In Monte León National Park, former sheep farms have been reclaimed and returned to their natural state. The park, which is in the Patagonia region of Argentina, is now home to an uncommon mix of rolling scrubby steppe and coastal cliffs and beaches–plus the only penguin-eating pumas in the world.
Monte León National Park was founded in 2004 and was one of the first projects facilitated by Doug and Kris Tompkins through their Tompkins Conservation philanthropic organization which was created to protect and rejuvenate vast wild areas. The organization spent millions to buy land for the park which encompasses 240 square miles (620 square km) of what used to be sheep grazing range.
The animals and the fences were removed from the land and the Patagonian steppe and coastal landscapes slowly returned to their natural state. This, in turn, encouraged native species to return including guanacos and pumas. Thousands of Magellanic penguins also come to a coastal rookery here to nest between September and April (roughly).
Exploring Monte León National Park
An 11 mile (18 km) dirt road cuts off paved Ruta Nacional 3 and runs through the accessible areas of Monte León National Park, ultimately ending at the coast. Even though this park is one of the easiest places to see Magellanic penguins, guanacos, choique, sea lions, marine birds, pumas (maybe), and other flora and fauna in one quick hit, you will probably have the place practically to yourself. We saw two other vehicles in the park during our visit.
Our first stop inside the park was at a mirador to view the Cabeza de León formation. This large rock vaguely conjures the shape of a lion’s head and it gives the park its name. At the next stop, we walked along a short sloping boardwalk (allow 20-minutes) to reach El León point on a ridge above a beach that’s frequented by sea lions and a few elephant seals.
Unfortunately, the area’s famous eroded La Olla window rock formation, which is depicted in many photos and posters, collapsed in 2006. But the coastline in the park still has interesting formations. However, the coastline in the park still has interesting rock formations.
For example, at the end of the road that travels through the park, we reached a beach that’s walkable during low tide. The sloping beach here is made up of rounded rocks in various sizes and colors. The rocks abruptly stop in a straight line and a flat sandy section takes over punctuated by eroded stone formations jutting up from the sand.
Research tide times online so you can plan your visit accordingly. And remember that the tides here are extreme and swift. Water comes up very quickly and at high tide, some areas of the beaches are almost entirely underwater. It would be easy to get dangerously trapped here.
On our way back out on the same road we’d come in on, we stopped at the trailhead to the Magellanic penguin rookery which is called The Penguinera. The 1.5 mile (2.5 km) trail is flat and clearly marked (allow about 1.5 hours for the 3 mile/5 km round trip walk and time to hang with the penguins).
The trail ends at the coast, but before you reach the endpoint the trail winds through thousands of penguin nests on the bluff above the water. The adults honk and waddle and take turns incubating eggs and feeding hatched chicks. At the trail’s end, a simple shelter has been built so you can hang out and watch the penguins go in and out of the sea and work their way awkwardly up the bluff to their nests.
You should also be on the lookout for pumas. Three signs in this area warn of pumas and give tips about how to react if you see one (#1: do NOT run).
We did not see a puma in Monte León National Park, but they thrive here, in part because they’ve adapted to eat penguins along with their other traditional prey. This is the only place in the world where pumas eat penguins and the fatty birds have added to the big cats’ success in the park.
Travel tips for Monte León National Park
Entry to Monte León National Park is free, but you need to register at a group of buildings about 4 miles (6 km) north of the actual entrance to the park. The park technically opens at 9 am, which is not very convenient for visitors who want to explore the beaches in the park at low tide which may be well before 9 am.
Also, the park was closed for most of the season in 2018. It was open more reliably in 2019, but the park will close at any time when there’s rain or snow or melting conditions because the clay dirt road through the park becomes slick and dangerous when wet. The entrance to the park is unmanned and the entry gate will look like it’s padlocked shut. It isn’t. The lock is on a chain that has a hook so you can open the gate without opening the lock. Be sure to shut the gate behind you the same way you found it and remember to register before entering.
There are no rangers inside the park and the only services are at a large and mostly closed building at the coast where we found filthy bathrooms and eight or so tight-packed camping spots each with a parrilla bbq area which seemed like a terrible idea in the strong wind that occurs here.
Where to stay near Monte León National Park
You could explore all of the accessible areas of Monte León National Park in one day. A better plan, if you ask us, is to give yourself two days in the park by spending a night at a great estancia hotel near the park entrance. It’s just not the estancia hotel you’re probably thinking of. The famous Monte León lodge, which welcomed guests for years on a spot close to the ranger station where visitors register, recently closed. But don’t worry. There’s another great option.
The Estancia Doraike sheep farm was established in the late 1800s and was run by the founding family for years before the Stiglianom family bought it. In 2006, Doraike was sold to a French architect who decided to bolster sheep farm revenues by turning the family’s original home into a small hotel which is run by Vivian Stiglianom, a descendant of the former owners. Vivian grew up on the estancia and is a wealth of information about its history and about the region in general.
These days, the still-working farm has 1,500 sheep (a fraction of the number on the land in the estancia’s prime) and the Santa Cruz River that runs through part of the property draws fly fishermen from around the world.
The family home now offers four guest rooms including two with ensuite bathrooms and two rooms that share a spacious, modern bathroom. Wood floors, white walls, wood-burning stoves, antiques, a large sitting room, and a large communal dining table create a homey and comfortable atmosphere with more style than you’d expect in such a remote location.
When we were there hardy yellow and pink rockrose bushes were exploding with color behind the house and when we returned to the estancia after a day of exploring the park we found the house surrounded by dozens of guanaco. Hares bound around the building in the morning. And the surrounding Patagonian steppe is always changing with the wind and the light. There are no TVs, no phone service, and no Wi-Fi, but you won’t miss them.
The food at Estancia Doraike is all homemade (usually by Vivian) and it’s terrific. The breakfast spread includes homemade bread and jams, local honey, cereal, eggs to order, fresh juice, French press coffee, ham, cheese, and more. At dinner, hearty selections, like lamb with peas and carrots in a richly sauced rice, are served in large skillets so you can help yourself. We’re still dreaming about appetizers like the garlicky housemade hummus.
Like many things in Patagonia, Estancia Doraike is not open year-round so plan your visit between October and April (roughly).
Here’s more about travel in Argentina