Atlantic Coast and Peninsula Valdés, January 10-13
bidding goodbye to the Andes, it took about a day to drive from
Argentina's far west to the east coast -- the continent is
narrower down here than where we crossed west at the start of the trip.
We anticipated a dull drive, since the route is barely mentioned in any
of our guidebooks, so we were pleasantly surprised when it wound
through beautiful (albeit very windy) valleys and canyons.
Just before hitting the Atlantic, we stopped in another Welsh town, Gaiman. In addition to trying out a traditional Welsh tea (not a quick or low-calorie affair), we visited El Desafio -- a multi-acre outdoor art installation constructed entirely of creatively cut and painted recycled goods: bottles, cans, coat hangers, and so forth (photos 1-2). It's impossible to describe the place evocatively, although it has gotten a lot of press, including an entry in the Guinness Book of World Records ("largest recycled-goods park," or some such thing). Unfortunately, the octogenarian who's made this place his lifelong project was out ill.
In the same area, we visited Parque Paleontológico Bryn Gwyn, another unusual outdoor installation that combines two of Patagonia's essential attributes: fossils and wind. A trail leads through fossil-rich hills, with vastly different epochs represented at different elevations. Fossils of large extinct animals from each layer are displayed where they were discovered. As for the winds, they were fierce here, though we may be lucky that only recently have we confronted them. (From one guidebook: "The common factor to all of Patagonia is the wind. At times you'll fight to stand up [we did] in the gales which regularly wrench car doors from their hinges. Be prepared to wonder at night how long the building you're in [motorhome, in our case] can stand the relentless pounding." Indeed.)
Near Gaiman is the much larger but still heavily Welsh city of Trelew. Tim and Alex complimented our outdoor fossil experience with the more traditional (and excellent) Museo Paleontológico Egidio Feruglio; Emily and Jennifer chose instead to enjoy some internet in the camper. Trewen was also the site of our first (and last, we hope) flat tire. Actually, the tire had probably been going flat for a while, but we hadn't noticed since it's the inner tire of a rear pair. We're not accustomed to this truck thing. In the next (and last, from South America) travelog, we'll give a general update on how the camper held up to ten non-stop weeks of travel.
We intentionally hit the Atlantic at Punto Tombo, a fairly remote spot that boasts the largest penguin colony in South America (photos 3-5). We spent the night in the parking lot at the reserve so we could visit first thing in the morning. Foreshadowing what was to come, penguins were hiding in the bushes around the camper, serenading us with strange noises all night. Here's Emily's report on our visit to the reserve:
This morning we went to a reserve that has 1,000,000 penguins where almost half of those are babies. We got up early in the morning, and, before breakfast, took a 2 hour walk in the reserve. The penguins were really cute, especially the babies, who were very fuzzy. Every so often a fully grown penguin would come out of its nest and make a very strange sound like boq... boq... boq... BOQ. We thought they were saying good morning to each other. Then, even more occasionally, a baby would waddle out of its nest. Once, when a baby came out, my mom cooed at it "Hello cutie. Where are you going?" The baby answered by going to the bathroom right in front of her and then waddling back into the nest. It was pretty funny. We had the reserve all to ourselves, so we thoroughly enjoyed the walk.
For the record, these were Magellanic Penguins, different from the much smaller colony of Humboldt Penguins we saw in Chile. Also for the record, the penguin colony at Punto Tombo competes with the city of Mendoza as the second-largest metropolis in all of Argentina -- only Buenos Aires has a greater population.
Our last major destination in Argentina was Peninsula Valdés, world-renowned for its marine life, particularly boat trips to see Southern Right Whales. The whales typically leave for Antarctica in mid-December, so we didn't expect to see them. (We'd thought about starting instead of ending our trip with Peninsula Valdés, but it would have wreaked havoc with our overall route, and marine life isn't a priority for this part of our travels.) We had a glimmer of hope when we heard that a few late-to-leave whales had been sighted recently, but we weren't lucky enough to spot them on our boat trip. It was still enjoyable, with plenty of Southern Sea Lions (photo 6; larger and more menacing-appearing than the ones at home) and excellent shorebirds and seabirds.
The peninsula was also a nice destination in itself. It offers one pleasant little beach town, Puerto Pirámides, where we actually relaxed a bit, did some fossil-hunting in the sea cliffs, and the kids spent some time on the beach (though we'll hardly be lacking for beach time once we're on the sailboat). The kids invented a rather unusual beach activity: riding their bikes in the surf; photo 7. For those of you considering a reprimand about the effects of salt water on precision parts: we'll be leaving their (nearly-outgrown) bikes in Argentina.
At the ice cream shop in Puerto Pirámides we met Don Burns, a thoroughly engaging 70-year-old American. He normally lives on his sailboat on the Panama coast (the historical Fiona -- that's Don on the home page), but he's currently on a four-month motorcycle trip through South America with his new "lady friend." After hearing about our trip, he commented to the kids on what adventures they must be having. They replied in unison that actually we hadn't had any real adventures yet -- nothing truly bad has happened. By that measure, let's hope our entire year of travels is adventure-free.
It doesn't classify as truly bad, but shortly after that encounter we made one of our less successful tactical decisions. Past the town of Puerto Pirámides are some gravel roads wending their way around the far reaches of the peninsula. Most people travel these roads as part of a package tour, or not at all. We decided to head out one of the roads in the evening, spend the night in a remote area, then head back the next day. What we didn't know (and, surprisingly, hadn't learned from anyone we'd talked to) was that the road conditions worsen steadily as one gets further from the town, until they're downright awful; furthermore, it's not permitted to spend the night out there. We learned about the overnight restriction from an unfriendly ranger at about 10pm when we were at the furthest point out, after 3 hours of extremely rough driving. Suffice it to say that when, quite some time later, we found a flat pullout far from any ranger station, we quietly drew the curtains and called it a night. On the good side, it was an amazing location (photo 8), with views of penguins and elephant seals sharing an endless beach.
Next: Lots of driving to get back to Buenos Aires in time for our late-night flight on Wednesday. It's hard to believe we're already heading back home for another "vacation from the vacation."