Playing with Penguins and Whales (Almost)

Written By: jeff

Posted On: May 8th, 2011

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Punta Cuevas, Caves Point near Puerto Madryn. Copyright

I arrived in Puerto Madryn late on December 22.  After checking in, I got online and had a quick chat with mom, dad and my friends Tim and Robin who were up in Fredericksburg for some of dad’s BBQ.  I got up on the 23rd and headed into town to check into tours and to find out about renting a car to get around.  The points of interest are far outside of Puerto Madryn and the thought of an organized tour repulsed me after the one I had through the national park in Ushuaia.  I didn’t want to be led and forced into a timeframe.  I wanted to enjoy the sites at my own pace.

There are 2 big attractions in the vicinity. The first is the large penguin colony in Punto Tombo – 70,000 penguins in the largest Magellan penguin colony in the Americas.  It is baby season so it was perfect for viewing the penguins with their newborns.  The second is the national park of Peninsula Valdez.  It is a UNESCO World Heritage site and its bay is where the whales come to breed and have their babies.  Only, I arrived at the end of the season and wasn’t sure if I would still be able to see anything. The best option seemed to be to rent a car and try to find others in the hostel interested in sharing the cost.

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Penguins at Punto Tumbo, one of the largest colonies in the world. Copyright

On the 24th, I headed for the beach.  The beaches were long and wide with a dark brown sand that turned the water a darker color close to the shore.  But, as the ocean depth deepened, the water turned a beautiful aqua blue eventually morphing into a deep ocean blue further out.  The beach curved further down and I decided to head to see the point of the curve.  That point was called Punta Cuevas, or Caves Point.  The tide was low exposing several caves under the cliff above.  I continued walking until I found a place to sit and enjoy the day.  When I was ready to head back, the tide came in and closed off my walking trail back to town.  So, I had to do a little creative trekking to get back around Punta Cuevas and eventually back to town.  That night we had a potluck dinner at the hostel and got the chance to meet the other travelers.  I found 3 others interested in going with me in the car to sightsee, Mary Lou from Oz, and Laura and Clare from England.

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Feeding time on Punto Tumbo. Copyright

The 25th was a laid-back day with everyone hanging out at the hostel reading or heading to the beach.  On the 26th, we got the car at 9AM and headed off to Punto Tombo, the site of the penguins.  We arrived and spent 2.5 hours walking around the park.  The setup and access to the penguins reminded me of the Galapagos where we were able to walk through the animals.  The deeper in we went, the more penguins we saw.  I have this image of penguins only living in cold, snowy climates. But, these guys were happy in their holes typically dugout under a small shrub or tree for added protection from the elements.  We saw babies of all sizes from the newest of newborns to some that we almost matured into adults.  We saw a couple of feedings which were entertaining.  As the mom regurgitates the fish she ate while in the ocean earlier that day, the babies (usually 2) were positioned behind her fighting each other for as much food as possible.  I guess sibling rivalry is not limited to humans.

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Heading out to get food from the sea. Copyright

After a quick lunch, we headed up the coast to Playa Union (Union Beach) to try to see the dolphins.  There is a species here that are black and white like small orcas called toninas.  Unfortunately, the excursions only go in the morning so we left empty-handed.  We then headed off to a small town inland called Gaiman.  The town was settled originally by a group of Welsh immigrants and is known for the high teas it serves at a few tea houses.  We found one that had been visited by Princess Di in 1995. Laura, Clare and Mary Lou gave me an education on the history of tea in British society which led into a discussion on class and royalty.  I broke the social rules by not taking sugar and milk with my tea.  They then broke the rules by asking for a doggy bag for the remaining cakes (not that I objected).

On the 27th, we got up early and left for Peninsula Valdez, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and home to a large whale breeding site in its Golfo Nuevo, New Gulf.  We headed for Puerto Pirámides (Port Pyramids) to check out the whaling excursions.  We missed the morning one so we booked for the afternoon trip leaving us about 5 hours to explore the peninsula.  As it turned out, that was probably about 4.5 hours too long.

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Coastline off the eastern coast of Peninsula Valdez. Copyright

To say that there is nothing to see on the land in this part of Patagonia is an understatement.  All of the action (and I do mean ALL) happens on the shores.  The marinelife is rich, wonderful and dynamic – whales (in season), penguins, elephant seals and sea lions.  The situation on land is diametrically opposed.  The landscape is a virtual wasteland with a few farm animals and the occasional guanaco (like a llama). Seriously, the landscape is mind-numbing.

We passed a couple of respectable salt flats that were too far off the road to explore.  I have no idea why these aren’t opened up to the public.  The park really could use more attractions.  We made it to the windy southeastern coast at Punta Delgada.  Below we saw several elephant seals on the shore.  We couldn’t get too close, but we has a nice view.  We then headed up the shore towards the middle of the peninsula toward Punta Cantor.  Here we were able to see a spectacular coastline filled with more elephant seals which we could get much closer to.  After a quick windy lunch, we headed back to Puerto Pirámides.  We really had to work hard that morning to arrive somewhere with something worthwhile to see.

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Lots of scrub brush and nothing on Peninsula Valdez. Copyright

On the way back, I tried to stop our cynicism which had built up all morning about the peninsula.  So, I said, “Well, the one good thing about the peninsula is that I bet the sunrises are stunning.”  Clare fell into laughter and it started a banter between us about what the one good thing was about the peninsula.  We laughed the entire ride back to Puerto Pirámides with our biting sarcastic humor.

We headed out into the gulf and, unfortunately, we saw no whales.  The outfit was very upfront that we probably wouldn’t see whales.  But, it didn’t help that the boat went the worst possible way away from the migratory patterns of the whales.  So, it was a self-fulling prophesy.  I’m not convinced that they really tried.  Next time, I know to ask.  We headed back to the hostel where I returned the car.  Clare and I said goodbye to Mary Lou and Laura who were leaving for Bariloche.  We then headed off to have a great seafood meal – fish, calamari, mussels, oysters all grilled or sauteed – which we complemented with a nice bottle of wine.  It was a nice way to end my stay in Puerto Madryn.

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Seals chilling on the beach of Peninsula Valdez. Copyright

On the 28th I got up and caught a flight to BA.  I ran a couple of quick errands in the city and then headed off to the international airport to catch my flight to Santiago.  The car went the long way through the city which bugged me a little even though I was charged a fixed price.  As we went through the city, I relaxed. We passed through Avenida 9 de Julio, site of the Obelisk.  It was a nice farewell tour and I felt sad for leaving Argentina again.  I spent so much time here this year that even though I didn’t make a ton of friends here, I did feel like I made it my own.  And, not only BA, I also really saw a large chunk of Argentina from the Andean northwest to the tropical northeast down to Tierra del Fuego with many places in between like the ski country in Bariloche, the wine country of Mendoza and Manu’s hometown of Bahia Blanca.

Now I head off to Chile where I will be until May (at least).  In Santiago I have a good friend base to start and anticipate an active social life in the city.  I also plan to take a photography class in January and travel the country fully in February.  So, while I’m sad to leave Argentina, I am really looking forward to being back in Chile and making it my own too.

Originally Published December 29, 2007

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