Oft skipped over as travellers hot foot it from El Calafate to Buenos Aires, Puerto Madryn in northern Patagonia has so much to offer wildlife lovers travelling to Argentina. From elephant seals and sea lions to penguins and guanacos - if you time your trip right, you may even spot a killer whale!
Of course, this is Argentina, so very few of these experiences come cheap (and, like us, you may need to sacrifice one big day trip to afford the other) but make an effort to spend a couple of days in this seaside town and we're sure you'll make memories that will last for years to come.
penguins at punta tombo
Punta Tombo had never been on our South American bucket list. In fact, until we picked up our Lonely Planet before nipping across the Chile-Argentina border, we'd never even heard of it - as soon as we read that it had the second largest penguin colony in the world (after Antarctica, which, let's face it, is a little trickier to get to!), we knew we had to go.
Located around three hours outside Puerto Madryn, this nature reserve is home to over 1.2 million penguins who, between the months of September and March, return to this same part of the world every year to mate.
Protected since 1979, this is an amazing place to see penguins in their natural environment, whilst still coming incredibly close to them. But, just remember, you are the visitor! You are free to explore the several kilometres of paths but Punta Tombo belongs to the penguins. Enjoy spotting couples nesting or canoodling under the bushes, lines of males waddling to and from their afternoon dip in the sea or just marvel at the sheer number of birds in one place.
Important info: If you choose to do a tour which includes Punta Tombo (as well as a few other nature sites in the area) this will cost around about $800 pesos per person. Our tour was a little less, at $650 pesos, because it missed a museum and tearoom from the route, but the guide wasn't terribly good, so we'd rather not promote them (if you'd still like to know the name, just drop us an email). This price includes a guide and you have to take/buy you own lunch as well as paying an entrance fee of $180 pesos.
elephant seals at isla escondida
Isla Escondida is a little bit of a secret that not every tourist to Puerto Madryn gets to discover.
You see, for one month a year this empty beach found at the end of a small gravel road has some very special visitors. Every October, the same elephant seals return here from the cold seas of Antarctica to mate, hang out on the beach and then raise their young. And you can experience it!
However, unless you are driving yourself there, you have to pick the right tour. Usually tagged on to a Punta Tombo tour, only a few of the agencies offer this package, with the others opting to skip the elephant seals and instead take you to Trelew to have a Welsh tearoom experience. Whilst we're huge fans of tea and cake, it would have to be some bloody impressive cake to out-do what is found on this hidden beach.
A single large alpha of phenomenal size - with an astounding trunk-nose - surrounded by his hareem of ladies and their young pups. You will spend around an hour just sitting and watching, captivated by their movements, their sounds and nature at its most perfect. You may even witness a fight as another male tries to get involved in the hareem action - an amazing thing to witness.
After two years travelling in Latin America, you can trust us when we say that this was one of the most incredible experiences of our entire time trip, and something we will remember for a very long time.
Important info: Entry to the beach is free, but if you are doing it as part of a Punta Tombo tour, a trip here will cost $650 - $800 pesos.
Unfortunately, there is little in the way of conservation or protection of the seals (it's still a public beach). When were there, there was quite a shocking level of litter near the area where the elephant seals hung out - do your bit and pick up as much trash as you can before you leave.
Every year, around March and April, wildlife enthusiasts descend upon Peninsula Valdes hoping to catch a glimpse of something incredible. You see, this is the time that orcas visit. For those of us that are quite fond of seals, watching them getting gobbled up by killer whales might not sound like a lot of fun but for true wildlife lovers it's a once in a lifetime sort of thing.
Don't fret if your trip doesn't coincide with these dates, as this huge nature reserve is home to all manner of flora and fauna throughout the year including elephant seals, seal lions, guanacos, pichis and a whole host of birds. Between June to November it's also one of the best places in South America for spotting southern right whales who return every year to breed in the shallow, calm waters of the bay.
Important info: Tours to Peninsula Valdes cost around $800 pesos per person, with entry to the reserve being charged at an additional $260. The general consensus is that if you're super keen on viewing the southern right whales, then taking a boat trip out into the bay is recommended, however, this is an extra $890 pesos. Yeah, a day trip here is not cheap.
sea lions at punta lomo
If you're not visiting Valdes, but you still want the chance to see some sea lions, then Punta Lomo might just be perfect. Home to a 600 strong permanent population of sea lions and located just 17 km outside of town, is a great place to visit for a couple of hours.
After paying your entrance fee, you are able to view the sea lions from two separate platforms, getting as close as just 50m away from them.
Important info: The entrance fee is $100 pesos per person. Punta Lomo can be reached by car, bike, tour or hitch-hiking.
watch whales at playa doradillo
We really didn't have any plans to go to Playa Doradillo - like many, we were coming to Puerto Madryn for Valdes and Punta Tombo. However, the Argentinian economy threw a bit of a spanner in the works for the duration of our stay - everything was insanely expensive!
As a bit of a middle-finger up at the tour companies, we hatched a plan to do something that didn't involve handing over a single peso of our hard-earned travel fund to them - we hitch-hiked to Playa Doradillo.
For much of the year, this is a beach like many others, but between June and November, the bay is full of southern right whales nursing their babies in the shallow waters until they're able to survive out at sea (the babies don't have sufficient blubber for the first 40 days of their life so are unable to float).
This means that unlike many whale watching spots around the world, you don't need to head out in a boat to see these guys up close - they come right to shore. For your best chance of spotting them, time your visit with high-tide.
Important info: If you're going to hitch-hike like us, then we'd recommend setting off super early. Argentinians are big fans of picking people up but if you don't get a lift straight away it would be a long, hot walk in the sun!
For those who would prefer to cycle, you can rent bikes from a few places in town at a rate of around $300-350 pesos for six hours or if you've got money to burn, tour companies do visit this beach.
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Don't want to take a tour? Consider renting a car.
As we've stated above, tours in and around this city are really quite overpriced, especially when you have to add in park entrance fees. This necessitated us having to give up any hope of visiting Valdes so we could at least make it to Tombo and Escondido.
One possible alternative to the tours is to hire a car.
We spoke with a number of companies Puerto Madryn and the average rate for a 24 hour period was $1400 pesos for unlimited kilometres (some places offered it for $1200 pesos, but you then needed to top up your kilometres if you were travelling to Punta Tombo or Valdes, making it basically the same price).
We're definitely not saying that this is good value (in fact, at nearly $100 per day, it's decidedly not!) but if there are more than two of you, then it still works out cheaper than taking a tour.
However, there are a few things you need to bear in mind.
- Their insurance is pretty poor, i.e. they often won't cover you for up to the first $5000 pesos worth of damage (you have to pre-pay prior to signing your rental agreement). Trying to get some agencies to explain the insurance policy adequately is a little like pulling teeth - a little infuriating when one of you actually used to work in insurance!
- Your insurance is null and void if you roll the car or hit a guanaco, meaning if the car is written off, you are responsible for the entire cost. Unfortunately, due to road conditions, this is not uncommon. Strict speed limits are recommended, so do follow them.
- The roads are dirt or gravel type - rather than smooth asphalt. A concern is the stones popping up cracking windscreens - again, follow the speed limits.
- If you are a group of three or more, the agencies will often refuse to give you a small car, opting instead to up-sell you.
- Car rental books up pretty fast. In tourist season, don't expect to be able to rent a car for the next day (demand massively outstrips supply).
a word on animals and tourism
The tours taken here are to view animals in their natural habitat and, speaking for our own experiences, they were respectful of the animals. As a traveller, it is vital that you give the animals full respect at all time and remember that you are there to observe them in a way which does not cause them harm or any negative impact. No photo is worth causing an animal stress or discomfort and please act in the correct manner at all times.
For more information on how to travel in a more ethical way, read this post and if you would like to know more about animal friendly travel and how you can help, check out the advice of World Animal Protection.