A Whale of a Time

Trip Start Sep 07, 2005
Trip End Aug 18, 2006

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Flag of Argentina  ,
Saturday, December 17, 2005

One of the most pleasing aspects of long distance travel is the opportunity for spontaneity in both destination and duration. Given our shorter than expected hike in Torres del Paine, combined with some new information from fellow travellers pointing us in the direction of the Atlantic Coast, we rearranged our plans a bit to include a stop-over in Puerto Madryn, gateway to the UNESCO heritage site of Penninsula Valdes.

Puerto Madryn and the Penninsula sit halfway between Tierra del Fuego and Buenos Aires, yet they are still considered part of Patagonia. And perhaps, given the topography of the place, it might as well be: the Atlantic crashes into white cliff-lined shores that connect with a vast, dusty expanse of shubbery, sheeps, and endess sky. And, like much of Patagonia, the area was settled by Welsh immigrants and other flavors of Europeans, and that influence is still felt today in these parts. But Penninsula Valdes is not necessarily well known for these interesting factoids; rather, it is famous for the profusion of marine wildlife that spends either part or the entire year in the waters and on the beaches of the isthmus.

We came because we learned that southern right whales spend half the year - from June to December - in the shallow bays of the penninsula breeding. We also heard tell that we might see killer whales, several varieties of dolphins, elephant seas, sea lions, and penguins. Given Steveīs penchant for all things animal (heīs now contemplating an itinerary for the "World Animal Tour, 2012"), we couldnīt pass the place up.

We arrived into Puerto Madryn during the afternoon siesta and it felt, as most Argentine cities do during this time, like a ghost town. Steve scouted for hotels while Cori sat in a cafe, sipping a beer, reading a book, and guarding our plentitude of baggage (clearly she got the better end of the deal this time). Steve finally settled on a very acceptable room with hot shower for a little more than 20 US, so we plunked down our bags and made ourselves at home. Regrettably, we learned early on that the whales had bailed on the penninsula prematurely - in fact, the last real whale sighting occurred more than a week and a half prior to our departure. But we consoled ourselves with the possibilities of sighting orcas or dolphins, and so we resolved to venture out to the penninsula, whales or no.

Later that day, as we scouted for tours to the Penninsula, which is about 100 km from Puerto Madryn, we were approached by a Frenchman who was looking for two more people to share a car out to Penninsula. We were intially interested because splitting a vehcile would have gotten us to and around the Penninsula for half the price of an organized tour. So we accompanied him to a local car rental agency, where another Frenchman was waiting to have his credit card processed for a security deposit. While we waited, Frenchman #1 casually mentioned offhand than he and Frenchman #2 had just met that day. After several minutes of waiting and telephone calling, the agency employee announced that Frenchman #2īs credit card limit could not support the $1500 US he was seeking to put on it for a security deposit. So Frenchman #1īs card was offered - and similarly rejected. And then they turned to us. After some discussion, we concluded - wisely or not, we do not know - that there was too much risk involved in putting part or all of the deposit on our own card, especially if we werenīt the sole drivers. So we decided to bow out (politely, hopefully) and left the Frenchman to scout for another twosome. We still havenīt resolved to our satisfaction whether we should have been more trusting travelers - after all, both appeared to be very sincere, honest people - or whether, as we did, we should have followed our instincts and gotten the hell out when things started smelly fishy. Hard to know what would have occurred if weīd chosen the other path - perhaps weīd have met and spent the day with some very interesting people, or maybe we would have been conned out $1500. You never know.

Since, by the end of the night, we hadnīt arranged for a tour or a rental car, we just decided to sleep in the next morning (delicious to do so on a weekday) and then make a lazy day of it for the remainder. We visited Ecocentro, a very good museum about the marinelife in these parts - in English, to boot - which boasted a third floor viewing station, replete with couches, along with interesting audiovisual displays. We spent the siesta at a Welch tea room, where we munched on cheese, bread and jam, and seven different varieties of cakes, washed down by what seemed like gallons of tea and milk. We also prepared for a foray out into the Penninsula the next day in a solo rental car, with plans of spending the night in the car to minimize expense - and perhaps to wipe away any vestiage of bad car sleeping karma generated by our broo-ha-ha with Pepe.

Another morning of sleeping in, coffee, collection of laundry, then paper-shuffling regarding car rental, and we were on our way. After another extraction of cash from the Argentine national parks department and a drive of more than 150km over gravel-shifting roads, punctuated by the occasional appearance of frantic nandus and placid guanacos - along with domesticated cattle and sheep - we arrived at Puenta Norte.

Puente Norte is reputed to be one of the largest colonies of sea lions and elephant seals on the penninsula. For that reason, it is one of the best sites to spot orcas (aka killer whales), which hunt in shallow shoals off the coast and strike at baby seals and sea lions at high tide, bringing their entire orcan mass out of the water and onto the beach to get a jaw-hold on dinner. We scanned the seas for signs of orcas, but alas and alack, we were closer to low tide than high, and a handful of sea lions canoodleed, with not a care in the world, in a small, calm lagoon sheltered from the open ocean. So we watched them canoodle and haruumph up and down the beach, bellowing out their proprietary claims in not terribly flattering voices and then collapse, exhausted and supine, in a big tear-shaped pile of blubber, in which position they would proceed to flick wet dirt over their exposed bellies.

What we did unexpectedly find, however, were armadillos, who make their home not too far away from the parking lot at Puente Norte. We were intregued and snapped some photos but ultimately decided they arenīt to our liking: they look slightly prehistoric, slightly reptillian, slightly rodent-like, but their armor is covered in very long and sparse hairs that sprout from their back and cascade almost down to their little clawed feet. It reminded us of old Asian men who cultivate the growth of long hairs from their moles, and it kind of repulsed us.

We drove a little further on, to Caleta Valdez, where we spied a colony of Magellanic penguins; the chicksī development here appeared to be more advanced than those at Punta Arenas. Their downy grey feathers were thicker and more protective, and these chicks had gained quite a bit of weight, with the result that they all looked almost as wide as tall. Again, they looked at us quizzically, but we moved on to Punta Cantor, with the sun rapidly sinking in the sky behind us. There, we found more sea lions and elephant seals (the males really have to be one of the uglier and least tolerable species of mammal on the planet - they all have rather unfortunate and unsightly proboscis protrusions, and they lug their enormous heft (often up to five times the size of the females) around the beaches, barking at one another in an effort to claim or establish territory, regardless of what female or baby they steamroll in the process). We harbored hopes of perhaps seeing an orca here, as well - given their penchant for tiny sea lions - but that was not to be. In fact, a ranger posted at the site said he had not seen an orca for more than two weeks in the spot, this, despite the fact that orcas populate the waters offshore year-round.

Somewhat defeated but plotting another return on the "World Animal Tour, 2012", we headed back to Puerto Piramides, a very small village stationed at the neck of the penninsula. We chowed on pasta, watched the sun take its final plunge, and waited for the minutes to tick by before reluctantly getting back in the car, navigating it behind the local police station (police camping, the police assured us, was more safe and secure than municipal camping, although we believe the police camping was certainly less picturesque) for the night. And, in the morning, we roused at a slightly earlier time than we had grown accustomed to - sleeping in car seats is not all that comfortable, we come to find out - and headed back to Puerto Madryn, where we would catch the next and possibly last of our long distance South American busses to the Big Apple, Buenos Aires.
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