tempted, I do not have the funds to stay here, but I fell in love with the description and will get the website handy in case I ever win the lottery!
Travelers Tip: If you have not already, please check out my post on Buenos Aires to specifically read more about money and domestic flights.
It was here in Patagonia that I felt like I first saw Argentina. Buenos Aires is a big city and feels like many other big cities in the world. But here, the sky goes on forever; the wind whips at your face and hair, the sky, the sea and the land all merge and you feel like you are in the frontier and start to understand what Argentinian is all about.