Geo: -42.77, -65.04
The ash from the Puyehue volcano forced me to take a bus from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn (that's in Patagonia, mum, not Antarctica) on the east coast of Argentina, as all flights to the region were cancelled. The final 5-hour stretch of the journey into Puerto Madryn bored and worried me in equal measure. Seeing nothing but a hypnotizingly flat and desolate landscape, greyer than usual as a result of the ash-fall, made me question why I was bothering and whether this place could really live up to the hype. But it did, with knobs on.
I stayed in a B&B called Casa Patagónica, a fantastic choice (240 pesos/£36/U$D58 a night for a double room with ensuite). The place is run by Eugenia and Fran, although I saw more of Fran´s mother than I did of him, which was okay by me...I am generally comfortable with a bit of distance, even, or perhaps especially, when staying in a family-owned B&B. The guest rooms at Casa Patagónica are in a separate building from where the family live.
– “I'm afraid you're on your own here, Levi, because of the ash,” Eugenia told me when I arrived. “What are you going to
do this afternoon?”
– “I am going to wander around a bit, Eugenia," I said (whilst thinking, "It's typical that I pay for a room with an ensuite when I am the only person in the B&B and would have had the two shared bathrooms all to myself."😉
And as I wandered, I tried to work out how to pronounce the Welsh place- and street-names in a Spanish accent. This region is very Welsh as a result of the immigration from Wales in the late 19th century...the names Jones, Matthews, Thomas and Davies are everywhere.
I started to plan what I would do each day during my stay, but I stopped bothering with that when I got back to the B&B to find that Eugenia had been doing the same thing on my behalf. She had looked into various tours for me, and – whether out of boredom, out of a sense of pity for the lone Englishman living in her outhouse, or because this is the usual level of service she offers to all her guests – she decided to plan my every move.
I am not sure what it says about me that I still inspire such parental attention
from others at the age of 34, and this level of involvement may have breached my "bit of distance" rule in B&Bs, but I rather enjoyed it. For five days, I just needed to do, rather than think. Every night, I received clear post-it notes on my bedroom door, telling me what I was doing and where I was to go the next day, and what time breakfast would be served to enable me to get there on time. If I had any free time, I generally received a post-it suggestion such as “Ecocentro, open 3pm-7pm”. Early on, I made a policy decision just to obey all the post-it notes.
Over the course of my four-night/five-day stay (just the right amount of time if you're planning on heading to this part of Patagonia...I wouldn't go for less) I went on three driving tours with a man called Ricardo, organised through an agency called Forastero Tour. In my case, of course, Eugenia made all the arrangements, but you might need to phone them yourselves.
Generally I was “the only person on the tour, because of the ash”…except for the one-day tour of Peninsula Valdés, during which we were joined by a
man from England who kept offering me little titbits like “On the Chile-Argentina border, they were convinced I was carrying drugs” and “I've been in a lot of trouble with the law over the years, but I won't go into that.” By the end of the tour, I too was convinced he was carrying drugs, but I didn't like to say anything. He didn't speak Spanish so I found myself interpreting Ricardo´s commentary, or at least doing my best. From time to time, I didn't understand what Ricardo was saying, so I just made stuff up, which I am now getting very good at. There was also a mother-in-law joke that Ricardo told us whilst we were watching some elephant seals. I didn´t think it was very funny, so I chose not to interpret it. I just left him hanging, waiting to hear what had just been said. I wondered, if by taking my style of interpreting to the United Nations, filtering what is said and sometimes just making it up, I could prevent world wars.
Three days in a row I spent with Ricardo in all. There is something very intimate about sitting in the front of a man's
car for three days and talking with him non-stop, even if you are doing so in a language that you do not fully control. And this man has a very sexy mind, knowing as he does everything about the wildlife of this region. Yes, Ricardo may not have been fully aware of what was happening between us, but he was, in fact, my most meaningful and long-lasting relationship for quite some time.
One event that didn't involve Ricardo was swimming with seals. I didn't want to go at first (“What happens when they realize that I can't swim very well?/don't like going under water?/am actually a little bit scared of seals?” I thought). So, when the post-it note arrived announcing “Diving with seals, tomorrow, 9.30am”, it was like receiving my call-up papers telling me to head off to war. I downed a beer and told myself that getting up the next morning to swim with seals was bound to be a more interesting thing to do than not getting up and not going swimming with seals. (In any case, I had no idea how I would explain to Eugenia that I had ignored the post-it note. Being the only person
in the B&B, because of the ash, I didn't think I could get away with "What post-it note?"😉
Arriving at the office of Madryn Buceo at 9.25am wasn't very reassuring at first…it was a fairly macho environment, with a few men preparing a boat and one intimidatingly sexy, long-haired eighteen year-old changing into his wetsuit in the middle of the office.
– “You're on your own today, because of the ash,” I was told, “although we do have one other customer, a local, who is doing another type of dive. Do you want to go on the boat with him before you go and swim with the seals?”
– “Okay, why not?” I said, trying to sound ever so blasé about the whole thing, whilst doing my best to squeeze my belly down into the wetsuit with one hand and pull the suit up with the other.
– “I think you need a bigger wetsuit, Levi.”
– “Okay, why not?” I said.
It turned out that the other customer was doing a proper dive, with a tank of air on his back, which made my bright yellow snorkel look a little sorry for itself. I felt like I was heading off to work
Ecocentro, Puerto Madryn
Well worth a visit, the Ecocentro has some really good exhibits about the marine life of the region.
on a building site with a plastic bucket and spade. However, when the other customer surfaced from his dive with his nose bleeding inside his mask, I rather took to my flaccid little snorkel. “You'll do me,” I thought.
I adored swimming with the seals (relatively expensive at 750 pesos/£115/U$D180, but definitely worth it). It may, in fact, be the best thing I have done in all my time in Argentina. You get to hug them, and they get to bite you, with their little gummy, puppy bites. Generally it's the young'uns who swim to meet you, whilst their parents watch from the shore…at one point, I did feel like waving at the parent seals and shouting, “Look at me, mum!…Dad, look!...I can swim!”
Afterwards, the men on the boat offer you a drink of mate, and you refuse, in order to assert your cultural differences. And then they ask you what your football team is, and you scoff and say you don´t like football. And then they make a remark about the fact that alpha male seals have sex with as many as one hundred females per mating season and smirk, and you ignore them. Having said all that,
I really started to like the people on the boat. I think it was something to do with how in their element they all were. And in no time I started to wish that I worked on a boat and talked about football and shagging seals all day. For all their faults, I would happily get back on their boat tomorrow.
My evenings were geared around beer, then food and beer, and then beer…this might be why I need a bigger wetsuit. I went to one restaurant called Cantina El Náutico, hailed as the best and most famous eatery in Puerto Madryn. I am not sure why it is so loved.
I was the only person in the restaurant when I arrived, probably because of the ash. There was a big neon sign outside and lots of photos of famous people who have eaten there, including a former President who is dead now. There are also lots of posters explaining that “el showman, Omar Vitullo” would be crooning live amongst the tables in a few weeks' time. I ordered the lasagne, which seemed in keeping with the “Abigail's Party” feel of the place. The straight-from-the-freezer offering was wonderfully cheap and nasty,
and came with nothing except a “be careful, it's hot” plate, garlic bread and a sachet of fake parmesan. Before even tucking in, I managed to offend the waiter by accident, when what I was hoping to do, if anything, was lure him back to the B&B. The whole event felt very 1970s “whoops, there go my trousers!” and left me wondering whether the politically incorrect nature of the Argentine people was finally rubbing off on me.
An apple crumble later, I had a little argument with the same waiter about the president photo, because I was convinced he was standing next to his wife, but it turned out to be a woman who looked exactly like the president's wife but who was actually wife to someone else. I don't like losing arguments, so I was tempted to close with a “I bet the President didn't get fake parmesan in a sachet”, but I managed to hold that one in. Something of the British repressed nature thankfully still thrives in me. I left an overly generous tip – either to make amends for offense caused or deepen the wounds by showing off my foreign financial superiority, I am not sure
which – let out a “Chau!” and left.
I just realized I haven't yet mentioned the whales, which are rather the point of going to Puerto Madryn. They are amazing. I went on a boat trip (with Ricardo) as part of the Peninsula Valdés day trip. These animals are massive and loud and there are loads of them swimming about and under your boat. This boat trip was well worth the 230 peso (£35/U$D56) price-tag but, in my opinion, heading out the next day to whale-watch for free from the beach at El Doradillo was even better. For some reason, standing on the shore and seeing whales swimming past, no more than a few metres from where you are standing, feels more breath-taking than being closer to them on a boat, maybe because you don't feel as though you are intruding quite so much when you are standing on the shore …you are in your element and they are in theirs, your lives are just overlapping and you're spending a bit of quality time together.
I really envy the people who live in Puerto Madryn, especially when I imagine falling asleep listening to the sounds of the whales. I want to
A light in Mr. Jones
The restaurant Mr. Jones, in Puerto Madryn, may have a Welsh name, specialise in German food and be situated in Argentina, but don't let the geographical confusion put you off. They do good German sausages, served with mustard and sauerkraut, and have some nice imported beers.
live no more than a twenty-minute drive from El Doradillo, where I can sit on the beach with a book and a flask of tea whenever I fancied. One day, I will go back.
In particular, I want to have a go at spotting an orca. (I feel silly confessing this now, but I spent a whole day talking to Ricardo about “orcas” and pretending to know what they were before realizing that “orca” is the politically correct term for “killer whales”…his tone implied that I should know this, so I didn't dare say anything.) The orcas that visit this part of the world, generally from October to March, are very unusual in that they come out of the water to attack their prey, perhaps a seal or a mouthful of penguins. I can remember seeing these attacks on TV nature documentaries but, being the soulless person that I am, I am never very impressed by such things until I am, in some way, confronted with the reality. Watching the seals and sea-lions lying on the beach and imagining a killer whale suddenly flying out of the water to eat one of them really moved me. To suck up to
Ricardo, I also read up one evening about a man he had mentioned, called Roberto Bubas, who has befriended the killer whales in this part of Argentina (see Roberto and the orcas in action on YouTube here).
I am now convinced that a visit to Argentina isn't complete without seeing Puerto Madryn. Most guide books will tell you when the whale-spotting season is, but if you want to have a chance to see an orca or the penguins or some of the other animals, you will need to plan ahead more carefully. I didn't realise, for example, I wouldn't be able to see the millions of penguins during my stay; I had assumed they would have arrived in town along with the whales. (I´ve attached below a wildlife calendar, which I would have found very helpful.)
There's a lot more to do in this part of Argentina other than the wildlife. Look at my photos and you'll see, for example, that I went to a town called Gaiman to eat cakes and look at a china cup that Lady Diana herself drank from. I also saw some fake dinosaur bones in Trelew. Whilst these trips were good, even better were
the visits to the Ecocentro and Museo Provincial de Ciencias Naturaes y Oceanográfico, both in Puerto Madryn.
In the end, however, Puerto Madryn and its surroundings are really about seeing real, live, amazing animals. I can't be sure what this part of the world would be like with more people in it; I was mostly on my own, you see, “because of the ash”. However, I suspect it would be just as marvellous, even if you were not the centre of attention as the only tourist in town.
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