Puerto Madryn and Puerto Piramides

Pretty Puerto Piramides

My second trip to this region was 11 months after my first, and my additional time on the bodacious Valdez peninsula greatly enhanced my grasp of the place. I spent just one night at the very cool Gualicho hostel in Madryn, after landing at Trelew airport and then getting a ride from a mighty friendly local who had just picked up a friend on the same flight. She told me that her kids also ‘hacen dedo’ (hitchhike), and it was a great way to land and roll into the sweet port town, that is, city now, of over 100,000.

Wandering around town and primarily the beachside sidewalk, the only oddity was not being able to walk out onto the municipal pier due to a cruise ship being anchored there, and the authority telling me that no one could enter ho wasn’t a passenger on the big boat, ‘due to security issues’. This coincided with the corona virus hysteria sweeping the globe, so I wasn’t really disappointed in the denial to enter.

This is a real ‘Seal Beach’

I did treat myself to a fine fish dinner at Chona’s , right in the middle of town on the seafront, as it was recommended by everybody I asked. Excellent food and service at very decent prices make for a solid formula, and we also hit it for a premium lunch the day I flew out.

Loberia at Punta Lomas

Something new this time around was driving south out to the splendid sea lion loberia a few kilometers past Punta Loma. A ranger station overlooks two separate clusters of the aquatic lions, hundreds in number but just a drop in the bucket to the estimated 100,000 in all of Argentina. The seabirds are numerous here as well and the two viewpoints provide a smashing vista of the massive colony here. Well worth the drive, short walk and nasty smell.

The terrain around these parts is extraordinary

I noticed at least two big changes at Puerto Piramides from last year, the first being that the Hostel Bahia Ballena, where I stayed on my first trip, was no longer the unofficial info center for the Orca comings and goings out at Playa Norte. The one day we took the hour drive out there, the Orcas didn’t show, although they had visited the day prior. The sea lion colony there now stretches out a half kilometer on the beach, so the chances of observing a serious Orca encounter would seem to be greatly enhanced.

The ‘line up’ at Playa Norte aka Orca Beach

Unfortunately, the big black and whites had other things to do that day, so I’m now just batting .500 in my two visits. It’s still a grand place to spend 5 hours, as the ocean is mesmerizing and the birds and sea lions are visually hypnotic in their own way. There were less people than last April, and most were more than willing to spend as much time as necessary in order to get the look of a lifetime at one of the planet’s animal wonders. All, that is, except a big tourist bus full of elderly passengers, perhaps from that same cruise ship, who stayed all of 15 minutes before driving off.

But no Orca visit today

The other big change, for me at least, was finding out the mass influx of beach lovers who invade Piramides on a sunny, warm weekend. The sheer quantity of humanity was staggering, and I had a difficult time understanding where they all came from. Puerto Madryn is an hour away, with a nice beach of it’s own, and Trelew another 45 minutes beyond. There are few folks living on the vast peninsula, so the crowds had to be comprised of the other townies, and it was night and day compared to the usual weekday scene. The clog of vehicles and full eateries were probably way welcomed by the local businesses, but also grateful it doesn’t load up like that every day.

The low tide walk to the caves on the way to Punta Pardelas

Besides a fine beach walk across the bay to snorkel at the jumbo sea caves, where the crabs outnumbered all else, and we came across five hot pink flamingoes wading in the shallows we drove across the skinny isthmus to snorkel at Playa Villarino. This was my first close look at Golfo San Jose, the northern, less gigantic counterpart to Golfo Nuevo, where Puerto Piramides is located. This was a smooth 20k on a graded gravel road, and I was surprised to see a cluster of RV’s spread across the beach above Playa Arralde. We drove a bit south, where there was just one car parked, and found a spot to park and access the clear, cool water. The sand bars here, like around Piramides, are called ‘restingas’, and are submerged and then dried out again twice daily, as the tides are substantial.

Beaut water and trippy sandbars at Playa Villamino

I estimated five meters, and the motion of the rising tide is dramatic and rapid. Here we floated in the shallows, not seeing many fish, but at least one colony of spider crabs, and another of colorful sea snails. We spent an hour and a half that could have been stretched to 3 or 4 quite easily, as the place was relaxing to the point of catatonia. There were penguins all over the place, chasing fish underwater or sitting like a duck on top of it. We also spotted a pod of dolphins through the binoculars from the viewpoint at the end of the road that goes right at the top of the hill that drops into town. I hiked to this last year, and it’s worth an hour at the end of the day gazing across the monumental bay and cliffs, with the raw sound of lobos bellowing loco below.

Penguins are ll over the place

Conclusions: A vehicle is a big plus, as far as getting around to the remote sections of the peninsula. There were several main roads closed during this time around, including the coast road that connects Punta Norte, Orca Central, with Punta Cantor, 47 km due south. Cantor can still be reached from the turnoff Hwy 3, just past the Salitral, one of three large salt flats here. It’s 33km from the turnoff to Cantor, and then another 42 km further south to Punta Delgada, where the site was closed. Orcas are known to frequent Cantor, and that’s reason enough to show up, but they are much more regular at Punta Norte.

Guanacos number in the thousands here

In addition, the road from Piramides to Punta Pardelas was closed due to sand dunes covering the surface. I didn’t verify this and wish I had, as Pardelas is the location of choice among the snorkeling crowd, of which I am one. Mountain Bikes can be rented, as well as kayaks, which are gold on a calm day and can easily reach Pardelas in less than an hour. The bikes can too, as long as the sometimes big heat factor is not a problem. An ideal way to explore this area is flying in to Trelew, spending a night each coming and going through Madryn, and then 3 or 4 in Piramides covering as much ground and water as necessary, or possible. It’s worth the effort, big time.

The lobos love the restingas….sandbars

The Orcas at Valdez

Few creatures have been as celebrated, mythologized and ultimately  enslaved as the misnamed Killer Whale, actually the largest, and most intriguing of the entire dolphin family. I was raised, like many, on a TV diet of Flipper and Sea Hunt, and later entertained by the aquatic circus at Sea World. The reality of what I was watching never hit me until much later, after the documentary Blackfish revealed the ghastly truth behind the scenes. Orcas and other wild animals are best served and appreciated wild, and just seeing them where they belong is astounding.


Just rollin’ through

There is an isolated beach on the Atlantic coast of Argentina where the southern Orcas gather, and it’s the only place in the world where they actually beach themselves to hunt sea lions. This has been made famous in videos, but just like a virtuoso concert, nothing beats live.

The venue is a peninsula called the Valdez, one of Argentina’s outstanding national parks, situated about a thousand miles south of Buenos Aires. The portal entry is Puerto Madryn, an attractive city that is the wintertime retreat of avid watchers of the Southern Right Whale, which converge here by the score from June until December. Excursion boats full of enthusiasts leave here to get a close look at the mighty earthlings, and when that season fades, the Orcas begin to show.

It seems the gulls are safe

Their happy place is out on the far northeast point of this remarkable cape, at an isolated beach called Punta Norte. Halfway there lies the only real town on the peninsula, Puerto Piramides, where a couple of hundred folks live here year round, swelling to several times that in peak season from January through March. The setting is a marvelous bay surrounded by sandy bluffs where the wildlife far outnumbers the humans, my kind of place. The dive and kayak shops fill up with customers in the make hay days, and there are dozens of lodging options available, including camping, right behind the town beach.

Punta Norte is 75 wide open, uninhabited kilometers away, a virtually treeless stretch with head high bushes and dozens of long necked Guanacos munching on them. The ranger station at Punta Norte is a well equipped outpost with facilities to handle a large amount of people, including bathrooms and a cafe. A long boardwalk overlooking the beach provides the viewing platform, and this is as close to the action as visitors are allowed.  An 8 iron down the beach is a large group of sea lions that occupy a stretch of beach, and this is where your attention is drawn. A number of them are always in the water adjacent to the group, and this is where the action is. 

Seal side seats

The killers tend to show up in a six hour window surrounding high tide, when the water level provides closest proximity to the beach. Spectators arrive early in this cycle and begin setting up their vantage points for the expected arrival of the big black and whites. A majority of the visitors sport serious cameras, many with two foot lens, and the waiting begins. I was wandering around the station for less than an hour when the word came out that a pod had been spotted approaching from the south. The rangers here, and there are many, keep a constant watch out for the Orcas with binoculars, and they communicate that to the station. So everybody takes their place along the wooden rail, and soon enough clouds of vapor appear are visible a quarter mile down the coast.

This is young Ajuela, with the giant geometric fin

In a couple of minutes the big black dorsal fins are visible, including one jumbo triangle, straight as an isosceles, two meters in height. This is a male known as Ajuela, and I had the sensation of viewing a cruising u boat. All the Orcas are positively identified by their dorsal fins and individual white markings, and all have been named. The Punta Norte Orca Research organization has catalogued 15 of the most frequent visitors, including Lea, Jasmine, and Mel, another big male who was thought to be 49 years old a few years ago. He hasn’t been seen in a few years now, and likely is deceased as the average life expectancy for males is 50 years, 30 less than the females, a giant gap between the sexes.

To see an Orca self beached is……uh, forget it, beyond my ability

Most of the Orcas are consistent visitors, so many have been observed for years, although they are never touched or contacted with in any manner. So, 14 year old Pao is known the son of Ishtar, and another teenager, Mela, is the offspring of Jasmine.  As of now, no more than ten of these animals are known to practice the rare technique of hunting by intentional beaching, and this is the only place in the world where it’s been witnessed by humans. And the orcas do practice the move, in preparation for the real thing, and sometimes the lions elude the end.

It’s a team game

I didn’t get to see an attack, but had a close look at the pod of 11 as it swam by northbound, and returning about half an hour later. The principal impression was how relaxed and unhurried the killers are, casually passing by the mass of lobos, like they were just out for a relaxed family swim. Some of the veterans demonstrate the move for the greenhorns, and they always help the youngsters get back into the water if needed with a bump or a shove. Dry runs like these are common and seem to help the hunters get some reps even if they don’t result in a full seal meal.

Little help?

Straight up it’s an invigorating display of nature at its’ wildest, and induces lots of visitors to come back over and over to see it again. I got lucky, going one for one, but guarantee my return next season for, so far, the best show ever.

Vital Information:

http://www.puertopiramides.gov.ar/index.html

www.orca-puntanorte.com