Last updated on January 11, 2024
As with most of our Patagonia trip, to risk or not to risk was the question with Puerto Madryn. The southern right whales arrive around June, and we were going to be there at the end of May/first week of June. There was no guarantee they’d be there. This would have been an easy choice if it weren’t for the fact that El Chalten – Puerto Madryn – Mendoza (our next destination) involves two nearly 24-hour bus trips, and to fly to Mendoza would have cost the same. There was no way to know if our journey would be fruitless, but the possibility of whales made it a risk worth taking. So off we went on our epic bus ride.
On our first day in Puerto Madryn, the whale watching boats weren’t sailing due to bad weather but, according to trusty WindGuru (perhaps the most accurate forecast ever) two days later would be fine.
We passed the time in-between enjoying the company of our fellow couchsurfer Erin, our awesome host Mariano and his wonderful musical friends. We even had a vegetarian asado, and gorged on tea and sweetness in little Wales. When Monday came, we were already pleased with our detour as it had brought us to such lovely people.
When to go whale watching in Puerto Madryn
We knew the whales had started to arrive as Mariano’s friends had seen some from the shoreline in town just the week before. This is pretty lucky in May/June but almost guaranteed in the busy season.
We had opted to go on a tour with Viento Sur which would pick us up from Mariano’s house, drive us to a prime whale watching spot, stop at the museum and then take us to Puerto Pirimades where the boats leave from. We’re not huge fans of tours but the do-it-yourself option involved either missing the whale watching spot or hiring a 4×4 (the roads aren’t made for normal cars and buses/taxis won’t go there). Luckily for us, it turned out our tour group was just the three of us plus our awesome guide Juan.
It was an early start at around 8:30 but it meant we got to catch the early morning sunrise. We peered out the window at the sea, willing every splash to be a whale.
After a bumpy ride with lots of bums-off-seat moments, we reached the vast stretch of coastal road where whales commonly gather in the deep waters.
Juan sent us out of the car and pointed at a spot in the distance.We stared out, desperately trying to see something.
Then, there in the distance, we saw something surface. Cue lots of hyper excitement. How were we going to cope on the boat if they came closer?!
The road continued for another hour or so, Juan occasionally screeching to a halt at the sight of another whale or beautiful viewpoint.
Along the way we stopped at the Peninsula Valdes visitor centre along the way, where we marvelled at the size of this massive whale skeleton. Look at its hands…
…and these are what remain of the whale’s ancestors’ leg bones.
From the tower, we could see out to both sides of the peninsula. On one side was a small island, which apparently inspired Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s description of a hat or ‘boa swallowing an elephant’ in The Little Prince. He flew as a postal manager in the area from 1929-1931.
As we approached the tiny town of Puerto Piramides, we took a quick detour to see a riotous colony of seals.
We could have watched their hilarious antics all day.
At the viewpoint we met a family. We’d passed their van along the way, and it turned out they’d driven it all the way from Canada. Erin declared them her heroes, and we were all pretty impressed.
Next stop was the main event – the boat ride. We got in a low-lying catamaran with about 10 other people, eagerly anticipating what we might see. After less than five minutes from shore, the captain stopped the boats motors and our guide pointed off to the right. There was a whale, surfacing its back with a seagull cheekily trying to take a ride.
We stayed transfixed for some time before heading further from the shore. In the distance we could see more giants, their tails and spray announcing their presence.
Soon we came closer to a whale than we’d ever been before. It breathed and, at at one point, we saw a rainbow appear amid the spray. I’m afraid we didn’t catch that on camera.
The boat was silent as everyone watched in awe and excited glee, as the whale gradually danced its way towards us.
The movement was mind-blowingly graceful for a creature of its size.
It would surface intermittently…
…before diving and displaying its tail.
The whale came so close we could almost touch it.
Eventually it was time to head back. The experience of being that close to such peaceful, magnificent creatures was deeply humbling and made us all incredibly curious about these gentle, intelligent mammals.
On our way back to Puerto Madryn, we listened contentedly as Juan answered our questions on whales and occasionally stopped to point out some Peninsula Valdes wildlife, like the guanacos above, or more whales in the distance.
We finished our day content in the knowledge that 48 hours on a bus was more than worth the price to pay for being in the presence of such awesome creatures. If you get the chance to go whale watching, don’t miss it. It’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. Excellent splendour of the universe indeed.
Useful info on whale watching
- When we tried to book our tour, we were told we had two options – to either take the bus ourselves and arrange a boat trip in Puerto Piramides, or go on a day-long organised tour that would take almost 10 hours. Half of that time would be spent wildlife spotting around Peninsula Valdes. As our main priority was to see whales, we asked if we could skip out the second half of the day. The tour company agreed and we were given a slightly reduced price of 470 pesos including the boat trip.
- If you take the bus to Puerto Piramides yourself, you miss out the coastal road and whale watching from the shore. Taxis and buses don’t go to that spot but you can hire a car. A 4×4 is recommended as the road is pretty rough.
- It’s possible to stay in tiny Puerto Piramides. I imagine it would be a great thing to do in warmer weather when you could camp and potentially hear the whales at night.