Patagonia #1: Puerto Madryn / Argentina

16 08 2010

Translation from Turkish to English: Ödül & Ateş Gürşimşek

For the complete gallery of Puerto Madryn photos:

09.04.2010 – Friday

We arrived in Puerto Madryn after a 22-hour trip, which started from Buenos Aires. Arriving in Puerto Madryn also means entering Patagonia. Our arrival was delayed for 4 hours because of the frequent ‘food-checks’ throughout the road. The reason for these food-checks is to prevent the entry  of all kinds of foreign vegetables, fruits, meat and milk into Patagonia, which is intended by the officials to prevent the infiltration of other genes and life-forms, microbes or insecticides. We’ve been stopped for 5-6 times throughout our journey.  What’s more, in one of these checkpoints, the government official entered the vehicle with his dog, and the dog began to sniff each of the seats for food and stuff. They couldn’t find anything but a few oranges. The fruits, cream-cheese and even the bacon we’ve stacked under our seat manages to survive, enter Patagonia, and, finally, into our tummies..

The road is weirdly deserted. We’re going ahead in the steps of Patagonia. The only scene we can see after loooong and straight roads of Patagonia are some small villages; and the thousands of sheep and guanacos we see along the way. Guanaco is a cute, lama-like animal that you could come across with all around Patagonia. Other than those, we’re surrounded with plains and steppes, and nothing else. The road ahead us seems like it’s reaching to the eternity through a void that is right in front of us.

The busses are pretty comfortable. Almost all of them are double-deckers. We’ve got the front row tickets from the top floor, which means two things: we’ll be able to watch the scenery all along the way, and we have the luxury of stretching our legs onto the window in front of us.

After this 22-hour-long trip (which has been delayed already), we arrive in Puerto Madryn to meet our new CS hosts Gabriela and Bernardo; they’re here to pick us up. Both of them are travelers. They tell us that they’ve moved in here recently to live a peaceful life. Patagonia is Gabriela’s home; and their life here reminds us of our future plans in Izmir. They have two dogs in their home: China, the hot-blonde, and the little Morena, a short-term guest. They’ve found the little sick Morena on the street one day. The Morena we’ve met was just beginning to recuperate and grow up to become a monster.

Other than a few apartments in the middle of city center, all houses in Puerto Madryn are private housings with gardens. We have our own room now. We relax in joy..

10.04.2010 – Saturday

The most striking attraction in Puerto Maryn is its natural beauty. It is possible to come across whales, orcas, sea-lions, sea-elephants and penguins here . We have no hope to see a whale because the season is over, but our hopes on penguins and others still persist, although dim. There are two critical points in the region: In Punta Tombo, the largest penguin colony in the continent resides. In Peninsula Valdes, however, the major attraction is the whale-tour and the orcas. It is also possible to see some sea-lions and elephant seals, and a few penguins. (Possibilities of seeing these animals change from season to season)

It is possible to visit both of these locations by joining tours, but they are very expensive. We decide to find 2 more people to carpool, so we begin to travel all the hostels around. There are very few tourists around, mainly because it is not the whale season, and the penguin season is about to end.  We visit all 10-15 hostels around the area. Most of them closed down already, some only host 1 guest. Finally, we meet and agree with two British travelers.  We’ll try hitchhiking to Punta Tombo on Monday, then we’ll do the tour of Peninsula Valdes with the British.

There’s another place called Punta Lomo. Here, it is possible to see sea-lions and cormorantes (a sea-bird) all year round. It is possible to bike the 12 km distance, but our hosts offer us a ride 🙂

So, we go together. In all of Argentina’s museums and parks, different fees apply for the locals, Argentineans and the tourists. We pay almost 3 times what our hosts do, and almost 10 times what local people pay. We’ve seen a similar trick in Turkey, but it’s mostly a fraud there. For instance, the sign in front of the Galata Tower says “FIVE TL” for Turkish, while tourists pay 10 TL, as if they won’t recognize the difference.

We see tens of sea-lions in Punta Lomo. We realize that it’s not fair to call Koala’s as the ‘lazy animal’, because sea-lions are the laziest of all. They stop and fall asleep in any kind of obstruction, if it stands between them and their way to the sea. 🙂 If I’m not mistaken, they also have the ability to hold their breaths for 7 minutes under the sea, and can dive down to 150 meters.

We see Alexa’s name there, as one of the researchers who study the animals in Punta Lomo and contribute to the information signs there. By now, we have no idea that she’ll be our next host.

11.04.2010 – Sunday

The day begins with our hope for hitchiking to Punta Tombo; we leave for a town called Trelew by bus early in the morning.  This place is only 1-hour away from Punta Tombo, and it’s on the way to there. We need to go a gas station near the outskirts of Trelew, cause that is the best place for hitchhiking. We arrive in the gas station after a 2-hour walk, but we’re exhausted. Although this is a smaller station, almost everyone who passes it stops to get a parilla – those things that you can find everywhere in Argentina. Another reason for them to stop might be the long long distance to the next gas station.

After a 15-minute wait, a car that is heading to Comodoro Rivadavia picks us up. People drive weirdly in Argentina. We were just complaining about the bus and how slow it went on a deserted road; now we meet a driver who drives soo fast, and passes the next car in traffic with a 2-meter braking distance; and who constantly drinks mate even when he’s driving the vehicle.

They drop us at the junction that shows Punta Tombo, so we start waiting for another car to take us there. The scenery is amazing: an infinite distance of plain steppes, and the never-ending road that lies straight in the middle. For a few minutes, we don’t even see any vehicles that travel towards Comodoro Rivadavia; so we lie down on the road and take photos. We continue waiting. We wait, and wait, and wait.. 3 hours pass, the wind goes crazy. We wait some more. And no cars steer towards the road to Punta Tombo.

We finally give up, thinking ‘This is what they call off-season!’. We hitchhike back to Trelew. The car that picks us up until Trelew stops in front of a casino, and we learn that our driver has been driving from Rawson town to Trelew just for gambling.

After a while, we decide to go in, too. There are more than 100 people inside the place. It’s too cheap to get inside, only 2 pesos. I sit on one of the machines, and Murat begins to watch me play. I insert the money for 20 credits, and begin playing. In my first try, the machine starts to make funny noises, and I win 100 credits. The guy who plays besides me begins to watch how I play. As always, luck turns out to be on my side. Although I finish all my credits soon, I leave the casino with a strong feeling of victory.. 🙂

At night, I cook rice for Bernardo, and and eggplant salad for Gabriela. It turns out that Bernardo was really curious about how Turkish people cook rice, because he thinks rice is cooked the same way as pasta. It feels comforting to be able to cook after a looong break. Especially when my cooking receives all those nice remarks from all my customers, I relax with ecstasy.. 🙂

12.04.2010- Monday

After the hitchhiking failure of yesterday, we head on to Punta Tombo by a car this time. Annika and Simon from Britain, and Elizabeth from Australia accompany us on our trip today. We’re not sure if we’ll be able to see some penguins, but we’re all very curious. While we buy the tickets from the clerk at the entrance to the Punta Tombo National Park, we ask him if there are any penguins around. Instead of an answer, he shows us the penguin that stands right behind us; so we meet our first penguin. We learn that these animals do not only reside on the sea shore, but they spread their nests into a wide area nearby. This penguin we meet is a little lost, it’d almost leave the park..

As we go deeper into the park, we see thousands of penguins. Some prefer to stand still like a statue and watch us from there. They’re so funny. Others are simply curious; they keep looking at us while turning their heads from one side to the other constantly. Later, we learn that this head movement is not about their curiosity, but it’s caused by stress.

Penguins are not only funny because of their shapes and walks, but they sound incredibly funny, too. My guess is that a lot of people get disappointed by their sound; because normally you wouldn’t expect a donkey’s bray from a bird that cute. What’s more, one never expects this weird sound to reach to a 100-meter distance with all that noise.

After having our fun with penguins in Punta Tombo, we first travel back to Trelew, and go to another town called Gaiman. The nature here is a bit different, because of the river Chubut that crosses the region. The deserts of Patagonia suddenly turns into an area that is full of trees. We stop at a Bolivian grocery stand on the way, which has nicer fruits and vegetables than the average Patagonian grocery. Gaiman is a region where mostly people from the Wales inhabit. The relatives of the first inhabitants still live here, and run tea houses, etc. However, one cup of tea and the little cookies they serve with it costs A$ 50, which is a crazy price for such a thing. We don’t even try the tea. There’s also a park in Gaiman, which made into the Guinness Book of World Records. This is the largest Recycle park in the world. All the statues were manufactured from recycled materials. We also hear that Gaiman is a significant place for the language research about the Wales, because it still has unaltered grammar being used here. This makes Gaiman a popular place for the researchers, too.

While we’re driving with our British hosts, we learn that British tourists are the least favoured by Argentineans, because of the history of the Falkland Islands War. Although it has been many years since, Argentina still resists to acknowledge that the islands belong to the British. The Islas Malvinas (local name for the islands) posters that we’ve seen all around Buenos Aires begin to make more sense now.

There’s a feast at home tonight. Bernardo proves his  Sevillean Spanish ancestry by cooking us delicious calamari and Tortilla de Patatas (Spanish omelette with potatoes). We also have a salad: a regular green salad, but with avocados and sesame on top. It’s incredibly successful. We gobble them all with great appetite and joy.. 🙂

13.04.2010 – Tuesday

In the morning, we head off to Peninsula Valdes, early again. This time, timing is critical because we may have the chance to see an orca, depending on the ebb and flow of tides. Just like the road to Punta Tombo, Peninsula Valdes has a dust path as the road. It is highly possible for the windows or our vehicle to crack or have some kind of problem. What’s more, the rent insurances do not cover the whole expense for any damage. We’ll need to cover the first 3000US$, then the insurance company gets involved. Especially after noticing that almost every car in Puerto Madryn has at least one crack in their windows, we decide to be careful. Tour busses pass whizzing by us all through the way. There are tens of different signs along the way, which invite drivers to be careful. It seems they haven’t considered the risk of driving out of the road, when a driver actually wants to read all of these.. 🙂

Punta Norte is our first stop. It’s the northern tip of the island. There are sea-lions and sea-elephants here.  Orca’s attempt to use the flow of the tides to be able to get close to these animals and hunt them down, and of course eat them. But we’re not lucky enough to see one. Still, we feel lucky to have been in such a significant place. There are only two places in the world where Orcas go on shore to hunt, and we’re at one of them. The other, by the way, is an island at the Indian Ocean. This is how an Orca hunts here: The Orca swings itself onto the shore fast enough to place some of his body on earth, then grabs one of the sea-elephant babies. They say this normally takes place within 30 seconds, which means that huge killer whale gets out of the water for a whole 30 seconds!! It’s incredible. What’s more, they say it’s not instinctive; it’s been a taught attitude among the whales. And there are only 5 whales left who still know who to hunt this way. In English, this hunting method is called “Intentional Beaching”.

Our last stop is the eastern end of the island, Caleta Valdes. We come across a few penguins on our way. After the millions of penguins we saw yesterday, we’re not even excited about them that much. We see sea elephants and lions in Caleta Valdes. There are also different animals here; such as the Red Fox or the Armadillo. Armadillos look like half-rat half-turtle creatures that have survived since the time of the dinosaurs.  They’re hilarious! They always come close to us and wonder around dazed and confused.

Although we missed the chance to see the most significant attraction in Peninsula Valdes, the whales, we return home as satisfied as we can get by being together with all kinds of other cute animals all day. We’ll change our host today. We’ll go on staying with Alexa, who not only stays 5 minutes away from Gabriela’s place, but also is the person whose name we’ve seen on the sign plates in Punta Lomo. Alexa is a doctor of ecology, and she specializes on the birds of the sea. Along with so many other things, we’ll learn from Alexa that Puerto Madryn is full of biologists.

As we’re getting used to seeing by now in Argentina, Alexa has two dogs. Binky and Huata. Huata is a calm, tiny 8-year old dog. However, binky is a huge hyper-energetic black Golden! The night began with Binky scaring the hell out of me with its enthusiasm; but shortly after, it calmed down and I seem to get used to the madness .

Alexa invites two more biologist friends for dinner, so we eat altogether tonight.

14.04.2010 – Wednesday

Now that we’ve done all the major attractions in the city, we relax. Murat spends the day with his computer, and I go shopping. I finally find a couple of Penguin earrings; I’ve been mentioning how much I want to buy one since I was back in Turkey. Siesta is a common practice all around Argentina. The shops close down at noon or 13:00, and open back up at around 16:00. The influence of Spanish culture is noticeable here. The souvenir shops are stunning. They all sell cardigans, vests, and sweatshirts that are made of the wool from the Patagonian sheep. I have to settle with only window shopping, as they’re both too expensive and space consuming for our backpacks.

Gabriela and Bernardo are here to join us for dinner. Alexa’s two friends join us, too. We order Empanada and pizza. We’re all chatty, and we spend a very pleasant night altogether. Later on, we learn from Bernardo that the first whale of the year has been seen; which results in me wondering back and forth on the shore line, hoping to see a whale, for days.

15.04.2010 – Thursday

We’ll go to the Oceanic Sciences Museum today. In fact, there are not so many things that interest us at the museum. Only two things catch our attention: one is a giant calamari on exhibit, and the other is a temporary exhibition on orcas. Although the exhibition consists of only posters, we’re really interested and inspired by all the information. We learn all about how the orcas are fed, and the research on them is conducted. The scientist who conducts this research have observed each individual orca in Peninsula Valdes, and he named each of them. Identifying orcas and naming them is possible because their upper flippers, the part which stays above the water, are unique to each whale; just as we have our fingerprints, orcas have their flippers. We find out that orcas live by their families, too; just as we humans do.

After the museum visit, we take a walk on the beach. The beach is exceptionally long and beautiful. We are so full of inner peace that we seriously want to live here in Puerto Madryn. For the first time, we see the lower tides during the ebb and flow of the sea. The beach is widened for almost 200-300 meters. We’re truly surprised, since we weren’t expecting the movement of the water will be so massive.

Provided by the retreating water, we have the chance to see a wide range of dead sea animals. This seems to have made the seagulls happy. 🙂 We meet a enormous spider-crab. It’s still alive, and it’s trying to reach the sea.

The ebb and flow takes place in 6-hour turns. It happens twice or three times a day. Its daily schedule shifts 50 minutes each day.

16.04.2010 – Friday

When we mention Alexa that we had so much fun with the flowing tides and the sea creatures we’ve came along with, she tells us how to go to a special place where we can see some rock pools. So we go to this place, hoping we’ll be able to see different animals this time. Since the water has retreated, the underwater rocks are above the sea level now. They’re all completely covered with seashells. Millions of seashells. There’s still some water left in the holes within the rocks, and it’s possible to see some little urchins and crabs, some form of algae and anemones.

Right next to the pools of rock, there are the cave settlements of the first inhabitants coming from the Wales. Some of these caves are preserved now. Very close to here, ther’s a museum about the Welsh people. It’s possible to learn how and why they came to the island, and how they lived their first days here.

On one side, there’s Argentina, who’s trying to increase her Patagonian population and be enforced against Chile. On the other side, Welsh people trying to get as far away from the British oppression as possible. As a result, two countries have an agreement; and the first group of Welsh people come here with a ship named Mimoza, and start living in the caves. They build 16 houses inside the caves. They start moving deep in the island as they can’t find clean water near their settlements; they keep moving, and they settle near Lake Chubut, in Gaiman. They have many losses during this time. The interesting part is that most of these stories are long forgotten and depends on guesses, although it has happened only 200 years ago.

After the Welsh arrives, the chief of locals writes them a letter, stating that the real owner of these lands they settled in are themselves, and they could live here in peace as long as both sides treat each other well. He says they’ll be friends. Although Bruce Chatwin mentions deaths from each sides in his book “In Patagonia”, we see that the two nations live together in harmony. They still celebrate May 25, the day the Welsh has arrived.

Since it’s Friday night again, we’re planning to do an Asado. This time it’s in the weirdest place: a gym! They’re celebrating the 2nd birthday of Alexa’s fitness center. Everybody prepares something, either salad or desert, and gets their own drinks. All the fitness equipment is stacked near the walls, and there are tables in the center now. It’s so funny for us to see how these people gained all that weight they were trying to get rid of for months in just one night. Indeed, it’s 500 gr meat per person. And almost the same amount of desert and salad and wine and beer and…..

17.04.2010 – Saturday

We spend the whole day lying down like lazy cows. The only thing we do is to stop by Alexa’s choir practice. This choir meets and practices in the Biological Research Institude. When we arrived, they were exercising the national anthem of Argentina. I guess the reason why they chose this theme has something to do with this year being the 200th anniversary of Argentina’s sovereignty. It’s a good chance for us to get a headstart at learning the anthem as well. 🙂

By the way, Darwin’s research has a major importance in Argentina, and especially in Patagonia. Wee see writings of him on the walls of the institute, and then everywhere else. We feel sad for ourselves, who’ve been educated in the Turkish system without the necessary emphasis on his theory and his works at all.

Tonight, we’re invited by Alexa’s friends for some kind of sish-kebap. Unfortunately, we fall asleep right after we return home from the choir practice, and it’s past midnight when we wake up. We slept through the dinner! We decide to grow up by the help of mere sleeping this time..

18.04.2010 – Sunday

The name of our game this Sunday is ‘walk-the-dog’!! It’s a hard task nonetheless, mainly because Binky is an extra enthusiastic dog and it doesn’t accept going for a walk with a leash on. To avoid an accident involving  Binky and a vehicle, we go by driving until the beach. Murat tries to get Binky and Huata in control in the back. By the way, Alexa mentions how she is worried that Binky would some day die because of his extraordinary zeal. 🙂 When we arrive at the beach, everything turns normal. Binky starts running and jumping, and it runs back whenever Alexa calls its name. The only problem is that it wants to socialize (!) with strangers. He scares the smaller dogs around, and walks back. The weather is nice, the beach is nice, the dogs are nice. We’re having excellent time. As a bonus of the day, we see a penguin  in the  sea, which seems to have lost its way. 🙂

Alexa drives us to other beaches in the evening. We see some rock pools again. In addition, we get to watch the motorcycle and ATV practices of a few cyclists.

We use Monday for finishing our errands, buying tickets and preparing for the road. We come along with the dog that travels on top of a car, as we’ve already read about it in Engin’s blog. When we tell Alexa about the dog, we learn that it’s actually pretty famous around here. It turns out that even the father and grandfather of this dog had the same habit of travelling on top of cars; and this one is the only dog that is officially permitted to enter governmental buildings in Puerto Madryn. We feel a sudden respect to the dog at that moment.. 🙂

Our days in Puerto Madryn are close to ending. We really want to live in this town one day, even for a short time. Puerto Madryn strikes us with its beautiful houses, steeples and crowd-less roads, its beaches with the flowing tides and its sea creatures. The only negative aspect we could’ve observed was the dog-walkers, and how they’re not restricted to pick the dog feces up. It seems to be a common thing in Argentina indeed.

We want to come back to see the whales one day; but who knows, maybe we’ll never be able to see this place again. We’re preparing to travel to the next wonderful place in Patagonia, without knowing how much Patagonia will affect us later…

For the complete gallery of Puerto Madryn photos:

Gülen & Murat


Translation from Turkish to English: Ödül & Ateş Gürşimşek




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