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Published: August 15th 2009
Southern Right Whales
at Peninsula Valdes, Atlantic Patagonia
After leaving Bariloche, we had been hoping to continue our journey south along the legendary Route 40 (the road that Che Guevara famously travelled in his book the Motorcycle Diaries). Unfortunately though, it turned out to be closed for the winter, so we decided to head east to the Atlantic coast instead. After a 14-hour bus trip from Bariloche, we arrived bright and early at our hostel in Puerto Madryn.
Puerto Madryn is situated in the central Patagonian province of Chubut and is the gateway to Peninsula Valdes, one of the most valuable wildlife areas in the world. The peninsula was declared a UNESCO world heritage site in 1999 and is home to important breeding populations of elephant seals, penguins, sea lions and orcas (aka “killer whales”). From June to December though, the stars of the stage are the endangered southern right whales, who return every year to the sheltered gulf waters around the peninsula to breed and give birth. In an effort to see as much wildlife as we could, we decided to take a tour around the Peninsula that would also include a whale watching boat trip.
Our first sighting of the whales was at
the cliffs overlooking the New Gulf. At a distance of about 150 feet from the shore, they were clearly visible and we were amazed by the size of their tails as they emerged from the water. After entering the protected area of Peninsula Valdes, we arrived at the small seashore community of Puerto Pirámides, where we donned our life jackets and boarded our boat. Within minutes, our captain had located a group of whales and as we approached them, we realised how enormous they are. There were whales surrounding us that were bigger than the boat itself! Being so close to them also gave us a rare glimpse into their mating rituals, an activity full of drama and intrigue, and it was an incredible experience to witness.
After the boat trip, we continued our tour around the peninsula where we saw some of the Patagonian land-based species such as maras (Patagonian hares), skunks, choiques (ostriches) and flocks of guanacos. We passed by the two salt flats, Salinas Grande and Chica, which lie 42 meters below sea level and saw some brightly coloured pink flamingos. After that, we made a stop at a nearby elephant seal colony. Peninsula Valdes is
off the coast of Rawson
renowned for Orcas coming up on shore and snatching baby seals but, as we had arrived before the Orca season started, there was no possiblity of this happening. The only action we saw on the beach was the elephant seals lazily enjoying a sleep in the sun!
The following day, we headed down to Rawson and boarded another boat - this time to see some Commerson's dolphins. On our way out of the harbour, we saw a variety of sea birds, such as cormorants, sea gulls and oyster catchers. We also passed by some sealions sun bathing on concrete pipes. Once in the open sea, a group of commerson's dolphins soon approached the boat and started jumping out of the water beside us and surfing in the wake of the boat. Commerson dolphins are the smallest dolphin in the world and have very distinctive black and white colouring. They are really quick swimmers and were darting around the boat incredibly fast. While we were watching them, two sealions decided to get in on the action and started leaping out of the water practically waving at us! Apparently, they have developed their dorsal fin to be able to jump
Welsh and Argentinean flags
at Ty Te Caerdydd, Welsh teahouse in Gaiman
like the dolphins. They were really playful and great fun to watch! We also managed to spot two penguins, though they are out of season at this time of the year, and another southern right whale on its way to the gulf waters of Peninsula Valdes.
Trelew & Gaiman
After a lovely seafood lunch in Rawson, we headed off to nearby Trelew where we visited the Mef
palaeontological museum. Patagonia has one of the world's largest and richest fossil deposits and at Mef, there are exhibits on extinct Patagonian dinosaurs, lots of prehistoric fossils (one even 290-million-years-old) and a workshop where you can watch paleontologists study newly unearthed fossils.
After leaving Trelew, we made our way to Gaiman, a Welsh settlement in the Chubut River valley. Welsh immigrants arrived in Argentina in 1865 seeking a land where they would be free to speak their language, practise their religion and keep their culture alive. Their colonies in Chubut proved highly successful and, years later, the descendants of these first settlers still keep Welsh traditions alive in the area.
Gaiman has typically narrow streets with red brick buildings - it's quite surreal to see such architecture surrounded by arid
Head of a Southern Right Whale
in the gulf waters of Peninsula Valdes
semi-desert landscape! Many of the shops proudly fly the Welsh flag or have signs in Welsh, the chapel has a Welsh choir and the street names also reflect the origin of its first settlers. It's most famous asset though, are its teahouses where Welsh teas are served along with homemade cakes, scones and marmalades.
We visited the 'Ty Te Caerdydd’ teahouse (Cardiff Tea House) to sample some of the delicacies on offer. Princess Diana took tea here during her visit to Patagonia in 1995 and pictures of her cover the walls. In a moment of irony while we were having our tea, a bus full of middle-aged women descended on the teahouse and began frantically snapping pictures of the pictures...so we decided to escape the paparazzi and head home to Puerto Madryn!
Back to Puerto Madryn
Our hostel in Puerto Madryn (Hi Patagonia) was owned by an Argentinean of Irish descent and as we happened to be there on July 20th (Argentina's national Day of Friendship), all the hostel guests were invited to a traditional asado. Preparations for the asado started at about 7pm when our host fired up the barbecue using a special wood that had been
The smallest dolphin in the world
brought down from the mountains. About 2 hours later, we were treated to the most mouth-watering feast of sausage, chicken, steak, ribs and hake. Definitely Argentinean food at its best! Luckily for us, there was a great mix of people in the hostel that night also so the company was equally as good, and it ended up being quite a late night with several of us only getting to bed at around 6am!
A few short hours later, we checked out of the hostel with our bags packed ready for the marathon 24-hour bus trip to El Calafate. At least, we would sleep well on the bus! Or so we thought....
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