For all those who don’t know us yet (psst, head to Meet Vagabonds to learn more) – we spent most of 2019 on our yearlong honeymoon around the BlueMarble and a good portion of it zigzagging around South America in our Pisco the Van which we bought in Chile. And, we consider ourselves budget travelers – er, most of the time (we tend to forget this when it comes to adventures and booze).
Have you combined these two?
You know, spending little to be able to travel for a long time = seeing the penguins in Patagonia for free?
Alrighty, I’m glad we’re on the same page! 🙂
So, when we were heading towards the end of the world – Ushuaia, we had a mission to watch sea lions and penguins in Patagonia without the tours which tend to be quite pricey around there.
Ha, and we got lucky! On our beloved app iOverlander, we spotted two less known places on the Argentinian coast – the first one being near Puerto San Julian, where we were supposed to find sea lions and the second one – national park Monte Leon with the über-cute penguins. Yassss, bingo!!
SEA LIONS AND PENGUINS IN PATAGONIA SNEAK PEAK
Watch our vlog where we hang out with sea lions and penguins in Argentina and then keep reading! 🙂
CIRCUITO COSTERO – A HOME TO THE CHUBBY CUTIES
About 30 km north of the town of Puerto San Julian by the Atlantic coast, the gravel road turns towards the coast and follows it all the way to the towns. Its name is kinda obvious – “Circuito Costero” which means Coastal Circle.
Now, I know you can’t wait to hear about the sea lions, but if you’re already here – drive that road!
I mean, I guarantee you that it will leave you speechless. The majestic cliffs that drop down into the ocean and drastic tides are stunning and when you’ll find yourself under the perfect rainbow at sunset, you’ll be like: Is this real?! You gotta be kidding me!
And if you think the rainbow is not cheesy enough, wait for the night when the sky is illuminated by the brightest milky way and you’ll have a hard time counting all the shooting stars (come prepared and write your wish list in advance 😀 ).
Anyhow, back to sea-lions, right? 😉
WHERE EXACTLY TO FIND SEA LIONS ALONG THE CIRCUITO COSTERO
When you turn from the main road to the Circuito Costero, you’ll drive in the direction of the beach. If you turn right in front of the beach and continue on the path for about 500 m, an even smaller road leads to the edge of the cliff.
And there they are, there they are – like at least 100 of those funny chubby creatures!
You won’t be able to go down the cliff for an awesome close-up, but even observing them from the edge of the cliff is amazing. The large colony of sea lions lays around on the rocks all over the place (and all over each other) and soaks in the sun – it seems like they’ve perfected the beauty of doing nothing.
We spotted the larger number of females which were squeezed by a mighty male that looked ultra lazy – he only managed a deep growl now and then. Two females were arguing loudly on the next rock, and one sea lion was happily soaking in a natural hot tub while the other was awkwardly climbing out of it. We’ve seen two or three “lone wolves”, stumbling around not far from the colony and keeping to themselves.
I dunno why, but the whole image strongly reminded us of those movies where an extended Sicilian family is having a Sunday picnic.
They were quite oblivious to the curios visitors who crashed their party, they just peeked up now and then and let out a warning shriek – you know, just to let us know we weren’t the bosses there. If I think twice – maybe they were watching us, and not the other way around.
Level of cuteness: 4/5 (4, because of their high-pitch shrieks 😛 )
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO SPOT SEA LIONS?
I’ve got good news for you! According to travelers, you’ll see sea lions here all year round – we’ve read their comments from July, September, November-February, and we were there at the beginning of April. Sometimes the colony is reported to be even larger – up to 500 sea lions!
So, no matter the season, you’ll be able to spot them, and – in case you forgot – you won’t need to pay a penny for it, how awesome is that?!
HOW TO GET TO CIRCUITO COSTERO
Sorry guys, don’t want to disappoint you – but I guess if you don’t have your own transportation, it will be slightly more difficult to get to this spot or watch sea lions for free. If you’re driving, turn off the RN3 between kilometer 2232 in 2233 to the unpaved road (coming from the north) or start the Circuito in San Julian if you’re coming from the south (check iOverlander for directions).
I mean, theoretically, it is possible to do it by hitchhiking from the Puerto San Julian, especially since Ruta 3 (that passes the start of Circuito Costero and Puerto San Julian) is the main road that goes all the way down to the Tierra del Fuego – but this approach is luck-based, as you can imagine 🙂
The other (not much more reliable option) would be to ask around in the village if there are taxis that could take you there and wait for you (or you call them to pick you up when you’re ready).
You can reach Puerto San Julian by bus (check Busbud) from Rio Gallegos in the south or Comodo Rivadaria in the north.
MONTE LEON NATIONAL PARK – AN AWESOME SPOT TO SEE PENGUINS IN PATAGONIA
If the coast above San Julian is the best place to watch sea lions for free, Monte Leon National Park is like a lottery hit if you want to see Magellan’s penguins AND save enough bucks for quite a few Patagonian craft beers.
WHEN IS THE BEST TIME TO VISIT MONTE LEON NATIONAL PARK?
While season to see penguins in Patagonia may differ regarding the place, the best time to visit penguins in Monte Leon National Park is between September and April.
First, in September, the males arrive, make a nest, and then a few days later the females arrive. In October, females lay eggs are and in November, the adults take turns when one looks after the chicks while the other hunt. By February, the greedy chicks need so much food that both parents have to go the sea to get the food, and by April, the chicks are all grown up and leave their nest and find a spouse. Hey, I guess millennials could learn something from the penguins 😉
If you think 100 sea lions is a big colony, then you’ll be happy to hear that you’ll find tens of thousands of penguins in Monte Leon. Nope, it is clearly not difficult to spot them. Actually, it’s impossible to miss them. 😊
HOW TO GET TO MONTE LEON NATIONAL PARK
Monte Leon National Park was established in 2004 with the help of private funds. It stretches along 36 kilometers of the Argentinian sea and it’s worth visiting not only due to its biodiversity but also due to the paleontological sites in the park.
However, going there can be a bit of a hassle.
About 6 km (coming from the north on RN3) before the entrance to the park there is an information center (pay attention – we missed it and went straight to the park and then we had to go back 😀 ). A friendly ranger will explain to you what you can see in the park AND tell you if the park is opened at all.
Yep, you read that right! I think that’s the biggest disadvantage of visiting Monte Leon National park – it can be closed down any time due to rain or snow since at that time roads in the park are not suitable for driving! During the season 2018, it was closed most of the time due to road repair, and even when we turned up there in April 2019 we were told to come back the next day (on Sunday) when there won’t be any maintenance work in the park.
It is necessary to register in the information center before visiting the park (I doubt it is mandatory, as no one checks, but at least this way they know a puma ate you if you go missing 😛 ).
There’s a small museum beside the information center as well, where the flora and fauna of the park are explained and since a sheep farm was there before, you’ll find something about that too. Oh, and a cool whale skeleton! 🙂
The entrance to the national park…doesn’t look like the entrance at all. 😀 The gate is not really big and they may even look padlock-shut. They aren’t though, just move the padlock and drive further.
Unfortunately, you’ll really need a car to visit Monte Leon national park and see penguins in Patagonia (well, at least in this part) for free. But if you’re considering visiting the park anyway, here’s one contact.
WHERE TO FIND PENGUINS IN THE PARK?
While the road to the parked marked only by a small sign, paths to individual points inside the park are well marked.
From the parking lot, walk for 15 minutes on the footpath towards the coast (and you’re supposed to stay on it and not wander around!) When you approach the area where the Magellanic penguins live, information boards will start to pop up along the way – surprisingly in English (I’m telling you, that’s rare in South America 😀 ) – with interesting information and funny pictures about the penguins and their habits.
And then you see them – you see penguins in Patagonia FOR FREE! 😀
There in the grass one pair, under the bush another one, and a few feet ahead of two more… no, not two, ten! And then you see that they are everywhere around you, and under every bush on a grassy slope all the way down to the beach where groups of penguins are arranged like some kind of military troops.
Good to know: Their nests are all over the place, therefore is utterly important that you don’t wander away from the path and step on one of those!
It’s IMPOSSIBLE not to laugh when you see them walking (Ya’ know – it’s called “penguin-like” walking for a reason and if you’re short like me, you’ll have experience with it 😀 ) and even if they get angry they can’t look anything but cute.
About 3 feet is their idea of a “private space”, which of course we did not intend to cross. And, let me be clear – we didn’t go chasing them, it’s them who were curious and they came to the path, stood behind a fence and studied us with great interest – I guess they needed to determine how dangerous exactly is this weird creature with two legs and a read feather that came to their house.
We haven’t seen newborns since we were a few months late for that, but the younger chicks could be clearly distinguished from the adults by their fuzzy appearance – they looked as if someone would just pull them out of the dryer machine.
Level of cuteness: 5/5!
PRO TIP: In total there are 5 species of penguins in Patagonia (Argentina and Chile). If you’d like to see more of them (and don’t mind paying for the tour), you can see them in Valdes Peninsula, Punta Tombo, Chiloe Island, Chilean Tierra del Fuego or in Ushuaia (these are one of the most famous spots).
WHAT ELSE YOU CAN SEE IN MONTE LEON NATIONAL PARK?
Unfortunately, penguins have many natural enemies – both inside and outside of the sea.
They are being hunted by orcas and sea lions, plus, their number decreases due to excessive fishing which affects the amount of food available for them. ). On land, they are easy prey for foxes or pumas. And, since you’re visiting the national park, be prepared for some unpleasant scenes as well. We’ve seen not only many skeletons scattered around the steppe further from the beach, but also a few freshly butchered little corpses.
Actually, we had a strong feeling that the main suspect for the massacre was having a nap in the nearby bushes after a hefty brunch. I guess such are the laws of nature…
Regardless of the latter, the visit to the park was really memorable – in a good way, of course! In addition to Patagonian Magellanic penguins and foxes, we’ve spotted enormous rabbits jumping around, large herds of grazing guanacos, hundreds of cormorants flying over cliffs and fishing, and on a clear day (and at the right time) you can also spot whales and dolphins in the distance. The only animal we didn’t see was a puma, and I can’t say how happy I am this was the case. 😀
Now if that’s not a free safari, I don’t know what is!
Besides the wildlife, the landscape and park’s beaches are scenic as well and all the walking paths inside the national park can keep you busy for a whole day.
JUST A WORD OF CAUTION
It’s not just stories – there really are pumas in the park!
Actually, the park must be home to quite a few of these big cats, since warning boards can be found at several spots inside the park.
And, the park is open from 9 am to 4 pm, since wandering really early or at the dusk could truly increase your chances to become a delicious dinner for fluffy beasts.
Number one rule? Do not walk alone! 😀
So, that’s how you can see sea lions and penguins in Patagonia for free!
For us, this was one of the highlights of exploring Argentina and if you have the chance, I’d definitely recommend you stop by and hang out with these lovely animals. Total cuteness overload!
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Have you been to Chile or Argentina already? Do you perhaps know any other place where it’s possible to see sea lions or penguins in Patagonia for free? Let us know in the comments!