Monday, 17 December 2012

Puerto Madryn, Pingüinos, and Welshless Welsh Patagonia

Katia, on the way to Punta Ninfas

Amazing, I made it to Puerto Madryn and more importantly I’ve made it to Patagonia, pretty happy about that.  Although on my first night in the hostel I realised all my belongings are starting to get into a sorry state.  Looking at everything dumped in the corner I realised it had been a fair while since I was last in a hostel.  Everything is dirty and stained and has even developed a certain “smell”, a vast contrast to all the other backpackers in the hostel in their nice fluorescent Northface gortex that makes a swishing noise as they walk around.  Gortex is a good idea down here though as the last couple of days have been pretty grim all the time and I know its only going to get more challenging as I go south.  The town feels as though it is on the edge of wilderness and looking at the map it seems like its going to get quite bleak from here on in, haha going to be interesting.

Puerto Madryn is right next to Peninsula Valdes, a World Heritage Site, which is famous for the ridiculous amounts of sealife that is found all around here.  This includes whales, penguins, seals, sea lions, dolphins as well as Orca.  I’ve seen most of these animals in various parts of the world, but never Orca and the ones here are particularly special.  It is the only place in the world where they have learnt to beach theirselves to catch the young seals that relax on the shoreline before dragging them back into the sea, poor little buggers!  This only happens during the breeding season in January and even then it is rarely seen.  So no Orca for me this time.  Because of this I decided to skip paying for entrance to the peninsula and instead go to a couple of lesser known places where you can get actually get down on the beach and walk amongst the animals.  The advantage of having your own bike.  

One of these was Punta Ninfas, a remote outcrop some 80kms of ripio away from Puerto Madryn.  Its here that you can climb down the cliff and get really close to Elephant seals.  While getting ready for this day drip I chatted to Katia, a girl from France who was staying in the hostel and as I didn’t need much equipment, we worked out there was room for her to come along on the bike too.  It made a nice change from all the solo riding I have been doing.  The trip out was dusty at times and I had to concentrate to avoid the deeper gravel, but was on the whole fine.  What we did have trouble with was finding a way down the cliff once we arrived.  It’s a sheer drop and there are no obvious ways down so we rode back and forth right along the cliff edge until we found a way.   Glad my brakes are still going strong.  

Cliffhanger, not nearly as bad as it looks.

Finally finding a gap we made the steep climb down, made more difficult as I was carrying my helmet and bike gear.  But once down we had the beach to ourselves, sharing it only with the Elephant seals.  These looked huge from the cliff edge so actually coming within a couple of metres to them and seeing exactly how big they are was definitely better than any tour we could have paid for on the peninsula.  They are massive, and so fat they can hardly drag theirselves around.  We spent the afternoon walking around taking photos as close as we dared to go and then took an increasingly cold ride back in the strong winds.  
One big lump of blubber

The next morning after some debate due to the weather closing in, I decided to continue on south.  Ignoring the darkening clouds, I set off and hoped for the best, so being hit by a wall of wind and rain 5 minutes later was not the most welcome thing.  I was aiming for Punta Tumba, the largest penguin colony in the world outside Antartica.  To reach it I would have to ride a small section of ripio, so with the conditions as they were it would make it a little more fun.  However, I have to say I was flagging in the motivation department so after only 50kms and realising I’d packed my waterproof gloves away I decided to call it a ridiculously short day and stay in Gaiman.  

This area is the heart of Welsh Patagonia, where decendants from 19th century Wales still live in their traditional way.  I thought it would be great experience to hang out with a load of Welsh people who still wear their traditional clothes and drink ales and cream teas and hear about the old country.  I remember seeing pictures in a National Geographic when I was 8 and at the time being confused by the fact that there can be people so far away from Wales who are infinitely more Welsh than the people still living in the country, so after setting up the tent I had a bit of a walk around.  Unfortunately I became my confused 8 year old self again as I didn’t see one person looking remotely Welsh…nothing….today can’t have been the designated tourist day?  I did see some tea houses though, but these were closed too.  Anyway some houses did remind me of villages back in the UK, but honestly the whole place felt pretty uninspiring.  No worries you have to go to these places to find out right.  The tourist info office did have wifi so I sheltered in there from the weather and researched my trip to Ushuaia.  No people visited all afternoon, which says something.  

A house in exciting Gaiman, which does admittedly look a bit like my Grans house
Welsh Patagonia, where exciting ingredients can be made into exciting meals.

The next morning I rode on out hoping to see something welsh - a choir singing, a daffodil, anything, but still there was nothing so I kept going the 130kms to Punta Tombo.  Testing myself on the ripio I made it easy enough in the early afternoon.  After parking the bike behind the guides caravan to protect it from the wind, I went down to the shore to see all the Magellan penguins.  There are paths laid out all over the place and you have to stick to them as right now it is breeding season so there almost a million penguins hanging out all over the place and they have complete right of way over everyone.  

I'm no expert but Magdellan Penguins seem to either stand up sunbathing like this...

sunbathe lying down...
sleep with their eyes open...
take communial toilet breaks...
spend hours looking for their nests...
or if you're a single male with nothing else to do, hangout in big groups.
Everything else is completely outnumbered.  Here is lonely Guanaco out of place.
After spending an hour or two tripping over penguins I had to keep going if I was to find a decent place to shelter.  There is only one road south – Ruta 3, so I kept my head down and kept going through my first real desolate part of Patagonia until I reached Comodoro Rivadavia some 400kms later.  Comodoro is essentially one big, rich, oil refinery disguised as a town, and not very scenic so as the sun went down I went on the last few kms to Rada Tilly, a moderately nicer town and found a decent municipal campsite to sleep in for the night.

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