Sprawling along the beautiful sweep of the Golfo Nuevo, Argentina’s self-styled diving capital, Puerto Madryn, is the gateway to the ecological treasure-trove of Península Valdés; indeed, the superb Ecocentro, just east of town, makes a great introduction to the area’s abundant marine life. Though Puerto Madryn was where the Welsh first landed in Patagonia in 1865, little development took place until the arrival of the railway from Trelew two decades later, when it began to act as the port for the communities in the Lower Chubut Valley. With the explosion of tourism in recent years, Puerto Madryn has undergone rapid growth, and the town’s small permanent population swells exponentially during the summer months.
Puerto Madryn has a wide range of accommodation, with good discounts available off-season; high season (Oct–Dec), when prices are at their highest, is the best time for whale-watching. The better places tend to fill up quickly year-round, however, so advance bookings are recommended.
Although Puerto Madryn is known for its seafood and has several beachfront restaurants that serve nothing else – including the local speciality, arroz con mariscos, a variant of paella usually containing prawns, squid and clams – standards are mixed. Prices both here and in Patagonia as a whole are higher than in central and northern Argentina.
The Parque Histórico Punta Cuevas marks the first Welsh settlement in Patagonia with the Monumento al Indio Tehuelche, a statue erected both to celebrate the centenary of the arrival of the Welsh and pay homage to the Tehuelche, who provided invaluable help to the community. At sunset from here there is a glorious wide view of the arc of the Golfo Nuevo to the lights of the city. Close to the monument are the 3m-square foundations of the very first houses built by the pioneers, right above the high-water mark.
Just above the foundations is the small but fascinating Museo del Desembarco (Museum of Disembarkation), which tells the story of the Welsh arrival and their legacy in the region. Among the exhibits is a passenger list from the Mimosa, vintage sewing machines and mangles, and extracts from settler diaries.
Round the headland past the Monumento al Indio Tehuelche is Puerto Madryn’s prime attraction, the excellent Ecocentro. An interactive museum set up to promote respect and understanding for marine ecosystems, it also houses a stunning life-size model of the orca Mel, who became something of a local celebrity after being captured on film in various wildlife documentaries. Be sure to go up the tower as well, to relax on one of the comfy sofas while enjoying panoramic views of the bay. There’s also a lovely café.
The rather staid Museo del Hombre y el Mar is not in the same league as Ecocentro, but the location – in the elegant, turreted Chalet Pujol, which dates back to 1915 – is grand. Among the exhibits are whale bones, a fearsome giant squid, relics from Welsh pioneering days, ancient arrowheads and Tehuelche textiles. There’s also a mirador at the top with views across the city.
Top image: Puerto Madryn, Argentina whale watching © rm/Shutterstock