Approaching from Ruta 3, it's hard to believe that the horizon-line of buildings perched just beyond the windswept dunes and badlands is the most successful of all coastal Patagonia settlements. But once you get past the outskirts of town and onto the wide coastal road known as the Rambla, the picture begins to change. Ranged along the clear and tranquil Golfo Nuevo are restaurants, cafés, dive shops, and hotels, all busy—but not yet overcrowded—with tourists from around the world. Puerto Madryn is more a base for visiting nearby wildlife-watching sites like Península Valdés and Punta Tombo than a destination in its own right. The town's architecture is unremarkable, and beyond a walk along the coast, there isn't much to do. Indeed, even the few museums serve mainly to introduce you to the fauna you'll see elsewhere. The exception is the very beginning of whale season (May–July), when the huge animals cavort right in the bay before heading north—you can even walk out alongside them on the pier. During these months it's worth the extra expense for a room with a sea view.
El Vernardino Club Mar
Set right on the beach, this bright, airy restaurant has one of the most pleasant locations in Puerto Madryn. If the wind allows, bag a terrace table at lunch, the perfect setting for a big bowl of calamari or one of their imaginative salads. Candles come out at night, together with more elaborate dishes like beef in a wild mushroom and beer reduction, or fresh-caught local salmon in a creamy mussel sauce.
Cantina El Náutico
Photos of visiting Argentine celebrities mingle with the marine-themed doodads that cover the walls at this firm local favorite. Run by three generations of a French Basque family, it specializes in simple fish and seafood dishes and homemade pasta, all served in huge portions.
Following the coastal road 14 km (9 mi) north from Puerto Madryn brings you to this whale-watching spot. The ocean floor drops away steeply from the beach, so between the months of June and mid-December you can stand on the sand almost alongside southern right whales, usually mothers teaching their young to swim. During the rest of the year it's just a regular beach. It's a pleasant 1½ hours' bike ride from Puerto Madryn. Alternatively, taxis charge about 150 pesos for the round-trip including a 45-minute stay.
From its perch on a windswept outcrop 4 km (2½ mi) south of the town center, this museum and research center affords excellent views of Madryn's bays and desolate coastline. Inside, thoughtful, well-translated displays introduce you to the area's ocean fauna and seek to promote marine conservation. An invertebrates "touch pool" and a whale-sounds exhibit—which you reach by walking through a curtain imitating baleen plates—are especially good for kids. All the same, the exhibits are a little scanty to justify the astronomical entrance price. A slick gift shop and café are also on-site.
Punta Loma Sea Lion Reserve
Some 600 South American sea lions lounge on the shore below a tall, crescent bluff at Punta Loma, 17 km (10½ mi) southeast of the city. Aim to visit during low tide. You can reach the reserve by car (follow signs toward Punta Ninfas); by bicycle, if the wind is not too strong; or by taxi—expect to pay about 150 pesos for the return trip including a 45-minute stay.
Museo Provincial del Hombre y el Mar (Ciencias Naturales y Oceanografía)
This whimsical collection of taxidermied animals, shells, skeletons, and engravings examines man's relationship with the sea. Housed in a restored 1915 building, the beautifully displayed exhibits evoke the marine myths of the Tehuelche (the area's indigenous people), imagined European sea-monsters, the ideas of 19th-century naturalists, through to modern ecology. It's more about experience than explanation, so don't worry about the scarcity of English translations, although the excellent room on orca behavior is a welcome exception. Finish by looking out over the city and surrounding steppes from the tower.