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Published: November 21st 2007
Puerto Madryn: Gateway to Peninsula Valdes
After a long, arduous journey from Cordoba to Puerto Madryn, punctuated by an occasional stop in some small village, before moving on slowly through the seemingly endless & bleak Pampa, we arrived in Puerto Madryn, gateway to Peninsula Valdes and Welsh Patagonia.
If we thought we had it hard on this 20 hour+ bus journey, it was nothing compared to the journey made by the first permanent settlers in this area. The Welsh arrived in the middle of winter in 1865 after a two month voyage from Wales. Things were no easier once they arrived, and for the first few months lived in caves near the sea. Not quite the idyllic Patagonia they were expecting!
Trelew and Gaiman have, today, more of a Welsh feel to them than Puerto Madryn, but, as the place of the first landings, Madryn has a couple of interesting, Welsh-related sites worth exploring. Perhaps most poignant of these is the statue given by the Welsh to descendants of the native Indians to honour the close links between the two communities in those early years, links which helped the Welsh to settle in to the harsh region. The
In Punta Cuevas, a few km south of Madryn, are the caves where the first Welsh settlers stayed for a few weeks after landing in Patagonia.
Welsh and Indians traded goods, learned different skills from each other and generally had excellent relations, far better than between the Spanish and Indians, as the Spanish were mostly interested in colonisation.
A fascinating museum near the El Indio statue tells the story of the first Welsh settlers and their early years in Patagonia. Ruth was as pleased as punch when the lady running it spoke to her in Welsh, (though we didn't get a discount and still got charged the foreigner rate, about twice the Argentinian price)! The museum is worth the price, however. It's amazing to think that the Spanish, who had ruled Patagonia for almost 300 years before the Welsh arrived, had never, in that time, managed to build any permanent settlements, whereas the Welsh settled here very quickly . A testimony to the harsh conditions and the bleakness of Patagonia, and also to the strength of character shown by the Welsh. Peninsula Valdes- Here be Whales
The main reason for visiting Puerto Madryn is its proximity to Peninsula Valdes, where the visitor has the opportunity to see close up the Southern Right Whales during breeding season, which runs roughly from June to December.
Whale watching in Puerto Piramides
Is it a whale? Looks more like a shark to me.
The whales started arriving here in the 1970´s, attracted by the warm, calm waters of the gulf.
There are three options for the traveller wishing to see Peninsula Valdes. One is to hire a car for a day and see the whole of the peninsula. This is a good choice if there is a group of you as it will work out cheaper than the tours and you see more than going by bus. The most popular option is to take a tour from Puerto Madryn, with stops all along the Peninsula. The final option is the cheapest, going by bus from Puerto Madryn to Puerto Piramides and then organising the tour. You miss out on the rest of the Peninsula but you pay 11.50 pesos for a bus rather than the 175 that the tour companies charge. The costs that you still have to pay are entrance to the national park and the cost of the boat trip in Puerto Piramides.
Taking the bus was the option we chose in the end, and plenty of others had the same idea as the bus was very busy. I hadn't realized until then that Puerto Madryn was so full
Puerto Pirámides, in Peninsula Valdes, is where the whale watching tours leave from. It's a very small village, though there are hotels, restaurants and plenty of tour companies.
of tourists. The bus journey took 1.5 hours, though we did have a 30 minute stop while an official boarded the bus and either sold or checked tickets for the national park. These cost 40 pesos for foreigners and 12 for locals. This was the second time we were charged a higher rate for being foreigners in Puerto Madryn. I hadn't noticed this price system before though it is said to be prevalent in many parts of Argentina.
We arrived in Puerto Piramides, with a certain sense of anticipation, as we had never seen whales before and knew very little about them. There are a good number of companies offering excursions to see the whales, and all offer more or less the same tour, for about 75 pesos per person. Our hotel owner had recommended Hydrosport so we tried them first and as they had a boat leaving at 12, we decided to book that straight away. The departure was a bit delayed as we were waiting for some latecomers. To paraphrase the tour operator "A 12pm departure means an Argentine will show up any time from 12.30 to 1." One elderly English man on our tour didn't take
Tractors bring the boats from the beach to the water for the whale watching tours.
too kindly to this and had a right old moan to anyone who would listen.
So off we set in our zodiac. We sat near the front, and as the sea was choppy we had something of a roller coaster ride. I've always been good at avoiding sea sicknesses, but this was a good test. After about 20 minutes speeding out into the bay, we spotted our first whale. From reading the brochures you might half be expecting the whales to put on a display of back flips and somersaults, but in reality you only catch very quick glimpses of them. What basically happens is that someone, usually one of the guides, shouts, for example "whale at 10 O' clock". Everyone then turns that direction, cameras at the ready, trying to get the perfect "National-Geographic" shot, while the boat rocks from side to side. If you're lucky the whale will pop out of the for a few seconds. If you're very lucky it will dive, showing off its tail. Otherwise, you wait for another one to appear, and the process repeats itself for about an hour. We had both a Spanish speaking and an English speaking guide on the
Hiking in Puerto Piramides
After our whale watching trip we had a few hours to kill before the bus so we hiked in the hills surrounding the town. Fantastic views from the summits.
tour, though it was very difficult to hear them above the sound of the waves.
We saw a good number of whales, some very close to the boat, but we spent much of our trip looking for them rather than at them. Still it was a fun experience and I would highly recommended it. After our trip we had 5 hours to wait for the return bus so we went hiking in the hills around Puerto Piramides. The weather was beautiful, and we had fantastic views of the coastline. Trelew & Gaiman: A long way to travel to see a bit of Wales
Trelew is a bigger city than Puerto Madryn but much less "gringoish", with perhaps 1 backpacker here for every 50 in Puerto Madryn. We felt that Trelew was a better option for seeing Punta Tomba and the Welsh town of Gaiman so on we went. The very helpful lady in Trelew tourismo found us a cheap hotel, probably the best value in Gaiman at 60 pesos a night; which we managed to reduce to 50 by spending a lot of time "thinking" about the room. Ruth is especially good at getting these bargains.
Siop Bara, Gaiman
The "traditional" Welsh tea house weren't open during the morning we visited Gaiman, but we did get to visit a Welsh Siop
It was too late to hire a car for the following day so we booked a tour instead to Punta Tomba. That left us the rest of the day to enjoy Trelew. The weather had turned bad making it a museum and cafes day, whereby we visited Trelew's two best museums, and stopped a number of times for coffee, in Hotel Touring Club. This is an atmospheric old cafe, with black and white pictures on the wall and a turn-of-the-century feel to it. Good value drinks too.
As our tour to Punta Tomba didn't begin until the afternoon, we spent the following morning in Gaiman, said to be the best place to experience traditional Welsh colony. The most Welsh thing about Gaiman that day, however, was the weather, as it poured down all morning, making it very difficult to see or enjoy the town. None of the town's famous Welsh Tea houses were open, but we did enjoy Siop Bara, run by a Welsh speaking lady. Perhaps it was the weather, but we were expecting we would enjoy Gaiman much more so than we did.
Back we went to Trelew expecting to spend the afternoon watching penguins, but
Hotel Touring Club, Trelew
Wespent a lot of time in this lovely bar/cafe in Trelew
unfortunately the weather put paid to that, and the tour had been cancelled. This was very disappointing as we had been very much looking forward to seeing the colony. We had already booked our buses to El Bolsón for that evening so we had to grin and bear it and make alternative plans for the afternoon. Hotel Touring Club it was! Next stop, El Bolsón in the Lake District.
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