Punta Tombo and Península Valdés
You’ve seen the videos, a killer whale surfaces behind the waves and slowly approaches a desert beach. Unaware of the encroaching danger, a seal pup strays away from its mother and cluelessly frolics at the edge of the surf. Suddenly, the massive orca lunges up onto the golden sand and tears the pup into the water. This is the wild coast of northern Patagonia!
Yes, Argentina’s southern province is a scenic powerhouse boasting glaciers galore, rocky peaks, powder-blue lakes, and thousands of kilometers of desert steppe, but it also doubles as one of the planet’s best wildlife destinations. While much of the world has its eyes on popular locations such as the Galapagos, Komodo or the Serengeti, naturalists in the know are exploring the lesser-known coasts of northern Patagonia. Two of the region’s more spectacular sights are the famous orca hunting grounds on Península Valdés and the world’s largest Magellanic penguin rookery on Punta Tombo. Just driving to the parks feels a bit like a safari.
Punta Tombo Provincial Reserve
As we turned off the 4-lane highway and headed down the one-lane road toward Punta Tombo peninsula, our driver-guide Nelson from Nievemar Tours pointed out wildlife hiding in the desert vegetation. Caracaras and turkey vultures sitting on stumps and posts took to the air as we rattled by. Maras, large hare-like rodents, hopped along the roadside barbed wire fence. In the distance, we spotted a lone guanaco, a lama-like camelid, outlined against the horizon. Simply amazing! We were quite happy that we had chosen to take a tour rather than rent a car; with so much to see, we had our eyes entirely focused on the fauna.
Most people reading this have probably never heard of Punta Tombo. It’s not a household name, but it definitely rivals more famous locations. The reserve’s pride and joy is the largest breeding colony of Magellanic penguins in the world! At certain times of the year, up to 500,000 penguins come to Punta Tombo’s shores to breed. And while that would be impressive enough, the park boasts an insane mix of wildlife unlike anything we’ve ever encountered before.
Yes, we’ve seen huge numbers of penguins in Antarctica and other parts of the world, but Punta Tombo had some surprises up its metaphorical sleeve… or should I say down the rabbit hole? As we entered the park along a well-marked path, we scanned the horizon for our penguin friends. Nothing. Where were they? A moment of deep disappointment was starting to sink in when, out of nowhere, a penguin was suddenly standing on the planks in front of us. He stared up at us as if to say, “Look again.”
When we did, we noticed there were penguins everywhere. Unlike their Antarctic relatives, Magellanic penguins build their nests in bushes and in underground burrows. A penguin slowly raised its head out of a hole just off the path and looked directly at us. I started laughing. Why did I suddenly have this image of an Eastern European grandma, elbows propped on the sill, watching the world outside her window? Curious heads started popping out of holes all over. And there was a bit of commotion for them to witness.
We quickly understood why the defensive dens were necessary. A South American grey fox moved through the pockmarked landscape looking for chicks. Birds of prey swooped down over the nests looking for anything vulnerable. In fact, there was wildlife everywhere. Several elegant crested tinamous zigzagged nervously through the bushes showing off their funky featherdos. In their attempt to get away from us, the ground birds flushed some tiny cuis, a wild form of guinea pig, out from their hiding places. The more we looked, the more animals we saw.
Up ahead, several guanacos devoured a shrub, stripping the frail branches of their tiny green leaves. An ostrich-like choique, or lesser rhea, cautiously maneuvered the Swiss-cheese terrain pecking the ground like a giant chicken. The massive bird came surprisingly close – Tony was ecstatic. Although we had seen a huge number of choiques and guanacos while crisscrossing Patagonia by bus, this was our first real photo op. The mini-dinosaur barely even noticed us as it foraged for food. Behind the choique, more guanacos, maras, and cuis navigating a field of penguin holes, heads popping up and down like a huge game of whack-a-mole. The whole scene was like National Geographic gone wild.
The path curved around through the brown hills of the Patagonian steppe and descended to the turquoise waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean. Some penguins marched along the pebble beaches and leapt into the waves. Others precariously made their way up into the desert foliage. The scene was pure magic. We can honestly say that Punta Tombo was one of the most rewarding and unique places we have ever visited. It was almost absurd how many animals we saw during the few hours we spent there. But Punta Tombo was just the beginning of our wildlife adventure in the region.
We looked out from the gorgeous rooftop terrace of Puerto Madryn’s Dazzler Hotel. This was not your stereotypical Patagonian view. A broad stretch of manicured beach curved around the city’s picture-postcard bay. Some locals jogged along the waterfront and others splashed in the waves. Even on such a warm day, I suspected they were especially hardy individuals. Having said that, the deceptive view might have been somewhere in California or Spain. Off in the distance, we could just make out our next destination, the rough and rugged Península Valdés. The UNESCO-recognized wildlife sanctuary is one of those places that almost everyone has seen on TV, but few could actually put a name to.
Back on the road with Nievemar Tours, our second driver-guide Juan Carlos sped along the dusty roads across a sprawling plain of Patagonian steppe. Suddenly, the car came to a stop, and he pointed to a distant island off the northern coast of the peninsula. “That is Isla de los Pájaros,” he announced, “What does it look like to you?”
Mmm, it looked like an island to me, I thought. “Maybe a tortoise? A club sandwich? Perhaps a hat?” I guessed playing along to be polite.
Juan Carlos shook his head. “Have you read ‘The Little Prince’ by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry?” he hinted, “If you have, you should know the answer.”
I’ve read the book, but I have to admit I could have kept guessing for hours and never said it looked “like a boa digesting an elephant.” Apparently, the acclaimed author is thought to have taken his inspiration for this famous Little Prince illustration from the shape of the island during his flights over Patagonia. Yeah, that claim to fame does seem a bit stretched, doesn’t it? 😉
But should that tenuous Little Prince connection not be enough to draw you to the region, the natural attractions certainly will. Península Valdés is well-known for its year-round populations of elephant seals and southern sea lions as well as the southern right whale migration from June to December. From February to April (when we visited), the focus shifts to the orcas of Punta Norte, a beach on the northern coast of the peninsula. These world famous killer whales are the only ones known to execute beach attacks, literally thrusting themselves up onto the sand to catch seals. This hunting technique has only been documented at Punta Norte and is known to have been passed down through just a few pods of whales. For this reason, Punta Norte has become one of the key destinations for naturalists and wildlife photographers from around the world.
As we made a beeline directly across the peninsula for Punta Norte, Juan Carlos refilled his mate tea container from a hot-water dispenser underneath the dashboard and sipped some of the steaming bitter brew. The dry steppe was dotted with guanacos and choiques. Off in distant salt pans, we could just make out the bright pink plumage of Chilean flamingos. Caracaras and vultures seemed to be everywhere. Suddenly, he slammed on the brakes. An armadillo scurried across the dirt road and tried to claw its way up the steep embankment. My first armadillo EVER!
We all got out of the car and watched as the little beast frantically sought out an escape route along a very uncooperative stretch of road. The shy little guy shot into a chuquiraga shrub stretching his fierce-looking claws out in front of him. Its armored body was covered in thick scales and long hair. As we took turns photographing it, the armadillo eyed us blinking nervously. Recognizing his fear, we retreated quickly to continue our journey north. As we drove, Juan Carlos pointed out more choiques, guanacos, maras and black-faced ibises along the road. After cutting 80 kilometers across the peninsula, our group finally arrived at Punta Norte.
We quickly made our way along the wooden walkway to a lookout at the top of a cliff. A number of people stood behind their heavy tripods checking the focus of their mega lenses, others simply gazed out into the water. So this was the famous beach. Several groups of black and brown sea lions sunned themselves on the dark sand. A few tempted fate as they surfed through the waves. Still others lazed on the rocky outcroppings in the bay. Down the sandy beach, a lone elephant seal groaned in agony as an especially annoying gull pecked at its face. The huge creature threw its great head in an attempt to crush the gull, but the tiny bird was way too fast.
Tony and I paced back and forth along the cliff scanning the area for unusual movements. After 45 minutes of watching the bay, there was still no sight of killer whales. Somewhat disappointed, we were just about to head back to the car when Tony gasped and pointed at a large black dorsal fin cutting through the waves. “Orcas!” someone yelled. We grabbed our binoculars and cameras and rushed down the trail to a closer viewpoint.
Four orcas moved up and down the shore in unison as if patrolling the beach. The pod consisted of three adults and a calf. From a distance, we watched the group slowly approach the beach, then pull back again. They briefly disappeared, then reemerged from the waves flashing their black-and-white markings at the crowd. Suddenly, one of the orcas came closer, headed straight for a rocky outcropping and in a quick swoop, pulled one of the sea lions off the rocks. And so the show began.
The poor little sea lion was quickly surrounded by orcas, pushed under water, slapped with giant tail flukes, and catapulted into the air like a rag doll. It suddenly became very clear why these animals had been labelled “killer whales.” Like cats, they toyed and tortured their prey. It was fascinating to watch, but obviously shocking to some of the visitors. Their bewildered faces said it all. Everyone stood in horror rooting for the stunned little animal to get away. At moments, it looked as though the sea lion was going to escape, but the orcas would grab it and start the games anew. Onlookers watched the tortuous attack for over an hour. We were more than a little jealous that we didn’t have one of those ten-kilo mega lenses, but we were thankful that we had brought binoculars. Suddenly, the attack appeared to end and the sea lion vanished from view. (Although I did hear someone say that they had seen a trail of blood in the water.)
WOW! We couldn’t believe we had just witnessed Punta Norte’s orcas hunting. Honestly, I have to admit that this experience alone was worth our entire trip to Patagonia, but the peninsula offers several other points of interest as well. At Punta Cantor, we hiked along the high cliffs and discovered more of the region’s flora and fauna. At certain times of the year, hundreds of elephant seals gather to mate on the beaches below. We only spotted small groups of stragglers who were not out hunting at sea. (We would love to come back during peak season, which would also give us the opportunity to experience the southern right whales.) At Punta Pirámide, we made our way along crumbling cliffs to coves full of sea lions playing in beautiful sapphire waters. This is where we finally understood the term “sea lion.” Some of the older males had thick manes of hair much like their African namesakes.
After several months in Patagonia, the dual attractions of Punta Tombo and Península Valdés really threw us for a loop… in a positive sense. We had come very close to bypassing this part of Patagonia because, frankly, the connections to Puerto Madryn are just plain awkward. As of 2015, flights linking the city to the south are overpriced and inconvenient. Moreover, the town is a full day’s bus ride from any other major attraction. Honestly, it takes some serious planning and dedication to fit this part of Patagonia into your itinerary.
Having said that, for naturalists, the region is an absolute MUST. And given the world-class wildlife here, this is one of the few parts of Patagonia that might be labeled a “bargain.” (I point out that that is a very relative term here.) We are so thankful to Danielle and Suzan from our Australis cruise who pulled out their camera and showed us pictures of beaches where penguins and guanacos frolicked side by side. Those pictures are what convinced us to make our way here and experience one of our favorite places on the continent.
Tips and Information
Punta Tombo and Península Valdés
Both Punta Tombo and Península Valdés require visitors to pay a fee. The entrance fee to Punta Tombo was 130 Argentinian pesos, roughly US $11 at the current blue market rate. The entry to Península Valdés was slightly more expensive at 180 Argentinian pesos, or US $15. Both reserves have worthwhile visitor centers; make sure you don’t miss the awesome right whale skeleton at the Península Valdés interpretation center.
More information on the orcas in Punta Norte can be found on the Punta Norte Orca Research website. The site includes photos and descriptions of the orcas at Punta Norte and daily reports of observed beach hunts. According to PNOR News, the day we went to Punta Norte on March 12, 2015, they observed three beach hunts with two captures as well as two captures in the surf. And they could even tell us which orcas we were watching: Llen, her calf, Pao and Shekei. 🙂
As I mentioned before, we could only watch the orcas from a viewpoint and were not allowed to go onto the beach. Because filming from a distance didn’t provide us with much usable footage of the hunt, I would like to point to a fantastic wildlife documentary called “Killers of the Wild” from 1975/76. The filmmaker Andy Pruna broke new documentary ground when he captured an orca attack on a sea lion colony for the very first time. The documentary includes fascinating close-up scenes of an orca beach hunt on Península Valdés, which start at 1:14:20 (never mind the overly dramatic music). I had no idea that this kind of animal behavior was known then. Make sure to watch it, it’s absolutely amazing (and shocking).
Visiting the reserves of Punta Tombo and Península Valdés requires a fair amount of driving. As we wanted to keep it low-key, we chose to visit the sites with Nievemar Tours. The reputable company has been around for over thirty years and is based in Trelew with a branch in Puerto Madryn. They not only offer excursions to Punta Tombo and Península Valdés, but also organize tours in destinations as far as Ushuaia in southern Argentina or Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. We set up both tours with Anabel from Nievemar’s Trelew branch and were extremely pleased with the professional and friendly service we received. And everything was handled in English. Thanks again! If you would like to find out more about Nievemar Tours, their tour options and prices, you can contact them at www.nievemartours.com.ar.
Great Restaurant in Puerto Madryn
We would like to recommend Cantina El Nautico in Puerto Madryn, a good-value restaurant which offers great Argentinian fare. The restaurant, which is VERY popular among locals, boasts a 50-year history and is located just around the corner of the Dazzler Hotel. We went back there night after night because it was just so damn good! 🙂 In fact, we liked it so much, we never ate anywhere else.
Thanks to the Dazzler Puerto Madryn
We would like to thank the Dazzler Puerto Madryn for hosting us while exploring Punta Tombo and Península Valdés. We absolutely loved our spacious room full of light with a great balcony on the eighth floor. Located conveniently a few steps off the beach, the sea views from our quiet room and the beautiful rooftop terrace made the Dazzler a Patagonia highlight. Seriously, it just doesn’t get any better. Can I say it was dazzling? We loved the VERY comfortable bed, English-language TV channels, good Internet and a much needed work desk.
In the morning, we welcomed the solid Argentinean breakfast consisting of coffee and tea, juice, yoghurt, fruit, cornflakes, bread, ham and cheese as well as an assortment of sweets. We also appreciated some of the Dazzler’s other luxuries such as the sauna, the jacuzzi and the gym after a day out in the nature reserves.
My biggest compliment goes to the exceptional management and staff of the Dazzler. Everyone was super helpful, especially the manager Augusto and the reception team Nicolas and Facundo. (Nicolas was better than any guidebook.) They REALLY went out of their way to help us find whatever we needed, including nearby restaurants and supermarkets. Very professional! We absolutely enjoyed our stay at the Dazzler, which is part of Fën Hotels, and would go back in a heartbeat.
If you would like to find out more about the Dazzler Puerto Madryn, their room rates and services, visit them at www.dazzlerpuertomadryn.com.