It's impossible not to love penguins
22.02.2012 - 24.02.2012 15 °C
Sitting in Buenos Aires we were contemplating where to go next and after having consulted guide books and fellow travellers we bought tickets to Puerto Madryn on the Patagonian coast. Arriving at BA's bus station, we were slightly disappointed by the bus which by no means was of the same standard as Crucero del Norte's excellent coaches. A visit to the bus toilet didn't help - there were a couple of holes in the floor exposing the road below...
So imagine our surprise when we arrive in Puerto Madryn in the morning having slept considerably better than on the "nice" bus. We're sure there is a message here somewhere but so far haven't figured it out...
Leaving BA was spectacular as we drove through endless grasslands of the pampas until it got dark. This agricultural land is lush and flat for as far as the eye can see, making it a land of huge skies. The weather was sunny and the temperature in the mid twenties as we trundled through the pampas and into the night. The sky was lit up with stars as darkness fell and our driver pushed on down the straight route 3 that leads all the way to Ushaia in basically a straight line. Waking up the next morning was a bit of a shock. Our first glimpse of Patagonia was grey, with lashing rain and wind hitting the bus from across the featureless brown scrubland on all sides. On arrival, the temperature was barely 14 degrees: a bit of a change to what we've been used to.
There are mainly two reasons to go to Puerto Madryn - to see wildlife or indulge in Welsh immigration history. Learning from Grant that there does not exist a special affinity between the Welsh and the Scots as there at least sometimes does between Scandinavians, it was the wild life that interested us more.
We'd booked a hostel which had received incredible reviews online. And we were not disappointed. Arriving after a night on the bus, we were met by Gaston the owner (surname Wynne - Welsh) who sat us down in the lounge, got us some tea and then offered to talk us through the various sights in the area. We gladly accepted and cried inside with happiness for being in such a lovely place.
We quickly decided our excursion for the next day and then headed out to see the town. Being on a meat detox, we knew what were not going to eat. Given that all of Puerto Madryn's 2000 mm of annual rainfall seemed to have decided to fall on our heads that day, we quickly found a table in one of many fish restaurants for a great lunch with a view of the Atlantic. Despite it being a regular Wednesday lunchtime, the place was packed with local families out for lunch and wine. Clearly Puerto Madryn people know how to look after themselves...
Helena enjoying the white wine more than the weather
Now, having said that Welsh history was not the main reason for our visit, we still found ourselves inside the local museum that tells the story of the first Welsh settlers who arrived in 1865, fleeing persecution and poverty at home.
They were the first Europeans to successfully settle in Patagonia but they paid a great price. They arrived in the promised land of Puerto Madryn after two months at sea, and found out on arrival that the place is a desert with no natural water source. The first few months several people died, including five infants. They even had to live in caves at the start.
Grant next to one of the remaining caves. We were imagining how the discussions could have sounded around 200 years ago: "What is this, living in a cave? I TOLD you we should have gone to the states instead!"
In the end, the Welsh must have done something right, they lived on and there are plenty of Joneses and Wynnes still around, as well as Welsh tea houses. They seem to have established good trading relations with local tribes and eventually pushed further south to establish farms near the Chubut river. They made the most of incredibly tough conditions and clearly have real status in this region based on what they achieved. Respect.
On the Thursday it was time for one of our favourite animals - penguins. We jumped into a jeep with our tour guide, Martin, and a couple of fellow travellers from Sweden for the trip south to Punta Tombo penguin sanctuary. On the way we had time to head out on a small powerboat outing to see the local dolphins - the smallest in the world and distinctive for their black and white colours. It was fun to watch them playing beside and underneath our boat, although they wouldn't stay on the surface ling enough for us to actually get photographic evidence of our having seen them, so you'll just have to trust us that they were there...
Look closely, they ARE there!
We can verify the fact that we saw penguins, however. When we hit the penguin colony we were amazed at the scale of the place. Walkways guided you through thousands of nesting penguin pairs and mature chicks. It was penguins as far as the eye could see. In fact, you had to watch your feet because the chances were you would trip over a penguin if you didn't.
Grant avoiding to step on penguin
We especially enjoyed watching a penguin "sqwack-off" between two excitable young males, but not as much as seeing Helena being chased in circles by another penguin who seemed to want the piece of gravel she was standing on to line his nest. Penguins can waddle pretty quickly when they want to!
Penguin couples stay together their whole lives...
We were keen to see Peninsula Valdes, but learning that there was something like a 3 per cent chance to see orcas feasting on sea lions (this time of year they hover next to the sea lion colonies waiting for dinner to dive into the sea), and not fancying another day in a car, we opted for the sea lion snorkelling the following day instead. This in a different area where sea lions are protected from predators and hence quite unafraid.
We had to go out with the high tide which meant a 7.30 departure on a small speed boat which took us for possibly the bumpiest boat ride ever. Grant was folded into a corner of the boat trying to keep his breakfast down. One of our fellow snorkellers was physically sea sick. Helena somehow just sat serenely and chatted, oblivious to the captain's best efforts to make us all spew. Half an hour later we arrived and jumped quickly into the water. We could see hundreds of sea lions chilling out on the cliffs and were utterly surprised that they all didn't immediately come to play with us, exciting humans, like the woman who sold us the tour said they would. Eventually, a few very cute sea lions appeared very close to us, diving and popping up in different spots to check us out with their big black eyes, but it's safe to say that there were more snorkellers than sea lions in the water that day...
A rough journey out, which Helena seemed to enjoy more than Grant
In the water but where are the seals?
They're behind you!!
Heading off from Puerto Madryn on the night bus on 24 February to Bariloche, in the lake district beside Chile. Very excited anout caching up wiith Grant's parents, Anne and Bill, to hear about their intrepid Antarctic adventures. More news from Barriloche to follow...