Astride a sturdy Criollo horse, the ride to the beach under unsullied skies feels like an ascent into the heavens. One final push up the precipitous cliff path and suddenly, there it is. There it all is: the glass-like Atlantic rippling in the reflected glory of a rich summer sun; the rugged clifftops scratching their primeval signature across a crisp blue sky; the immaculate golden sand beneath us, curving away towards a distant, hazy horizon. There’s not a soul in sight.
Our local guide, Miguel Bottazzi, shields his eyes against the powerful sunlight, slowly soaking in the unadulterated view. “Welcome to nowhere,” he says.
I’m in Península Valdés, a natural, wildlife-filled archipelago attached to Patagonia’s belly. Its near isolation makes this 3625-square-kilometre tract of wilderness the ideal habitat for a rich array of animals – from elephant seals and rookeries of sea lions to penguins and fleet-footed flocks of rheas (those racier relatives of the emu). Yet despite all of this teeming life, the landscape feels completely, perfectly empty – reminiscent in equal parts of Arizona’s Sonoran Desert and the Australian outback.
“Paradise” is a title thrown about far too cheaply these days but Península Valdés has a legitimate claim to it. Tucked away in a sheltered nook of Patagonia, a series of geological quirks – including a vast, jutting headland to the north, the mighty Andes to the west and tame, sheltered Atlantic bays to the east – have conjured a singular micro-climate.
In real terms, the region enjoys temperatures that average at least in the mid-20s from November to March, its warmest months, and are often significantly higher. A sun-kissed Arcadia, it’s a modern-day stand-in for Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Lost World – right down to the dinosaur skeletons littering the landscape.
I’m exploring this untainted wilderness for five days with local company Argentina Activa, which offers bespoke, small-group adventure travel across Patagonia, Argentina and neighbouring countries. Put simply, they know exactly where the best bits are and how to weave them together seamlessly.
As a UNESCO heritage-listed nature reserve, building is heavily restricted on Península Valdés but there are still estancias – sprawling Argentinian cattle ranches – peppered across the sweeping landscape. It’s at one of these, Loreto Lodge, that I’m staying during my visit: a handsome farmhouse turned luxury guesthouse, sitting proudly by its own private lake. After an adventure-packed day in the depths of the peninsula, we retreat to this haven with the affable Miguel. Roaring fires and lavish Patagonian feasts await us, followed by spectacular stargazing for dessert.
But despite these rugged comforts and the calming peace out in the Patagonian bush, wildlife is the real draw. Down here, Eubalaena australis, or southern right whales, are the biggest performers of them all.
“They first called them right whales because they were the right whales to hunt,” says Miguel as we bounce across the scrubland in his four-wheel drive, heading for the peninsula’s only village, Puerto Pirámides. “They’re so curious and friendly towards humans, they were ridiculously easy to kill. Thankfully, they’re a protected species now and the good news is they’re still just as curious and friendly and happy to share their paradise with us.”
Miguel and his two siblings run a second-generation whale-watching business out of Puerto Pirámides with a unique selling point – they guarantee sightings on every trip. As our boat drifts towards a liquid sunset, I can see this is no bluff. Within minutes of leaving the shore, we spot two telltale spouts of water off to starboard: a whale calf is playing with its mother as a raft of sea lions try to join the fun. Seconds later, the mother whale surfaces so close that we can gaze into one questioning eye.
An endangered species in some parts of the world, southern right whales are now thriving here. The two bays between Península Valdés and mainland Patagonia are the optimal breeding grounds for these aquatic goliaths. In 2018, marine biologists counted an extraordinary 1600 adults and 700 infants and they are back in force this year, too.
“The big trick in terms of photography is to catch one of the whales jumping against the setting sun,” says Miguel while we float, waiting for our opportunity. The sun finally collides with the ocean and it happens. As if on cue, a young whale breaks the surface, leaping into the air then crashing down, scattering sea lions in every direction as camera shutters click and whirr. Miguel grins. “I told you,” he says. “Paradise.”
Back at Loreto Lodge, chef Martín Moroni has cooked up a spread – namely a sizzling asado (Argentinian barbecue). Front and centre is roasted lamb, which has been salted and slow cooked on a traditional iron cross in front of the fire for hours. It’s served with loaves of hot cremona, Argentinian bread, with sharp salsa criolla on the side. Like everything else in this extraordinary place, it’s uncomplicated yet magical. Dreams proliferate here on the northern edge of South America’s southern frontier, a subject renowned travel writer Bruce Chatwin addressed in his masterwork In Patagonia, describing the region as a “marvellous and limitless backdrop” that is “the uttermost part of the earth”.
“As locals, we think of things more simply than that,” says Moroni. “This place is the earth’s reserve. It’s so empty, so untouched that it’s basically humanity’s insurance policy for when we mess up the rest of the planet.” He’s joking, of course, but it’s an apt assessment. This is the end of the world, after all.
The new Galápagos
A few hours south of Península Valdés, Bahía Bustamante redefines glorious isolation. Spaces are large in Patagonia, as are the silences that fill them. And that’s exactly the way they like it at Bahía Bustamante – a former ghost town that’s finally breathing again.
During its 1960s heyday, this place – a group of workers’ cottages clustered around a main lodge – was home to more than 400 people, all dedicated to seaweed harvesting. They had a church, school, post office and even a jail. And although few outside Patagonia had ever heard of Bahía Bustamante, its precious gracilaria seaweed was in high demand across the world – for everything from food and medicine to paint and hair gel.
But a combination of industrial fishing in the ’70s, oil spills in the ’80s then a late-’90s recession in Argentina destroyed the local seaweed industry.
Nearly 30 years later, Matias Soriano, the grandson of the town’s founder, Lorenzo Soriano, is transforming Bahía Bustamante into an eco retreat. His vision is to promote the tranquillity and diverse wildlife of the region, now part of the Blue Patagonia UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Soriano and his wife, Astrid, are lovingly renovating the town’s former workers’ cottages into luxury accommodation. At the time of writing, 11 were complete and available to stay in. The food is in keeping with the ethos – menus feature seaweed, lamb and seafood, and fruit and vegetables from the retreat’s organic garden.
About 90 kilometres from civilisation in any direction, the reserve’s rambling coastline is a natural habitat for scores of species, from sea lions and Magellanic penguins to hawks, falcons, eagles and a number of indigenous seabirds. So pure is this corner of Patagonia, it prompted The New York Times to dub Bahía Bustamante “Argentina’s Private (and Secret) Answer to the Galápagos”. As knowledge of this unique former seaweed settlement and its abundant wildlife continues to spread, it won’t remain uncharted much longer.