Wind and wildlife

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December 17th 2011
Published: February 2nd 2012
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Argentina's Patagonian coastline is not particularly renowned, to put it mildly, for its cultural wealth. For the most part, it is a windswept and desolate place dotted with plug-ugly petrol towns and gritty (the word guidebooks tend to use to make "plain awful" sound interesting) ports.

There are a few notable exceptions to this rule and Ría Deseado is certainly one of them. Located south of the "gritty" oil boomtown of Comodoro Rivadavia - a dive of a place with precious little to recommend it other than a café which served nice medialunas (Argentine croissants, healthily soaked in sugar syrup) - Ría Deseado was formed, as all rias are, when the coastal valley of the Rio Deseado river was flooded by rising seas, producing a broad, saltwater estuary. Rias are found all over the place (there are loads of them in Northern Spain and many South coast harbours in England are rias) but what is special about Ría Deseado is its abundance of wildlife.

Stepping off the bus from Comodoro Rivadavia, which has carried us across 300 kilometres of a landscape remarkable for its utter featurelessness, we are almost knocked off our feet by another of Patagonia's special features: the wind. Oh my goodness, the wind. The forlorn streets of Puerto Deseado, with its collection of clapped-out old bangers and gangs of roaming dogs, are not particularly promising - although, I suppose, picturesque in a sort of depressing, arty way. A rather disconcerting conversation with the owner of our chosen hostel (a relic of the 60s and probably the chic-est option in town...) leads me to two conclusions. One - people in deepest, darkest Patagonia speak a mumbled, garbled version of Spanish pretty much incomprehensible to anyone else. Two - it's so windy at the moment we're unlikely to be able to head out onto the ria on a boat trip. The boat trip we have endured a morning in Comodoro Rivadavia and five hours in a bus for.

Feeling brave, we head a couple of kilometres out of town to the offices of Darwin Expediciones (yes, Darwin made it to Ría Deseado - there's no getting away from the bloke!), a smart-looking outfit who run small boat trips to see the ria's wildlife. To our delight and great relief, there's a trip out the following afternoon. Which might well be what the strange man in the hostel said, if only I'd been able to understand him.

The vivid blue ria is a positive riot of wildlife. Barely away from the jetty we find ourselves accompanied by a pair of Chilean dolphins (yes, Chilean - it belongs on the Pacific Coast, on the other side of Cape Horn from here, for but reasons still unclear a small number of them now inhabit the waters of the ria). These tiny creatures (well, for dolphins) flit around the boat, giving our neck muscles a good workout as we try to follow them around. A short while later a couple of equally tiny, black-and-white Commerson's dolphins join in the fun, playfully refusing to cooperate as we try to get a good look at them. After a while, the dolphins get bored of teasing us and the boat takes us past cormorant rookeries (four different species inhabit the estuary, apparently), up close (very close, so close that one of the large males felt the need to roll over and show us that yes, he was definitely male) to a lively, evil-smelling Patagonian sealion colony, and finally - and perhaps best of all - up to a small island's pebbly beach, home to thousands of Magellanic penguins, cute black-and-white chaps who let you get very close to them if you're very careful. The trip ends with a welcome round of biscuits and hot mate sitting on the pebbles, surrounded by hordes of curious penguins.

Back on dry land, a quick taxi hop gets us back to Puerto Deseado's bus station, from where we backtrack northwards to the small (and, you guessed it, featureless) town of Caleta Olivia, in whose delightful bus station we spend a couple of hours enjoying strange men staring at us while we wait for our midnight connection to a place at the other end of the scale from Comodoro Rivadavia, a place boasting a status no less than mythic in Argentina. El Calafate.

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