1 week and 2825 km. That’s our first road tripping goal. In exactly one week our good friend, Rob, will land in El Calafate to travel with us through Patagonia for 10 days and we’re still in Buenos Aires… We choose to drive South via the coastal Ruta Nacional 3. The other option, famous Ruta 40, will be our guide back North and is probably slower anyway. It’s a very feasible distance for 7 days, but we do have some stops planned along the way. So we better get going!
We leave the busy capital and soon we’re driving through the landscape that will accompany us for the next couple of thousand kilometres: the road straight ahead as far as the eye can see with left and right open, desolate plains, first filled with cows, then sowed with barley and wheat and ultimately with nothing but grass and shrubs. Hello Ruta 3, hello Patagonia. Luckily the pavement is awesome, traffic is light to non-existing and we have loads of playlists that we’re not tired of hearing yet. Our first stop is Tres Arroyos. We heard about this place in Brazil. A Dutch traveler told us that this town used to be a community Dutch immigrants who helped develop the local agriculture business. He was travelling through Brazil and Argentina to visit several of such communities. Unfortunately there we don’t find too many Dutch influences in the streets of the town. So no typical tiny houses or wooden shoes, but we do come across a pharmacy called Verkuyl. We were actually looking for some medication so go check it out to see if we can order them in Dutch. The pharmacist’s red hair and pale skin get our hopes up, but unfortunately she only replies to our Spanish. Her boss, the owner does speak Dutch, but she’s not around. The lady also confirms us that there is still quite a Dutch-speaking community in Tres Arroyos, but alas no croquettes coming from the wall yet… There’s no other reason for us to be here, so we turn back onto Ruta 3 towards El Condor and into nothingness again.
We’re ahead of high season and so the village looks pretty deserted. Most bars, hotels and shops are closed and even the tourist office is empty. But we know where we’re headed and even better, now we have the whole burrowing parrot colony all to ourselves! From the car we could already spot some so we’re very excited when we park the car. Just a two minute walk on the beach and we’re standing in front a wall full of brightly colored birds. Awesome. Burrowing parrots breed in holes in a wall and the soft sandstone here is ideal for them to dig into. These cliffs, which stretch for 15 km, host the largest colony of this species in the world. Back on the road we leave the ghost town behind and keep spotting parrots everywhere. The electricity cables are full of them and when we drive by large blankets of yellow and green fly off from the fields.
It’s dark by the time we arrive on Península Valdés. But getting here today means that we can spend more time watching wildlife tomorrow. Hannes hits the jackpot that night already when he spots a wild Patagonian cat – a mini jaguar, or a very large cat – running by. When we get up in the morning we’re immediately in luck. A bit further ahead we see some llama-like animals grazing. These are guanacos, the wild ancestors of llamas and alpacas. The main reason to visit Península Valdés however is the very accessible marine wildlife, like whales, sea lions, penguins and dolphins. Several lookouts, tens of kilometres apart, allow you to visit the main colonies right on the beaches. A few minutes down the road we realise it’s not that uncommon to spot guanacos here. They are everywhere and we even have to break abruptly several times when one last second decides it would be a good idea to cross the road. When we arrive at the first lookout we can already check a lot of animals on our list: guanacos, hares, foxes, eagles,…. And our day is only just getting started! Upon the arriving at Punta Norte the park ranger is just about to open the fence. The sea lions are already enjoying the morning sun on the beach and here and there one wakes up and moves into the crashing waves. Such a beautiful sight. After a short chat with the ranger – in Spanish even, we’re getting there… – we learn that orcas were spotted yesterday at Caleta Valdés, a little up ahead – in Argentina that means 55 km. The sea elephants there already have had their little ones and the killer whales prey on these easy catches playing in the water. We drive over to that lookout and wait patiently. Unfortunately no orcas showed up to beach themselves today. Good that the sea elephants are also a pleasure to watch.
We feel like we have waited enough today so we drive on in search of some more wildlife. Close by there is also a colony of Magellanic penguins. We thought they would also be down on the beach like in the other lookouts. But to our pleasant surprise they were nesting literally next to the walking platform. Truly incredible little fellows. They weren’t too active, as they are currently hatching their eggs, however, we still got a private penguin show.
In the afternoon we head to the only village on Península Valdés, Puerto Piramides. This is a popular destination for whaling tours and a pioneering village in sustainable tourism and whale conservation in Argentina. It’s not the cheapest activity, but we decide to go anyway. It’s not everyday that we get to see whales up close and we didn’t regret it a single second. The two-floor-boat makes for a very comfortable experience to spot and photograph these giant Southern right whales. A large number of this threatened species raises its calves in the quiet bays around the peninsula. Every time one surfaces just a bit, the entire boat sighs in awe. To top it off, the captain spots a pod of hunting dolphins in the distance. When we slowly approach them they’re not even bothered and playfully jump in and out the water around our boat. The whole tour was simply unforgettable.
After a couple 100 km of gravel roads on the peninsula our van shows the first signs of old age. A rusted piece of exhaust pipe broke and thus we start our search for a mechanic. We start getting to know the ways around South America so just ask a local where to go. And indeed, he points us to a house of which only the two rusty wrecks in front could have given us a clue of the owners profession. Hannes joins him for a couple of hours of hands on learning under the car and by sunset we’re all set. Ready for another day of orca watch. At high tide we’re on the lookout again and closely investigate every black dot in the water. 4 hours later we see dots everywhere and decide we call it a day. It’s about time to continue our journey South if we want to reach El Calafate in time.
There isn’t really a stop planned anymore before El Calafate, but the drive is too long to do in one shot. Instead of picking a nice and classy gas station, as we mostly do, we want to sleep next to the coast, hoping to spot some more sea lions in the morning. We read that there’s a colony in the neighborhood. We see some gravel areas next to the road so decide to pull over. It’s late and dark so we have no clue whether there are any animals around. In the morning we have our alarm set before sunrise as we expected it to be quite a sight with the Atlantic facing us to the East. And boy were we in the right spot! The noises at night already gave away their presence, but there was no way of knowing we were just meters away from a sea lion colony with hundreds of animals. We have breakfast while watching these playful creatures put up a show right in front of us. Real magic!
Satisfied with all the beauty this coastal route offered us, we temporarily wave it goodbye. Snowcapped peaks appear on the horizon as we move on to one of the absolute highlights in the South: El Chalten. First we pick up Rob, then we pack our backpacks. We’re off to the mountains…