We left Ushuaia very early in the morning on Tuesday, February 28th. It was cool and still dark out as we boarded the bus, preparing for a 12-hour bus ride to Rio Gallegos, Argentina. This would be our first leg in working our way up north along the eastern coast of Argentina from the very bottom.
The bus ride itself was quite frustrating. Because Chile owns most of the land surrounding Ushuaia we had to cross back into Chile, and then back into Argentina during this journey north. As such, a good 4 hours of our 12 hour ride was spent at border crossings. Additionally, when on the bus, our bus driver enjoyed focusing on his buddy he was chatting with more than the road. We definitely had a couple near-heart-attack moments when we were convinced we were either going to hit something or end up off the road. We did at least get a chance to see Argentina Patagonia. There really isn’t much to it- it is flat and dry once removed from the Andes Mountains- it greatly resembles something like southern Nebraska or Oklahoma.
Alas, we ended up in Rio Gallegos on time, safe and sound. We spent only a day and a half in this city, which was plenty. In general, it’s a pretty run-down town, without much to offer in terms of activities, shopping, or scenery unless you are an avid fly fisher- apparently the surrounding countryside has good fly fishing.
Throughout our stay here, we spent our time walking up and down the one main street, and walking/running down the coast line. It was nice to be near the ocean and in warmer weather again. The highlight of Rio Gallegos, however, was the dinner we had one our final night in down. Determined to have a steak dinner in every Argentina town we visit since Argentina is said to have the best steak in the world, we went to a steak restaurant. Here, Derek and I each ordered a different steak, but his was (and still is to date) the best steak we have had in our lives. And, we’ve had a lot of steak at some of the nicest restaurants in the USA! He ordered 2 Lomo medallions (Argentina version of filet mignon) with mushroom sauce and potatoes. First of all, these medallions were by far the biggest “medallions” I had ever seen! We easily could have shared his plate (which we pretty much did- we boxed my entrée up for lunch the following day). Additionally, they were thick and juicy and cooked medium rare to perfection. No joke- you could cut this piece of meat with a spoon. Paired with a delicious local Mebec red wine, we enjoyed every bite. Also, while we probably would have had to pay $250-$300 in the US for a similar meal, our total bill ended up being the equivalent of ~$60 for 2 steak dinners, appetizers, sides of vegetables, a bottle of wine, and dessert. It was a perfect evening out!
We departed Rio Gallegoes for Puerto Madryn on Tuesday, March 1st taking a long 18-hour overnight bus (still along a long flat, dry landscape). Puerto Madryn definitely has more to offer than Rio Gallegos, and the town is very close to the nearby Valdes Peninsula National Park. Considering the long bus ride (and another long 19-hour one we would eventually have to take up to Buenos Aires) we decided to stay in Puerto Madryn for a week and relax. This was perfect considering we had been on the go-go-go all throughout Patagonia.
Some of the highlights of our stay in Puerto Madryn:
- Getting there: As mentioned, the bus ride from Rio Gallegos to Puerto Madryn was a long one without much to look at. But, we did learn a valuable lesson on this trip: for all overnight buses, spend the extra $10 per ticket and ride first class (cama). We spent the extra couple bucks for the first class tickets, and it was totally worth it. The seats are like spending 18 hours in a Lazy Boy. You have leg room, the seats recline far back so you have a shot at getting some sleep. They even bring you a glass of wine at night before bed. Definitely worth it when the bus rides are long!
- Our hostel: During our stay in Puerto Madryn, we stayed at a hostel called El Gualicho. The place was very nice. We had a large, clean, spacious double room. The hostel had a very large equipped kitchen perfect for cooking, lots of common space, and a courtyard with hammocks that was great for chilling out in the warm Puerto Madryn weather. The hosts were also very friendly- always approachable for help with a tour or restaurant recommendations, bus tickets, or just to chat and hang out. One of the nicer places we’ve stayed at!
- The downtown: The main highlight of “downtown” Puerto Madryn is definitely the beach. The city hosts several miles of shore line in a bay off the Atlantic Ocean. The water is cool, but the waves aren’t too big since it’s protected by a series of peninsulas. All day long, people lay in the hot sun on the white sandy beaches. Restaurants, parks, and sports equipment rental shops can be found all along the shore. We spent a lot of time relaxing in the sun, running up the coast line (yes- we are trying to get our workouts in!), and people watching in this area. We also had a nice dinner outside along the beach on our final night in the city. Although the steak wasn’t as good as in Rio Gallegos, the ambiance was great, overlooking the bay with the full moon rising over the water.
In addition to the beach, Puerto Madryn houses many good shops and cafes. We walked around town window shopping on several occasions. On one such occasion, I got a bit disgruntled at the fact that I have such a limited wardrobe with me (and a very functional one, at that) when the Argentina people always look so put together. Everywhere we looked there were boutiques that had just absolutely beautiful clothes. I was so sad I got teary eyed in the street longing for my “pretty” clothes. Derek found this hilarious and decided to take pictures. I only calmed down when Derek promised I could get some pretty dresses in Buenos Aires J
P.S. This is who you would buy realestate from in Puerto Madryn (The photos says it all)
- Valdes Peninsula: The Valdes Peninsula is one of the leading attractions of the Puerto Madryn area. While the land is pretty barren, the ocean near the peninsula is home to some of the most diverse sea life. Common animals seen along the coast include seals, sea lions, penguins, and elephant seals. Also, this time of year, it is common to see Orcas every couple of days. They come onto the shore to eat the seals and sea lions. And yes- they do come “on” to the shore. They attack by charging the shore and beaching themselves, grabbing whatever food they can in the process before using their muscles to wiggle back into the ocean. On this particular peninsula, they can only do this at high-tide when the water is deep enough for them to sneak through a rocky barrier.
Hearing great things about the wildlife, Derek and I rented a car one day and drove into the park about 2 hours from town. True to the descriptions we had read, the land itself was completely flat and very dry with sparse vegetation; but, the shoreline offered great sights. After driving up the coast, we stayed for several hours at the location where Orcas come onto land hoping we would get lucky and see one. Sadly, we didn’t- we were told by the ranger that it was probably because it was windy (although- in general the animals only show up every couple days and it’s hard to predict when they will be there). But, the trip to the park was definitely worth it. We saw a several animals along our drive:
- 1) A tarantula. A real one. It was big, and furry, and moved too fast for my liking. I screamed and it took me a while to agree to get out of the car (to go hiking!) later that day
- 2) Lots of llamas and sheep
- 3) Foxes
- 4) Armadillos
- 5) Penguins
- 6) Sea Lions- but this time, baby ones! They were so cute. In addition to being much smaller than adult sea lions, you can tell which ones are young based on their skin color. Babies are black, while adults are light grey. Similar to in Ushuaia, the colony consisted of a couple large males surrounded by females and babies. Their calls could be heard constantly. It was so cute to watch the babies interact and play/hop/swim with each other.
- 7) Seals- hangs down, their faces are much cuter than those of sea lions
- Elephant seals- identified by huge noses that resemble a short elephant trunk. The animals themselves are huge.
- 9) Lizards
- Snorkeling with Sea Lions: We really enjoyed seeing the Sea Lions on the Valdes Peninsula. So, we decided to take an excursion that would get us up-close-and-personal with the animals: going snorkeling with them!
On a cool morning just after sunrise, we met with guides on the shore in town. They fitted us with everything we would need to snorkel with the animals: double-layer wet suites, boots, hoods, goggles, snorkel, etc. We boarded a boat and took a short ~20 minute boat ride along the coast. Our group was small, only 4 of us in total.
Once anchored offshore from the local sea lion colony, we were given instructions. We were to hop into the water, and swim toward shore. The animals would come to us- they are curious by nature. Sea Lions themselves are not harmful unless threatened. However, we were told not to get too close to shore as we might be perceived as a threat if we got too close to their territory. Also, none of their natural predators such as orcas and sharks are in the bay as its so far from the open ocean and so little food is really in the bay itself (other than this single sea lion colony)- so we were safe from that perspective.
Once we hopped in the cold water, the fun began! As promised, the sea lions did start coming to us almost immediately. At first, this was a little scary. The water was murky, and up close you can see just how big the animals are (huge!). With the cloudy water they would come out of nowhere! But we soon loosened up and really enjoyed the adventure. As we got closer to shore the water cleared up to see about 20 yards of visibility. Adult and baby sea lions swam all around us. They are very playful- at one point, Derek held out his arm and a baby sea lion swam circles around it. Derek was even able to pet it! They would often swim up to you, and just stare at you in the face. On one instance, Derek had his head above water, watching one swim toward him. Just before it would have hit him, it stopped, popped his head above water, and looked at Derek curiously for several seconds before swimming along on his merry way.
It was very neat to see them interact with people. Our guide would dive down and pick up shellfish off the rocks below, and the sea lions would come eat them out of his hand. They would also imitate- when Derek dove and swam down deep, one of them swam right under him mirroring his movements and momentum. Our guide had an underwater camera, so we were able to get some of the interaction on film.
In total, we were in the water for about an hour before climbing back into the boat and heading back to town. Cold now, we were offered coffee, tea, or mate. We would recommend this adventure to anyone! It was so fun to be near such playful, large mammals in their natural environment.
- In closing: Puerto Madryn is a quaint beach town with beautiful wildlife. Our stay here was the perfect close to Patagonia wildlife, as we now make our way north into big cities, the jungle, tropical beaches, and the high Andes. It’s a definite must-see for anyone working their way through Argentina by bus, as it is a nice stopping point between the far Southern cities and Buenos Aires.
We left Puerto Madryn after a week’s stay on Thursday, March 8th. We caught another long, overnight bus to Buenos Aires, leaving Patagonia behind us.