We caught the overnight bus down to Puerto Madryn from Buenos Aires – ultimate luxury in “cama suite” seats. There were just six seats in our class, and we filled four of them; the last two were porteños going down to their holiday house. I spent some of the 19 hour bus ride practicing my Spanish with them. We spoke about the town (sleepy, quiet, perfect) and what we should eat (picadas marinas – a tapas style seafood meal) and what we should see (whales, penguins and seals).
Puerto Madryn is an excellent base from which to visit the trinity of Punta Tombo (penguins), Peninsula Valdes (seals) and Puerto Pyramides (whales). We rented a self-contained apartment near the beach, a short walk from the main shops. The apartment, called Playa del Gales was spacious, with a laundrette, a well-equipped kitchen, a living area and comfortable rooms. For the price (USD90 per night, rates valid as at December 2010), and shared amongst four (though the apartment can fit up to six), the place was a bargain! The owner lived just 100m down the road, and her first comment, when we met her was “but you are all so young!” which put her in our good books immediately.
Our first stop was Peninsula Valdes and Puerto Pyramides, to see the southern right whales on their annual migration route. The season runs from June to December, and there are plenty of tours to choose from. Tours run for a few hours and on most days, sightings are guaranteed. The southern right whale has no dorsal fin, and are distinguished by their calloused skins – a fungus that is transmitted to newborns at birth and form a kind of fingerprint used to identify individuals.
Back on land at Peninsula Valdes, we take a short walk along a deserted beach to a viewing area, where, down on the sands below, seals and sealions bask, somnolent in the sun.
Next – a visit to Punta Tombo to the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in the world. At the end of summer, the chicks are almost full grown, but the parents are still hanging around worriedly, keeping an eye on them. The penguins make nests in burrows or under bushes – they mate for life. The Magellanic penguin is an endangered species, but at least in Punta Tombo, their nests are protected and safe.
Unfortunately the season wasn’t right for orca-spotting – the killer whales at Punta Norte on Peninsula Valdes, unique to all other populations found around the world, are the only ones that intentionally strand themselves to capture sealions and seals. This hunting technique has been documented nowhere else. The orcas hunt baby seals and sealions between February and April – so it looks like I’ll just have to return to Argentina (again!) at some point.