Exploring Peninsula Valdes, Puerto Madryn and Punto Tombo by Car

by 17 Jun, 2019

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As the name suggets, Peninsula Valdes is a land mass that juts out from the mainland of Argentina. Located in North East Patagonia, it’s one of the most stunning and unique wildlife havens in the world.

The almost-island is anchored by a thin strip of land that creates two gulfs, Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San Jose. Its special geography and the protection it provides has made it a sanctuary for all kinds of amazing animals.

Seals on Peninsula Valdes

Peninsula Valdes is well renowned as one of the best whale watching destinations in the world. Orcas swim right up onto the beaches to snatch baby seals and sea lions from the huge colonies there. And there’s endless other incredible wildlife to keep your eyes peeled for.

Combined with the nearby Puerto Madryn and Punto Tombo, the area makes the perfect location for a kickass road trip. This post is going to run through everything you need to know about exploring this magical part of Argentina.

We’ll cover how long to spend here, where to base yourself and recommend the best accommodation. You’ll get top tips on how to hire a decent car and safety pointers for driving on the unpaved roads. Plus what wildlife to look out for and when’s best to see it.

Penguin Punta Tombo Argentina

Here’s all the info you’ll need on exploring Peninsula Valdes, Puerto Madryn and Punto Tombo by car.

How Long to Spend Exploring Peninsula Valdes and the Surrounding Area

If you want to see as much wildlife as possible, you’re gonna need at least a few days here. Even if, like for many visitors, it’s the whales that are the draw, there’s so much more to explore.

Because of this, getting your hands on a car is by far the best way to see the area. It gives you huge amounts of freedom and it’s also way cheaper than the alternative of booking onto multiple tours.

Regardless of where you choose to stay, everything is within roughly a 3-4 hour drive. But trying to fit it all into a single day or even a couple of days will be virtually impossible. Not to mention absolutely knackering.

Ideally you should allow a minimum of a day to explore Peninsula Valdes itself. In addition to this, if you’re here during whale season you’ll want time to do a whale watching tour. Then you need a day or two to check out the rest of the area.

Firstly there’s the town of Puerto Madryn with its promenade and wide beaches. Then a visit to see the penguins in Punto Tombo is a must. You should also hit Trelew and the surrounding towns to discover their Welsh origins. And maybe even take another boat trip from the port of Rawson to see the Commerson’s Dolphins.

Commerson’s Dolphins Boat Trip From Rawson Port

We spent 3 nights in the area and we’d recommend you doing the same as a minimum. But if you have time, 5 days is ideal.

Where’s Best to Stay for Visiting Peninsula Valdes

The first thing you’ll need to decide is where’s the best base for you to explore Peninsula Valdes from. There are a few different options for places to stay that are ideal for visiting Peninsula Valdes.

Which one you choose will depend on how many days you have, budget and what you’re planning on doing. It’s also possible to spend a few days in each of them if you have more time.

Here are your main options:

Puerto Piramides

This funky little town is the only one on Peninsula Valdes and actually lies within the protected park area. Its permanent residents number less than 500 and you can drive around the entire town in a matter of minutes.

Though the majority of the economy is based on tourism, thankfully the town’s not been “Disneyfied”. While you’ll find restaurants, mini mercados, bars and tour shops, it’s still got that small town vibe. It’s laid back, a bit quirky, but the focus is firmly on the nature.

The town is built around a wide, enclosed stretch of sand beach that’s littered with fossils. During the season it’s even possible to spot whales right from the shores.

Puerto Piramides

This is the ideal place to stay to explore Peninsula Valdes if you’re planning on spending a few days here. It means you don’t have a two hour drive from either Puerto Madryn or Trelew in the morning.

There are hotels, hostels, and also a campsite meaning there’s accommodation to suit any budget and style. Because it’s so small it’s best to book early as accommodation gets full fast. To the point that if you know the dates you’re gonna be there we’d suggest booking today.

Our top pick for where to stay in Puerto Piramides is the stunning Oceano Patagonia Wild Coast Residence. It’s a gorgeous, luxurious, eco-friendly apart-hotel in a prime location overlooking the main beach. Click here to check prices and availability now.

Puerto Piramides whale watching

Alternatively, for a more mid-range budget check out Hospedaje La Posta. It’s a collection of funky little individual bungalows just 40m from the beach run by super friendly staff. Click here to check prices and availability now.

Puerto Madryn

Puerto Madryn is one of the main cities in the province of Chubut. It’s a lot bigger than Puerto Piramides but most of the action is centred around its seafront walkway.

The long promenade runs between the town and well used beach. The wide, sweeping stretch of sand makes it a popular vacation spot in its own right during the summer.

Puerto Madryn Beach

Along the promenade and the adjacent streets you’ll find numerous restaurants, bars, clubs and shops. But while it’s a nice enough city, it would be pretty unremarkable were it not for the nearby wildlife.

If you’re in this area for a limited period of time but want to explore more than just Peninsula Valdes then staying here is a good idea. It’s centrally located to visit all of the local natural attractions plus you have endless accommodation and entertainment options.

Puerto Madryn is an extremely popular tourist destination, particularly among Argentines. Because of this the best accommodations get booked up far in advance. Book as early as possible to avoid disappointment.

Our top pick for where to stay in Puerto Madryn is the classy Hotel Territorio. With panoramic views of the Nuevo Golf. It’s also equipped with a wellness spa and gym. It’s close enough to the centre that you’re within walking distance but far enough removed for a total escape. Click here to check prices and availability now.

Alternatively, for a more mid-range budget check out the stylish Hotel Piren. Right in the heart of the city, it’s close to restaurants and bars as well as the promenade and beach. Plus every room of this modern hotel boasts ocean views. Click here to check prices and availability now.

Trelew

This town is famous largely due to its considerable Welsh roots. Settlers from this tiny British country were instrumental in helping to establish Trelew towards the end of the 19th century. The name itself is derived from one of the original Welsh founders, “Lewis”, combined with the welsh for town, “tref”.

The main reason people visit is to explore the Welsh link, and in particular visit one of the Welsh teahouses. They serve wide selections of traditional cakes, pies and sandwiches, washed down with, unsurprisingly, gallons of tea. And take our advice and just order one between two. There. Is. So. Much. Cake.

Welsh Tea Room in Trelew

To be frank, the town itself is nothing remarkable and there’s very little of interest for visitors. However, Trelew has a couple of things going for it that might make it a worthy base for exploring Peninsula Valdes from.

The main international airport in the region is in Trelew. If you’re arriving by plane it’s the closest option for somewhere to stay nearby. This is particularly useful if your flight arrives late in the evening and you’re not up for a longer journey.

Trelew is also extremely close to both Rawson and Punta Tombo. While both are also reachable from Puerto Madryn, they’re far closer to Trelew making it more convenient.

The port town of Rawson is the best starting place for boat tours to see Commerson’s dolphins. Unique to the Southern Cone, this species of Commerson’s dolphins are black and white and resemble mini Orcas.

Magellanic penguin nests

Punta Tombo is where you’ll find the world’s largest colony of Magellanic penguins. The area is just packed with thousands upon thousands of these fascinating little birds. We’ll go into more detail on Punta Tombo below.

Hiring a Car in Puerto Madryn or Trelew

If you don’t have your own set of wheels then the best way to explore Peninsula Valdes is to hire a car. While there are tours and it’s also possible to hitchhike in this area, there’s no public transport that will take you on the peninsula.

When to Book Your Hire Car

The first thing you need to know about hiring a car for Peninsula Valdes is they get booked up early. Particularly in high season, demand far outstrips supply, so if you don’t book in advance you will end up disappointed.

We visited in late summer, around the end of March when the season begins to wrap up. Because of this we hadn’t even considered that it might be difficult to book a hire car.

We quickly found out that none of the big rental companies had any left whatsoever.

This sent us into a bit of a panicked tailspin. Our only other option would be to go on numerous expensive tours, not how we wanted to explore Peninsula Valdes.

Fortunately we found out about a local hostel owner who rents out a pair of cars as a side business. He had a car available for us at really short notice which got us out of a hole.

Exploring Peninsula Valdes By Car

However, we’d still recommend booking far in advance. And while we love to support local businesses, we’d also only recommend using his services if you’re in a bind.

The reason for this is that we had a little hiccup with a flat tyre (very common on these roads). Without going into too much detail, we weren’t too pleased with how he handled it. It was a simple solution in the end but he could have made it a lot easier and less stressful.

If you have tried other options and are stuck, send us a message and we’ll forward his details.

Best Locations to Pick Up the Car From

Depending on where you’re staying or arriving into, there are two locations convenient to pick your car up from.

The first is Puerto Madryn centre and most of the rental companies are bunched together along the promenade.

The second is Trelew Airport which is where you’ll likely arrive if you’re flying in.

Tips for Driving Around Peninsula Valdes

The roads in and around Peninsula Valdes are very poor. The majority within the park itself are gravel meaning they’re slippy, stones go flying, and there are tyre channels. This is also the case at Punta Tombo and many other smaller destinations in the region.

The driving conditions are genuinely pretty tricky and we had a couple of scares along the way. But with just a few simple, sensible precautions you can significantly limit your risk.

Drive Slowly

The speed limit is 60km per hour within the Peninsula Valdes Park, stick to it. It will reduce the likelihood of cracked windscreens, flat tyres, and more serious accidents.

The risk of sliding off the road and turning over is very real and driving slowly is the best way to prevent it.

Gravel Road Warnings in Punta Tombo

Don’t Make Any Sudden Movements

There are lots of wild animals in the park including guanaco, sheep, armadillos and more. For some reason, many like to play in the road. If they happen to run into your path, don’t swerve.

Instead, brake gradually and maintain your path. They will more than likely get out of the road in time and you won’t end up overturning the car.

Consider the Wind When Parking

The wind can get pretty violent on Peninsula Valdes with strong gusts occurring frequently. Park at the wrong angle and you may find the door being taken clean off when you attempt to get out. Seriously they are that strong.

Hire a Decent Set of Wheels

Unlike some of the advice you’ll read, you absolutely do not need a 4×4 to navigate Peninsula Valdes’s roads. However, I also wouldn’t recommend attempting it in a tiny, crappy tin can on wheels.

Go for something mid range with a little clearance as the tyre channels can get quite big. It’s very easy to scrape the bottom of the car if it’s too low.

Before you take the rental out of the lot, have a thorough check and take photos of the vehicle. Make sure the tyres are all fully pumped up as well. All of this will make driving Peninsula Valdes a lot easier.

Hiring a Car in Puerto Madryn

Get Car Hire Excess Insurance Beforehand

If anything happens to the car, you’re liable to pay the first part of any claim, or the excess. This is usually true even if your rental agreement includes Collision Damage Waiver or third party liability insurance.

Rental companies charge a huge amount for excess insurance and usually try and tag it at the rental desk. Often it costs more than the actual price of the rental itself.

The solution? Standalone policies cost just a couple of bucks a day. Alternatively you can get annual policies for really low rates. These can work out cheaper if you’re renting the car for longer or on multiple occasions.

Also worth knowing, rental companies’ standard policies usually leave some bits of the car uncovered, like windscreens and the undercarriage. But these are the exact two bits most likely to get damaged when driving around Peninsula Valdes.

The best car hire excess insurance policies provide you with extra insurance cover for the whole car. Plus you’ll be covered for theft or damage.

We never hire a car without first getting car hire excess insurance to make sure our backs are covered.

Peninsula Valdes Information

When you drive onto Peninsula Valdes, you’ll pass through a checkpoint where you need to pay an entrance fee. It’s open 24 hours.

We paid $650 ARS ( $15 USD / £12 GBP) per person plus $80 ARS ($2 USD / £1.50 GBP) for the vehicle. They’ll also give you a map & some other leaflets with interesting wildlife information.

If you are staying overnight in Puerto Piramides you will only need to pay this once. We also heard there is a discounted rate for a second day entry if you are not, but choose to go back the next consecutive day.

A short while after the checkpoint, before you reach Puerto Piramides, you’ll come to a visitors centre and ranger station. Stop here to find out from the ranges the times of high tide.

Peninsula Valdes high tide times

This is important because, although is possible to see them at all times of day, the whales and orcas are much closer during high tide. And the two hours either side of high tide are the best time to spot them.

Armed with that info you’ll know what driving route to take. You should make as early a start as possible because the high tides tend to be quite early, between 8-10am. And be prepared to wait around to spot them.

Peninsula Valdes Wildlife

Though it’s most famous for its marine life, wildlife encounters on Peninsula Valdes are by no means limited to just sea animals.

Here’s some more information on whale and orca spotting, plus a taste of some other exciting creatures you can expect to see and when to see them.

Peninsula Valdes Whales

Best time to see whales in Peninsula Valdes: June – December

Peninsula Valdes is rightly renowned as one of the world’s best locations for whale spotting. The species of whale found here is the majestic Southern Right Whale.

Southern Right Whale Infomation

They grow up to around 20 metres long and can weigh up to a whopping 80 tonnes. They’re extremely entertaining performing spectacular acrobatic displays that including breaching, tail sailing and even headstands.

At the right time of year, it’s possible to see these incredible right beasts from the beaches of Puerto Piramides, Nuevo Gulf and San Jose Gulf.

Bienvenidos A Puerto Piramides Sign

However, the best way to get up close and personal with the Southern Right Whale is on a boat tour.

You’ll be taken to the spots where they usually hang out giving you a better chance of seeing them. The English speaking guides will also give you loads of great info on the sea-life here.

The best tours are the smaller group ones as you get a more personal experience. This tour has a maximum of 15 people aboard the boat:

Peninsula Valdes Orcas

Best time to see orcas in Peninsula Valdes: October – November, March – April

Also famous in this area are the Peninsula Valdes Orcas. The main reason people get so excited about them is for the unbelievable hunting behaviours they display.

Peninsula Valdes Orcas

The Peninsula Valdes Orcas like to come right onto the sand to snatch baby seals and sea lions off the beach. They literally catch a wave in, stranding themselves in the process, and attempt to grab newborn seals and sea lions.

Peninsula Valdes Orcas Hunting Seals on Beach

They’re not always successful, especially when the adults are giving the younguns lessons on how it’s done. But just seeing a huge sea animal hunting on land is a strange and incredible sight.

We saw them at the northern most point of Peninsula Valdes, Punta Norte, but it is also possible to see them at the midpoint of the peninsula at Punta Cantor.

Peninsula Valdes Elephant Seals

Best time to see elephant seals in Peninsula Valdes: August – November, February – May

Unfortunately we didn’t spot any while we exploring Peninsula Valdes, but that because the time we visited was during their foraging period at sea.

Their fasting periods on shore, when they are fighting and mating or moulting takes place between August – November and February – May respectively.

The colossal adult males can weigh up to 3,000 kg and they have huge bulbous snouts, literally making them look like a cross between an elephant and a seal.

Elephant seal skulls on Peninsula Valdes

In season, the best place to see elephant seals on Peninsula Valdes is Punta Delgada, the bottom right tip.

The place were they are is however on private land, owned by restaurant. So you’ll need to have lunch there or pay an extra fee to be allowed access to the viewpoint points.

They are also usually spotted at Punta Norte and between Caleta Valdes and Punta Cantor usually too, just further away.

Peninsula Valdes Sea Lions

Best time to see sea lions in Peninsula Valdes: November – May

Similar looking to seals, at least from a distance anywhere, sea lions are a completely different species. Characterised by their loud barking you can hear them from miles away.

They also walk on all fours using their large front flippers which is how you can tell them apart from the seals, because seals wriggle on their bellies on land. Sea lions also have visible ear flaps, whereas seals do not.

You’ll see and hear them at various points all over Peninsula Valdes but the most notable colonies are at Punta Norte and Punta Pirámide.

Sea Lion Colony at Punta Pyramids on Peninsula Valdes

Peninsula Valdes Penguins

Best time to see penguins in Peninsula Valdes: September – April

There are vast colonies of penguins all over this part of Argentina, it’s virtually impossible to miss them. The species found here is called the Magellanic penguin.

Magellanic Penguin Patagonia Argentina

They’re relatively small, standing at around 2 feet, and they have really comical mannerisms. They’re great fun to observe and are pretty inquisitive, although it’s important for their welfare not to get too close.

On Peninsula Valdes there are various places you can stop off to see them along the coast. You’ll see them signposted as you drive around.

Punta Tombo

The other great place to see enormous colonies of penguins in the region is Punta Tombo National Reserve. The long, narrow peninsula has a dedicated visitor centre and protected park that’s home to what seems like millions of the little fellas.

Magellanic penguin colony

The park is well laid out and the newly built visitor centre has a museum and cafe on site. There is a fee of $400 ARS each ($9.20 USD / £7.30 GBP) to enter the park. And it’s around a 3 hour drive south from Puerto Madryn, through Trelew i.e. the opposite direction to Peninsula Valdes.

As you wander along the dedicated walkways you’re literally surrounded by them nesting in the small shrubs and burrows. Then by the water you’ll be able to see them swimming and diving and sunbathing.

Magellanic penguin close up Patagonia

Common Land Animals and Birds on Peninsula Valdes

The sea-life is undoubtedly the main attraction in Peninsula Valdes and the reason most people visit. However, there are also lots of interesting land animals and birds to keep your eye out for.

Guanaco: These are the wild relatives of the domesticated llama and there’s a huge population in the area. They’re super cute with their fluffy coats and tiny heads and you can’t fail to spot some.

Armadillo: The local species is called the Dwarf Armadillo and have hairy shells. They’re not hugely common but we managed to spot one on Peninsula Valdes.

Flamingos: There’s a large colony of vibrant pink flamingos on Peninsula Valdes, on and around Isla de los Pájaros. You can’t get too close to them but can see them clearly and there are even binoculars installed around a small visitor centre for a better look.

Flamingos at Peninsula Valdes Patagonia

Foxes: The Patagonian Grey Fox is pretty elusive but you may catch a glimpse if you get lucky.

Birds: There are numerous species of interesting birds around Peninsula Valdes. These include Peregrine Falcons, Eagles, Vultures and many more.

Animal Welfare Peninsula Valdes

When visiting the Peninsula Valdes wildlife it is important to not get too close to them or interfere with their activities. You are after all a visitor in their natural habitat.

And so you can only park in the designated carparks and must stick to the assigned walkways. You can’t just park your car anyway and start wandering around.

If you’re in any doubt or have any concerns about animal welfare on Peninsula Valdes there are plenty of rangers that are on hand for advice.

Peninsula Valdes Facilities

Aswell as the restaurants in the town of Puerto Pirámides, there is a cafe at Punta Norte, and restaurants at Caleta Valdés and Punta Delgada. We ate at the restaurant at Caleta Valdés and it was nice enough if not a little pricey.

If you’re on a budget it will be best to take a packed lunch. And either way take snacks and drinks because you can be waiting a while for the orcas or whales to show up.

The cafe and restaurants obviously have toilets but there are bathroom facilities at both the visitors centre and the Punta Pirámdes and Isla de los Pájaros viewing points.

Isla de los Pajaros Peninsula Valdes Argentina

Don’t Forget Your Travel Insurance

While Peninsula Valdes and the surrounding areas are relatively safe, accidents do happen. We’d never go anywhere without travel insurance and neither should you.

World Nomads is our preferred choice for great cover and a no bullshit approach, grab yourself a quick quote below:

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