A wild and treeless tag of land, loosely linked to the Argentinian mainland and reaching out into the South Atlantic, the Península Valdés is a UNESCO-registered nature reserve that’s home to a large variety of species. It’s of special appeal to anyone interested in marine wildlife, particularly whales, which throng here in the austral winter (the Northern Hemisphere’s summer).
With 400 km (249 miles) of shoreline, the peninsula is an untamed mass of coastal lagoons, mudflats, sandy and pebble beaches, sand dunes and wetlands. The latter form important nesting sites for migratory seabirds, while the beaches can be busy with southern elephant seals and southern sea lions.
A four-hour drive south of the peninsula, things get wilder still. Bahía Bustamente and the Peninsula Gravina cosset an isolated and near-immaculate ecosystem. Here, petrified forests sit alongside a desert-like coastline and shell-strewn beaches, while offshore islands house thriving populations of Magellanic penguins.
You’ll explore both these areas with guides on safari-style expeditions. Due to the scant human population, the wildlife here is fearless, sometimes venturing quite close to you: a feature that often earns the region comparisons with the Galapagos Islands.
On the Península Valdés, guanacos, rheas and armadillos roam the land, while orcas and southern right whales come to breed offshore. At Punta Tombo, you’ll find a noisy colony of Magellanic penguins, indigenous to the area.
You can stay on the isthmus itself, or base yourself in the town of Puerto Madryn, which in 1865 was the site of the first Welsh landing in the area. The legacy of those settlers remains today in the form of Welsh-speakers, tea rooms and Eisteddfods (competitive festivals of music and poetry).
Journeying south over dirt roads (roughly a three-hour drive from Trelew Airport), you come to the private reserve of Bahía Bustamente. There’s a profusion of wildlife almost straight away: just driving through the reserve you’re likely to see rabbits, Maras sheep, gray foxes and guanacos.
Moving between pastureland, desert terrain and gorges, Bahía Bustamente is topographically volatile. It spills into a splintered coastline of capes, bays and headlands bright with green algae and nutrient-rich waters.
A private reserve that welcomes only 18 or so guests at a time, Bahía Bustamente started off life as a seaweed factory and workers’ village. Since then, the factory owners’ descendants have turned it into a wildlife reserve-come-retreat — though farming and seaweed processing still remains the area’s main source of income. The whole place has an undiscovered, end-of-the-world feel.
There’s a lot to see here, both in the lodge’s private lands, on nearby Peninsula Gravina, and on tiny islands (only accessible through Bahía Bustamente Lodge). You can walk on beaches strewn with whale fossils and littered with the discarded remains of shellfish once consumed by the indigenous Mapuche people.
Offshore, you can visit more Magellanic penguin colonies (they can be 100,000 penguins strong) and the Vernaci Islands, which are brimming with birdlife: we’ve counted giant petrels, steamer ducks, caracaras, ibis and oystercatchers.
Back on land, a petrified forest contains rocks with bubble formations (originally from Africa, when the continents were joined) and a petrified trunk still bearing the marks of the velociraptor that clawed at it. A rock canyon, sheltered from the merciless Patagonian wind, shelters rare grey-horned owls.
You’re not limited to exploring via safari, either: you can also ride the property’s lands with its resident gauchos.
Nor is Bahía Bustamente Lodge the only place to stay. Estancia Rincón Chico is an upmarket alternative, if you’re looking for an extra level of comfort, and its owners are exceptional hosts.
Best time to visit Península Valdés
You can spot southern right whales during their breeding season between June and December, while orcas can be seen from November through to April. August to October is the best time to observe elephant seals on the Península Valdés.
Penguin-wise, the first fluffy chicks appear from November and take to the water (de-fluffed) from January. Towards the end of March and into April, the penguin population begins to ready for its migration north to Brazil.
If you time your visit between November and April, you should be able to see most species. If you’re serious about seeing whales, though, the very best sightings occur in the austral winter (June, July and August), closer to Puerto Madryn.
This being Patagonia, the weather can be unpredictable whenever you go.
Map of Península Valdés
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Each year from June to November the southern right whales pass the Valdes Peninsula offering spectacular opportunities to get close to these giants.View details