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

Cabo Polonio, Bona Fide Best of Uruguay

There may well be other places like this, a scruffy village of dwellings on a cape which seems like it’s from another time, but I haven’t seen any. Most locations remind you of some other place that has some similarities, but I have yet to ever meet anybody who’s been able to name one for here. It has a vibe all its own in a site that provokes photo frenzies and futile attempts at worthy descriptions. Hard to get to, harder to leave, and always generating plans for the next return trip. This is the effect this cape produces, and not many are immune to the spell.

Beasties basking beneath the beacon

It started off long ago, like many on Uruguay’s Atlantic coast, as a fishing village. There were, and still are, multitudes of Sea Lions here, which resulted in thousands being slaughtered for their pelts. The shipwrecks off this treacherous point are many and legendary, so the history of the place is bountiful. The blonde bombshell and animal rights activist Bridget Bardot was instrumental in ending the sea lion slaughter, and now there are, once again, loads of the beasties, often barking up a storm.

A view from the classic lighthouse

Now it’s an actual national park, protected  territory, and all visitors are encouraged to do their best to keep it clean and semi pristine. There’s a modern visitors center, with excellent historical information and a colossal map on the floor to illustrate where you’re bound. After paying to board a whopper of an all terrain vehicle to roll 7 kilometers through sand dunes and coastal forest to reach the village. The option to walk is available, but very few do, as most can’t wait to get there.

These big shuttles are how most visitors get to Polonio nowadays

And there is something else: an ultra rustic village with no electricity that’s not generated from solar panels, wind turbines, or gas generators. Besides the well worn track that the giant shuttles roll in on, there are really no streets, just sandy paths and passageways. Quite a few multicolored cabins, houses, and other structures, and many absolutely ramshackle, as if put together out of a scrap bin. The funkiest community of houses and cabins in one place ever seen, with dogs, chickens, horses and hippies running wild.

Horses run free here, along with everything else

And what a lighthouse, one of a network on this coast that are situated every 20 miles or so.

Vintage, great looking and still kicks ass

This beauty offers a stupefying  360 vista of the cape and everything this side of the horizon, including the expansive lair of the sea lions. To the north lie the lofty dunes that border the woods and stretch for kilometers to the closest settlement of Valizas. Southward, miles of immaculate empty beach for many miles. Cabo Polonio has become the preferred getaway for urban dwellers in 3 countries, and fills up with them every January. Vacancies are meager and lodging rates as high as they get. Nevertheless, it’s the best place you could possibly be at that time of year.

South Beach in low season is a gem even if empty

The rest of the year it usually only gets bustling on warm weekends, and during the cold winter months, it’s a virtual ghost town. The hamlet has 3 named neighborhoods, though I visited for years without hearing any mention of them.

The serene Playa de los Huevos just up the coast

I prefer to order them by geography: Calaveras Beach, extending towards the dunes to the north; South Beach, on the other side of the peninsula reaching in the direction of the next town, La Pedrera; and the grassy peninsula between these two which is filled with granite boulders. The actual ‘town’, more of a hamlet than anything, is situated in this middle area. This is where most of the commercial businesses are, the hostels, cafes, shops, and now, 3 small grocery stores.

This is the main commercial drag

Calaveras Beach, facing east, has the strongest surf while South Beach facing almost due south is much more gentle. Most of the dwellings above South Beach are painted white and appear to be more solid and upscale than the rest, with a few exceptions. Many of these pads are available for rent and are among the most expensive and swank in the area.

These white cabins are some of the choicest on the cape

The village center sports the most accommodations and without doubt the cheapest. There are also a few hostels and B&B’s facing Calaveras Beach. Many of the places to stay close up in the low season, which lasts from May through November, and for the ones that stay open, this is the economical season. Hostel World lists just 3 places that are operating in the off season, but this number probably triples during the summer. Rates that are $10 per bunk can easily triple in January, when Cabo is full blast.

On the rocks, with hammock of course

There are some extra funky digs back away from the beach situated close to the dunes, and some of these can be rented as well, although the methods of contact are usually word of mouth. Those dunes are great fun to wander around, offering sensational views of the entire cape, and I’ve found sizable pools of fresh water here after rainy days, a special, ephemeral treat. One of the popular diversions is to hike the trail from Cabo to the neighboring town of Valizas, first starting on the beach and then winding inland through the dunes. This can take 2 to 3 hours depending on energy and time demands, and a 2 mile longer route follows the coast line the entire way, past a superb beach called Playa de Los Huevos (egg beach), directly below the prominent rocky overlook known as Buena Vista. This ramble as a round trip day hike will probably be too much of a physical challenge for most people to enjoy, but there are plenty who do it.

Buena Vista hill between Cabo and Valizas

I’ve gone to Cabo for just a day, and I’ve made the trip to stay just a night, and neither of these are what I would recommend. Two nights even seems a bit rushed, and I have friends who won’t even consider staying less than two weeks. Generally speaking, the longer the better, as the state of absolute relaxation and disregard for time is enhanced by the day. Four nights is quite de-stressing, and this provides enough time to do everything desired. It used to be the rule to bring as many supplies, food and drink with you as possible, but besides a few essential items, Cabo this is no longer the case. With 3 grocery stores that sell most items at a reasonable cost, including wine and liquor, specialty products now make the most sense. Because of the absence of electricity, locals rely on candlelight for lost illumination, so long burning candles serve a practical need. When there is rain, there are mosquitoes, so repellent is exceedingly valuable at times as well, although most places have nets. Another essential commodity is suntan lotion, as the big light in the sky is powerful and relentless. One of the features of  Cabo Polonio is the lack of trees, so getting out of the sun is not so easy in hot weather. Therefore a hat is an important thing to have, and sometimes the only shade around. I would advise anybody to bring what they can comfortably carry, and I have made the trip toting several bottles of wine and specialty snacks. If you’re a fan of marijuana, now legal in Uruguay, definitely bring your own, as it is scarce and expensive.

This stretch of the Uruguay coast is pristine and primo

Driving to the entrance station is no problem, but cars are not allowed on the road through the dunes to the village. This absence of traffic is another of the positive attributes of the park, both for the lack of noise and relaxed surroundings. Parking is available and there is a daily charge. Since there are few vehicles allowed, and almost all either ‘grandfathered in’ or work trucks, it makes sense to take a bus and just get dropped off, saving the parking fee. Rutas del Sol makes three arrivals and pick ups each day, more in high season, and they can be booked and boarded at the main bus terminal at Tres Cruces in Montevideo. The cost is around US$40 for the 270 kilometer, 4 1/2 hour ride.

No matter  how you arrive, just make sure you do. Cabo Polonio has been my favorite place in Uruguay since I first visited, and years later, it still is. I make it every year regardless, and it’s a must see for every foreign visitor who comes here. I can’t recommend it when the weather is wet and stormy, but any other time it will be worth the effort. It’s a word that’s frequently overused, and almost a cliche, but Cabo Polonio is one of the rare places that is, no question, MAGIC.

One of the best places in the world to do absolutely nothing