Argentina - Whales and Other Tales / Puerto Madryn photos
Apr 6, 2005
|The Atlantic coast is covered with beautiful beaches and in the summer its coastal cities are filled with tourists looking to have some fun in the sun, sand and surf. In Patagonia, the Atlantic coast is an important breeding region for a variety of marine birds and mammals. Patagonian coastal cities are filled with a different kind of tourist; those wanting to observe close-up the amazing birds and mammals who return by instinct to these shores every year and who call these waters their home.
It took 14 hours to travel across Argentina from the Andes to the eastern Atlantic coast but I finally arrived in Puerto Madryn, a port city in the sheltered Golfo Nuevo bay, and site of the first Welsh settlement in 1865. These settlers took up residence in coastal caves for a few weeks when they first arrived (was this the Welsh interpretation of beachfront property?!) and although the caves are nothing more than ruins now, they are considered the first dwellings in Puerto Madryn and among the oldest buildings in Patagonia. Puerto Madryn is a major tourist destination (no, not to see the caves!) due to its close proximity to Península Valdés and Punta Tombo, two of the most valuable marine mammal conservation reserves in the world.
I spent my first day touring around Puerto Madryn, visited the Welsh settler caves (a pretty non-momentous experience), then spent the rest of the day at the Eco-Centre. It's an amazing facility with tons of exhibits explaining the habits of local sea life, the unique marine ecosystems in this area, and everything you ever wanted to know about Atlantic Patagonia. Interactive computer programs track travel/hunting habits of marine birds and sea lions wearing transmitters. But my favorite was the whale room - a darkly lit round room where I sat on floor cushions and just listened to the haunting underwater sounds of the whales.
Around 100km north of Puerto Madryn is Península Valdés, a wildlife sanctuary offering close-up views of numerous Patagonian marine mammals & birds and land-based animals. From June to December it's home to an important breeding population of the endangered southern right whale, and almost year-round you can see dolphins, killer whales (orcas), elephant seals, sea lions, penguins, mara (Patagonian hare), gray fox, armadillos, choique (ostrich-like bird) and guanacos (llama-like animal). Resident orcas have developed a unique hunting technique to adapt to local coastal conditions. At high tide they swim towards their prey onshore, strand themselves on the beach while grabbing a poor unsuspecting sea lion in their mouth and then, arching their body, return to sea. Both a fascinating and macabre sight for those few who are lucky enough to witness this phenomenon!
I went on a tour of Península Valdés, starting at Punta Norte which is home of a large breeding colony of sea lions and an area frequented by orcas. We watched the sea lions play and fight, and laughed at the babies, half grown now, as they squeaked and searched for mama. The orcas came for a visit; a large pod swam farther away along the coast, and a pair of youngsters cruised up and down the shore in front of us practicing hunting techniques. We didn't actually see them come up on the beach, but they did nab a seal just offshore. There was a lot of jumping and splashing and seal tossing action (poor thing!) which attracted the larger pod who came to join the party, and a real commotion was made over the catch until eventually the seal went down someone's gullet and they all swam away. End of show. Fascinating. A hard act to follow.
But onward we went to Punta Cantor where from August to March you'll find around 20,000 breeding elephant seals stretched out along the coast. At this time of year only a few small groups still hang around and unfortunately, from our cliff-top lookout, they were unrecognizable gray blobs lying on the beach.
A little further along at Caleta Valdés is a small colony of burrowing penguins that build hillside nests above the beach. Once the babies are grown and everyone goes through a feather-molting process, which was nearly complete when we were there, they'll all leave Península Valdés to spend the winter months in the warmer waters of Brazil.
Our final stop was to Puerto Pirámides, the only tourist village on the peninsula. It's a sleepy little ghost-town now, but a real happening place during southern right whale season as all whale watching tour boats leave from here.
Around 200km south of Puerto Madryn is Punta Tombo, my destination for another day trip. This wildlife reserve has the largest breeding colony of Magellanic penguins outside Antarctica. Between September and April the bird population is a whopping 1.5 million! These penguins build nests under bushes, in little caves and in the open up to one kilometer from the coast, often having more than an hour's walk between nest and water.
Wire fencing provides a restricted pathway for visitors to Punta Tombo, but you can get very close to the penguins anyway as they cross under the fence and often waddle around or plunk themselves down right in front of you. It seemed to be mostly naptime when we were there and I had to laugh at their various sleeping places and poses. They're just so darned cute, and once again a hard act to follow!
But off we went to Rawson where we took a boat trip to see the Commerson dolphins, beautiful black and white dolphins resembling small orcas. They came and played with our boat for a while and then, poof, off they went in search of more interesting distractions.
Our tour wrapped up with afternoon tea in Gaiman, one of the few very Welsh towns remaining in Patagonia. Can't say I've had tea, finger sandwiches and Welsh pastries anywhere else in Argentina!
Carmen de Patagones
I needed to pick up the travel pace a bit since my time in Argentina was running out and I still wanted to squeeze in a few more places. Unfortunately I chose a few less-touristy destinations which, although interesting and enjoyable, chewed up bigger chunks of travel time. Oh well, sometimes shit happens!
Heading further north along the coast, I stopped at Carmen de Patagones for a few days. Patagones was a sleepy little town until 1825 when border battles broke out between Argentina and Brazil. The port of Buenos Aires was blocked and Patagones was almost instantly transformed into the most important port town in Argentina. But after the war, and with the construction of the railroad, Patagones lost its popularity and pretty much went back to sleep. Nowadays it has a nice laid-back historic feel, cobbled streets, colonial buildings, and a beautiful river perfect for afternoon kayaking or lazy shoreline walks.
I must digress for a moment ... what is it with the language here? I've noticed the closer I get to Buenos Aires, the more rapid fire the Argentine tongues have become! Once again I'm struggling with words and pronunciations which are unlike the Spanish I learned. But then again they call don't call it Spanish but that she-she "Castellano" here! Urgh, maybe you just can't teach old dogs like me new languages?
Sierra de la Ventana
Still traveling north, I stopped for a few days in Sierra de la Ventana, a cute little village near a mountain range of the same name. It's supposedly a nice relaxing place with scenic hikes in the surrounding area, however, nowhere have I noticed the end of tourist season quite like in Sierra! I didn't realize until my arrival that most hostels, restaurants, shops and tour companies were already closed for the season, making it nearly impossible for any end of season stragglers like myself to tour the region. I did get out for a few gentle walks outside of town, but I never did make it for any hikes in the mountains as no transportation was available.
San Martin de Los Andes
It took 10 hours and a series of westward buses to reach San Martin de Los Andes, where I planned to spend my remaining days in Argentina. Needing to cross into Chile and travel back to Santiago from where my flights to Canada would begin, I had wanted to do the border crossing near San Martin as I had heard this mountain pass, a combination of bus and ferry, was particularly scenic. But the end of tourist season was working against me again. Bus service to Chile through this particular pass was already reduced to one bus per week, and not of course on a day that worked with my schedule, so a change in travel strategy was necessary.
But I did spend a number of days enjoying San Martin de Los Andes, a cute tourist city in the beautiful Lake District of Argentina, sitting on the shore of Lake Lácar. Thankfully, other than buses, all other tourists services in San Martin were up and running. I enjoyed some great meals, did a bit of shopping, and even squeezed in a number of day hikes along autumn-colored scenic trails.
San Carlos de Bariloche
My change in travel strategy took me full-circle back to Bariloche where I spent one night and has one last fantastic Argentina beef dinner before starting off bright and early the next day to cross the border at a mountain pass near Bariloche. This would be the last time I would cross the Andes Mountains on this trip in South America (sigh).
"A part of the world that seems to resist domestication, Patagonia is on good terms with the wind, whales, penguins and waves, but puts the endurance of the human spirit to the test. It may be considered as one of the uttermost parts of the Earth, or, perhaps, as the origin of a great adventure..."