If you are going to do one historical activity while on the Big Island, do Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park (off Hwy. 11 on Hwy. 160, 808/328-2326). The gate is open daily 7am-7pm, while visitors center hours are daily 8:45am-5:30pm. Admission is $5 per car, $3 to walk in, free with a national park pass, or included in the $25 pass for three national parks on the Big Island. To get there from Highway 11, between mile markers 103 and 104 turn onto Highway 160 and travel down the hill a few miles to the entrance on the makai side.
[pullquote align=right]There is a wonderful sense of peace that overtakes the area around and just after sunrise.[/pullquote]This is where you see the true old Hawaii, circa the 1600s. A park ranger explains that there is a calming feeling here because it is a religious site dedicated to the god Lono, who was a god of life. No killing or wars occurred at Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau—it was, as it is sometimes called, a place of refuge or the Camp David for Hawaiian chiefs. During times of war, women and children would seek safety on the grounds, and if defeated chiefs or those accused of sins could make it to the shore by swimming across the bay, then they would be absolved of their sins and given a second chance. In fact there were 30 such places like Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau across the islands, but this site is the only one that remains. It’s sort of a bonus that it’s actually at the beach.
Some of the structures in place at the park are original, but many are replicas. Kids tend to be particularly impressed by the imposing structures and sculptures of ancient times. The best time to visit the park is early morning—even before the gate opens. There is a wonderful sense of peace that overtakes the area around and just after sunrise. Tours with the knowledgeable staff are free and offered daily at 10:30am and 2:30pm, and are highly recommended. Otherwise, pamphlets are provided for your self-guided tours, which would take a half hour if you just walked straight through, or you can do a self-guided audio cell phone tour by calling 808/217-9279.
The majority of tourists head straight to Two Step (turn makai off Hwy. 160 where you see the Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau park sign, and instead of driving straight into the gate turn right onto the road directly before the gate), called such because of the lava shelf that requires you to take two steps down into the water. It’s an incredibly popular area because it does have great snorkeling and it’s shallow so it’s popular with non-experts and kids. There are no facilities, so it is recommended that you park in Pu‘uhonua O Honaunau’s lot, where there are bathrooms and walk to the two minutes to the right back to Two Step.
If there’s something about Waikiki that sets it apart from other tropical sea destinations, it’s the Waikiki beachboys. Hailing back a century, the beachboy culture has evolved with the changing face of tourism in Hawaii, but the gentlemen in the red shorts still practice the same core values of sharing the sports of surfing, outrigger canoe riding, and aloha with visitors.
[pullquote align=right]While only a few of Waikiki’s beachboys can still trace their ties back to the original beachboys, any beachboy can still show you how to have the time of your life in Waikiki’s gentle surf.[/pullquote]After Calvinist missionaries decimated the Hawaiian culture in the 19th century, the sport of surfing, a purely Hawaiian endeavor, was nearly extinguished. It was seen as sinful because of how much skin was shown while surfing. Only a few surfers remained at the end of the century, namely legendary waterman and three-time Olympic gold medalist Duke Kahanamoku and a few of his friends.
As the first wave of wealthy American tourists arrived on steamers in the early decades of the 20th century, these few surfers took it upon themselves to entertain the visitors, teaching them how to surf, ride canoes, and have a good time. In essence, they created a way to earn a living surfing year-round on the beach at Waikiki. These first visitors came to Hawaii for extended stays and were able to develop relationships with the beachboys, who became their tour guides and a bridge to the Hawaiian culture and a different lifestyle. After giving surfing lessons during the day, the beachboys entertained their guests with ukulele, song, and libations at night, a hedonistic lifestyle by all accounts.
The fun was curtailed by WWII, and as travel and tourism have changed since then, so too have the beachboys. With the ease and affordability of flying across the Pacific, a vacation to Waikiki is accessible for so many more people, not just the wealthy elite. Today, with thousands of visitors flocking to the beach daily, the beachboys focus on surfing and outrigger canoe surfing and have shifted roles from entertainers and tour guides to beach services. While only a few of Waikiki’s beachboys can still trace their ties back to the original beachboys, any beachboy can still show you how to have the time of your life in Waikiki’s gentle surf.
The Waikoloa resort area and Anaeho‘omalu Bay (A Bay) are not as much of an apex of ocean activities as other areas in the region. Each resort tends to offer ocean and beach equipment rental to its guests, and most also offer quick instruction for snorkeling and stand-up paddling. Fees for activities and rentals tend to be higher when purchased through hotels. You’d be better off to go directly to the source to get a better price.
Diving and Snorkeling
Given that there is a harbor in Kawaihae, it seems like a natural location for diving and snorkeling tours; however, there isn’t much activity here as most tourists prefer Kona. There really is no reason to avoid diving and snorkeling here; in fact, the benefits are that it is less crowded than the Kona Coast and the water is just as full of remarkable marine life.
[pullquote align=”right”]Those with experience snorkeling or diving should explore the Puako tide pools, one of the most developed fringing reefs on the island.[/pullquote]Those with experience snorkeling or diving should explore the Puako tide pools, one of the most developed fringing reefs on the island. One can spend the entire day surveying sea life. There aren’t rental agencies here so it is imperative to rent before you come. Alternatively, Mahukona Beach Park with its shallow water presents a good opportunity for beginners to get their feet wet and discover some nearby underwater treasure (or garbage, depending how you look at it).
If you want to join a tour, Kohala Divers (Hwy. 270 in Kawaihae Shopping Center, 808/882-7774) has a great reputation for good service and quality equipment. Since this part of the coast is much less trafficked, the dive sites are usually less worn and you won’t have to worry about bumping into many divers down below. Kohala Divers offers a PADI open-water certification course ($600). Experienced divers can book a trip such as the popular two-tank morning charter ($130 per person), a two-tank night dive ($140), or a shorter one-tank dive ($100). Both diving and snorkeling equipment is available to rent.
The other option is Mauna Lani Sea Adventures (66-1400 Mauna Lani Dr., 808/885-7883), but it doesn’t specialize in scuba diving. For certified divers, two-tank dives with gear ($160 plus tax) are offered twice daily, and one-tank dives ($115 plus tax) with a minimum of two divers are offered three times daily. PADI-certified courses are available and more information is available upon request.
Bodyboarding, Surfing, and Stand-Up Paddleboarding
[pullquote align=right]The Kohala Coast is a good place to try out your bodyboarding and stand-up paddling skills since the waves here tend not to be too big or rough.[/pullquote]The Kohala Coast is a good place to try out your bodyboarding and stand-up paddling skills since the waves here tend not to be too big or rough. Conversely, these conditions are not ideal for surfing. Experienced surfers tend to try the beach at Pololu Valley, but you have to really want to surf there since a visit requires carrying your board down (and more importantly up) this steep trail.
Ocean Sports (Queens’ MarketPlace and beach shack on Anaeho‘omalu Bay, 808/886-6666) offers rentals for all your ocean needs. The individual ($50) or family plan ($140 for up to four people) includes unlimited use of equipment for a day, a great deal considering a stand-up paddle board is $50 for an hour. You must return at the end of each hour with your equipment and can only take it out again if no one else is waiting. If you need some help getting started, they offer beach boys (who are like lifeguards) to aid you in short classes. Snorkeling is $30 for 45 minutes ($10 for an extra person), and stand-up paddling is $40 for 30 minutes of instruction.
During winter Kawaihae Harbor is a prime location for whale-watching. Leaving from here will save you some time on the road, as this harbor is closer to the majority of resorts and also tends to be less crowded than Honokohau. Boat trips range from snorkeling and/or diving adventures to whale- and dolphin-watching rides (remember that whales are only around in the winter) to sunset open-bar cruises.
Extending their monopoly on the water, Ocean Sports (Whale Center in Kawaihae Harbor, 61-3657 Akoni Pule Hwy./Hwy. 270, 808/886-6666) touts a champagne sunset cruise on a sailing catamaran. It is a good deal ($115 adults, $58 children, kama‘aina rates available) for those who like to combine drinking with cruising. The open bar (including a sunset champagne toast) comes with lots of appetizers, and for only an extra $25 you can renew your vows on board! The Moku Nui Cocktail Sail (Sun., Tues., Thurs. only, $99 adults, $50 children) is similar to the champagne cruise, but with less food and no champagne. The champagne cruise might be worth the extra $16 if you don’t have dinner plans afterward. In summer (April-November), Ocean Sports offers a 3.5-hour morning dolphin snorkel trip (Sun., Tues., Thurs., $138 adults, $69 children) complete with lunch and an open bar (that they assure is only available after the snorkeling is complete).
Straddling the Alameda, several blocks southwest of the Plaza de Armas, the Barrio Cívico is the country’s political and administrative center. Facing the Plaza de la Constitución, the late-colonial Palacio de la Moneda is the locus of presidential authority. At 10am on even-numbered days, there’s a presidential changing-of-the-guard ceremony here.
In a development that rankles Pinochet diehards, a statue of former President Salvador Allende overlooks the plaza’s southeast corner, with a plaque inscribed with words from his last radio address: “I have faith in Chile and her destiny,” September 11, 1973.
Across the street, the Intendencia de Santiago (Moneda and Morandé), built 1914- 1916, features an attractive corner entrance and a spectacular interior cupola. French architect Emilio Jecquier designed the flatironstyle Bolsa de Comercio (Stock Exchange, La Bolsa 84), begun in 1914 but delayed when World War I disrupted the arrival of materials from New York. Immediately south, reached by a cobbled passageway but fronting on the Alameda, the Club de la Unión (1925) gave stockbrokers a place to schmooze on their lunch hours.
M Palacio de la Moneda
Never intended as the seat of government, the neoclassical Palacio de la Moneda (Morandé 130, tel. 02/26714103, email@example.com, open to public 10am-6pm Mon.-Fri.) became the presidential palace in 1846, when Manuel Bulnes moved his residence and offices to the former colonial mint. It made global headlines in 1973, when the air force strafed and bombed it in General Pinochet’s coup against President Salvador Allende, who shot himself to death before he could be taken prisoner.
Pinochet’s regime restored the building to architect Joaquín Toesca’s original design by 1981, but it’s no longer the presidential residence. Ricardo Lagos, the first Socialist elected president since Allende, opened the main passageway for one-way public traffic from the Plaza de la Constitución entrance to the Plaza de la Libertad exit.
For a more thorough guided tour, contact the Dirección Administrativa del Palacio de la Moneda at its office beneath Plaza de la Constitución. Normally, arranging a visit takes a couple of days with a written or emailed request.
Between the palace and the Alameda, beneath the lawns and reflecting pools of the Plaza de la Ciudadanía, broad pedestrian ramps descend to a luminous subterranean facility, the Centro Cultural Palacio La Moneda. Its gigantic atrium flanked by special exhibit galleries and other facilities.
Not many travelers can visit a zoo in such a unique setting, where the animals virtually live in paradise. The 150 animals at the 12-acre zoo are endemic and introduced species that would naturally live in such an environment.
[pullquote align=right]While small and local, the zoo is a delight and the only natural tropical rainforest zoo in the United States of America.[/pullquote]While small and local, the zoo is a delight and the only natural tropical rainforest zoo in the United States of America. The road to the Pana‘ewa Rainforest Zoo (800 Stainback Hwy., 808/959-9233, daily 9am-4pm, closed Christmas and New Year’s Day) is a trip in itself, getting you back into the country. On a typical weekday, you’ll have the place much to yourself. The zoo, operated by the county Department of Parks and Recreation, does feedings every Saturday around 1:30pm, so you may want to be around for that. Admission is free, although donations to the nonprofit Friends of the Pana‘ewa Zoo, which runs the gift shop at the entrance, are appreciated.
Here you have the feeling that the animals are not “fenced in” so much as you are “fenced out.” The collection of about 75 species includes ordinary and exotic animals from around the world. You’ll see pygmy hippos from Africa, a miniature horse and steer, Asian forest tortoises, water buffalo, monkeys, and a wide assortment of birds like pheasants and peacocks. The zoo hosts many endangered animals indigenous to Hawaii, like the nene, Laysan duck, Hawaiian coot, pueo, Hawaiian gallinule, and even a feral pig in his own stone mini-condo. There are some great iguanas and mongooses, lemurs, and an aviary section with exotic birds like yellow-fronted parrots and blue and gold macaws. The zoo makes a perfect side trip for families and will certainly delight the little ones, especially the weekly petting zoo from 1:30-2:30pm on Saturdays.
Sadly, Namaste the white Bengal, a resident of Pana‘ewa for 15 years and the most well-known face of the zoo, has passed. Birthday parties for Namaste were all-day extravaganzas with live music, free cake, and hundreds of attendees; Namaste’s cake was a special frozen meat treat with bone “candles”. Buried in his one-acre enclosure, he’s commemorated by a monument, and the zoo plans to keep the area reserved for any future tiger. Currently, you’ll see the enclosure under renovation.
To get to the zoo from Hilo, take Highway 11 (Hawai‘i Belt Road) south toward Volcano. About 2.5 miles past Prince Kuhio Shopping Plaza look for the Zoo sign on a lava rock wall, just after the sign Kulani 19. Turn right on Mamaki.
Dominating the skyline south of Pucón, 2,847-meter Volcán Villarrica’s glowing crater is a constant reminder that what Spanish conquistador poet Alonso de Ercilla called its “great neighbor volcano” could, at any moment, bury the town beneath a cloud of ash or a lahar of lava and melting snow, or set it aflame in a cataclysm of volcanic bombs. Closely monitored and occasionally closed to climbers, its summit remains one of Pucón’s most popular excursions.
More than just the volcano, the park comprises 63,000 hectares of mostly wooded Andean cordillera stretching from Pucón to the 3,746-meter summit of Volcán Lanín, most of which lies within Argentina’s Parque Nacional Lanín (would-be climbers must cross to the Argentine side). On the road to the ski area, eight kilometers from Pucón, Conaf’s Guardería Rucapillán is the best source for information. Rangers collect park admission here (US$8 adults, US$4 children). There are ranger stations at Sector Quetrupillán and Sector Puesco.
Geography and Climate
Immediately south of Pucón, the park ranges from 600 meters above sea level on the lower slopes to 3,746 meters at Volcán Lanín. Barren lava flows and volcanic ash cover much of its surface, but unaffected areas are lushly forested. The other major summit is 2,360-meter Volcán Quetrupillán, halfway to the Argentine border. From Quetrupillán to the east, several alpine lakes are accessible by foot.
Summertime temperatures range from a minimum of about 9°C to a maximum of around 23°C, while wintertime lows average 4°C. Most precipitation falls between March and August, when Pacific storms can drop up to two meters of snow. Rain can fall at any time. The park receives about 2,500-3,500 millimeters of rainfall per year.
Flora and Fauna
At lower elevations, up to about 1,500 meters, mixed Araucaria and Nothofagus woodlands cover the slopes. The Araucaria reaches its southernmost point at Volcán Quetrupillán. The mañío (podocarpus), an ornamental in the Northern Hemisphere, also makes an appearance. Native bunch grasses have colonized some volcanic areas.
Among the mammals are pumas, pudus, foxes, and skunks, as well as the aquatic coypus. Waterfowl such as coots and ducks inhabit the lakes and other watercourses. Large raptors such as the black-shouldered kite and peregrine falcon are occasionally sighted in the skies.
Chile’s most active volcano, Villarrica is a cauldron of bubbling lava and venting steam that’s erupted dozens of times, including a 1971 event that expelled 30 million cubic meters of lava in a f low that spread over 14 kilometers.
A strenuous but nontechnical climb, Villarrica requires crampons, an ice ax, rainand wind gear, high-energy snacks, and a guide, except for those who manage to wrangle one of Conaf’s few individual private permits. For those who contract a tour with one of Pucón’s adventure travel agencies, the tour involves a mountaineering crash course. In good weather, the summit is about six hours from the ski area, but bad weather sometimes forces groups to turn back. When the sulfurous crater is especially active, Conaf closes the route.
While the ascent can be a slog through wet snow, the descent involves body-sledding down the volcano’s flanks with only an ice ax for braking. Rates for the trip (US$65-95 pp) vary considerably among agencies.
When winter snows cover the lower slopes, the Centro de Ski Volcán Villarrica (lift tickets US$53 per day in peak season, US$42 per day in the shoulder season) operates four lifts with nine runs ranging 500-1,500 meters in length. In addition to one-day lift tickets, there are three-day, one-week, and season passes. For more information, contact Pucón Ski (Holzapfel 190, tel. 045/441901) in the Gran Hotel Pucón.
About midway between Volcán Villarrica and Volcán Quetrupillán, a rough, summeronly road crosses the park from Termas de Palguín to the hot-springs town of Coñaripe. Best suited to four-wheel-drive or at least high-clearance vehicles, it passes through a scenic Araucaria forest that includes the park’s only campground.
From Volcán Villarrica’s southern slopes, hiking trails cross the park to Termas de Palguín and continue to Puesco, where Buses Jac has a daily bus back to Pucón. For more detail on this hike, which has some hard-to-follow segments, see Tim Burford’s Chile and Argentina: The Bradt Trekking Guide (Chalfont St. Peter, United Kingdom: Bradt Travel Guides, 2001) or Carolyn McCarthy’s Trekking in the Patagonian Andes (Melbourne: Lonely Planet, 2009). Conaf now levies a US$14 fee for hikers on this trail.
Transportation is limited except for organized tours. To Sector Rucapillán, only a few kilometers south of Pucón, taxis are the only nontour option.
The Kohala district, also known as the Gold Coast, is the peninsular thumb in the northwestern portion of the Big Island. At its tip is Upolu Point, only 30 miles from Maui across the ‘Alenuihaha Channel. Kohala was the first section of the Big Island to rise from beneath the sea. The long-extinct volcanoes of the Kohala Mountains running down its spine have been reduced by time and the elements from lofty, ragged peaks to rounded domes of 5,000 feet or so. Kohala is divided into North and South Kohala. North Kohala, an area of dry coastal slopes, former sugar lands, a string of sleepy towns, and deeply incised lush valleys, forms the northernmost tip of the island. South Kohala boasts the most beautiful swimming beaches on the Big Island, along with world-class hotels and resorts.
[pullquote align=right]The shores of North Kohala are rife with historical significance, and with beach parks where few ever go.[/pullquote]South Kohala is a region of contrast. It’s dry, hot, tortured by wind, and scored by countless old lava flows. The predominant land color here is black, and this is counterpointed by scrubby bushes and scraggly trees, a seemingly semi-arid wasteland. This was an area that the ancient Hawaiians seemed to have traveled through to get somewhere else, yet Hawaiians did live here—along the coast—and numerous archaeological sites dot the coastal plain. Still, South Kohala is stunning with its palm-fringed white-sand pockets of beach, luxury resorts, green landscaped golf courses, colorful planted flowers, and deep blue inviting water. You come here to settle into a sedate resort community, to be pampered and pleased by the finer things that await at luxury resorts that are destinations in and of themselves. Of the many scattered villages that once dotted this coast, only two remain: Puako, now a sleepy beach hideaway, and Kawaihae, one of the principal commercial deepwater ports on the island. In Kawaihae, at the base of the North Kohala peninsula, Highway 19 turns east and coastal Route 270, known as the Akoni Pule Highway, heads north along the coast.
North Kohala was the home of Kamehameha the Great. From this fiefdom he launched his conquest of all the islands. The shores of North Kohala are rife with historical significance, and with beach parks where few ever go. Among North Kohala’s cultural treasures is Lapakahi State Historical Park, a must-stop offering a walk-through village and “touchable” exhibits that allow you to become actively involved in Hawaii’s traditional past. Northward is Kamehameha’s birthplace and within walking distance is Mo‘okini Luakini, one of the oldest heiau in Hawaii and still actively ministered by the current generation of a long line of kahuna.
Hawi, the main town in North Kohala, was a sugar settlement whose economy turned sour when the last of the seven sugar mills in the area stopped operations in the mid-1970s. Hawi is making a big comeback, along with this entire northern shore, which has seen an influx of small boutiques and art shops. The main coastal road winds in and out of numerous small gulches, crosses some one-lane bridges, and ends at Pololu Valley lookout, where you can overlook one of the premier taro-growing valleys of old Hawaii. A walk down the steep pali into this valley is the Hawaii you imagined from movies and reruns of Lost.
Parque Nacional Los Alerces owes its existence and name to Fitzroya cupressoides, the coniferous monarch of the humid Valdivian forests, also known as false larch or Patagonian cypress. Easily western Chubut’s most popular attraction, the park draws campers and fishing aficionados to its forests and finger lakes. Despite a magnificent setting, with snowy Andean summits to the west, hikers find it frustrating because the scant trail network often forces them to walk the shoulders of dusty roads with heavy auto traffic.
Colloquially known as La Villa, Villa Futalaufquen is the park headquarters and also offers a cluster of services at Lago Futalaufquen’s south end, where Puerto Limonao serves as a point of arrival and departure. At the park headquarters in La Villa, the APN’s Museo y Centro de Informes (tel. 02945/471015, ext. 23, firstname.lastname@example.org, 8am-9pm daily mid-Dec.-Mar., 9am-8pm daily the rest of the year) is both a museum, with history and natural history exhibits, and a helpful ranger information center.
About 45 kilometers west of Esquel via RN 259 and RP 71, Los Alerces is a 263,000-hectare unit on the eastern Andean slope. Its highest point is 2,253-meter Cerro Torrecillas, but Pacific storms that penetrate the lower cordillera here make it wetter than most of Argentine Patagonia. Past glaciations have left navigable finger lakes that provide access to some of the park’s finest sights. Summers are mild, with temperatures reaching 24°C with cool nights, but winters average barely 2°C and see ample snowfall.
On the Río Desaguadero, the Sendero de las Pinturas Rupestres (west of RP 71 at the south end of Lago Futalaufquen) is an easy 500-meter nature trail that passes a natural overhang with fading pre-Columbian rock art, some of it clearly geometrical. It then climbs through forest to an overlook with expansive panoramas to the north.
Register with rangers for the steep hike to the 1,916-meter summit of Cerro El Dedal, reached by a trailhead from La Villa; figure about 6-7 hours round-trip. From the road to Puerto Limonao (3.5 km north of La Villa), Cinco Saltos is a shorter and easier hike to a series of waterfalls.
From Puerto Limonao, four kilometers north of La Villa, the 25-kilometer Sendero Lago Krüger follows Lago Futalaufquen’s south shore to the smaller Lago Krüger, which has a campground and a lodge. Register with rangers before beginning the hike (a portable stove is obligatory). The hike has only one campsite, at Playa Blanca, between the trailhead and the lodge for an overnight stay (for inbound hikers only). Daily boat service to Lago Krüger costs about US$28 per person round-trip.
Los Alerces’ traditional hiking excursion is the “lake circuit” from Puerto Limonao, at Lago Futalaufquen’s south end, to the Río Arrayanes outlet of Lago Verde; at Puerto Mermoud, a catwalk crosses to Lago Menéndez’s Puerto Chucao, where another boat continues to Puerto Sagrario.
From Puerto Sagrario, passing blue-green Lago Cisne, a looping nature trail goes to the El Alerzal grove and the landmark El Abuelo, the oldest and most impressive single alerce. While there are guides on the hike to and from El Abuelo, it’s possible to separate from the group. It’s not possible, though, to hike elsewhere in an area that’s mostly an off-limits zona intangible.
It’s possible to start the excursion at either Puerto Limonao (US$53 pp) or Puerto Chucao (US$43 pp). Low water often eliminates the Limonao–Chucao segment. Scheduled departures vary, and in summer an extra afternoon service from Limonao is added to the usual morning excursion. Any Esquel travel agency can make reservations, but it’s possible (though not recommended) to purchase tickets here on a space-available basis.
Los Alerces has numerous campgrounds mostly near Lago Futalaufquen. In addition to organized campgrounds, formerly free agreste (“wild”) campgrounds now charge for limited services but are much cleaner than in the past.
Accessible by road, organized campgrounds all have picnic tables, fire pits, toilets, hot showers, and access to groceries and restaurants; some have electrical outlets. Among them are Camping Los Maitenes (tel. 02945/471006, US$11 pp), 800 meters from the Intendencia at Futalaufquen’s south end; Camping Bahía Rosales (tel. 02945/471044, US$11 pp), 15 kilometers from La Villa on the eastern lakeshore; and Camping Lago Rivadavia (tel. 02945/452009, US$11 pp), 46 kilometers north of La Villa at its namesake lake’s south end.
Reached only by a 25-kilometer footpath or launch from Puerto Limonao, Hostería & Camping Lago Krüger (tel. 011/15-44247964, US$12 pp camping, US$225 d with full board) has the only backcountry campsite; the hotel underwent major renovation.
Transportes Esquel and Transporte Jacobsen buses between Esquel and Lago Puelo pick up and drop off passengers along RP 71 within the park. Off-season Transportes Esquel buses go only thrice a week to Lago Puelo, and on Monday only to La Villa.
The only real dive site in Kihei is the St. Anthony Wreck off the south end of Keawakapu Beach. Maui Dive Shop offers dives to this part of a massive artificial reef system twice weekly as part of a two-tank excursion combined with Molokini.
Rental and Shore Dive Operators
If you’re a certified diver who needs to rent some gear, get some gear serviced, pick up some tanks for a shore dive, or book a guided shore dive with an instructor, there are a number of different retail operators throughout Kihei. My top pick in Kihei is Maui Dreams (1993 S. Kihei Rd., 808/874-5332, 7am-6pm daily) in the shop across from the southern end of Kalama Park. These guys love to dive, and they offer a full range of excursions from scooter dives ($99) to night dives ($79) to regular introductory dives if it’s your first time trying the sport ($89). Guided shore dives for certified divers are $69. Maui Dreams is also the only PADI 5-Star Instructor Development Center in South Maui. At $399 the certification courses are more expensive than others, and it’s $499 if you haven’t already completed the academic portion online (PADI E-learning).
Inside the Azeka Makai shopping center on the ocean side of the highway, B&B Scuba (1280 S. Kihei Rd., 808/875-2861, 8am-6pm Mon.-Fri., 8am-5pm weekends) offers guided shore dives for only $59, and they can also arrange a guided kayak dive to some of the spots which would normally only be accessible by boat. They also offer night dives ($65) as well as scooter dives ($119) along the South Maui shoreline. Whereas some other operators in town focus strictly on recreational diving, these guys are a little more hardcore. In addition to offering PADI certification classes ($349), they also offer IANTD tech diving classes such as trimix, nitrox, and rebreather training. They provide basic gear rental and tank pumping.
Check out Scuba Shack (2349 S. Kihei Rd., 808/891-0500), which is tucked behind the gas station across from Kamaole I Beach. Guided dives are pricier here. Certified divers can book a guided shore dive for $85, whereas introductory divers will need to shell out $105. Certification classes last three days and are $350, and the shop also offers a full range of gear and equipment rentals.
All dive boats in Kihei leave from Kihei Boat Ramp, which is just south of Kamaole III Beach. Parking is tight in the main lot, so it’s best to head to the overflow lot on the right. The scene at the boat ramp in the morning can be kind of hectic—especially in the dark. Most boats offer coffee aboard their trips if you still need a wakeup, and most boats also offer private bathrooms if the coffee just goes right through you. Since a number of boats that leave from Kihei Boat Ramp don’t have offices, bring a credit card or cash so you can process payment on board. If you plan on diving during your time in Maui, bring your certification card.
Of all the choices in Kihei, the unanimous top pick among island locals is always Mike Severn’s (808/879-6596), Kihei’s original dive boat operation. Although a number of the other operators in Kihei all provide exceptional service, it’s impossible to beat Mike Severn’s. Since Mike Severn’s caters to seasoned divers, the instructors don’t mandate an underwater game of “follow the leader.” They give you the freedom to enjoy the dive at your own pace. Two-tank dives are $130 (plus $15 BC, regulator, and computer rental), and dives meet at 6am at the Kihei Boat Ramp aboard the 38-foot Pilikai.
Prodiver Maui (2800 S Kihei Rd., 808/875-4004) is one of the last dive boats to cap its trips at only six divers (whereas other boats will usually max at 12 divers with two instructors). The small group size guarantees a personal experience, and their 34-foot boat meets at 6am at Kihei Boat Ramp. Two-tank dives are offered at $139, and it’s an additional $15 for gear rental in the event you don’t have your own.
Also ranking among the South Maui elite, Ed Robinson’s (808/879-3584) caters to advanced divers and underwater photographers. If you’re afraid you’re going to get stuck with a group of greenhorns, you can confidently sign on with Ed Robinson’s and know that everyone aboard is relatively skilled. Meet at 6:30am at the Kihei Boat Ramp. Regular two-tank dives are offered Monday, Thursday, and Saturday for $129. More advanced two-tank drift dives are offered Sunday and Friday for the same price. A three-tank dive on Tuesday departs on a different boat. Experienced divers can join an Adventure X dive on Wednesday for $149. Ed Robinson’s has a shop in central Kihei in an industrial yard at 165 Halekuai Street that also serves as a dive museum.
In addition to offering shore dives and rental options, B&B Scuba (1280 S. Kihei Rd., 808/875-2861) also has a dive boat, which does two-tank dives out of Kihei Boat Ramp aboard the 40-foot Kilikina II. When it comes to diving, these guys don’t screw around; they’re out on the water by 5:45am, and since the goal is to beat all of the crowds and get an early start, it’s frowned upon to show up late. The payoff for the early wakeup, however, is that you reach your first dive site before any other boats are around, and if that first dive site is Molokini, there is a certain magic to having the solitude most visitors will never get to experience. You’re usually back to the dock by 10am. The wallet-friendly price of $119 is also a strong selling point.
Two outfits focusing primarily on recreational divers are Makena Coast Dive Charters (808/874-1273) and Scuba Shack (808/891-0500). Both have boats leaving from Kihei Boat Ramp, offering one dive at Molokini and one dive along the South Maui shoreline.
Coastal Patagonia’s top destination, World Heritage Site Península Valdés is the place where the great southern right whale arrives to breed and birth in winter. Protected since 1937, the ballena franca occupies a nearly unique position as a “natural monument”—a designation normally reserved for territorial ecosystems—within Argentina’s national park system.
Península Valdés itself, a provincial reserve rather than a national park, has more to offer than just whales. Some marine mammal species, ranging from sea lions to southern elephant seals and orcas, cover the beaches or gather in the Golfo San José, Golfo Nuevo, or the open South Atlantic all year. There are also concentrations of burrowing Magellanic penguins and flocks of other seabirds, plus herds of grazing guanacos and groups of sprinting rheas in the interior grasslands.
Connected to the mainland by the narrow Istmo de Ameghino, Península Valdés is 56 kilometers northeast of Puerto Madryn via RP 2, but visiting the major wildlife sites involves a circuit of roughly 400 kilometers to Puerto Pirámides and Punta Delgada via RP 2, Caleta Valdés and Punta Norte via RP 47, and RP 3 back to Puerto Pirámides. Beyond Puerto Pirámides, loose gravel and dirt can be hazardous to inexperienced drivers, especially with low-clearance vehicles.
Broad sandy beaches line much of the coast, but unconsolidated sediments make the steep headlands that rise above them dangerous to descend. Sheep estancias occupy most of the interior, whose Salina Grande depression (42 meters below sea level) is one of the world’s lowest points. The climate is dry, with high evaporation due to long hours of sunlight and perpetual winds.
At El Desempeño, at the west end of the Istmo de Ameghino, a provincial toll booth collects an admission fee (US$16 foreign adults, US$8 foreign children aged 6-12, US$4 Argentines, free for all children under 6).
Whale-Watching and Sightseeing
The main activity center is the hamlet of Puerto Pirámides (pop 565), which, like Puerto Madryn, enjoys a longer tourist season because of the whale- and orca-watching periods. Once the export point for salt from the Salina Grande depression, it has grown haphazardly, and water continues to be a problem in this desert environment. Since 2010, street names have changed: 25 de Septiembre (National Whale Day) replaces Primera Bajada, and 14 de Julio (the town’s anniversary) replaces Segunda Bajada. Other new street names include those of Antonio Soto and Facón Grande, leaders of the Santa Cruz anarchist rebellion of 1921, and of writer Osvaldo Bayer, whose book Los Vengadores de la Patagonia Trágica helped to reveal the facts.
Sometimes called Puerto Pirámide, the village has since reasserted its plurality. According to local accounts, when the Argentine navy used the area as a firing range, they destroyed two of the three pyramidal promontories that gave the settlement its original moniker.
Many visitors book excursions in Madryn, but day trips are too brief for more than a glimpse of the best, especially if the operators spend too much time at lunch. Staying at Puerto Pirámides and contracting tours there is ideal for whale-watching, as you have the flexibility to pick the best time to go out.
Six Pirámides operators, some with offices in Madryn as well, offer whale-watching in semi-rigid rafts (which get closer to the animals) or larger catamarans: Tito Bottazzi (25 de Septiembre s/n, tel. 0280/4495050), Hydrosport (25 de Septiembre s/n, tel. 0280/4495065), Whales Argentina (25 de Septiembre s/n, tel. 0280/4495015), Punta Ballena (14 de Julio s/n, tel. 0280/4495112), Peke Sosa (14 de Julio s/n, tel. 0280/4495010), and Southern Spirit (25 de Septiembre s/n, tel.0280/4495094,). Prices start around US$62 but can cost more, depending on the vessel and the tour’s duration.
In Golfo San José, 800 meters north of the isthmus, penguins, gulls, cormorants, and herons all nest on Isla de los Pájaros, an offshore bird sanctuary. It’s off-limits to humans, but a stationary shoreline telescope magnifies the breeding birds. Near the telescope is a replica chapel of Fuerte San José, the area’s first Spanish settlement (from 1779, but destroyed by Tehuelches in 1810).
Puerto Pirámides has the most services, including the most affordable accommodations and food. June-December, whales are the main attraction, but beachgoers take over in January and February. Carless visitors can hike or bike to the sea lion colony at Punta Pirámide, four kilometers west, for vast panoramas and sunsets over the Golfo Nuevo.
Beneath the headlands at the peninsula’s southeastern tip, Punta Delgada is home to southern elephant seal and sea lion colonies, reached by trail from the lighthouse at the former naval station (now a hotel-restaurant). Hotel concessionaires provide English-speaking guides to lead tour groups and individuals, but they charge US$10 per person for those who do not eat at the restaurant. They have also turned the lighthouse into a museum and offer horseback tours.
On the peninsula’s eastern shore, about midway between Punta Delgada and Punta Norte, Caleta Valdés is a sheltered bay that’s fast becoming a lagoon as its ocean outlet fills with sediment. Meanwhile, Magellanic penguins swim north to a breeding colony and southern elephant seals haul up onto shore in the mating season. Even guanacos may be seen along the beach.
Where RP 47 and RP 3 meet at the peninsula’s northern tip, Punta Norte features a mixed colony of southern elephant seals and sea lions. In October-April, this is also the best place to see orcas, which lunge onto the beach to grab unwary pups. The museum here places marine mammals in both a natural and cultural context, thanks to exhibits on the indigenous Tehuelche and a historical account of the sealing industry.
Near Punta Norte, reached by a northwesterly road off RP 3, Estancia San Lorenzo conducts tours of its own Magellanic penguin colony but does not offer accommodations.
About 22 kilometers east of El Desempeño, at the west end of the Istmo de Ameghino, the Centro de Interpretación (7:30am-9pm daily) displays a complete right whale skeleton and also historical materials ranging from Tehuelche times to Spanish colonization and Argentine settlement for salt mining and sheep ranching. The informational panels are accompanied with good English translations. An observation tower offers panoramas across the northerly Golfo San José to the southerly Golfo Nuevo, and east across the peninsula’s interior.
The Dirección de Turismo (25 de Septiembre s/n, tel. 0280/4495048, 8am-9pm daily in summer, 8am-6pm the rest of the year) is the municipal tourist office.
Getting There and Around
In summer, from Puerto Madryn, Mar y Valle (tel. 0280/4450600) has five daily buses to Puerto Pirámides (US$5, 1.5 hours); the rest of the year this drops to as few as two. On a space-available basis, tour buses may allow passengers to disembark at Pirámides and return another day, but make advance arrangements.
Distances from Pirámides to other peninsula destinations are too great for non-motorized transport, so it’s worth considering a rental car in Puerto Madryn. Many consider day trips from Madryn too rushed.