Patagonia

While looking to exchange money in downtown Bahia Blanca, we met a small group of campers, guided by an organizing entity. When we planned to go to the mountains, they were heading to Balneario El Condor, further south along the coast. We figured that an organization like theirs may know some of the better places, so we looked it up and found that this location is especially attractive because of the largest colony of cliff burrowing parrots, right along the beach – easy to reach and see, plus the beach itself is also nice. So, about a week later, after the Sierra detour, we found an overnight spot on top of these cliffs. The howling winds don’t seem to bother these parrots, who ride the wind to shoot up the cliffs to the grasslands for seeds, or they fall straight down to reach their nest among the 35,000 others in the 18 km of cliffs along the Atlantic coast.

All these little holes in the cliffs are parrot nests. When they fly out in the morning, their screeches are deafening.

A little more south, Las Grutas as a coastal town is closer off the main road, and larger and more popular than El Condor. Here, the cliff dwelling parrots nest just a meter or so over the heads of sunbathers. The promenade stretches luxuriously on top of these low cliffs, and a wide choice of hotels, bars and restaurants along the seaside offer a degree of fun for everyone. It was a long weekend, so the place was packed, even on a Monday. We found a great seafood restaurant, another campground with WIFI (to stay in touch with our homebase) and a place to have our laundry done. Rested and satisfied, we drove to the peninsula de Valdes, which was the southernmost South American point we’d reached in 1978. This time we plan to drive all the way to the end of the road, but first we want to revisit Valdes, since it gave us such good memories…

In 1978 we saw our first major South American wildlife in Valdes. As soon as we took the peninsula road back then, a nandu (the South American ostrich) ran zig-zagging in front of us, wings fluttering… (For our then-dog Linda, that was the first time the ride became exciting. Adopted in Brasil until then, she used to just sleep during the drive. No more: now every animal, be it a bird, rabbit, dog, horse, or wildlife would pique her interest.)

In 1978: Guanacos, those large wild llama- relatives, kept an eye on us from a distance and the weird looking mara’s almost froze into place when we drove by them… I don’t remember how far we drove on the peninsula, but at one point we encountered a French couple in a Landrover, who told us they were there to study the sea elephants. They asked us if we wanted to join them on a boat ride, for a closer look. Of course, we said yes. It was dusk when they led us cross-country to their landing site, and doing so, thorns punctured two of their tires. The next morning, we were able to get so close to these impressive animals, it drowned out all other memories of the peninsula. When we returned this time, everything felt regulated, organized and disappointing. The distances between one viewpoint to the other were so much longer than I remembered, land animals -except for sheep, were scarce, and the land was contained by fencing. Overnight camping was only allowed at the campground in the town of Pyramides. We could only see sea lions from a clifftop, looking down. A scattering of guanacos and one group of faraway nandus stayed contained behind the eternal fencing. We loved the Magellan penguins, who nested in small burrows close to the viewpoint. We had not seen them previously. We probably were too late in the season back then. One penguin approached me, so close, you could touch them. I held the back of my hand close and let him touch me. He hammered at my ring with his strong black bill.

The town of Pyramides looked pretty from above.
Pyramides was a quiet and comfortable little town, but far removed from the places you come here for.
This is as close as we could get this time… Not very exciting…
The penguins were cute and accessible.

When, this time, we drove back to the highway, we remarked that in our memory the vegetation was also different; more like what we saw on the narrow strip of land between the main land and  the reservation. Realizing that back then we had no GPS, and the paper map may have shown only one way on and off the island…. It could explain why the road did not seem as long, and the terrain was the way it was…and we never noticed a settlement called Pyramides back then …maybe in 1978 we had not even reached the actual peninsula!

Back on the #3 south, we were now definitely in Patagonia, with an endless expanse of windswept shrubland, and towns or gas stations were at least 300 km apart. Our eye fell on Playa Isla Escondida when we looked for a place to spend the night. To get there, we needed a stretch of dry weather, so the dirt road would not turn slippery on the steep inclines we’d have to take when returning to the main road. We did not regret our decision: Down at the beach, we had multiple choices of flat, grassy campsites. We chose one with a view over the sea lion colony. About 30 animals played in tidal pools, or relaxed between the dunes and on the road that continued over the beach. They didn’t seem to be intimidated by us, though we still kept a respectable distance from them. On land, moving around seemed to be such an effort for them: after they caterpillar their fat round body for about five to ten strenuous hobbles, they plop down, exhausted, to catch their breath…no wonder they refuse to get out of the way when the occasional car or ATV wants to pass – those will just have to wait or find another way around them. Once in the water, however, they moved quickly and invited the others for a playfight or a race through the surf. That day on the beach turned out to be sunny and beautiful, without much wind, and still peaceful without many other campers. We decided to stay a couple of days. We took a walk along the beaches (+picked up a bag full of plastic bottles and beer cans), stopped to watch green lizards do their quick runs, and tried to get a good look at some black guinea pigs when they ran from one bush hideout to the other. We tried to decide what birds we’d seen lately, along the road south, and now here: with their curly feather crest, were they quails, or were they partridges, or something else? We had no internet connection, so the research would have to wait a bit.

After a few days, our supplies started to run out, and the weather looked a bit threatening, so we decided to move on. We took the dirt road back up and soon reached the #3 again, with its endless dry brush land, which was slowly turning dryer. We stopped for lunch at a roadside shrine location, where multiple saints were kept supplied with offerings, like Difunta Correa with (many, many!) water-filled bottles; Gauchito Gil with (many) red flags and beer or wine offerings, and several new saints with miscellaneous gifts. Thijs was tempted to leave our bag full of bottles collected from the beach, but we decided they needed to be full and left with the right intentions, so we took that bag along to the next town to be deposited in their recycling bin.

The shrines of Gauchito Gil are prominent in red. They are everywhere along the Argentinian roads!
Gauchito Gil – times four
This picture of the shrine of Difunta Correa shows only a fraction of the bottles surrounding the shrine.

Puerto Deseado was our next destination. From here, we wanted to go out to Isla Pinguino, where the coolest of penguins hang out. However, when we signed up for a boat ride to the island, we were the only ones so far that week. The boat would not go out with less than six passengers – so we needed to either hope and wait, or look for other passengers ourselves. We left a note on an Argentinian camper that we’d spotted before in Valdes, but to no avail. We’d overheard some English-speaking tourist in a restaurant the previous day, so we went on a search for them…why else would they be in this town, but for the Rockhopper penguins? Puerto Deseado is not a large town; we soon stopped them along the road. It turned out they’d arrived by sailboat and were waiting out a storm that blew across that day. As soon as the weather would improve, they’d be heading south, no time for a penguin tour. (We would meet up with them again later down the road.) While waiting for the one good day to go out, we visited the town’s railroad station museum. This elaborate station was built over a hundred years ago as the start of a railroad that should go all the way across the Patagonian desert and the Andes mountains to Chile, for freight to avoid the wild seas of the southern cape. The railroad never got finished and only reached a couple of hundred kilometers inland where it fizzled into nothing. A movie was produced around this railroad, and that was it. Now there is a beautifully preserved station left as a local attraction.  

..Quite a nice station for a railroad to nowhere…

In the station’s waiting room, we had to pose with a bottle of dutch gin: De Kuyper Oude Jenever. Cheers!

We still had one more day before our window of good weather would come and go. The expedition company would let us know when other people signed up. We spent the afternoon on the bank of the beautiful Rio Deseado, a clear, blue water sea arm – home to a multitude of sea birds. In the evening we made one last stop at the agency, hoping for good news…They did not get any more passengers, but told us that their competitor did. If we would rush over before closing time, we could still come along on their tour. We had our ride! Departure time would be 7:30 AM. Since we spent the night next to their office, we were ready to take the 1 ½ hour ride as soon as they were.

Our overnight camp along the beautiful Rio Deseado.

It was a beautiful morning, with sunshine and low winds. On the way to the island, a pod of cute black and white Commerson’s dolphins accompanied us, circling and racing along the boat in the clear blue waters. Upon landing, we had to pass a large colony of male sea lions, who made it clear we were not really welcome there: one step too close in their direction, and alarm was raised among these impressive beasts. Different from those we’d seen in Playa Escondida, these sealions used their (fused) hind legs to lift their bodies off the ground, so they could gallop! But with our great guide we followed the path up the hill toward the lighthouse, along a colony of Magellan Penguins who had their eggs hatching. Big, brown skuas sat perched in the middle of the colony, waiting for an opportunity to rob one of their nests from either an egg or chick. Over the hill we went past the old lighthouse to the bare rock side, were we reached the stars of the island: the Rockhopper penguins. Smaller than the Magellans, they rock black mohawk head feathers, yellow old-men’s eyebrows, and fierce red eyes and beak. They nest on the bare rock, building their nests with pebbles that the partners gift each other. Pebbles are such a precious commodity, that stealing -and squabbles over- pebbles from a neighboring nest is not uncommon. Usually the female lays two eggs, the first one much smaller than the second (priority) egg, which is expected to be a survivor. The first egg -or chick- should be seen as a sacrifice to the skua nest robbers. Skuas themselves lay their eggs loosely in the grass, and with their camouflage color it is easy to come too close or even step on them. The skua parents will nosedive attack to make you flee – hands over head. On our way down, back to the boat, we passed a relic of the past: the old blubber boilers, where seal-fat was turned into the oil that would keep the lighthouse fire burning. Now a solar panel and LED light do the same thing, without pain or labor, and little maintenance. We made some progress, although the sealions there still don’t like us.

Commerson’s dolphins made the ride to the island fun!

Big old male sea lions observed our arrival on the island with suspicion.
The Magellan penguins just ignored us.
They were too busy with their chicks
It may not look like it, but this old lighthouse still works.
The colony of Rockhopper penguins on the bare rocks.
Don’t they look cool?
The big egg on top of the pebble nest
This one looked so relaxed
The Skua is waiting for an inattentive moment by the penguin parents. Just leave the nest for a moment, and the baby is gone!
Skua eggs…they just lay there, but watch out!
Skua attack
One more pass around the sea lions

From Puerto Deseado we took a dirt road shortcut back to the #3. Most of the road was smooth and fast gravel, but about one third was terribly uneven – in anticipation of the new road constructed alongside it. Still, we had no regrets: we drove through what looked like a game park. First, hundreds of hares scooted from everywhere to anywhere, then clusters of nandus and enormous herds of guanacos wandered around the fenceless lands. At times the little crested birds (quails, they turned out to be) fled into the bushes. Maras topped off the list; we had not seen them since our first trip in 1978. Happy to see them again, they made it even better by standing still for a picture.

Rheas, or nandus…two names for the same bird
Guanacos
Guanacos, with young ones
Strange looking maras: is it a rabbit, a guinea pig, a deer, or all of the above?

A little delayed we arrived in the town of Puerto San Julian, where we’d arranged to meet our sailing couple from Rio Deseado (who turned out to be French and Russian) and take them to Rio Gallegos in our camper, where they were supposed to take a flight back to Paris at a date that the sailboat could not make because of the weather. They’d just arrived an hour before us and introduced us to their capitan Christopher and mate Carolina. We had a nice dinner together, and after we spent the night at the waterfront, we were able to drop off Daria and Jean-Michel in Rio Gallegos the next evening. With that we reached the gateway to Tierra del Fuego. The beginning of a new chapter!

In Puerto San Julian we spent the night near the Marina’s restaurant. The sailboat’s in the distance.
Left to right: Capitan Christopher, Daria, me, Jean- Michel, and Thijs. Before leaving the capitan and his sailboat behind.
Just a reminder, which is posted everywhere along the Argentinian highways. (The Falkland Islands are called Malvinas in Argentina, and they still claim them as theirs)

2 thoughts on “Patagonia”

    1. Hi Sylvia! Though it looks like you did not manage to finish what you meant to say, I think I know what you mean. It is a harsh country, where only few choose to live (there is a welsh community tending sheep there) I would not want to live there and will look forward to the west side (mountain side) of Patagonia, which may be much more pleasant, and certainly beautiful

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