Though I’m still in Mexico, I thought I’d break away from the Mexican postings for a trip a bit farther down south, to Patagonia Argentina. These are notes I took during a trip there a couple of years ago.
Day One: Puerto Madryn arrival
I can’t remember having been this enchanted by a place in so long a time. Puerto Madryn has a GORGEOUS shoreline; dark gold sand, laid-back atmosphere. Tonight a silver full moon hangs heavy in a starry sky with las Tres Marias brilliant among all the other constellations. Dogs run obedient in the streets. I am sitting in a bar that’s blasting obscure old Janis Joplin tunes and nibbling on a kick-ass cheese and meats plate (tabla con quesos y carnes). The mojitos are strong and made from real mint, entire plants of it in one drink. They have an old cabinet above the bar, mounted with a forward tilt like an important painting, but displaying old booze bottles ensconced on its shelves.
Here are some snaps I took today of Puerto Madryn’s shoreline:
Day Two — Peninsula Valdés (Valdes Peninsula for the gringos)
I spent most of the day in Peninsula Valdés, a nature preserve/ UNESCO World Heritage Site that’s almost an island, connected to Chubut Province by a slim isthmus. I was scheduled to be picked up at 8:15. I awoke not really knowing what time it was because my cell-phone time was wrong, and I’d slept through my wake-up call too. Turns out I got out of bed at 8 a.m.; I hustled downstairs in the nick of time to meet the tour guide, Federico. In the back seat of his red square van were Mark and Thea, an English couple embarking on one of those massive post-university world tours that Brits do so well: first they’d been to Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, then to Australia and New Zealand. Now they’re on the Americas leg. Lucky.
It was gray and cloudy and we drove toward Peninsula Valdés; I was groggy, and I asked Federico in my bad Spanish if we could grab a coffee somewhere before getting to the peninsula. His response: “You are not in Buenos Aires – this is Patagonia. There are not cafes here – there is not even a gas station where we can stop!” He did say there were coffee machines at the eco-center on the isthmus leading to the peninsula. On the way we passed dry dusty landscapes, sand, and scrubby grasses and short bushes, very flat and in all the desert colors. Animals: South American ostrich (not rhea – he did call it that, but there was a more specific name he was using), llamas who traveled in packs and looked like much bigger deer – very lithe and jumping like deer over the occasional estancia fence; a “peludo” armadillo; gray speckled birds that he said were akin to partridges; “Patagonia hares” — although they are not hares, but tailless rodents with short stumpy heads in the mouse family that walk almost like little dogs, with a little hop. Lots of woolly sheep that produce merino wool. It was at this point of the trip that I realized I had forgotten to charge my camera battery, that it was completely dead, and I would not be taking any pictures today.
We got to the eco-center at Ameghino Isthmus, the entrance to Peninsula Valdés. The center was set up like a little museum, with a big whale skeleton that had been discovered on the peninsula — the space open and airy, well kept, clean and beautiful. They had a soda machine, and three little espresso machines that turned out to be fabulous. It was early and I was still a little hungover from the night before. A cute guy helped me deal with the coffee machines; he didn’t speak any English, and was from around there somewhere.
I went into the bathroom — a surprisingly nice tiled bathroom, a lot like the museum itself in décor. I told Thea it was like peeing in a museum display. Out the window of one of the stalls was the nicest view of the steppe I’d seen thus far: lots of pinks and yellows and beiges and greens in the desert coloring. I went back out and we three passengers climbed a little observation tower to see the thinnest part of this peninsula, with water on both sides.
I got back into the “Pat the Postman” red van, as British Thea was calling it, and we set off toward Punte Norte. Now we were on a rock road and all the stones bounced up clattering against the van, and would for the next six hours. We passed lots of Patagonian scrub-desert and all the animals. All of the peninsula, pretty much, was divided into estaciones – Fernando said each merino-wool sheep took up a lot of land to sustain. The peninsula has salt flats, “Salinas Chica” and “Salinas Grande.” There were very few structures on the land that I could see. One of the nicer estaciones, at the beginning of the peninsula, belonged to an owner of the Buenos Aires Boca Juniors footy team.
Though it threatened to rain all day, it only started coming down in the afternoon. We saw ostriches drinking fresh water from the puddles in the street; Federico said lots of animals survived on the saline water that comes up from the earth there, but could that really be true? I mean, some of those estaciones had horses, but I knew some of the buildings out here, like the eco-center, had fresh water pumped in from Puerto Madryn. That must be how the horses survived.
We saw sea lions on the shore; no whales or penguins because the season was over, but sea lions are apparently breeding and Peninsula Valdés is a big breeding ground. The water was deep green-gray and very cool looking. Back in the van and down the coastline, stopping at another point to see more sea lions. A little orange-and-white cat came running out of the guardhouse toward us; he stayed with us during our entire sightseeing trek and then tried to jump in the van after us when we left. I hoped he had a home. He probably does, with the groundskeeper – just not a lot of attention.
We stopped for lunch. Thea and Mark had been traveling since January and they’re on a strict 100-peso-per day budget – I bought them pizza over their severe protests, but I was all “I didn’t spend any money today” and said I had gotten on the tour for free … I didn’t want to be all “I can afford it, mofos!” even though they probably have just as much money as I do — they just spend it more wisely.