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Published: January 24th 2007
In order to explore the ecological reserve of Patagonia's Peninsula Valdés, we stayed in nearby Puerto Madryn, the town which grew up around a settlement founded by Welsh immigrants in 1865. There are plenty of excursions to the peninsula available from this base, as well as diving outings and trips to Welsh teahouses in Trelew or Gaiman (approximately 65km south of Puerto Madryn).
Visiting in November, we hoped to see the Southern Right Whales which are present in the area of the peninsula from June to December. Raúl was also determined to catch a glimpse of an orca, or the misnomered 'killer whale'. (Apparently they're really from the dolphin family; think Flipper on steroids and with an attitude problem). Along the way we hoped to spy various other species including penguins, sea lions and elephant seals.
Our accommodation was on the very edge of town, beyond which is located Punta Loma, home to numerous sea lions and their cormorant neighbours. On entering the site we were given a postcard-style ticket which bore the following warning in English:
"The beauties you are going to appreciate belong to everybody". It sounded like some kind of liberal brothel.
With the benefit of
Raul's Athena poster shot...
hindsight I can suggest that the colony is not worth a visit if the peninsula is on your agenda. It's only really a fenced-in vantage point from which you can observe the sea lions sprawled on a small, overpopulated beach beneath. The fee for this vista (one price for Argentines; a higher price for everyone else, as we had experienced elsewhere in the country), though not expensive, didn't seem justified when compared to locations we visited subsequently. But I guess someone's got to pay for dodgy postcards and chicken wire.
An all-day excursion to the peninsula began early the next morning. At the small settlement of Puerto Pirámides we took one of the boat trips for a spot of whale-watching in the waters of the Golfo Nuevo. There are regulations regarding how close boats can get to the whales, but we certainly got near enough to appreciate the awesome size of these creatures (though quicker reflexes and a steadier hand would have come in handy for me in attempting to capture them on film!)
Further north on the peninsula is Caleta Valdés, home to several thousand elephant seals. It's possible to get quite close to their shoreline hangout,
but there wasn't a whole lot of action while we were there. We had been hoping to see a couple of the males slapping each other around for the benefit of some blubbery broad, but it seemed nobody was up for a challenge.
The guide had previously mentioned that we might be lucky and get the chance to observe orcas whilst at the caleta, but after an hour or so a despondent Raúl prised the binoculars from his face and we stood up to wander off elsewhere only to be startled by a sudden multi-lingual exclamation - there were orcas! Squinting hard, it was possible to see two fins stealing alongside the beach. The spectacle ended there, however. No sudden speeding ashore to scoff a fellow mammal. The fins turned out towards the horizon and disappeared from view.
A little beyond the caleta is a colony of Magellanic penguins which proved to be a small taster of what we would see the following day at Punta Tombo. For all the penguin over-exposure (a claymation version - anyone buy the David Hasselhoff single on which he raps and samples Pinguish? - Marching Emperors and now a Happy tap-dancing cinematic specimen)
there's still something cute about them close up.
Not having had enough with the whales, we joined an excursion in a zodiac boat to see small black and white dolphins known as 'toninas'. These creatures are really gregarious and frequently swim right alongside or in front of the craft, and being flipped about in this type of vessel certainly added to the experience! But back to those other black and white critters...
Punta Tombo is home to the largest penguin colony in South America, a scrubby, surreal landscape dotted with penguins popping Clangers-like out of little dens and waddling towards the beach for a dip. Those who weren't making for the waves or emerging from under ground looking somewhat disoriented were guarding their eggs or cautiously watching the cooing humans. We were warned not to pause for photo opportunities on the raised wooden footbridge near the entrance to the colony, as this apparently causes the penguins to suffer spotlight fright and makes them stop dead mid-waddle. There's always some disbeliever who has to test these things for himself, and sure enough, as the snap-happy visitor paused on the bridge, all penguin perambulation in the vicinity suddenly ceased.
A resident of Puerto Pirámides quotes Charly Garcia - I guess it translates as something like "I'd rather die than sell out".
The following day we boarded our bus back to Buenos Aires and steeled ourselves for the 17-hour journey. This isn't too bad at all - there are films shown during the trip, large comfortable reclining seats with blankets and pillows, A/C, and food and refreshments are served. At least that was how the outward leg was... Heading back to Buenos Aires in the heat of the day the bus broke down twice and the drivers left everyone stuck inside with the doors and windows locked and the air conditioning turned off. Some of us managed to scramble into the drivers' cabin and unlock a door, and sat on the roadside watching a little police car attempting to jump-start a double-decker bus. But it seemed we had Gauchito Gil* on our side, and we reached Buenos Aires the following morning with no further problems and only a few hours later than expected.
* Gauchito Gil: A folk hero in Argentina. There are numerous roadside shrines to this figure - recognisable by the red flags or strips of fabric often left by travellers to ensure a safe journey for themselves - throughout the country.
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