Argentina is packed full of natural wonders. There are massive waterfalls, massive glaciers and massive mountains. All of it is fabulous. But if you love wildlife, this Puerto Madryn tour is a must for your Argentina itinerary. This part of eastern Patagonia is teeming with marine mammals and penguins. And seeing them is guaranteed to elevate your sense of wonder and (in my case anyway) make you cry.
This independent itinerary will give you a Puerto Madryn tour that allows you to visit all of the highlights of the area at your own pace.
Fulfill your Marine Animal Bucket List
Most people associate Patagonia with the mountains and glaciers of southern Argentina and Chile. But Patagonia is actually the entire southern half of Argentina. Puerto Madryn and the Peninsula Valdes are located in the northeastern edge of Patagonia on the Atlantic coast. And this area offers a very different kind of experience than the rest of Argentina. The coastline boasts a huge variety of sea life so it’s a prime spot for ticking off your marine mammal bucket list. During your self-guided Puerto Madryn tour you can spot: southern right whales, South American sea lions, southern elephant seals, dusky dolphins, Commerson’s dolphins, Magellanic penguins and orca whales.
I’m not afraid to the buck the prevailing herd mentality when it comes to travel. I’ve disobeyed Rick Steves in London and Northern Ireland. And I disobeyed the presumptive Argentina itinerary as well. Once I learned about the wildlife to be seen here, I resisted the impulse to visit Iguazu Falls or the Mendoza wine region and I prioritized a visit to Puerto Madryn.
Do you need further convincing? Then I suggest that you check out this amazing video of Orca whales hoisting themselves up onto the beach in order to snatch sea lions? The orca perform these feats of hunting prowess on the Peninsula Valdes!
Your Own Independent Puerto Madryn Tour
Now that you are bought in, I’d like to share with you this self-guided Puerto Madryn tour which will help you maximize your time there. You can do without a car by taking a bus to Puerto Madryn. From there, you can buy your way onto a series of day trips that will take you to most but not all of the places mentioned below.
But if you have two or more people, I really recommend a car. It will give you the ultimate flexibility and can be less expensive than doing day tours. The roads in the area are well maintained. Although, I will say the Argentinians tend to treat traffic lights and stop signs as “general guidance.” But it’s all part of the adventure.
Day 1: Magellanic Penguins
- Fly into Trelew.
There’s a super early flight from Buenos Aires. Pick up the rental car.
- Option 1:
You can drive 68 miles (110/k) and two hours south to the Punta Tombo reserve to see the penguins. This will then require a 155 mile (250/k) return back to Trelew and then north to Puerto Madryn. It makes for a long day but the colony in Punta Tombo is really large. And you will be inside the Patagonia Azul reserve, one of the largest anywhere.
- Option 2:
You can do a special experience with the El Pedral Punta Ninfas ranch. They do day trips to the private El Pedral area and you can also arrange an overnight with them. The ranch is a beautifully maintained building from the 20’s. This is the area that I wrote about in my piece on Magellanic penguin conservation in Punta Tombo. It’s much closer to Puerto Madryn and more intimate. But the rookery there is smaller.
Day 2: Peninsula Valdes and Whale Watching
- Drive an hour to the peninsula.
You can do the peninsula as a long day trip from Puerto Madryn (as we did), or you can stay overnight at one of the small inns in the main town of Puerto Piramides. The peninsula is listed as a UNESCO site for its significance in marine mammal conservation. It’s worth visiting other conservation oriented World Heritage sites, as Gary Arndt has done on his quest to visit all of them.
- Be sure to stop at the visitor’s center.
You’ll come to it not long after paying your park fee. They have informative displays about the flora and fauna in the area. But more importantly, they can tell you when the tide will be optimal for the orcas to be hunting the seals. So we checked there first before booking a whale watch tour.
- Take a whale watch tour.
If you do wish to book ahead, you can check out the boats and book on Trip Advisor. We just went to the dock and picked the first boat with a convenient departure time. During our visit, the whales were in residence but they were not very active. Eastern Argentina was experiencing an El Niño weather pattern and there was less food than normal for the whales. So they were conserving energy by avoiding crowd pleasing displays of acrobatics. That said, we still saw plenty of whales and I cried a little…as I always do when I see whales.
- Visit the orca whale hunting grounds.
After lunch, we headed out on the (well maintained) dirt roads to the western peninsula and the orcas. That sharp dorsal fin– they are like gigantic sharks! We saw plenty of orca cruising the beach but didn’t get to see the spectacular hunting behavior like in the video. Yet, I was not disappointed. All along that coastline are orca whales, elephant seals and sea lions. Not to mention sea views that go all the way to Africa. It will definitely help you fulfill both your bucket list and that little piece of your soul that needs to be fed by nature.
Day 3: Sea Lion Reserve & Playa Doradillo
- Visit Playa Doradillo.
It’s just north of town and a good spot for spotting southern right whales. You’ll want to go out at low tide, which allows the huge whales to come in remarkably close to shore. So you can sit on the beach with a pair of binoculars and observe the whales hanging out. And cry, if that’s your thing. However, beware the pile of…what?…whale poop? and decomposing sea glop? My failed attempt to hop over the high tide line resulted in a splortching sound and a lingering stink on my shoe. But once that hurdle was cleared, the beach was quite nice. And there were hardly any people there because everyone else in town is taking those day tours that don’t come here.
- Reserva Loberia de Punta Loma is a sea lion reserve about 15 minutes south of town.
You can walk along a cliff-side coastal path observing a large colony of sea lions. This area is also a nesting site for the rock shag, an odd little sea bird that feeds in the water but nests in the coastal cliff walls.
- Neither of these activities will take all day so you can add in another activity. Or you can take a chill pill and enjoy a slower paced day.
Best time to Go
Some of the animals are in the area year round. But others are migratory. Southern whales: June through December. Orca whales: September to April. Magellic penguins: September to March with November/December being a good time for nesting.
TOP TIP: Take your Puerto Madryn tour in in November and see all of the above. And pay attention to the cruise ship schedule for Puerto Madryn. You may want avoid Punta Tombo on those days.
Unlike the US or Europe, Argentina is not blessed with well priced point-to-point air carriers. You option is to take Aerolineas or, um, Aerolineas. Their cross country routing between Trelew and El Calafate (Perito Moreno glacier) requires you to fly back up to Buenos Aires or down to Ushuaia. And it’s expensive. There are some discussions on how to hack that on Gringo Buenos Aires and Lonely Planet. I sucked it up and paid the full foreigner fare. You can also take long distance buses which have comfortable fully reclining seats. Check schedules here.
TOP TIP: Check air schedules carefully between your destinations to optimize time on the ground.
Renting a Car
Cars in Trelew are approx $70USD per day. Not a great deal made worse by Argentina’s whack monetary policy which penalizes credit card use. But if you start shelling out $100 here and there for day excursions, you can pay for the car pretty quickly. I did opt for the extra insurance because we did some driving on dirt roads.
TOP TIP: Always bring a paper or an electronic copy of your reservation.
The hotels in Puerto Madryn are a mixed bag. There are places charging over $100USD a night which don’t seem nice enough to justify the rate. And there are plenty of hostels, but I’m over 50 and I’m not doing a bunk bed. So we split the middle and got a private room at the El Gualicho hostel. It was just right for us. The rate was modest, it was right in downtown, there was secure parking and we had our own room. You can read reviews and book El Gualicho on Trip Advisor or Booking.com. Or check out other properties on Trip Advisor or Booking.com.
TOP TIP: Some hostels offer very nice private rooms.
In addition to the Puerto Madryn itinerary, our visit to Argentina also included Buenos Aires, the Perito Moreno Glacier and hiking in the Fitz Roy range. You can do ALL of that with carry-on if you plan some time for laundry and are smart about what you bring. Check out this packing list for hiking and sightseeing in the UK. It’s suitable for very similar weather and activities.
Of course this self-guided tour of Puerto Madryn is flexible. You can adjust the schedule according to your time and interests. But 3-4 days gives you plenty of time to see the full variety of wildlife from different vantage points. So pack your binoculars, skip something else in Argentina and make time for wildlife.
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