We had been riding hard down Ruta 3 in Argentina and needed a 'get back to nature' break as we both love being in wild places. Parque Nacional Monte Leon just North of Comodoro Rivadavida in SE Argentina was just the place we needed.
It is one of the larger parks in Argentina (about 60,000 acres) and one of the few that are on the coast as most parks are in the Andes such as the famous El Capitan. Around 32 kilometers of spectacular coastline provide ideal hiking opportunities. Indigenous people have lived there for thousands of years hunting and gathering along the coast and further inland. Various explorers noticed it as they sailed past and the lion shaped mountain gave the park its name (we looked at the mountain in many directions and couldn't see the lion!). Sheep farming started in 1895 and continued until the park was declared in the 1970. Mining of the abundant guano resources and sea lion hunting finally stopped in the 70's as well.
We arrived at the ranger station in the southern part of the park only to be told we needed to get to the camp ground 6km up the road and at the end of a 20km dirt road. Argh! At the end of a long day on the road this wasn't fabulous news but he assured us it was 'good dirt' - we've heard that one before...
After getting to the camp road we found the entrance gate locked. WTF? Sonja figured out the chain was just looped over the gate as I was about to storm off back to the ranger and start jumping up and down - lucky. We dropped our tyre pressures and found the ranger was true to his word, it was 'good dirt'. Spectacular views stretched off in all directions and creeks deeply etched the landscape, a testament to the power of water forming this landscape. Low trees were stunted by the brutal wind which blows from the Southern Atlantic.
The campground is well organised with a central cafe/grocery shop with basic supplies, an amenity block and eight campsites with picnic tables and BBQs. The camp ground is quite exposed to the Northerly wind so it is best to pick one at the far end of the campsite which is more protected (we realised this after we set up our tent of course!). It also gets you away from the wind turbine which can be quite noisy. The managers there say the water isn't drinkable - and make a tidy profit selling water at hugely inflated prices - but our water purification tablets came into their own yet again. The showers in the amenity block have no shower heads - another water saving measure and not so useful when you crave a shower after a long ride. The southern Atlantic ocean just didn't cut it as a bath option.
Pumas live in the park and the manager there prowled around telling us to stay in the camp after dark. The campground is brightly lit to keep them away as they are actually quite shy. We didn't ask how many people have actually been attacked by them but assume it would be pretty rare given the abundance of natural prey available.
Nature trails branch off from the main road in, the penguin and seal colonies being the highlights. Sonja was jumping up and down with excitement as we walked towards the penguins. The sign says it's 2km from the road but we reckon it's double that so that the not-so-energetic people aren't put off. As you approach the colony you see the desiccated carcasses of penguins that have been predated by the local puma and ferret population, a sad reminder of the cycle of life. Huge gulls relentlessly patrolled overhead, looking for a nest momentarily unguarded and a quick meal of penguin chick.
The penguin colony is not down by the water as we had expected. The penguins waddle up into the dunes and low hills quite a way up from the beach and dig burrows in the hill or create nests under low scrub. We spent ages marveling at the distance and the steep slopes the penguins walked after foraging in the sea to feed their partners who were patiently guarding the precious chicks. The penguins swim up to 50km a day hunting for anchovies, crabs and other food to then bring back to their mate - amazing! Penguins will mate with the same partner year after year, returning to the same nest or burrow to breed. If one of the pair disappears during the five months they spend at sea they will re-mate with other widowed birds and continue the cycle.
From the penguins it was off to the seal colony down the road. We watch about 50 females, juveniles and pre-adult males hanging out on the rocks. The big males don't hang around here and the rocks are too exposed and steep for them to breed here. We watched a mother trying to get her pups up onto the rocks but they were constantly swept off by the waves and dropping tide. We cheered when she finally pushed them up onto the steep slope.
We got back to the camp to find a group of locals had set up camp near by and the party was on. Eeek! It's great to see people taking their kids camping but we thought this wasn't the right place for partying. Maybe we are eco-snobs but given the natural beauty of the place it seemed discordant. Anyway, the wind came up blowing the noise away, driving them into their tents and we were so stuffed from all the waking we slept like logs anyway.
Packing up the next day we met our noisy neighbours and they were lovely. The women were amazed that Sonja could ride such a big bike and after many pictures with them we headed off.
An amazing place and one we would like to visit with more time.