Viewing the wildlife of the Valdés Peninsula

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Guanaco

Guanaco

It was early morning in Puerto Madryn, a popular Argentinean beach resort and gateway to Valdés Peninsula National Park. Going through my day-pack, I established most things needed for my wildlife tour of the park were in place – sun glasses, wind- and- waterproof jacket, water bottle, camera, but alas, no binoculars. It could only be hoped the wildlife was big enough and close enough for a good viewing session without them.

The peninsula has been a UNECSO World Heritage Site since 1999 and is well-known for its varied and unspoilt wildlife. Regardless of the time of year, plenty of species can be seen throughout the park, which covers over 3,500 km². Only a thin strip of land, the Isthmus of Carlos Ameghino, connects the peninsula to Chubut Province on the mainland, creating a unique environment for mammals, both land and sea based, and migratory birds. Although there are few settlements on the peninsula itself, most of the area is easily visited on a day trip such as the one I was undertaking on this grey, rather rainy-looking morning in Puerto Madryn.

It wasn’t only the weather putting a dampener on my mood – the landscape surrounding me on all sides seemed exceedingly flat, bleak and barren. Every shade of beige, in fact, and a stark contrast to the awe-inspiring peaks of the Andes I’d visited earlier that same week. Staring sullenly out the window of the mini bus, I absentmindedly listened to the guide prattling on in Spanish, feeling decidedly glum, when all of a sudden the bus stopped and in a flurry of excitement we all leaned out the windows for a better view. Still outside the actual park boundaries, we’d had our first wildlife sighting within less than half an hour of setting out – a happily munching, ever so peaceful-looking, guanaco.

Valdés Peninsula really is all about the contentedly roaming beasts, all of them wild, with the exception of a few sheep, part of the working estancias that are operating inside the park, since, strictly speaking, they were here first and the national park has been created with the consent of the original estancia landowners. Pretty, cinnamon- and cream-coloured guanacos, part of the llama family, are very common and the time of year I was visiting, late February, was a great time to see the chulengos, or baby guanacos, following their mothers with tentative steps through the shrubby grassland.

cuys chico

cuys chico

By now we had travelled the 80-odd kilometres from Puerto Madryn to the park entrance and the mini bus continued at a leisurely pace, since nearly all the roads are unpaved and speeding ahead is not an option. Not that you’d want to – once inside the park the wildlife multiplies before your eyes. Good Lord what a large rodent, and with bunny ears to boot! This, I was told, was a mara, the 4th largest rodent in the world and a relative of the guinea pig. Apparently they’re very fast – hard to believe looking at the one we’d spotted, sitting very quietly, almost smugly, looking back at us while twitching its over-sized ears. Only a short drive into the park and I was already spotting animals I hadn’t even heard of before. So far, so fascinating.

Shortly afterwards a couple of grey foxes came into view, frolicking with their young, all of them blending in nicely with their environment and before we made our first official stop – the kind where you actually get off the bus – the rain had completely scampered and a few fragile rays of sunshine were sneaking out from behind the clouds. First stop of the day was Punta Cantor, overlooking Caleta Valdés, a strip of land hugely popular with marine mammals. This particular morning it was packed out with elephant seals gently snoozing near the lapping waves and cute Magellanic penguins, out and about or tucked away in their cosy nests.

armadillo at Punta Norte

armadillo at Punta Norte

Continuing to the northernmost point of the peninsula, the aptly named Punta Norte, we stopped for what turned into an unusually measly lunch – dry bread or soggy empanada anyone? – but luckily this pretty spot with high cliffs and beautiful sea views provided even more unusual wildlife. The café, most unpopular with starving visitors of the two-legged kind, was a bit of a hotspot for everyone else. A small, fluffy-looking rodent, the cuys chico, was eagerly scurrying through the undergrowth, presumably in search of food. He wasn’t anywhere near as lucky in his pursuit as the armadillo, gorging himself on what appeared to be a large number of Pringles crisps someone had dropped on the café porch. I felt quite remarkably envious given the café’s meagre offerings, but far be it from me to steal the food from the mouths of armadillos.

a frisky male sea lion

a frisky male sea lion

The afternoon included a hefty dose of sea lions, more elephant seals and penguins, as well as plenty of ñandú petizo, or rhea, a flightless bird, similar to the ostrich. There were more guanacos than I thought humanly possible and the sunshine lasted right up until the end of my day’s wildlife viewing.

Bleak and barren the landscape might be, but those making this place their home are undoubtedly big enough and close enough for any visitors sadly lacking in binoculars.

For further information about the Valdés Peninsula, click here.

For further information about Argentina, click here

Getting there:

Puerto Madryn is just under two hours flight from Buenos Aires and can be reached by Andes Airlines . Aerolineas Argentinas  flies to nearby Trelew. From Puerto Madryn to Peninsula Valdés use car hire or take an organised tour, there is little public transport. Several of the sheep estancias inside the park offer overnight stays for visitors and the seaside village of Puerto Pirámides has accommodation and restaurants. There is a useful visitors centre at the park entrance.

Story and images ©  Anna Maria Espsäter

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