Most visitors to the peninsula come for the day on guided excursions, aboard small nine-passenger vans. There is enough here, however, to keep you busy for 3 or 4 days. If you choose to drive on your own in a rental car, remember that the peninsula is very isolated and barren, and the only gas station is in Puerto Pirámides. Sometimes you can go for hours without seeing another soul. All roads on the peninsula are gravel, and driving is hazardous. Consider renting a 4WD truck for more comfort.
Península Valdés is not a national park but a Natural Protected Area managed by the Province of Chubut. Within its protected borders, families continue to run the ranches that they have managed for more than a century, although some are now turning to tourism. Human activity is restricted, and although tourism is now the major player, the balance game between conservation and recreation is monitored closely.
At the park gates, foreign visitors have to stop and pay an entrance fee of $21 (£14) per person (it's good for the length of your stay in the park, be that an afternoon or 3 days). Just past the entrance to the national park (which is about a half-hour's drive northeast of Puerto Madryn), the new Interpretive Center makes a good consolation prize if you don't have time for the excellent Ecocentro museum in Puerto Madryn. The Interpretive Center is open from 8am to 8pm daily. Admission is free. From the park entrance, after driving east for about an hour on Ruta 2, you'll reach the tiny village of Puerto Pirámides (pop. 202), which is only 2 blocks wide. This is the main launching spot for the whale-watching boats that depart from this area from April to late December. Whale-watching trips cost $35 (£24) per person and last about 1 1/2 hours.
The rest of the year, warmer weather transforms Puerto Pirámides into more of a beach town, popular with vacationing Argentines on their summer holidays. The Southern Right Whales that swim past here once verged on extinction (they earned their name because they move slowly and float easily, making them "right" for hunters). Today, these gentle giants gather to mate in these bays just off the peninsula from April to December. They each weigh 35 to 40 tons and measure about 17m long (56 ft.). About 800 whales show up each year, after feeding in Antarctica for 3 months. Whale-watching trips almost always bring visitors within meters of these very social whales. It's a rare and moving experience.
From Puerto Pirámides, if you continue east on Ruta Provincial 2, you'll reach Punta Delgada, a stretch of beach favored by elephant seals from mid-June to late December. You can stop for lunch at the upscale Faro Punta Delgada hotel and also take a tour of the lighthouse.
Heading north on RP 47 will bring you to Caleta Valdés, which has a cafeteria on the bluff overlooking the ocean. This is where most visitors on excursions eat lunch, so it is very busy from 1 to 3pm. The stairs leading down to the beach take you to another stretch of sand covered by elephant seals, which are usually sleeping. Pleasant interpretive walks with placards explain the natural history of the area, with beautiful views of the Atlantic Coast.
At the northeastern tip of the peninsula is Punta Norte, where hundreds of sea lions congregate from January to June. Orcas can sometimes be seen off this point too, attracted by the sea lions -- their favorite snack. Count yourself very lucky if you manage to see the orcas hunting baby sea lions during dramatic high-tide attacks. Just to the west of Punta Norte is Estancia San Lorenzo (tel. 2965/458444), which welcomes a colony of up to 200,000 Magellan penguins each year from August to April. Tours are expensive ($45/£30 per person) but worthwhile, because you get to see penguins up close, in a very quiet setting. Come early in the morning if possible.
Because the peninsula is barren and dry, you'll be able to spot guanacos; reminiscent of small llamas, they're found only in Patagonia. Because they are so shy, however, they usually run in the opposite direction when they see a car coming. Also keep an eye out for choiques (ostrichlike birds); the strange-looking mara, which is a rabbit that runs on four-legs like a dog; and lots of sheep. In the middle of the peninsula, three giant salt flats appear like mirages on the horizon.
In 1 day, it's possible to quickly sample the area and spot some whales, sea lions, elephant seals, and guanacos. You will spend the bulk of the day in the tour operator's van, however, especially if you are staying in Trelew. Wildlife lovers should plan to spend 2 or 3 days exploring the peninsula. For more information and good interactive online maps, visit www.peninsulavaldes.org.ar.
When to Visit
Timing is critical when you're visiting the Península Valdés. If you want to see penguins, forget about coming here between May and August. If you're hoping to watch whales, don't come between mid-December and April. All things considered, the ideal time to visit Atlantic Patagonia is in October or November. The penguins have laid their eggs and are guarding their nests, the whales are happily swimming in the bays with their offspring, and schools in Argentina are still in session, so crowds are thin.
Where to Stay & Dine
The peninsula has a handful of new upscale lodging options -- namely ranches or lighthouses that have opened their doors to the public over the past 5 years or so. Most are expensive and offer packages that include all meals and daily activities. They're a relaxing way to really live the wonders of Península Valdés, to see the wildlife in silence, and to get away from it all. I recommend you spend at least 2 nights in any of the following places. Highly recommended, Estancia La Elvira (tel. 2965/474248; www.laelvira.com.ar) is inland, at the working heart of a ranch, which also runs a restaurant overlooking Caleta Valdés. The ranch house has eight large rooms that start at $280 (£189) with breakfast or $330 (£223) for full board. You don't get the coastal views or the ocean breezes here, but you will delight in excellent service and a charming rural facility. At the tiny and elegant Rincón Chico (tel. 2965/471733; www.rinconchico.com.ar; all-inclusive doubles at $395/£266 per night), a local family has opened the doors to their eight-room guesthouse near the beach, with great success. The most visitor-friendly is the Faro Punta Delgada (tel. 2965/458444; www.puntadelgada.com; all-inclusive doubles at $340/£229 per night), inside a refurbished government lighthouse facility. The setting is beautifully wind-swept, and the rugged outdoor setting is balanced by the charming staff and nice amenities inside the hotel. Rooms are cozy and country-style, with blue-gingham bedspreads and simple bathrooms. Guests can explore the lighthouse, which brings a sense of romance to dark evenings, or the many nearby trails that lead to deserted beaches on their own. The bar is a great place to gather and share stories with other travelers in the evening. The restaurant is packed with tourists during the day, but it's much more intimate for breakfast and dinner. All three of the above are heads-and-tails above the hotels in Puerto Madryn in terms of warmth, service, natural setting, and ambience.