Argentina has been full of surprises. Having thought it was a place to travel through to get to other areas we wanted to visit, very little research was done as to what this vast expanse of land can offer. Never a finer recommendation was made however than by two rather hungover Irish men in a vineyard.
We arrived to a very warm welcome at Hi Patagonia hostel. Lucas (a backpacker who found himself unable to leave here) greeted us with a beer in the sunny garden whilst we made our plans.
There is such a vast difference between a good hostel and a bad hostel. A good hostel is one you accidentally call home the minute you have put your rucksack on the bed. This was our home for the next few days. People ate together, lazed in the garden together and sat round a dining room table for breakfast whilst Gaston the owner made you feel like one of his own. The evening was spent talking to interesting people from all over the world; from retired social workers from Canada, lost students from Amsterdam, young Israeli soldiers just freed from their conscription. All with diverse stories told over a a cold Quilmes lager and a Gaston special BBQ, piled high with every kind of roasted animal imaginable. Another hangover pending....
Our first full day started on board a small boat, both of us squeezed into 7inch neoprene (both an achievement and a horror show in one) and Simon having a brief on a wreck dive whilst I - his assistant - held the bag and enjoyed the journey. Our luck started with passing a Southern Right whale (the second largest mammal on earth! Had no idea such a wonder was possible to get so close to) on her way to Antarctica. Whilst only a small portion of her giant mass was on show that in itself was enough to give you a lump in your throat.
Simon has looked forward to diving again. Having got his PADI qualification many moons ago he was keen to use it. The owner of the dive school in town, Francesco (known as Gringo to his friends; spoke so fast it made your brain crash and clearly had hyperactivity issues) broke the news that the school he had finished his PADI with had failed to register his dives and therefore he was not registered officially. Set back aside Simon agreed to a Scuba Discovery dive instead with the lure of a wreck dive in Patagonia being too much to pass up. All suited and booted (squeezed and suffocated) Simon leapt into the icy waters of the sea and unexpectedly his heart rate went through the roof and he found it hard to catch his breath. Having seen him in the brief and with all the equipment I assumed it would only be a matter of time before he regained his composure and went under. He tried keeping his head under water but still seemed to be struggling. He even went in tandem to a few metres under the surface with Francesco but he came back to the surface saying he 'couldn't get calm.' I could see the tension in his face; the great disappointment too. He made every effort to regulate his breathing but I was relieved (and proud truth be known that he was able to put ego aside) that he decided to call it a day rather than push himself too far. Totally crushed and completely mystified by his bodies reaction to the water we concluded that a diving nightmare experienced many years ago held its memory. Nevertheless, he remains undefeated and will re-take his PADI. There are Galapagos Islands and reefs in store after all....
The day was saved by joining a fabulous Austrian/ German couple from the night before for a blissful and playful 40 minutes amongst the sea lions. All the sea lionesses on shore dived into to greet us, nibbled at our fins, nudged our legs and picked up stones to toss to one another. A really unique and beautiful time to not just be an observer but a participant in a wild animals games. It truly seemed that they were enjoying our company as much as we were theirs.
Argentina is not cheap. Well, I guess predictably the steak and the red wine is far too affordable but everything else is not pocket friendly and with that in mind Simon and I have been cooking for ourselves in the hostels. Evenings are spent sharing the kitchen with like minded scrimpers which makes for a sociable and chat filled night and often the money saved on food being spent on Quilmes and Malbec.
The next day was a safari to a private ranch that happened to have coastlines housing elephant seals and penguins. Four of us and a slightly unhinged but completely hilarious biology student with wild black curls (our highly knowledgable guide) travelled the peninsula finding flamingoes, silver foxes, ostriches, two mummy whales and their babies as well as the highlight of sea elephants. These enormous blubbery beasts lay like dead slugs on the shore with the occasional scratch or nip at someone's wobbly mid-rift before having to have a recovery snooze. Watching them try to shift their wet wobbly selves across pebbles to the sea was rather like my ungraceful attempt of getting back in the boat after snorkelling the day previously. Black neoprene is definitely not flattering and certainly the elephant seals were equally unflattered by their skintight ensemble.
They are also dim. If you stand up they think you want to have a fight and also start to heave themselves on their...? Haunches? Rolls? Anyway they sit up. The minute you sit down they cant be bothered to look mean so go back to slug mode. Their intense desire to do nothing means you are able to commando style worm your way to just a few meters away. Nice to be near to nature, Not nice to be so close to animals that should be spending more time in the water to get some of that fishy smell off.
It is a surreal experience to see a penguin on a beach. Penguins should be on icebergs. To see a colony of several thousand penguins hiding in bushes, sitting on sandy ledges or hippety hopping across pebbles to the sea is bizarre. As we walked along a thin path we had hundreds of tiny eyes watching us from holes they dig, each hole a home for faithful mummy and daddy penguin (they stay with each other until death) and either an egg or a fluffy grey chick. Comical to say the least with their waddle (like the latest UK fashion of having your trousers only pulled up to your knees) and vacant expression. If anyone needs material for a comedy show putting words into the beaks of penguins is hilarious...honestly! Anyone else seen the 'Alan' sketch on you tube? You will know what I mean....
After all this David Attenborough stuff we needed a day of indulgent beach action and so as Simon swung in a hammock I walked the miles of sandy beach watching a new type of wild and crazy sight - the argentine hungry bum...men and women alike were losing their skimpy swimwear to greedy buttocks.
We recovered composure with giant ice creams (cholesterol cones) and watching a newly found friend play water polo. We had hugged goodbyes with Christina and Philip too.
Puerto Madryn; a highlight for the welcome you get from the wild life and wanderers. There is no doubt that whilst the sights, culture and nature of a place is why you came, the reason you stay is because of the characters you meet and the people that you make the memories with.