PENÍNSULA VALDÉS, a sandy-beige, treeless hump of land connected to the mainland by a 35km isthmus, is one of the planet’s most significant marine reserves, winning deserved UNESCO World Heritage status in 1999. It was beautifully evoked by Gerald Durrell in The Whispering Land: “It was almost as if the peninsula and its narrow isthmus was a cul-de-sac into which all the wildlife of Chubut had drained and from which it could not escape.” No description, however, prepares you for the astonishing richness of the marine environment that surrounds it – most notably the southern right whales that migrate here each year to frolic in the waters off the village of Puerto Pirámides – nor the immense animal colonies that live at the feet of the peninsula’s steep, crumbly cliffs.
The first attempt to establish a permanent settlement here was made in 1779 by Juan de la Piedra, who constructed a fort on the shores of the Golfo San José. A small number of settlers tried to scrape a living by extracting salt, but the colony was abandoned in 1810 after attacks by the local Tehuelche; an extremely limited salt-extraction industry exists to this day in the saltpans at the bottom of Argentina’s second deepest depression, the Salina Grande, 42m below sea level, in the centre of the peninsula. However, it is nature tourism that’s the pot of gold now, with Punta Delgada, Punta Cantor and Punta Norte, along with Caleta Valdés bay, providing some of the best opportunities on the continent for viewing marine mammals such as elephant seals and sea lions. How the recent discovery of oil and shale gas reserves in the vicinity of the reserve will affect this remains unclear at present.
At the end of the asphalt road, 105km from Puerto Madryn, lies the tiny settlement of Puerto Pirámides, named after the pointed cliff at the mouth of the bay. This is the place for whale-watching: between June and mid-December the nearby waters are temporarily home to the most famous of all the peninsula’s visitors, the southern right whale. Few experiences beat the thrill of watching these massive animals approaching your boat, breaching (leaping out of the water) or jutting their tails above the surface as they dive to feed. There are also good diving opportunities for humans, with some trips attracting the attention of sea lions and whales, though it’s officially illegal to dive with whales; locals refer euphemistically to “excursiones especiales”. You can walk to the sea-lion colony (Jan is the best time) at Punta Pirámides, 5km round the headland to the northwest.