We’re in coastal Patagonia with the hopes of seeing penguins, dolphins, and whales — all of which should be around this time of year. There are two big wildlife reserves here — Peninsula Valdes to the north (known for whales and elephant seals) and Punta Tombo to the south (the world’s largest colonly of Magellanic Penguins). We’ve also been told there are good dolphin-watching opportunities nearby, and we should try to combine this into our trip to the penguin reserve.
Short story for those just interested in the animals: we saw the penguins and dolphins and both were endearing. The dolphins we saw are Commerson’s dolphins, which are tiny, live here year around, and are called “toninas” by the Argentinians; other larger dolphin species (“delfines”) show up in the summer but aren’t here yet. The toninas were easy to spot, and obligingly playful, swimming near our boat, and surfing the bow waves from our and other boats. The penguins in the Punta Tombo colony are Magellanic penguins, about 2 feet tall, fairly lazy, and fairly willing to ignore humans traipsing through their nesting areas. We spent a few hours watching them, sleeping in their nests, standing up and stretching and standing still for 10s of minutes at a time, going through a wake-up grooming ritual that looks a lot like humans brushing their teeth — hey, penguins are easy to anthropomorphize — and occasionally waddling around.
Longer story with advice for anyone who might be trying this trip themselves:
The guidebooks we’re using are both heavily biased towards using Puerto Madryn as a base for visiting these areas, but we decided to stay in Trelew first, for three reasons: it’s closer to the penguin reserve, it’s got the airport we’re flying into, and being less recommended by guidebooks it’ll be less full of guidebook-toting tourists.
So, then, here we are in Trelew trying to figure out how best to visit Punta Tombo, but this turns out to be not incredibly obvious, either from guidebook advice or internet searches (hmm, maybe this is why the guidebooks advise going to Puerto Madryn).
It seems we have 3 basic options: a guided tour package, a taxi hired for the day, or renting a car and going by ourselves. The taxi that picked us up from the airport mentioned they do all-day tours to Punta Tombo for a fixed price of AR$480, so that’s our starting point.
Looking for tours, it seems like most of what’s available starts in Puerto Madryn and not Trelew. Using guidebook advice, we find one company starting in Trelew but they’re not running a tour today. Finally our hotel front desk finds one; it’s AR$180 per person, and visits the penguin reserve, Gaiman for Welsh tea, and the dinosaur museum. So a group tour: nearly the same price, takes us other places we didn’t want to go, doesn’t visit the dolphins, and leaves only about 1 hour with the penguins.
We ruled out renting a car because I didn’t feel like driving all day.
That left us back with the taxi option, and since now we know it doesn’t cost that much more than a package tour (for 2 people — and for 3 or 4 people, it would actually be cheaper), plus lets us go at our own pace, stay with the penguins as long as we want, and work the dolphins into the itinerary too, it’s the clear winner.
Next up: bus to Puerto Madryn, rent a car, and drive into Peninsula Valdes to see the whales and elephant seals.