Puerto Madryn is known for its famous Peninsula Valdes, a serendipitous geographic “accident” along the Argentine coast, to where around 2000 whales go every year to mate in Puerto Piramides. Thus, this small port has become one of the most important places in the world to witness the grandeur of this species. Not only that, but you can also add an immense colony of Magellanic penguins with their famous tottering that arrive every year to the Punta Tombo nature reserve, which is located 300 km to the south of the peninsula. But surely you knew all this already. So today we are going to talk about the other wonders that are going on around the region; the fauna, paradisiacal places and unusual activities. We show you the jewels hidden behind the penguins and the whales that also await you on your arrival to Puerto Madryn.
There is a mammal that runs through the region on a daily basis that does not resemble anything I have seen outside of Latin America. I remember when I was little I used to think it was a lie that such an animal could exist. Until I once saw one and everything changed. It appears as a monster, nice but strange, like one of those we usually invent to pass the solitary hours of childhood, but the “piche”, is in fact of the many inhabitants of the Patagonian plateau. They usually go for a stroll in the evening, although some travelers have come upon them while they are walking. The piche is known simply as “hairy” by the locals and could be called the “Latin American Armadillo”. It is covered with an articulable bony “armor”, which allows it to defend itself against its enemies and even to shrink into the form of a ball, becoming untouchable. They are extremely agile and are able to dig and hide, and they are also excellent swimmers! They can cross small streams underwater without needing to get to the surface to breathe. They can be found on the gravel roads that lead to Punta Norte in Peninsula Valdés, although they are not usually easy to see. It is best to travel the peninsula with a local guide since they usually know where they have their burrows and what the best time of the year to see them is.
Another animal that populates the area is the “guanaco”. It is similar in appearance to a llama, but the llama is it’s “domestic” version. Apart from whales and dolphins, they are the largest mammals in Patagonia. 95% of the world’s population is concentrated in South America and in Argentina, and they have been declared a “natural monument” in the province of Mendoza. Sometimes they surprise us by appearing at the side of the highway. I remember a family trip that I took a long time ago in the middle of the steppe and out of the Patagonian nothingness appeared a group of four guanacos, a small herd that gave us lot of photos and memories. When we stopped at the next gas station, the villagers introduced us to their two pet guanacos, who were kept in a type of improvised corral. My brother and I ran to see them up close while one of the caretakers watched us. We were so happy that we never realized that the animal’s ears were suddenly almost flat. This didn’t mean anything to us, who were from the city of Buenos Aires, another world with its own breed of urban animals. The caretaker came and taught us, with a smile from another time, the first thing that anyone encountering these animals should know: “Guys, be careful; these little animals spit.”
So where can you find them? The people of the area say that all you have to do is set foot in the region to see them everywhere. In the Peninsula Valdés, a natural stronghold of diverse fauna, you will be able to see them easily if you cross the provincial routes, as well as in the Salina Grande, which it is accessed by the Provincial Route n ° 2.
Bahía Bustamante: the first algae ranch
Have you ever thought about the algae while there’s such an amount of incredible and otherworldly marine fauna? Well, there was once a man, named Don Lorenzo Soriano, who sought them tirelessly. The search led him to disembark in Bahia Bustamante, a place that did not exist then and that the same Soriano helped to found. Soriano’s need for the algae was clear: he was engaged in the manufacture of the hair fixative Malvik. From 1947, he dedicated his life to this, first in Jaén (Spain), until 1953 when he landed on Patagonian soil in search of that gold that was not a metal but just as precious in his trade. A chemical-specific colloid would allow him to continue to produce the fixer, and he finally found it in the algae. After traveling extensively along the southern coast, the day that Don Lorenzo Soriano arrived in the bay where he was surrounded by a cemetery of decaying seaweed, he was the happiest man in the world. “Rotten Bay” then became known as “Bahía Bustamante”, and Soriano’s four children created the first algae village in the region. Today the collection and processing of algae are the foundations of the region’s industry, whose applications extend beyond the aesthetic hair fixative into biomedicine and nutrition.
Ph: Celine Frers
Ph: Florian Von Der Fetch
Bahía Bustamante is today very much a tourist destination and coastal paradise. The ranch has 40 inhabitants and a philosophy anchored in sustainability and recycling as a way of life and of tourism. Its coasts are within the Patagonia Austral National Park (and the UNESCO “Blue Patagonia” Biosphere Reserve), located 300 km from Puerto Madryn on the RN 3.
Thanks to a warm current that descends from Brásil that mixes with the cold Malvinas current, the waters of the area are suitable for bathing and are rich in the nutrients that appear in the shallow waters. When the sun hits the salty water, seaweed is born. In Bahía Bustamante -called by the New York Times: “Argentina’s Secret (& Private) answer to The Galápagos”- http://www.nytimes.com/2011/
The “estancias” route
Another way to see native fauna and discover the ecosystem of the area is by visiting the local estancias, and ideally spending the night there. Whether you are on the Peninsula Valdés or outside (towards the south or the continental region), the options are varied and all of them contain a particular history linked to the arrival and activities of the region’s first settlers.
Faro Punta Delgada: “A place in the world”
This is how we are first introduced to this “country inn” upon visiting their website, the idea being that when we are at the estancia, we are far away from the rest of the world. In this romantic estancia, we are disconnected, literally. The set-up of the ranch is so unique that it has a scheduled energy supply (from 7 pm to 8 am), although in the pub and restaurant area there is also electricity from 12 a.m. to 4 p.m. The idea is to get lost in this remote corner of the world, in its arid yet still green natural landscapes. Tour the coast where the sea lions rest, and see the historical lighthouse that since 1905 has continued to guide the boats. Originally the estancia belonged to the Argentine naval force and it was here that the future lighthouse caretakers trained before departing to different points of the coast to care for and guide others to safety.
So how do you get there? When heading to the Peninsula by Provincial Route n ° 2, follow the signs for Punta Delgada. More information on the website: www.puntadelgada.com
San Lorenzo: a pioneer family.
Almost at the opposite end of Punta Delgada towards the north of the Peninsula is Estancia San Lorenzo. Lorenzo Machinea, of Basque origin, arrived at the Peninsula in 1900 and in 1907 he obtained the land on which he held his cattle at an auction. Today these same lands make up the area of the estancia, which hosts the second most important reserve of Magellanic penguins in Argentina after Punta Tombo. As often happened in those days, it was on the boat to Argentina that he met his wife, Justina Betelu, with whom he had 8 children. Today, the descendants of the second son of Lorenzo and Justina are the owners of the estancia and continue to maintain the estancia’s avant-garde spirit, as an homage to their parents and grandparents. But above all, they strive to conserve and love the nature they received from their great-grandparents. It was the first estancia to be designated a “Protected Area” within the peninsula, and today its commitment to scientific research. To preserve the Magellanic penguin is one of their main aims, and part of Machinea’s legacy. So what can you see at the estancia? Well, you can watch the sunset at any point along the 5300 km. of coastline that belongs to the San Matías Gulf. You can see the penguins on the reserve – a must-visit – but also the guanacos, choiques (a type of local”ostrich”), maras, piches, foxes, as well as elephant seals. The estancia also produces wool and if you are interested, you can participate in everyday ranch activities such as shearing. There is also the opportunity to see fossils on the cliffs for those with an interest in archaeology, among which is that of a distant relative of the starfish that lived here 10 million years ago.
For more information about the Estancia San Lorenzo: www.pinguinospuntanorte.com.ar
El Pedral: south of Puerto Madryn
To the south of the Peninsula Valdés is the Golfo Nuevo, where the Southern Right Whale usually mates every year (June to December). Guarding the entrance to this Gulf is Punta Ninfas, a pointed cliff, which is also the home of elephants and sea lions all year long. El Pedral is located 10 km south of Punta Ninfa, and on the rocky beach that connects both points, orcas can often be seen lurking in search of food. To spend one night in El Pedral is to fall asleep listening to the snorting of the whales arriving at the Gulf, to the orcas marching on the tide, to the sleep of the wolves. It truly is an immersion in the natural life of the area. Like all the Patagonian estancias, El Pedral also has a history full of pioneers and foreign settlers. Today, it is also an excellent option close to Puerto Madryn – closer to Punta Tombo – from where to observe penguins (from September to April); the first colony formed there in 2009. You can also indulge in a picnic, visit the lighthouse and eat delicious Patagonian lamb. Ideal for a day out with the family, the estancia offers full board in which different activities are included. From curling up with a book in any of the many rooms, to enjoying the simple but typical cuisine, or taking a guided walk to the beach to see the killer whales and elephant seals, which you must approach carefully and quietly so as not to scare them away. Two families with children are in charge of the activities in the estancia, so they also have a range of activities that kids will love.
How do you get to El Pedral? It is accessed by the gravel road Provincial Route n ° 5 along which you can often see animals. There are no service stations on the way or internet connection, so you have to coordinate your arrival with the locals. More information on the El Pedral website: www.reservaelpedral.com
Ph: Marcos Amend