Gazing across the calm indigo seas of the Golfo Nuevo, we watched in astonishment as dozens of Southern Right Whales and their calves came alive with the rising sun, dotting the entire gulf as far as we could see to the horizon. Plumes of mist shot loudly from the surface as they came up for air all along the waters, while a few tails and fins could be seen jutting from the ocean in the distance. The night before, we had set up camp right along the shores of the gulf, falling asleep to the songs of the whales. Their low, long-winded pitches drifting in the air all around us as we relaxed under the stars. Peninsula Valdes and the Golfo Nuevo were bursting with fascinating wildlife, even in the “off season” of late August.
In the eastern Patagonia region of Argentina, the small and modern coastal town of Puerto Madryn and its neighboring national park, Peninsula Valdes, houses one of the most incredible whale watching experiences on earth. Each year from August to December, massive pods of Southern Right Whales migrate here from the icy waters of the Antarctic seas, to give birth in the tranquil bay of the Golfo Nuevo on the Atlantic coast. The waters of the gulf are so incredibly calm and deep, that the mother whales and their calves can be seen bobbing in and out of the water as close as 12 feet from the shore.
Just above the Golfo Nuevo, Península Valdés stretches 70 kilometers east into the Atlantic, harboring a multitude of Patagonian wildlife – including the predatory black and white killer whales, better known as orcas. At the right time of year, you can witness them in action on the north point of the peninsula, as they hunt for oblivious sea lions just along the break of the waves.
This guide is designed for those who wish to have the travel experience of a lifetime, whale watching in the Patagonian seas of Argentina. Should you find yourself in this amazing country at the right time of year, we’ll tell you all you need to know to have the most epic whale watching experience, and how to do so independently. This is your comprehensive guide to whale watching on the Peninsula Valdes.
PENINSULA VALDES: A KEY TO PATAGONIAN WILDLIFE
Península Valdés is both a UNESCO world heritage site and an enormous national park, covering a massive 900,000 acres in total. Jutting 60 kilometers east off the main coast, the entire peninsula can be driven within one day. Also, the entrance to the park can be reached in less than a 1-hour drive north from Puerto Madryn. The entrance fee to the park is 330 pesos per person, or around 20 USD.
The peninsula consists of miles and miles of open farmland… mostly sheep farms. Three main roads run a loop around the park. But beware: most of the roads are wash-boarded and covered in coarse gravel. Though the entrance is paved, including a portion of Highway 3, you can expect dusty, rocky roads the entire stretch through the peninsula. There are plenty of services throughout the park, such as restaurants, frequent public restrooms, and information centers, especially in the tourist town of Puerto Piramides, just beyond the entrance.
Most importantly, there is a plethora of wildlife to be seen near the Peninsula Valdes, so much so that we were giddy at the possibilities. This place is home to bellowing elephant seals, several species of birds (including flamingoes, ostriches, and penguins at the right time of year), as well as the camelid guanacos, foxes, armadillos, reptiles, and rodents. It’s possible to catch a glimpse of one of the several creatures of the deep that migrate here seasonally, such as the majestic Southern Right Whale, orcas, and three species of dolphin – including the unique dusky dolphin, a species that is completely black and white.
There’s Just One Catch:
Though some of the wildlife resides on the peninsula year-round (the elephant seals, the guanacos, and other land-bound creatures), not all of the wildlife species are visiting the Peninsula Valdes at the same time of year. Unless you have a very honest host at your place of lodging, it’s likely you won’t find out what wildlife sightings are in season until after you pay the 20 USD entrance fee at the gate. Conveniently, the main visitor’s center for the park is located just a few hundred meters after the ticket booth. It’s only here where you can receive an accurate calendar of the wildlife that is in season.
Since the park attendants at the booth aren’t likely to tell you what the current migrations are, it is best to study a wildlife calendar for Peninsula Valdes very carefully before paying the fee and entering the park, and decide on your own if it is worth the long trip (the entire drive can take 6-8 hours). We’ve included the migration calendar given by the visitor’s center below:
In our own experience, though Peninsula Valdes was teeming with Southern Right Whales all around the region, it was not orca season (late August). On our arrival to Puerto Madryn, the host of our hostel informed us that other guests had spotted a pack of orcas early in the morning the previous day, though we suspected the validity of this after our own trip around the peninsula. There wasn’t a single orca sighting to be had. After driving the entire park, unfortunately we left feeling a bit ripped off – because after an entire day’s worth of driving, we had only seen a group of elephant seals in the busy hub of Puerto Piramides, along with many guanacos, and some interesting birds, but no orcas or penguins.
Mostly, we saw huge herds of sheep giving us blank stares as we drove through the farmlands. Though the wildlife we did witness was incredibly beautiful, we had spent nearly six hours driving the rough roads of the park, which was far too much for one day (and expensive for gasoline). Unfortunately, it was dusk by the time we reached the deserted Punta Norte, where the orcas are said to be seen.
All in all, our advice for visiting Peninsula Valdes would be as follows: If it is not orca season on Peninsula Valdes, though you hear about sightings, make the trip to Punta Norte first – and as early as you can in the morning. Give ample time as it can take about two hours to drive to Punta Norte from the entrance, which opens at 8am. Also, it is important to note that when the orcas are not in season, neither are the penguins, so perhaps reconsider your trip through the peninsula if you will not see these.
Plus, when it is not orca and penguin season, it is Southern Right Whale season, but rarely are both species of whale in the peninsula at the same time. It’s best to pick and choose which option is best depending on which whale species is in migration. If like us, you find it is primarily Southern Right Whale season – we highly recommend whale watching from the Golfo Nuevo as your main base, and avoiding the Peninsula Valdes park fee altogether. Unless of course, you wouldn’t mind taking the scenic drive.
TOP TIP: GET YOUR OWN WHEELS.
In our opinion, the absolute best way to see the entire area, whether it be solely the Golfo Nuevo or the Peninsula Valdes (or both), is to rent your own vehicle. Especially if the Southern Right Whales are in migration, as there are mothers and their newborn babies popping up everywhere along the gulf. At any given moment, you can look to the ocean to see them happily swimming together in massive pods – jumping from the water and flailing their fins and tails. It is an incredible experience, and you’ll want the freedom to spend as many hours as you can in the presence of these majestic creatures, rather than being hurried along by a tour guide.
Having your own vehicle to explore the Golfo Nuevo also provides camping options, and the ability to get within several feet of the mother whales and their calves. They get extremely close to the shore, and you can practically drive right up to them. There’s no need to hop on a boat to see them, and you’ll be able to look them right in the eye from the shore. The environment is perfect for them to get close without becoming beached, and it is a very amazing sight to see them so close.
WHALE WATCHING ON THE GOLFO NUEVO
Especially with your own vehicle, the Golfo Nuevo offers much more freedom to see the Southern Right Whales of Patagonia. On Peninsula Valdes, the high seaside cliffs in Puerto Piramides only allow you to look down into the bay. Though it’s beautiful to see the whales making their way across the sea from above, you can get much closer to them on the Golfo Nuevo, and it is entirely free of charge. You can witness entire families making their way across the gulf there too – and be so close to them that you’re likely to find yourself running along the beach alongside them as they swim.
Playa Doradillo is the primary beach on the Golfo Nuevo, and here it is possible to get so close to the whales that you can hear them sing. There is no fee to get to this area either, and it is free to drive the well-maintained dirt roads at any time of day. From Puerto Madryn, Playa Doradillo and the surrounding beaches of the gulf can be reached within a short 30-minute drive. Though the roads aren’t paved, they are smooth and watered down daily, so the whales are not disturbed by the dust.
All along the main drag of the gulf, you can choose from a series of smaller roads leading to the beach, and it’s possible to find your own desolate slice of beach to whale watch. You won’t find public restrooms here, except perhaps a porta-potty or two, but there’s plenty of wide open spaces and lots of trash cans for public use. Kindly be sure to leave no trace and respect the whales’ habitat. Pack out everything you pack in, and be considerate to the whales and their babies by not littering.
It’s easy to spend days here at the Golfo Nuevo, observing the whales to a degree never seen anywhere else on earth. There are so many families of whales, and so many newborn calves in the bay, that you are guaranteed to have dozens of sightings in one day. Almost constantly, you can witness several of them bobbing up to the surface of the waves. If you have a chance to camp overnight on the shores of the gulf, it is almost guaranteed to will hear them snoring (yes, they do that), and calling to each other in their beautiful songs under the sea.
There are plenty of open camp spots to choose from along the Golfo Nuevo, including a free campground equipped with barbeque grills at Playa Doradillo. Camping here is completely legal, so there’s no need to be stealth about it. Just be sure to bring your own firewood, which can be purchased at just about any convenience store in Puerto Madryn for around 5 USD per bundle. If you’re short the proper camping gear, not to worry. There are a few gear rental shops in downtown Puerto Madryn to pick up what you need for an overnight excursion.
Puerto Madryn does have its own airport, and a roundtrip ticket from Buenos Aires city will cost you less than 200 USD per person (2017). One-way domestic flights to Puerto Madryn can cost around 100 USD or less. Just be sure to book your flight at least 2-3 weeks in advance to get the best price, and you shouldn’t need to purchase them any sooner than that. After landing, there’s plenty of taxis to hail to get around town, and lots of hotels in town offer shuttles from the airport.
Taking a bus from the city is a possibility as well, though you’re likely to spend the same amount on a bus ticket as you would a flight. (This is also the case when visiting the Argentine side of Iguazu Falls.) The downside to taking a bus is that it’s nearly and 18-hour ride, which can be miserable and offer virtually no freedom to enjoy the beautiful Argentine countryside at your own pace.
Or, for about the same price as taking a flight or a bus from the city, you could rent a car. In our opinion, this is by far the best way to see the Peninsula Valdes area, just because of the freedom you have to see the whales in the Golfo Nuevo and possibly the orcas on the peninsula too. In fact, many visitors to Puerto Madryn choose the rental car option, which is exactly why it can be twice the price to rent a car straight from Puerto Madryn.
Renting a car from Buenos Aires city for five days can be cheaper than renting a car in Puerto Madryn for three. The best option for whale watching in Patagonia is to make a road trip out of it from the city, and take two days to get to Puerto Madryn – possibly making a pit stop overnight in the plain little town of Bahia Blanca. Try to split the costs with as many people as you are comfortable fitting in the car, to cut your costs even further.
With your own car, you can enjoy some quality time with the whales of the Golfo Nuevo, on your own time, and for about the same cost as a tour and a flight. It is also much easier than trying to track down an affordable tour company once you reach the area. Since many of the major car rental companies operate out of Puerto Madryn, you may even be able to return your car there, should you be moving further into Patagonia after whale watching.
Things to be Aware of While Driving in Argentina
It’s very easy and safe to drive in Argentina. We drove through Argentina for nearly two months, on an Overland journey through both Argentina and Chile with our 1993 Toyota 4Runner, Old Grey. Having our own vehicle to see the Southern Right Whales of Patagonia was hands down one of the greatest highlights of our entire trip, and quite literally one of the most memorable travel experiences we have ever had. Here are a few things to be aware of while road tripping in this beautiful country:
- Aside from some rough potholes, the roads in Argentina are easily drivable, especially from the city. (Just beware of city traffic.)
- It is the law to drive with your headlights on at all times, even during the day. If you’re getting flashed by other drivers, check your lights!
- Traffic laws on the highway are pretty much the same in Argentina as they are in the United States – only they’re not taken so seriously.
- There are hardly any traffic police to pull you over, and usually they aren’t concerned about tourists anyway.
- You don’t need a special license to drive here as a foreigner. Your regular driver’s license and passport will do.
Basic South American car insurance is the only necessity, which cost us around 30 USD for three months. Your car rental company will probably have this straightened out for you before handing over the keys, but definitely check with them before making the reservation.
Lastly, gasoline (or NAFTA as it’s called in Argentina) is very expensive – nearly 5 USD per gallon! However, most vehicles have been converted to run on propane in Argentina. This is much more affordable at around 10 pesos per kilo, or .60 cents USD. Check with the rental company to confirm what kind of fuel you will have in the car. To get the best answer, it helps to send emails in both English and Spanish – using google translate.
Argentina is a fantastic place for Overland travel.
You can see all kinds of wildlife right along the highway, and even spot the stoic gauchos (the Argentine cowboy) galloping along the road on their handsome steeds, in full traditional garb. In addition, there are tons of amazing grill houses to stop at along the way, serving up delicious, world-famous Argentine beef that is grilled to perfection. Not only will road tripping get you up close and personal with the whales of Patagonia, but can acquaint you with the colorful and friendly culture of the Argentine people.
WHERE TO STAY
Within Peninsula Valdes, past the entrance gate, the small town of Puerto Piramides is said to be the most optimal place to stay. But in our humble opinion, it is the quintessential tourist trap. The town, though pretty, is tiny and congested (even in the off season), and accommodations are incredibly overpriced compared to nearby Puerto Madryn. However, should you wish to get on a kayak or a low-lying canoe to get closer to the whales, this would be your place to board. Check out prices both in Puerto Madryn and in Puerto Piramides, but remember to choose a place and a tour that is ecologically friendly to the wildlife.
Since the entire peninsula can be seen in one day, even if you’re taking a tour from Puerto Piramides, we found it was a better economical choice (and a more fulfilling one) to stay in Puerto Madryn or camp on the beaches of the Golfo Nuevo – right next to the whales. Since camping out like bums isn’t for everyone though, here is our list of top places to stay in Puerto Madryn:
- La Tosca Hostel. A gorgeous little family owned place, this hostel offers a nice breakfast, free parking, and has a very friendly staff. With both dorm rooms and private accommodations, this awesome little hostel has some of the most budget-friendly prices in town.
- Hi Patagonia Hostel. Also with breakfast, this hostel falls into the mid-range as far as budget goes, and has both family and dorm rooms to choose from. Also, they offer a car rental service to their guests, should you decide make your rental from Puerto Madryn.*
- Dazzler Puerto Madryn. A more upscale hotel, this place is perfect for families. Rooms are spacious, and they offer a breakfast buffet along with lots of other services.
**We reached out to Hi Patagonia Hostel for car rental prices, and you can check out their website here. According to their response to us, they assist guests in renting vehicles from Avis and Hertz. Prices for this are as follows, and seem to be less the longer the vehicle is rented. However, this response may or may not include taxes and fees:
- 2000 pesos per day/110 USD one day
- 1800 pesos per day/110 USD for 2 or 3 rented days
- 1700 pesos per day/98 USD for 4 or 5 rented days
- 1600 per day/90 USD for 1 week
- 1450 per day/80 USD for 10 to 15 days
They informed us that this fee includes 500km a day, and that this is reasonable in respect to the speed limit and dirt roads, and they make car rental reservations for up to one month’s use. They seemed very willing to help and answer questions for guests, so this may be a great option if you can’t make the two-day drive from the city, or would rather fly into Puerto Madryn.
HAVE THE PERFECT TRIP!
We are ecstatic to have to opportunity to spread the love, and show other would-be whale watchers how to experience such an incredible happening in Argentina. These are our final tips to help you have the best experience possible, whale watching near the Peninsula Valdes:
- Study the migration calendar carefully, and reconsider going to Peninsula Valdes if the orcas and penguins are not in season.
- For orca season, rise early and drive to the north point of the peninsula first.
- For Southern Right Whale season, spend most of your time on the Golfo Nuevo for the best experience.
- Be prepared for dirt roads. The only paved roads are those near the entrance of Peninsula Valdes.
- Be very careful if you drive the entire loop of the peninsula – it’s a long way, and you could easily find yourself out of fuel.
The only gas station on the peninsula is located at Puerto Piramides. The peninsula is so desolate that if you do run out of gas, you could be stuck in the middle of nowhere, needing to enlist the help of a puzzled sheep farmer… all the while getting strange looks from the sheep as you try to find him.
Most importantly, we highly recommend having your own vehicle to explore the region, to have the most personalized and epic experience alongside the whales. And remember, be kind to the whales’ habitat. Never leave your trash, and pack out everything you take in with you.
Things You Won’t Regret Missing:
On the Peninsula Valdes, feel free to skip the salt ponds – Salina Chica and Salina Grande. The Salina Chica is a 4WD-only road, and is located on someone’s private property. Even if you’re there at the right time to see flamingoes, you can only view them from very far away, and it’s really not worth it. On the contrary, the Salina Grande is not accessible by car at all. You can only view it in the distance from over the fence of a sheep farm, so don’t worry about making the long drive out.
Also, don’t worry about spending too much time in Puerto Piramides, unless you’d like to spend too much on lunch. It is a great place to hop a boat (usually really crowded though), and get out on the water to see the whales. However, many of the large tour boats are restricted from getting too close to the whales, as they should be. Unless you wish to take a kayak or a canoe out to see them more closely, the general boat trips from here aren’t that worth it. You are much more likely to have a great experience viewing them right off the shores of the Golfo Nuevo.
DESPITE THAT LAST PART, YOU’LL LOVE IT HERE.
Watching mother whales teach their calves to swim for the first time, and listening to the sounds of them singing to each other in the night, is by far one of the most powerful experiences to be had. This region of Patagonia is one of the most fantastic places to witness the creatures of the deep, and in the most unique way possible. In the spectacular country of Argentina, Puerto Madryn and its surrounding coast hold some of the most amazing wildlife concentrations on the planet, and it is very worth the journey.
Though there are things to be aware of when planning to visit here, this place is absolutely gorgeous, and full of amazing wildlife on both the land and in the sea. Personally, the Peninsula Valdes and the Golfo Nuevo have become a kind of sacred place to us, and we will always treasure the experiences we had there. Traveling to the Argentine countryside to whale watch is not only an epic experience in itself, it is such an incredible sight that it can bring any right-minded human being to tears. It truly is the experience of a lifetime, and one that shouldn’t be missed.