Not many places I visited during my South America trip outright disappointed me. The Valdés Peninsula in Argentina did. Famed for its diverse wildlife, I knew I had to make a stop at this Nature Reserve to visit the seals, sea elephants and penguins. Even better, I arrived just at the end of the whale watching season. Thus, I had a chance to see these beautiful animals as well. As it turned out, however, the only thing truly memorable about this destination was something entirely different.
So, what happened?
Let me start by saying that Valdés isn’t necessarily a bad place to visit. It depends a lot on how you do it and what your expectations are. Turns out, doing it as a day trip from Puerto Madryn is not exactly the best idea. It seemed most convenient at the time as I didn’t have a car and it’s otherwise difficult to get around on the peninsula. Ye, for the reasons I explain below, I wish I had found some other way of doing it.
First of all, the distances you need to travel are far longer than I expected. It already takes some time to even reach the Nature Reserve. Then you still have to do a lot of driving once there, to get to the different viewing points and animal colonies. The end result is that you see very little for the long time you actually spend on the peninsula.
Additionally, if you’re just coming from travelling around both the Chilean and the Argentine part of Patagonia, as I did, chances are you’ve already seen plenty of penguins and seals. In fact, you might have seen far bigger colonies than what you encounter at Valdés. The many cows, sheep and horses also spotted during the drive were cute, but also not exactly the reason you do the tour.
The highlight of the Peninsula Valdés: sea elephants
The one exception was the sea elephant colony, also called elephant seals. They are the only colony on the mainland of Argentina, so this was something I certainly hadn’t seen before. They’re called elephant seals due to their long noses that look like trunks. Also, why we’re on the topic of random elephant seal facts: they can hold their breath underwater for more than 100 minutes. That’s longer than any other kind of seal. Impressive, eh?
Though a bit smelly and noisy, they were a lot of fun to watch. Most of them were hanging around down on the beach. Obviously, you can’t go too close and must remain on the path. But you are close enough to get a good look. We had plenty of time to observe them chilling in the sun and occasionally arguing over the best spot.
Whales or no whales?
One of the highlights of the tour was supposed to be whale watching. It was meant to happen right in the morning, after arriving in Puerto Pirámides, the only settlement on the peninsula. However, the weather Gods were not in our favour. The whale watching trip was delayed until the afternoon.
When we returned to Puerto Pirámides after lunch – which wasn’t bad, but slightly overpriced – the wind was still too heavy to go out by boat. The guide wanted to give it a bit of time, so we ended up with an hour of free time in Puerto Pirámides. There’s not much there other than some restaurants, tourist accommodations and whale watching providers.
On the plus side, two guys from my hostel were on the tour as well. Additionally, we had made friends with a woman from Belgium on the bus. Thanks to these people, I at least had someone to commiserate with on missing out on the whales. Faced with the lack of alternatives in Puerto Pirámides, we opted for a beer in one of the bars instead. You’ve got to handle your disappointment somehow, right?
The advantage of making friends while travelling
It was a nice feeling to be able to vent out loud about our shared disappointment. Of course, I know things like that can happen when you’re dealing with wildlife, as neither the weather nor the animal behaviour is predictable. But given that we were already less than impressed with the tour overall, it didn’t improve our mood. The only thing that helped was being with the others and making the best of the situation together.
Once it was clear the whale watching would definitely not happen anymore that day, we were offered a voucher to do it the next day. However, we still would have needed to get back to Puerto Pirámides somehow and pay the entry fee to the Nature Reserve again. Moreover, the weather forecast for the next day was pretty bad. None of us felt inclined to go to the trouble of coming here again if there was a good chance it wouldn’t go any better than it had this day. With that, all whale watching hopes were gone. At least we were paid back the part of the tour price that was for the optional whale-watching tour.
The one reason Puerto Madryn was still fun were the people I met
So, despite this utter disappointment in the Valdés Peninsula, I still had a lot of fun in Puerto Madryn. Bad experiences let people grow together, right? The four of us spent the next couple of days hanging out together until everyone travelled on. We had dinner together or spent our afternoons with drinks and antipasti at a beach bar. It wasn’t what I came there for, but sometimes, you’ve got to take what you can get.
How you should visit Peninsula Valdés
If I should ever visit this region again, I would rent a car and stay in Puerto Pirámides. From there, you can explore at your own pace and really take the time to visit the different spots to see animals, rather than rush through. That way, you also have a better chance of catching a whale-watching boat at least one of the days you’re there.
The day trip I took wasn’t necessarily terrible. It was just overpriced for what we actually got out of it (in my opinion). I would only recommend it if Valdés is the only place you visit in Patagonia and your time is limited. If you’re not going further South and don’t have any other chance to see wildlife, Valdés is probably a good alternative. Otherwise, either skip it or take the time to really do it properly.
Have you been to the Peninsula Valdés? How did you visit and what do you think were the pros and cons of that? Any travel stories in which the people you met saved an otherwise lukewarm destination from becoming too much of a disappointment? Share in the comments.