For most visitors, Patagonia is a summer destination, when long days allow extended sightseeing and outdoor activities such as hiking and river rafting. Even if the climate doesn’t always cooperate - the wind rarely relents in the blustery summers and some Andean locations can even see snowstorms then - there are usually breaks in the weather that make it possible to get out and do things.
In the Patagonian winter, that’s less so, but there are two major exceptions: wildlife-watching at Argentina’s Península Valdés (pictured above in a NASA image) and “off-season” skiing at resorts on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile. I’ll devote today’s column to the former but, for skiers, there’ll be something in the near future.
In reality, Península Valdés - which juts into the South Atlantic Ocean like the blade of a medieval battleaxe - is an all-year destination. In winter, though, it means whales, and the hamlet of Puerto Pirámides is the whale watch central for the southern rights (photo by Michaël Catanzariti) that cavort, and give birth, in the sheltered Golfo Nuevo. En route to Puerto Pirámides (pictured below), the new visitors center at the Istmo de Ameghino (the narrow neck that links the peninsula to the mainland) contains beautifully reconstructed right whale skeletons, along with displays on the rest of the peninsula’s wildlife. That includes elephant seals and penguins (both of which are primarily summer residents), southern sea lions (present all year), and orcas (which, at the peninsula’s Punta Norte, sometimes lurch ashore to snag unsuspecting sea lion pups, pictured immediately below).
Those who want to stay close to the whales should make reservations at Puerto Pirámides, which has limited (though very good) accommodations, well in advance. That’s even truer on the rest of the peninsula, where only Estancia Rincón Chico (where elephant seal expert Burney Le Boeuf of the University of California Santa Cruz has done field research), Hotel Punta Delgada, Estancia La Elvira and Estancia La Ernestina offer accommodations. There is a municipal campground at Puerto Pirámides (pictured below), but elsewhere on the peninsula camping is prohibited.
Many if not most whale watchers stay in the city of Puerto Madryn, about an hour south of Pirámides, and take advantage of tours that spend the day on the peninsula; renting a car here is another option. Madryn’s seaside Ecocentro, which opened a few years ago, is an even better place to learn about the South Atlantic environment than the peninsula’s visitor center, and the city has far more abundant accommodations and a better choice of restaurants. It’s also only about an hour from the town of Gaiman, the picturesque Welsh-founded settlement that’s home to at least half a dozen teahouses such as Ty Nain (pictured below).