You get an idea of how special Patagonia is to Argentinians when you pass through the state boundaries and the bus is stopped and searched by the military for any items that may cause damage to the ecosystem. There were plenty of parcels in our hold that weren´t going to make it to their intended recipients. As soon as we arrived in Puerto Madryn we took a taxi to Hostel Viajeros to be met by a very enthusiastic owner who showed us a couple of rooms, one considerably cheaper than the other. We soon realised why he was so enthusiastic, we were to be the only guests in the hostel, it was totally empty. Not sure why because it was really nice, more of a guest house than a hostel. Argentinians seem to do a roaring trade when they pack people into 8 bed dorms - nobody seems to realise that you can do a lot better for a lot less.
By now we were well into Euro 2008, the games falling at really convenient times for us, like early morning or late afternoon so we´d managed to see a fair few games, and today was no exception. Later on we went out to book ourselves a whale watching trip for the following day. I was ridiculously excited about this. I got even more excited at the sight of a stupendous steak in another fantastic and reasonably priced restaurant. Steaks in the UK will never taste the same again.
We left at 8am the following day in a minibus for Peninsula Valdes, the prime area for spotting whales but even as we reached the town´s promenade we could see the whales spraying water in the distance. It only got better, about 10 minutes later we stopped at a beach and the whales came right up close to the shore. They gave us an impressive show, rolling over and spraying water. Forgive the cliche, but it really was awe inspiring. For me, easily the most impressive thing I´ve seen since the Galapagos. If the trip had ended there (20 minutes after it began) I would still have gone back happy but there was still a whole day to go. After a long drive to the dock on Peninsula Valdes we boarded a boat to get an even closer look at the whales. They really turned it on for us, diving up and out of the water and flipping in mid air - the Southern Right Whale is enormous, it defies belief that they can hurl themselves so high.
With frozen fingers and noses we returned to the mainland and dropped into a coffee shop for a delicious hot chocolate and Baileys, it was well deserved.The trip rolled on with a drive across the peninsula looking at the varied landscapes, including some salt flats. I doubt their a patch on the Salar in Bolivia but after the disappointment of missing them at least we can say that we´ve seen some salt flats in South America! We stopped at a closed research station and got to see some elephant seals which were cool, but we preferred the sea lion colony on the stunning beach in the Galapagos. We even saw a skunk. Not sure that I´ve seen one of those before. On our way back to the van we walked past a board that recorded the last sightings of Orcas, only two weeks ago (a big surprise given that this was well out of season). Que us running back down to the lookout point and staring our eyes out - no luck. Nevermind, we´d had plenty of whales for one day. We went to bed very happy that night.
When we checked out the next day we left our hostel empty and headed for Trelew where we would get a bus to Bariloche that night. We filled our day with more Wales, this time of the Welsh variety with a visit to the village of Gaiman which was settled in the mid 1800s by Welsh miners and their families. It was a quirky place where streets are labelled in Spanish and Welsh with names like ´Avenida Juan C Evans. The village´s big draw is the numerous tea shops that claim to offer an authentic Welsh experience.I bet they do for 40pesos. Thats 7.50 GBP for tea and cake. We passed, and headed back to Trelew safe in the knowledge that we could get a fine steak for less than that. We did, but it wasn´t quite as good as the others we´d had. After dinner we took the bus to Bariloche with Nat buzzing with excitement at getting to see Lucy for the first time in months.