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A Tour of Península Valdés: The Whispering Land

The title of this post – a reference to the persistent winds of Patagonia – is borrowed from Gerald Durrell’s 1961 account of a visit to Península Valdés, among other places, on an animal collection and research trip for his zoo in Jersey. Like all of the places Durrell wrote about, my 10-year-old self wanted desperately to visit Valdés. His descriptions of the “golden swarm” of fur seals, the growling sea lions and the “bulbous” elephant seals planted a seed which would later be watered by the David Attenborough documentaries about the legendary pod of orcas who deliberately beach themselves so as to be able to ambush unsuspecting seals in a supposed place of safety. If two of my favourite natural historians thought Valdés was something special, then I would have to go there.

I was 25 when I finally got to Argentina, and I had to wait a few more months to eventually make it as far south as Chubut. Eastern Patagonia – that is to say the coastal section of the Argentine side – has none of the picture book allure of the Lake District or the Pacific Coastline. It is instead desolate, foreboding and monotonous. To truly appreciate the emptiness you have to drive, as I did, from Buenos Aires to Rio Gallegos, but for most holidaymakers the sheer distances involved mean that this feeling has to be cobbled together from glimpses out of airplane windows and snatches read in books. Either way, you can take it from me that the drive to Puerto Madryn – from any direction – is uneventful.

Which is why what happens on the Península is all the more amazing. Once again I will borrow Durrell’s words: the Península is “a mass of land rather like an axe-head, some eighty miles long by thirty broad…it is almost as if the Península and its narrow isthmus are a cul-de-sac into which all the wild-life of Chubut has drained and from which it cannot escape.” (1961)

Suddenly, after thousands of miles of boredom, Patagonia gets interesting. The vegetation is more abundant; the landscape less windswept; and the fauna concentrated into a space so small that you cannot avoid seeing guanacos, rheas and hares. But – of course – it is for its marine treasures that most people visit Valdés…

I visited out of ‘whale season’, but every winter thousands of southern right whales go there to calve, offering arguably the best boat-based whale watching in the world. I did get to see the enormous fur seal colony and the truly mammoth elephant seals (the only continental colony in the world) and the comical sea lions, but it was the orcas which were the real drawcard for me. Early January is not the best time to sight them, but our guide humoured us and allowed us to linger at Punta Norte a little longer than the tour groups.

A few seals flopping about in the intertidal sand initially diverted our attention from the pair of scything dorsal fins and their bulging wakes, but soon the intruders could not be ignored. The orcas surged through the shallows, parallel to the beach, occasionally darting shorewards to consider their options. On that afternoon, at that tide, conditions were not quite perfect for beaching, so after about a quarter of an hour they left. But not without silencing everyone present with their sheer size, speed and muscularity.

Valdés also has a smattering of penguins, but if you’re really into penguins, the colony at Punto Tomba is as worth a visit as Valdés. Situated a couple of hours south of the Península, Tomba plays host to almost a million magellanic penguins every summer. They come, from their warmer winter waters in Brazil, to nest, hatch and care for their chicks, making Tomba one of the world’s biggest nurseries: as with the fur seals, the sheer size of the colony has to be seen to be believed.

Vaya Adventures usually has its guests stay at the Estancia Rincón Chico which is located within the limits of Península Valdés. The value this brings to its guests cannot be overestimated. What others have to glimpse from minibuses, you can savour while hiking the estancia’s ten miles of private coastline. What others have to enjoy in hordes while enduring the midday sun, you can enjoy with your biologist guide and the sunrise. This is not to mention the fact that you’ll be staying on a real Argentine Estancia with the friendliest hosts imaginable and real home-cooked meals. You’ll just have to take my word for it that not all of Patagonia is this perfect!

Take a look at Vaya’s tour to Península Valdés here.

By Nick Dall