Patagonia, Argentina – Argentina
From the moment we arrived in Puerto Madryn, in Chubut, we decided to pass through the town.
Strolling along the seaside, we got our the first surprise: we found small Inns, reminiscent of those in cottage country (in Northern Canada), full of young people sunbathing, jet skiing and windsurfing. We decided to hang around there listening to great music for the rest of the afternoon.
The next day, we got up early to go on our first whale-spotting tour. We shared breakfast with Italian, French and English tourists (each year, more than 40 000 tourists visit the area , and all 12% of those from countries other than Argentina seemed to be staying in our hotel.) Like everybody, we loaded up on the delicious, home-made fruit spreads. The owner of the hotel had an anecdote on this subject: she told us that a year ago, a man came to her and took a sample of each of her jams. Later, she discovered that he was the owner of the biggest jam producer in Australia, and he confessed that he had never had jam as good as hers.
We arrived at El Doradillo at 7am, when the high tide encourages the whales to come closer to shore. We climbed to the top of a cliff and were astounded by what we saw: the whales were right there in front of us, no more than thirty meters from shore! There were four cows with their calves (one of them an albino) which passed through the gulf. Some did turns and others “sang”. Each year, from May to December, about 800 whales pass by the area to raise their calves.
In the afternoon, we got another surprise: we discovered that Madryn offers a variety of activities far from the conventional tourist circuit: sandboarding, horseback riding, trekking, mountain biking, photo and air safaris, diving, fishing, fossil-hunting, rafting, and even a trek through an old mine!
On that particular afternoon, we chose to try sandboarding. Pablo Neme, a true pro who seemed to come straight from California, was our instructor. In the dunes of Madryn, we learned some secrets of the sport, like staying near your board before swooshing down a dune, so as not to get a mouthful of sand.
Before the sun went down, we went to Punta Loma, where there are sea lions year-round. On the way back, we met up again with Pablo, who then took us mountain biking and showed us one of his favorite spots off the beaten track. Here, the experts practice acrobatics, against the backdrop of one of the best views of the ocean imaginable. The sunset was spectacular, with the sun painting the sky rose, before settling into a palpable silence.
The next day, we began our tour of Peninsula Valdés by foot. After about an hour, we arrived at Puerto Pirámide, a town which, according to the locals, is inhabited by several “characters”.
The first such person who we encountered was Daniel, a skinny guy with dreadlocks who is the neighborhood diving and sandboarding expert. The next was José Maria, who conducts boat tours and is the DJ on the town’s radio show.
We took a tour with him, rocked gently by the waves to strains of Mozart. A whale came so close to us, she scraped the side of the boat and almost knocked us to the other side!
Later, Jorge Schmid, one of the region’s oldest guides (he’s been giving tours for over 25 years) declared that we were very lucky, as only one in 100 boats full of visitors get to see the whales so close to boats, seeking contact.
On the road again, we went by Salina Grande, one of the deepest depressions in South America (about 35 square kilometers), and by Salina Chica. At this time of the year, they form small lagoons of pinkish water between them, which owe their color to the crustaceans present in the water. These animals attract flamingos, the sight of which made for a truly unforgettable scene.
Another image that stays in mind is the old lighthouse of Punta Delgada, which was constructed at the turn of the century and currently functions as a hotel and restaurant.
We went to the breeding grounds in Pirámides and then later to Punta Norte, where we saw the only sea elephant breeding ground on continental territory. The permanent population is estimated at 700, although from August to March over 20,000 come to molt and breed. Guides ask that tourists not bother the quiet animals, who are saving their energies for later in the summer when they will begin their dives in search of food . Normally, they go down about 400 meters, but some have been known to go as far as 1500 meters.
On the way back, we stopped by the Isla de los PÃ¡jaros, which is overwhelmed by seagulls. There, we were surprised to find a replica of the Chapel of the Fuerte La Candelaria, the first Spanish assembly in the peninsula.
Once at the hotel, we dined on Patagonia lamb. Exhausted, we retired to our rooms to prepare for the vigorous day that lay ahead.
The last day, we had planned to see the penguins in Punta Tumbo and Gaiman, the Welsh village inhabited by the descendents of the first settlers in Patagonia. We thought that we would have a relaxing day, for once, but we were quite mistaken.
We met Luis – one of the nicest guides from Rawson – and set out on a mission to see the porpoises. “Captain” Rawson took us by dinghy to the Playa Unión. It was a true surprise! More than 50 porpoises were playing in the prow, splashing us playfully. The sight had no rival, and the porpoises are rather social, interacting with visitors.
One back on solid ground, we directed ourselves to the penguins at Punta Tomba (created in 1979). Our arrival was met with yet another awesome sight-more than 500 000 birds were flocked together, not an atypical sight from September to April. In fact, this particular penguin colony is the largest in the entire continent. Only Antarctica has more. We chatted with the park ranger, and munched on the most delicious meat pies, baked fresh by the owner of the camp nearest the colony.
Walking to Gaiman, Luis commented that his family, Welsh descendants, received First Prize in a cake baking contest for their entry in the annual Exposition of the Chubut Valley. Each year, there are about 50 contestants, who conserve their family recipes guardedly. One of the conditions for Luis to obtain the cake recipe from his grandma was that he had to promise to never alter a single ingredient.
With his stories, we were brought closer to a culture that lives closely to its customs, and which still celebrate the Festival of Disembarking, in honor of the ship “Mimosa” that arrived in 1865, full of future Patagonian settlers.
Totally intrigued by all that Luis had to say, we arrived at Gaiman, and visited the same teahouse that Lady Diana had visited the year before her death. There, we took tea in what could be described as one of the most traditional places in Patagonia, full of original objects from the “Mimosa” and staffed by true Welsh descendants who told us their history in great detail.
Later, we went for a stroll through the village and noted that the Welsh have truly managed to preserve their traditional ways of life. As with many of the places we had visited on this trip, the silence, however, was the most imposing presence, only broken by the rustling of leaves and the sighs of the wind.
Back in the city, we remembered that many had said during the trip, “Did you know that Darwin, in his old age, stated that Patagonia impressed him even a more than coral reefs or Amazonian rainforests?” and now, it must be stated, that we understand why.
The weighty silence and vast tranquility of Patagonia are just some of the qualities of the place that penetrate the soul and can never be forgotten.