The first time Kris and I studied an Argentinean map with wandering intent, Peninsula Valdes piqued our curiosity in the same way a pimple decorating the tip on the nose of a gorgeous anchorwoman would. Never mind the two dozen babies on the bus rolling down the cliff, smashing a nursery of baby pandas; I want to know what’s on her nose, how did she get it, what is it full of, how much it hurts, and when is she going to pop it.
As for the Peninsula, never mind the melting glaciers in Southern Patagonia or the lighthouse at the end of the world, I want to know how did a freakish looking chunk of land like this come to be, how much will it hurt to get there, when are we going to go there, and does anything lovelier than a baby panda live there?
Short answer: Peninsula Valdes is the product of millions of years of polar winds carving the land into it’s current shape. Regardless of the size of your budget and how good you are at managing it, it will hurt. We went there a couple of weeks ago and it is full of animals that would soften Dick Cheney’s heart.
OK, one of those statements isn’t true, we didn’t go into the Peninsula. Hear me out before you say lame. We did explore a good chunk of coast South of Puerto Madryn, a town in the vortex of the Southern gulf of the Peninsula, and a mandatory logistics stop for anyone who wants to visit the North East corner of Chubut province.
Long answer: UNESCO listed Peninsula Valdes as 1 of the 180 natural world heritage sites. Upon learning about the significance of the place we had the romantic idea of renting a motorcycle, circling around it, camping on the beach, and watching a ravenous orca snatch a sea lion right before our eyes as we roasted marshmallows on the fire. Ok, maybe it was my idea.
Because of the Peninsula’s status as a unique natural site, regulations prevent wanton exploration of the site. Camping is restricted to a small area in Puerto Piramides (the only town inside the Peninsula), fires are forbidden (assuming you can find enough firewood around), motorcycles cannot be rented (legally) within 1000 km from the place, and good luck finding marshmallows anywhere outside Buenos Aires.
With the motorcycle dream shattered we considered push biking for a ‘negotiable’ USD$25/day at Puerto Piramides, or legging it. But then we decided we’re not masochistic enough.
Although either option is not technically challenging, the physical effort is considerable, we are talking about a few dozen kilometers to do a half-loop of the site, under a raging sun, across a dusty terrain, while carrying enough supplies to grant ourselves full independence for several days, given that shops are only found in Puerto Piramides, and sources of potable water aren’t likely. Not to mention potentially upsetting local authorities for unlawful camping.
We were down to blowing up the budget on a guided tour, or blowing up the budget renting a car. The thought of sharing a bus all day with an over-enthusiastic tour-guide and being at the mercy of a random sample of holidaymakers had not even taken place in our heads before we were looking for quotes at car rental agencies.
All the agencies in Puerto Madryn have a similar pricing structure: USD$75/day with a 400 km limit, and around 7 local cents for extra km. A lame insurance policy covering damage over USD$1200 is included, and additional liability insurance halving your excess payment goes for USD$10 or so. Cars are fairly new but have the wear and tear associated with excessive driving on gravel roads. Fuel in Chubut (and other Patagonian provinces) has a generous government subsidy and goes for AR$3.6/litre for the good stuff.
Car sorted, sandwiches wrapped, and happier than a convent’s deaf-mute janitor, we exchanged stories at the hostel with Bertrand, a Frenchman sporting the poise of a jazz master. He had been videotaping everything and anything in the area for a week or so.
We harassed him for some tips on the area and he showed us a good chunk of his footage. To our surprise, everything we liked was Southbound along the coast and not in the Peninsula. The pimple was not going to be popped.
Priorities reshuffled again, we woke up to yet another sunny and dusty day in Puerto Madryn. Drove South East it to Punta Ninfas (Nymphs’ Point) just in time for low tide, basked beside hundreds of elephant seals and laughed like children at their magnificent impersonation of someone who farts a lot, and other cute stuff they do. We watched them tussle around in the shallow water when the tide rose, and left only to have enough time to fit in our following stops. Driving Southbound until we reached Isla Escondida (Hidden Island), we watched the sunset and sunrise along with a small raft of elephant seals from our campsite at the beach.
Then we drove some more to Punta Tombo (Tombo’s Point), a National Park created to minimize human impact on a 400,000 strong colony of maguellan penguins. The entire ecosystem associated with the penguins includes a handful of predators (birds, armadillos, and foxes) and some friendly neighbours (cuis and guanacos). Few places in the world have triggered so many ‘awwws’ in me, and December being hatching season didn’t help.
After the first 1000 penguins we decided we had seen all 400,000 and started driving North, squeezing in a visit to Trelew and Rawson. We left quickly. Made it back to Puerto Madryn with a bit over one hundred kms left before going over the limit, we visited a couple of whale watching spots along the gulf, had no luck, and decided a good shower would be more comforting than actually getting a glimpse of a whale from the distance.
Assorted tips about the area in bullet point format:
- Patagonia, with almost one million square kms is about 1/3 of the total area of Argentina.
If it was a country it would be the 32nd largest in the world.
- Roughly 2 million people live in Patagonia. That is 2 gauchos per square km.
- Aside from clustered towns, everything is a long drive way. From the Puerto Madryn cluster you are 295 km South of San Antonio Oeste, 395 km North of Comodoro Rivadavia , 512 km East of Esquel 512 km.
- Despite the awe-inspiring natural attractions, Eastern Chubut is primarily an industrial region, focused on energy extraction and aluminum smelting. The tourism industry is young and it’s scope does not go beyond the outdoor adventures. Do not visit this area if you are looking for a hedonistic mecca.
- Aside from driving around looking for animals there are other activities such as scuba diving, kayaking, kitesurfing, and many more which didn’t make enough impact on my mind to be remembered.
- If you plan your visit ahead, you can get plane tickets from Buenos Aires to Trelew from USD$200 flying LADE. Bus tickets go from BA start at USD$72
(El Pinguino bus line). And the cheapest option is a train from BA to Bahia Blanca starting at USD$10, from there, an El Pinguino bus can take you for USD$38.
- Hostels are expensive. If you are looking for one and not feel satisfied, we recommend staying at Yiliana’s.
- If you rent a car, having an esky would come in handy.
- Punta Tombo should be visited at 8am when doors are opened, that’ll give you roughly 2 hours before buses packed with random samples of holidaymakers and over-enthusiastic tour-guides show up.
The pimple is still there and will be popped one day. But it’ll have to be here.