The final few days of our Patagonia trip were spent away from the mountains and next to the ocean on the east coast of Argentina, on the beautiful Peninsula Valdes. We first learned about this area whilst watching a BBC documentary about Patagonia, where Orcas can be observed beaching themselves as they hunt for sea lion pups, so we decided to add it to our itinerary for our trip.
Where Is Peninsula Valdes?
The Valdes Peninsula is a nature reserve and UNESCO World Heritage Site located on the east coast of Argentina, in the Chubut Province, 995km south of Buenos Aires.
How To get to Peninsula Valdes
There are two airports close to Peninsula Valdes; Puerto Madryn and Trelew. Both are a 2 hour flight from Buenos Aires. While Puerto Madryn is closer to Peninsula Valdes (1 hour drive), there are more regular flights to Trelew (2 hour drive).
If you fly to Trelew, there isn’t much to see there, so you will want to head straight to either Puerto Madryn or Puerto Piramides. If on the other hand, you are arriving into Puerto Madryn, you could stay there for a day or two for some wildlife watching before heading to Peninsula Valdes, or use it as your base and travel out and back each day. But honestly, I’d recommend staying on the Peninsula for at least 1 night as otherwise you lose too much time driving.
We chose to rent a car and drive from Trelew to Puerto Piramides on the day of arrival and stay in Puertp Piramides for our whole trip to Peninsula Valdes. There aren’t many rental companies in Trelew airport (I think there are only 2), and in the end we went chose AVIS as we have always had a good experience with them.
If you don’t have your own transport, I recommend staying in Puerto Madryn and taking one of the numerous day tours that travel out to Peninsula Valdes.
Peninsula Valdes is a protected nature reserve, just like with many national parks you’ll arrive at a visitor centre and park entrance on the main road onto the peninsula. Entrance for international tourists is $1200 Pesos per person for Adults. You can find the full information here: https://peninsulavaldes.org.ar/tarifas/
Where To Stay in Peninsula Valdes
When visiting Peninsula Valdes, you can either stay in Puerto Madryn which is a one hour drive from the peninsula, or you can stay on the peninsula itself.
If you decide to stay on Peninsula Valdes, which is what we did, the main (and only) town is Puerto Piramides, which has a few hotels and holiday apartments on offer. We found the most adorable and quirky cabin called Casita Roja. It was full of so many personal and colourful details, had everything we needed, and while we were eating our breakfast most mornings, we could see the whales swimming in the bay.
If budget isn’t an issue, you could also stay on one of of Peninsula Valdes’ estancias, such as Rincon Chico. An Estancia is a ranch or farm, usually set back in stunning natural landscape. We looked at staying on an Estancia, but on the Valdes Peninsula there were only a few and all were unfortunately above our budget as it was the end of a 4-week trip and we’d already blown the budget in Torres del Paine. However, if you can afford it, definitely check them out, as many offer tailored experiences like private tours, horse riding and access to private beaches with penguin and seal colonies that you wouldn’t have access to otherwise.
Traveling Around Peninsula Valdes
The road up from Puerto Madryn until Puerto Piramides is tarmac. But after you drive past Puerto Piramides and head out onto the main “ring road” that is on the peninsula, it turns into a sand/dirt track. This means you can’t drive more than 60km/h, although that’s often optimistic, and driving even short distances takes time. It’s also not recommended to drive in the dark.
Do I Need a 4×4 on Peninsula Valdes?
No. The main road that goes around the peninsula is a dirt and sand road, and you have to drive super slowly, but you can drive it in a normal 2-wheel drive car. That’s what we had and most other people that we saw too. It’s not allowed to drive off-road unless you have a 4×4, but even if you have one, you’ll still need to check whether the land is private land and if you’re allowed to drive there.
What is the best time of year to visit Peninsula Valdes?
There are things to see and do on Peninsula Valdes year-round, since there is so much wildlife resident there.
Peninsula Valdes Orcas
Many people associate the Valdes Peninsula with the orca that beach themselves in order to hunt the young sea-lion pups in the shallows. If you want to watch the spectacle, known as ‘stranding’ the best time to plan your visit in March or April, although it can also be witnessed in February and May. The area where the orcas most frequently come onto the beach during stranding time is at Punta Norte.
During the rest of the year there are still orca present around Peninsula Valdes, however they aren’t as easy to spot. In October and November they can be seen hunting the you Elephant Seal pups in the water, but they don’t strand during this time.
Southern Right Whales
The other big draw to the area is the Southern Right Whale. These magnificent giants come to the area from June to December to raise their calves in the calmer waters of the gulfs on either side of the peninsula. These months are prime whale watching season in Peninsula Valdes drawing both tourists and marine researchers from around the world.
Things to see and do
Peninsula Valdes is a wildlife spotters paradise. There are some amazing ways to get out there and see the flora and fauna, both from on the land and the water.
Puerto Piramides is the perfect base for heading out on a whale watching trip. A number of companies offer trips out into the Gulfo Nuevo where many of the Southern Right Whales and their calves will come within meters of the boats. Some companies offer the option to sail or have boats with underwater viewing galleries.
Kayaking with Whales
If like us, you prefer things to be a little more adventurous and closer to nature, you could choose to go kayaking with the whales. There are even options for some overnight and multi-day trips including camping if you want a real adventure.
Drive The Peninsula & Photograph The Wildlife
If you are staying in Puerto Piramides, it’s possible to drive the whole peninsula in a day. We did this on our first day on Peninsula Valdes, starting at Punta Norte first and ending at Punta Delgada. Even though the distances you cover aren’t huge, the roads are dirt and sand, so you have to account for driving slowly. You’ll visit sea-lion, elephant seal and penguin colonies as well as spotting number other wildlife too.
Practicing Leave No Trace
During our time on Peninsula Valdes, we loved coming so close to some incredible wildlife. But it saddened us to see that many tourists there didn’t respect the area or the animals. If you plan to visit the Valdes Peninsula here are some ways to observe ‘leave no trace’:
- Don’t step over fences which have been put up to keep distance between the public & the wildlife. If you want a close-up photo, get a zoom lens!
- Don’t try to get animals to come to you by offering them food. Food that isn’t part of their natural diet can be harmful to the digestive system. It also changes their behaviour as they start to rely on people for food. They can also become aggressive towards people.
- Take ALL your trash home. Even things that are biodegradable. If it doesn’t belong naturally in that landscape, don’t leave it there.
- Leave everything as you found it. Don’t be tempted to take anything home as a souvenir. Keep an eye on children who might be tempted to take things like rocks and fossils. If every single person took something home with them, the landscape would be damaged irreparably.
- Keep noise to a minimum in order not to disturb the wildlife.
- Enjoy the area responsibly and respect other visitors too. Everyone there has the right to be there and enjoy the area equally. Whether that’s the photographer with their expensive camera and tripod or the family with their kids and camera phones.
Our Exerience of Peninsula Valdes
Whilst we missed orca season in Peninsula Valdes, we were going to be there at the perfect time for the southern right whales.
On our first day we drove around the whole peninsula to look for as many animals as we could. Our first stop was Punta Norte on the north tip of the peninsula. As we walked down towards the beach, we saw huge elephant seals laid out on the beach. Most of the females had young pups, guarded by the giant male ‘beach master’. There were also a few sea lions playing in the shallow waters.
Our next stop was mid-way along the east coast, where a colony of Magellanic penguins had set up home in the sandy cliffs. They came and went with no regard for the group of people standing at the shore and watching them. We made sure to keep our distance from them, although unfortunately some people weren’t so considerate. Our day ended up at the most southerly point, Punta Delgada. Another breeding ground for elephant seals, sometimes orcas can be spotted here in the springtime, so we hoped that we might catch a glimpse of them. Unfortunately we didn’t, but it didn’t matter. We’d had an incredible day observing elephant seals, sea lions, penguins, some strange looking birds and on the final stretch of our drive, a mara.
The next morning we set off early for a day kayaking with Patagonia Explorers. Sofia our guide had already told us that there was heavy wind forecast. Because of this, we headed for the San Jose Gulf to the north of Puerto Piramides, where the weather was supposed to be slightly calmer. We got the kayaks ready and she explained the plan for the day. Sofia told us that we would keep close to the shore line, and keep our distance from the whales.
Our aim was to paddle along the coast to a sea lion colony. Before we even got in the water we could see Southern Right whales all along the shore. In the springtime the southern right whales come to the gulfs of Peninsula Valdes to breed and give birth to their young. Mothers and their calves swim in these safe, shallow waters until they are ready to go back out in to the open ocean.
Within a few minutes of starting our paddle, whales started popping up around us. Unfortunately the wind also picked up and the waves started pushing us towards the rocky cliffs. Deciding it was too risky to keep going, we turned around and headed back to the beach where we set off from. Paddling against the current and the wind was hard work, and keeping our kayak moving in the right direction was exhausting. But as we struggled to paddle, a mother and her young calf came to investigate and came really close to us. If I hadn’t have been using both my hands to paddle, I’d have loved to capture a picture of them.
Having to abort our kayaking trip, Sofia offered to take us on a little hike along the cliffs to the sea lion colony and watch the whales from the shore. Every couple of minutes we saw a whale. A couple of the young calves started breaching just off from the shore which was incredible to watch. We found the colony of sea lions sleeping on a large rock stack. We sat for a few moments in silence watching them before heading back for a picnic on the beach. Despite not being able to kayak far because of the winds, we had had another unforgettable experience in Patagonia.
If you’d like to buy photographic prints of some of my pictures from Patagonia, you can find them in my online Print Store