Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Peninsula Valdes, Argentina (2008)

On our second day in Argentina, we took an early morning flight from Buenos Aires' Jorge Newberry airport to Trelew, a small Welsh-influenced city in Patagonia. One of my friends developed really terrible stomach pain sometime in the middle of the night (which persisted for the rest of the trip), but we packed up her stuff and she managed to stick it out through the ride to the airport, the two hour flight, and a subsequent bus ride to our hotel, where she spent the rest of the day.

The rest of us were picked up at the airport by Cuyon, our tour company. Our tour guide's name was May and she spoke excellent English. There was one other passenger, a Spanish-speaking girl named Silvina. We headed to directly to Punta Tombo, about an hour away. Punta Tombo is the home of the largest Magellanic penguin colony in South America. It cost us about $7.50 per person in entrance fees, but soon we were surrounded by hundreds, if not thousands, of small penguins. There was other wildlife as well; mostly guanacos (similar to llamas), rhea (large flightless birds that looked kind of like small ostriches), and even an armadillo.

The penguins were clearly the stars of the show; they came super close to us and were often right next to our feet. We were strictly instructed not to approach them, but May said it was fine if they approached us. We spent several hours there enjoying the friendly penguins.

Afterwards, we took a bus to a small town called Gaiman where we had Welsh tea (for $8.50 per person) at a place called Ty Gwyn. The portions were very generous and the tea was unlimited. This photo only shows one plate of three; we were served jam and butter, scones, cheesecake, chocolate cake, pastries with dulce de leches, pastries with coconut and jam, apple tarts, fruitcake, and more.

We couldn't come close to finishing the whole spread, but packed the rest for later. We did walk around Gaimen for a few minutes after tea, to look at the unique houses; they'd used white stone from nearby bluffs to build them. The local industry was still primarily agriculture, and the surrounding farmland was lush and green in contrast to much of Patagonia, due to the town's proximity to the Chubut river. There were sheep with lambs nearby, and tall poplar trees planted as wind screens. On the way back to Trelew, we even passed by a canal with some wild flamingos.

From there the tour guide took us to Puerto Madryn, where we checked into our hotel, the Hosteria Solar de la Costa, where our friend was waiting for us. The total cost for the day's tour was $110 USD per person.

For dinner, three of us walked into the town of Puerto Madryn and found a nice-looking restaurant called Placido. We spent a total of $40 on sauteed calamari with veggies, cod, salmon, Patagonian lamb, and a couple of glasses of wine. Not bad.

The next morning, all four of us had our free breakfast at the hotel and were ready to go at 7:15am, which was our pickup time. By 7:45am we were getting worried, and then at 7:50am the agency (not the same tour company as the previous day) called to say they were having van trouble, and would be over in "a few minutes". At 8:15am we had the hotel call to figure out what was happening. Again, they said they'd be over shortly. At 8:30am we called Cuyun, the previous day's tour company, and asked them to come get us. At 8:35am the first tour company's van arrived, but we were pretty mad as they were an hour and 20 minutes late, so (with the help of the very nice hotel staff) we pretended we'd already left. At 8:38am the Cuyun van arrived, and we went on our way.

We went first to the Center for Interpretation of the Peninsula Valdes. The most impressive thing there was a right whale skeleton, plus a pretty vista of the isthmus outside.

From there it was a few minutes to Punta Norte, where we saw two or three large groups of sea lions. I thought it was especially cute when a mother sea lion returned from the ocean, and her calf went waddling down the beach to meet her.

At the next stop, Punta Cantor, there were a few penguins, but nowhere near as many as the previous day at Punta Tombo.

There were some elephant seals as well, but they were pretty boring and immobile. We did walk to a spot where we had a nice view of the mouth of the Caleta Valdes.

We'd hoped to spot some orcas, perhaps even as they were hunting the seals, but we were told they could only be seen at high tide; 7am or 7pm, so we were out of luck. We had lunch at Puerto Pyramides; the food was not very interesting but afterwards we walked around outside the restaurant and there were some random things lying around; old railroad equipment and the like, so I took some photos of those.

We got back to our hotel shortly after 5pm. Two of us decided to venture out for dinner; the other two stayed at the hotel. We walked along the shore a bit, bought some postcards and tasty Yenelen chocolate, and then had a light dinner at Cantina El Nautico. Unfortunately we'd left our best Spanish speaker at home, so there was an amusing exchange when I asked if the restaurant was "abierto" (one of my few Spanish words) and the guy at the door told me "ocho", so we had to go away and come back fifteen minutes later. Initially I was afraid reading the menu would be a huge ordeal, but luckily I tend to pick up food words best in any language, so we ended up with some pretty tasty "arroz con camarones" (rice with shrimp) and a salad.

We had another mad scramble the next morning; we'd been told the airport shuttle would come "as early as 7:30am" so we'd planned to wake up shortly before 7am. I forgot to set my alarm, so I didn't get up until someone else poked me at 7:05am. At 7:10am we got a call which was all in Spanish. I thought he said 7:15am and I thought I was saying 7:45am but basically no communication was happening. Anyway, finally I said, "Si, transfer" and hung up. At 7:15am the receptionist knocked on our door and said that the shuttle had arrived, setting off a frenzy of packing. We got everyone packed and out the door at 7:30am, but the shuttle driver was visibly annoyed.

After that our transit back to Buenos Aires went pretty smoothly; we mailed some postcards and did some souvenir shopping, but the only thing that looked vaguely interesting turned out to be a fruitcake, so that was the end of airport shopping for me.

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