Patagonia: Places to Explore

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Península Valdés

The biggest attraction is the ballena franca (southern right whale) population, which feeds, mates, and gives birth here. The protected mammals attract some 120,000 visitors every year from June, when they first arrive, through December. Especially during the peak season of September and October, people crowd into boats at Puerto Pirámides to observe at close range as the 30- to 35-ton whales breach and blast giant V-shaped spouts of water from their blowholes.

The only settlement on Península Valdés is tiny Puerto Pirámides, which transforms into Argentina's whale-watching capital between June and December. The main street, Avenida de las Ballenas, runs parallel to the shore about 200 meters inland, and is lined with pretty tin-roofed buildings among dunes and scrubby flowers. Two streets run down from it to the sea; all the whale-watching operations are clustered around the first of these, known as la primera bajada.

Gravel-surfaced RP2 continues 70 km (43 mi) east from Puerto Pirámides toward the edge of the peninsula. About halfway along are the Salina Grande and Salina Chica, two salt lakes you walk near. On the southeastern tip of Península Valdés lies Punta Delgada, marked by an old lighthouse. It now houses a luxury hotel: both the lighthouse and the surrounding beaches—home to a colony of elephant seals—are only open to hotel guests or those who dine at its restaurant.

For ecological reasons, only 350 people are allowed to live here permanently, but there is a good selection of hotels and restaurants. Bring plenty of money with you, as the one ATM may be out of cash. In addition to whale-watching and lounging around with a beer while looking out on the pyramid-shaped cliffs that gave the town its name, activities include scuba diving or snorkeling with sea lions, kayaking, sand-boarding, and mountain-biking.

Elephant seals also gather at Punta Cantor, a further 35 km (22 mi) north along the eastern coast of the island (on RP47, though it's unmarked). A well-maintained cliff-side walkway leads you from the restrooms and restaurant near the road to a viewing area above the seals. The breeding season starts in August, when the males compete for beach space. Then the females arrive, form harems, give birth, and fatten up their cubs before heading out to sea in November. From Punta Cantor RP52 crosses back across the peninsula, reconnecting with RP3 to return to Puerto Pirámides. Alternatively, another 22 km (14 mi) north up the coast is Caleta Valdés, a long cove with turquoise waters beside which Magellanic penguins often gather.

The northeastern corner of the peninsula, Punta Norte, has the largest sea-lion settlement of all, and is also the best place to spot orcas in December. Magellanic penguins also roam the land from October through March. From Punta Norte RP3 is an inland shortcut that heads straight back southwest to Pirámides, passing by El Salitral, the largest of the peninsula's three salt-lake ecosystems.

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