Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Peninsula Valdés and Onward!

15 March 2016

We're currently back on the road, heading north to Buenos Aires.  But I need to back up and cover the rest of our time in the Puerto Madryn region.

I've been wondering why this part of South America is called Patagonia, so I finally did some research.  (No one we asked seemed to know.  Or maybe they didn't understand our bad Spanish questions.  More probably we didn't understand their answers.)

Fernando de Magellanes first saw very large human footprints on the beach when he arrived in this part of South America, and called the people "Patagones" from the Portuguese "Pata Grau" meaning "big feet."  (They were actually the Tehuelche nation.)  Legend says that they were very tall, or at least compared to 16th century Spanish and Portuguese explorers.  That seems to be the official explanation, I found this in several different locations.
So.  After heading south to Punta Tombo for our friendly penguins, we thought we'd take a day to drive north to Peninsula Valdés.  This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, mostly for the terrain of the landscape as well as the animals to be found here.  Peninsula Valdés is a privately-owned haven for wildlife, with the only continent-based colony of elephant seals in the entire world.  Plus more penguins, colonies of seals and sea lions, and who knows what else we might find.

Saturday we headed up Ruta 3 and turned in for the isthmus.  There's an entry fee, and we headed for the interpretation center.  The staff member we spoke with said that most of the penguins have migrated to warmer climates already, but there would be a few finishing their molting before swimming onward.  (The Punta Tombo penguins will also migrate a bit northward when their molt is finished, so we were lucky that so many were still there!)

Also, we were told that the adult elephant seals have mostly migrated for the winter as well, but that the babies would still be on the beaches, under the supervision of a few remaining adults.  As our friendly ranger said, "But they're really big babies!"

So we drove across the isthmus, and the terrain became drier and drier.  This region of Patagonia is already quite arid, but the isthmus and peninsula was almost desert-like.  

We headed to Punta Piramides, named for pyramid-shaped rocks on the point.  This is the only town on the entire peninsula.  Lunch, gasoline, and water for the afternoon.  Plus our first views of the deep turquoise water, where the desert meets the gulf, and later the ocean.  Absolutely gorgeous, with the bleached soil contrasting so nicely with that bright azure water!

Then we drove.  And we drove.  The roads on the peninsula are gravel.  And dusty.  Cars can be seen several kilometers away simply by the dust cloud they kick up.  

There were herds of guanacos wandering through the bush, daintily eating the dusty plants, or prancing across the gravel roads, or just standing and watching the random cars drive by.  Turns out they are social animals, living in groups of one male and up to ten or twelve females, and their young.  Or sometimes groups of young males, waiting to reach their prime.  Oh, and if I didn't mention it last time, guanacos are the largest of the camelids, the males standing about 6 feet (1.8 meters) tall.

We also saw a few choique (CHOY-kay) - in English, Lesser Rhea, a large flightless bird that looks similar to an emu or ostrich.  We had seen these as we drove south, and wondered if someone was farming ostrich - but no, it turns out they're choiques (or rheas) and are native to this part of South America.  These animals can run 50 km an hour (about 30 miles per hour)!!!  We only saw them walking around, but I wouldn't want to encounter one in person - pretty intimidating!

We followed the map, and drove across the peninsula to the penguin area, and then to two of the elephant seal areas.  (On the black and white map, I've marked the route we took - the turquoise line shows the paved road, and the red line is the gravel.  Where we drove about half speed, because our light little car was fishtailing its way down the road.)

We saw three penguins, one lonely guy standing in his/her burrow looking out to sea, and one couple at the water's edge.  The rest of the colony moved on, and these three were just waiting for those feathers to finish coming in.  Little Magellanic penguins, ready to move to warmer water.

The elephant seals were near the Caleta Valdés - "caleta" translates as "creek" but it looked more like a giant sandbar creating a lagoon.  The elephant seal babies (HUGE babies!) are those big lumpy blobs in pale colors, looking more like exposed and worn limestone boulders than live animals.  But yes, those aren't rocks, those are elephant seals sleeping in the sun!  The sun was hot, the wind was cold, and all seals need to warm up in the sun because they lose a great deal of body heat when swimming in the cold water.

Across the lagoon, on the sand bar, there were both seals (the brown animals) and more elephant seals.  They seemed to live peacefully together, or at least tolerated each other enough to nap nearby.

Because Valdés is a wildlife refuge, the viewing of animals is limited to people standing on the cliffs or bluffs overlooking the beaches.  We're not allowed down to the beaches.  Which is probably a good thing because elephant seals are gigantic - an adult male can reach 4000 kg, or 8800 lbs.  They sit up to 6 ft tall (1.8 m), and the entire body of an adult male can be about 12 feet (4 m).  Huge ani- mals, and not exact- ly friend- ly.

So we were okay staying on the cliffs.

We didn't have enough time to circle the peninsula, so we simply drove across, went a bit down the far side, then headed back.  We returned to the interpretation center on the paved road, because they stay open late.  And because the ranger said they sometimes see a few of the nocturnal animals late in the afternoon.  There are pumas in the area, which I'd love to see but never have.  Our ranger said she's seen a Geoffroys cat, which looks like a large spotted house cat but is related to the margays and ocelots.  (The photos made it look really adorable, if you can call a wild feline adorable.)

But we didn't get to see any of the cats, large or small, so we headed back to Puerto Madryn.

We left on Sunday, heading north again.  Had lunch at the same place in Sierra Grande, and our waitress recognized us.  (It's a trucker spot, so they don't get too many travellers from North America.)  

Heading north, we aimed for San Antonio, where the coastline and Ruta 3 change from north bound to east bound.  But just south of San Antonio was a sign for a beach town that's on our map, Las Grutas.  We talked and agreed why not, we like the beach.

Las Grutas turned out to be a great little beach town.  We found what might have been the nicest hotel in town (we're often lucky that way), and they had a cancellation.  We walked around, exploring both the town, the beach, and our hotel and casino.  

Las Grutas means "The Grottoes" in Spanish, most likely referring to the huge rocky ledges that occupy this southern end of the beach.  The ledges are home to barnacles and mussels clinging to the rock, and are entirely submerged at high tide.  We walked on the beach at low tide - there was a 9 meter (27-28 feet) difference between high and low tide while we were there, according to the sign updated daily by the national naval station located here.  (For non-beach people, that's a really big tidal difference!)

The water in this gulf was the same beautiful turquoise or cerulean we'd seen further south, but equally cold.  No swimming for us.  However, walking along the shore, or climbing on the rocks and looking in the tidal pools, was great fun.

In back of this wide beach were the cliffs or bluffs that are common here.  To me, it appeared as if the rock shelves on the beach prevented severe erosion of one part of the cliffs, but the waves on the more exposed beach area must have reached the cliffs at super high tides or during storms, and caused major erosion.  Probably ongoing, and not the place to buy beachfront property.

We enjoyed Las Grutas so much, we stayed two days.  Because that's what road trips are all about - see the locale, spend time in places you like, travel around without a plan, and enjoy the journey as much as the destination.

But we need to get back to Buenos Aires by next Tuesday, to return the car.  So we only had two days in Las Grutas, and then headed north again.

Tonight we're back in Viedma, by the Rio Negro, enjoying our view of the river and warmer nights than in southern Patagonia.

We're now just under 1000 km (660 or so miles) from BA.  An easy week's drive back.

Oh, before I sign off, the news this morning featured a story about a puma in the town of Pilar, in the Buenos Aires province, and part of the Buenos Aires urban area.  The puma attacked two dogs (but I think the dogs survived), and then the puma disappeared.  At least that's what I gathered from the news report, mostly reading the headlines.  Imagine a puma running through Denver or Seattle or San Francisco!  (Okay, we've had a few in Seattle.  Yes, they cause the same panic.)

Anyway, I'm hoping I see a puma along the way.  Not dead, not in a cage, not attacking anything.  Just, oh, running along the road.

That's my hope anyway.

Here's our route back thus far.


  1. What a trip! And what adventurers you two are! We have bobcats who live around here. I saw one once and the man who huts our southern forest told us his cameras a mother and cup as well as a lone male in January.

    1. Ooooh, I'd love to see bobcats! There's something about catching a peak at animals in their natural habitat, isn't there???