Patagonia Part 1 (Peninsula Valdes and Chubut Valley)
Puerto Madryn, Argentina
Time to revisit South America after a six year absence. On my previous trip I had been given rave reviews of Patagonia by fellow travellers and I had been aware of the Scottish/Welsh connection but had not explored it. However in 2006 the weather was closing in for the winter and I was further north so made a note to pencil in a trip back sometime in the future.
I had discussed the possibility of hooking up with Norman Schouten from Inverness who has been travelling widely, and we had met at various times to discuss travel experiences. This finally came to fruition after being bounced around for the best part of two years. Norman has a six month stint travelling in South America so I joined him for three weeks to catch up with Patagonia.
Greta Mackenzie's excellent books 'Why Patagonia?' and 'Return to Patagonia' were loaned to me by friends Donald Gillies and Norman Campbell. Although the main focus of this trip was to be trekking and looking at the landscapes it was good to have a feel for the places where the Scots were settled and to read of their experiences on these very landscapes.
After a short flight to Amsterdam I had a long haul 14 hour flight to Buenos Aires (BA). After a brief overnight stay I left the domestic airport and travelled the 870 miles on a two hour flight to Trelew, followed by a shuttle to Puerto Madryn where I was to meet up with Norman. Flying into Trelew I knew it was closely associated with the Welsh settlers. With 'How Green is my Valley' etc going through my head I was surprised to notice how dusty the ground was when descending into the airport.
On arrival a mannie with my name on a board greeted me but unfortunately my luggage had not arrived so I had to wait in a queue to register my details. Was told it would be on the next plane. My driver had no English so we settled into an amicable silence for the trip to Puerto Madryn. Interestingly the bus shuttle company was called Eben Ezer Transport. The road was straight as a die and the land undulating in small humps. Without wishing to offend any of my Lewis friends my exact thoughts were 'this make Barvas Moor look interesting!' With all the travel hours I was a bit scunnered and every time we went over a hump I hoped Puerto Madryn would rise up before me but I had to wait for 40 minutes through the unrelenting sameness of the scenery.
Puerto Madryn looked run down on the outskirts with no road signage visible so was glad I was not in a hired car. The centre however was a smart resort and Hi Patagonia Hostel was only a block from the beach, where I was welcomed by Norman. We took a walk and had coffee and pancakes with dulche de leche which I had forgotten about from my last visit, but re welcomed it as a staple diet! (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dulche_de_leche). We took a walk along to the statue of El Indio which was put up on the centenary of the arrival of the Welsh her and as a tribute to the Tehuelche Indians whose assistance ensured the initial survival of the settlers.
The Hi Patagonia Hostel is run by Gaston to a very high standard and every second night he puts on an Asado or BBQ, attended by most of the residents so it is an excellent way to get a high standard meal whilst catching up with the usual eclectic mix of hostel dweller and gaining travel knowledge whilst sharing experiences. We had a quiet weekend but on Monday the activities became intense so I am moving to a day by day account.
The main reason for visiting in Puerto Madryn was to see the world famous wild life reserve of Peninsula Valdes and investigate the Welsh settler history. It is also the main centre in Argentina for scuba diving which Norman and I are both qualified for. Gaston's excellent English and organisational skills made it very easy for us to arrange everything from the hostel, more or less.
Monday 18th November
What a day! This will be very hard to beat. Arranged to go scuba diving and then snorkelling with wild sea lions. Norman did a refresher dive as he has not been below water recently. Once this was complete I joined the boat. Just the two of us and the dive master. As I waited to join the boat with the lovely Cecelia from the dive centre I could see at least five whales swimming out in the Golfo Nuevo bay in front of us.
We then headed out to dive on the Albatross wreck, which is a fishing boat. I carried out my 100th logged dive. Water was cold and visibility not great but still a memorable experience as we visited the various compartments of the ship.
On the way to the sea lions colony I was still buzzing from the dive when we saw a whale and calf right beside the boat! No camera but you will see from the photos that they were plentiful on the next day. You can only snorkel with sea lions in two places I was told. In the Galapagos and here in Puerto Madryn. What an experience. Once they see you in the water they come straight over. There is no feeding or any incentives for them. They just like to play! They are like puppies and grip you gently with their teeth in a playful manner. Not at all sore. You rub their sides and belly and they just roll around and lap up the attention. The more movement you make in the water the more they respond. Am running out of superlatives. This was a real 'one off' experience. Back at the ranch Gaston did not have any black pudding on the Asado so I bought some in which he kindly cooked for us. Very tasty.
Tuesday 28th November
We spent the whole day touring Peninsula Valdes, as you can see from the photos. We had to wait for 15 minutes en route as our driver showed solidarity with his co workers by not crossing a picket line on the way out of town. Very 1970s! We saw lots of whales at Punta Piramides, all very close to the boat and all with calves in tow. We got some good views of the dusty pampas travelling around seeing sheep, guanaco (which are like deer or impala), rheas (ostrich like) and Mara (Patagonian hares). On the beaches at Punta Delgado and Punta Norte we saw sea lions, elephant seals and penguins. We had hoped to see Orcas hunting baby sea lions but this didn't transpire. A good, if long day out in the company of Australians, Israelis and a French/Romanian couple.
Wednesday 21st November
Due to the excess on car insurance we decided not to hire a vehicle and elected to go by public transport to visit the Welsh villages instead of going to the penguin colony at Punta Tombo. Jael our Israeli friend, decided to accompany us. This was a great day out as we didn't just 'take the tour' and got around under our own steam so saw a bit more of regular life.
After getting the bus to Trelew we headed for the Tourist information but passed a Welsh Chapel (Capilla Tabernacle) and decided to look in. A wee lady in the 80s whose first language was Welsh but spoke in Spanish greeted us. Jael interpreted for us. The lady said 'this is a protestant church so there are no images. We replied that we were Protestants. 'Then you'll know what I'm talking about!' she replied. We had a lovely chat and then moved on after photos which you can see. The tourist information was in a building reminiscent of some New Zealand North Island homes. We visited the Museum which is in an old railway station and has some good artefacts from pioneering times.
Next we took another local bus along the Chubut Valley. The Welsh moved from Puerto Madryn and settled along the Chubut River. We went through Gaiman which is the main Welsh town and arrived at Dolovan. We spent all of 40 minutes in this one horse town and got the next bus back. Went to Carmel Chapel but it was closed and the Ebenezer Chapel was too far to walk. There are lots of biblical names all over the place. Had an ice cream and jumped back on the bus.
Moving back along the Chubut Valley you will see from the photos that the Welsh did in fact turn the dusty land into a green valley with sheep, cows and rheas everywhere. We did a walking tour of Gaiman and then visited the Plas Y Coen, a Welsh tea shop. A full spread reminiscent of any FP manse was set before us. Scones, scone with cheese, bread, two types of jam, lemon cake, apple tart, torta negra (black sponge cake) and all accompanied by a massive pot of tea. Our Israel friend Jael had some trouble with the quantities but Norman 'hollow legs' Schouten came forward manfully to hoover up any leftovers.
Back to Puerto Madryn and a final Asado at the hostel. Shannon from London, who works there, told us that she thought we were Meteorologists but could not really explain why she had come by that idea. Much merriment! I promised to get Gaston a Scottish flag to hang up in his quincho. Off down south next. Hope you enjoy the photos of this part of the trip. Another instalment soon.
All the best