Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The beginning of Patagonia

Well, here we are in Puerto Madryn - our first stop on the way down south, and our first place in Patagonia. And what a place! First of all, we were expecting Puerto Madryn to be somewhat similar to Puerto Iguazu - i.e. a town with little going on that serves only as a gateway to a larger tourist attraction (in this case Peninsula Valdes, where whales rule the sea!). But we were pleasantly surprised to find it a charming and fun town!

We arrived from Buenos Aires - that is, myself, Alan, Bones and Mac arrived (Ed and Welly took the full sleeper bus, so got here a bit later) - at about 9 in the morning, after 22 hours on a bus from Buenos Aires. Perhaps now is the time to explain what buses are like in Argentina, and maybe dispell some illusions you might have! Buses in Argentina - even the semi-beds - are like the business class section of a good airline. For example, for 30 euro (which is what the 22 hour bus cost down here), our seats tilted to a 30 degree angle - as near to lying down as you can go! You are also given a lovely fleece blanket and pillow, and a lady brings you a little sandwich when you first sit down, and brings whatever drink you like - coffee, tea, soft drinks. Then, a little later, they put on the movie, and as you are watching it, they bring a hot meal - the other night we got a little tuna salad, some bread, a chicken and potatoe dish, and some flan for dessert. We got two movies, then they turned all the lights off at about 11, and we all had a lovely sleep. They woke us up at 7.30 the next morning with some light breakfast - croissants and coffee or tea.

Not too shabby! It`s probably a bit of shock to some of you who think that I`ve been holding on to the side of buses racing through dusty roads, hanging on for dear life! But rest assured, Argentina is renowned for it`s bus service, so I`ll be hitting some fantastically basic travelling routines in Bolivia and Peru. You might see me hanging on to the side of a bus yet!

Anyway, we arrived quite early, and while Bones decided to have a snooze as his leg was hurting him (lazy bugger!), myself and Alan and Mac decided to have some physical exercise! The lovely lady in our hostel had told us about a place 17km away where a sealion colony was, so we rented bicycles and set off in the sunshine thinking "how hard can the cycle be?". It turned out that the paved road ended after about five minutes, and after that it was gravel and sand roads all the way out there. In the blistering heat. With no shade. With less-than-brilliant bikes. Eek! It was great fun, though - all along beside the sea! I thought I`d die of the heat, and my legs were giving way under me, but after an hour and a half of cycling, we found the headland where the sealions were. And wow was it worth it! They were swimming in the water, and playing with each other, and the noise of them was unreal - calling out to each other on the sand! There were hundreds of them! We stood and watched them as the tide came further in, and they were forced to all begin swimming as their little patch of beach was getting smaller and smaller. They looked so playful and lovely! So we had our little lunch at the headland, and began the cycle back. On our way along a long stretch of the road, we saw two other cyclists stopped at the side of the road. As I passed, they said that there was a whale out from the shore. We stopped our bikes, and just as we looked out to sea, we saw a huge tail flip out of the water! Wow! We watched for ages as the whale turned and flipped at the surface, shooting water into the air through it`s blowhole, and flipping its tail into the air. Amazing! We cycled on and found an abandoned sandpit that people had turned into a dirtbike playground of hills and ramps, and we tested our bikes out on that for a bit. We returned to the hostel sweating, sunburnt, but bloody happy!!

That sunshine turned out to be misleading! The next day we got up at 6.30 to join our tour at 7.15 for Peninsula Valdes. We headed out to the peninsula in time to be the first boat out in the water for whale watching. We looked great in our giant yellow waterproofs and orange lifejackets! The boat speeded out along the coast, and within minutes we were out in open water. We had been talking amongst ourselves, and all had assumed that when we saw a whale, it would be far in the distance, and that we would be lucky to even see a whale - this being just the end of whale season in this area. However, we were to be pleasantly wrong! Our first whale surfaced within ten feet of the boat, and the captain cut his engines and we all stood in silence watching this huge 30-foot long mammal breaking the water, rolling around so much waves hit the side of our boat, slapping his tail in the air, and actually spraying us with water from his blowhole! It was the most amazing thing I`ve ever seen. I actually stopped taking photos, because nothing can explain or show the actual beauty of just being there, and watching this ancient creature sunning himself in the water next to you. After he dove for the final time, and didn`t resurface, I looked over the edge of the boat into the dark water, imagining how many of these huge beasts might be swimming beneath us.

I didn´t have to wonder for long! We say four whales in total that morning, each as amazing as the last - and even a calf swimming alongside his mother in the water, playfully splashing. It was the most beautiful thing I`ve ever seen!

After our boat trip, we went further up the island to see elephant seals. What a weird experience! They looked like giant slugs, just lying on the beach as though they`d never move again. How were these even the same species as they playful and energetica sealions we had seen the day before? WERE they even the same species? We headed further up the island to see a small penguin colony, where we could look at them down on the beach, waddling around. It was bitterly cold out there! But no ice just yet - we`ll have to head further south for that!

It was a long day, but really satisfying! We felt like we were actually doing something finally!

Yesterday we took the trip to Punto Tombo, where 500,000 penguins live in a colony. Wow! Again, it was very cold - and extremely windy (it is 200km south of where we are now), but no ice. The penguins lived in little holes they had dug in the sand. You stick to a pathway running through their habitat, but the penguins have ignored the human presence, and waddle across in front of you at any given opportunity - we lost track of the amount of times you`d have to jump out of the way to let one by! They were just beautiful, and we even got to see some little chicks! At the end of the pathway is a cliffside, where you can watch them on the beach and see them swimming - for a creature so graceless on land they move like lightening in the water! Really fabulous! On the way back from the penguins we stopped at a Welsh town. In the 1800´s Welsh settlers came over to Argentina, asking the government for permission to settle here and have freedom of language and culture, as the English were oppressing them at home and forcing them to speak their language. The Argentinian government welcomed them, as they needed to populate the sparse region of Patagonia - so it was a win-win situation! There are Welsh descendents all over Patagonia, but this particular town we stopped in - Gaiman - still has Welsh speaking inhabitants. The Welsh flag flies, and there are Welsh names on streets and buildings, as well as Welsh tea-houses. Very strange - but it was lovely. And they showed us the first house built in the town - from 1840 - and you might as well have planted us down in the west of Ireland! A proper little Celtic house in the middle of Argentina!

The weather is getting colder, and we`re heading right into it today. We`re heading to El Calafate now, to see the glaciers - so Alan is bugging me to get off the computer, as we need to buy a fleece for the cold! My next entry will be with cold fingers and running nose.....ha ha!

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