After spending a delicious two week in Bariloche, I visited Puerto Madryn, a tourist town half way down Argentina’s Atlantic coast in Patagonia. Puerto Madryn is known for tourism and also has Argentina’s only aluminum plant. The town serves as a base for tours to the Peninsula Valdez, which has been declared a UNESCO heritage site because of the unique array of wildlife found there. The peninsula forms a gulf and in the gulf’s protective waters the Southern Right whales come to calve and mate from September to December every year and the peninsula itself provides habitat for several colonies of sea lions, elephant seals, Magellan penguins, and other native wildlife like guanacos (a species of wild llamas), armadillos, and foxes. Orcas also come to the coast of the peninsula to hunt when sea lions and elephant seals take their babies out to sea. The orcas will often come right to the shore at high tide to hunt, a dramatic sight to see (but not while I was there). 140 km south of Purto Madryn and the Peninsula Valdez at Punta Tombo, there is also the largest Magellan penguin nesting colony in the world. 400,000 penguins go there to lay eggs and raise their chicks.
This part of Patagonia’s arid and inhospitable landscape is not cattle country, but a salt mine was built in the peninsula. No longer in use, this historic mine helped to supply the salt needed to preserve meat before the technology of refrigeration made the beef industry what it is today. Having salt transported by boat was safer and more efficient than transporting it across land. The native Indians in the Pampas and Western frontier were extremely hostile until subdued by the army in 1870s and getting salt from the inland mines was often a long and arduous journey. Salt that could be shipped to Buenos Aires by boat was a welcome alternative. Salted and dried beef, leather, and tallow were some of the few exports Argentina had until railways and refrigeration made transport of goods easier and more effective. I wasn’t planning on finding any information on cows in this part of Argentina, but at the Peninsula Valdez museum, where I learned about the salt mine, I discovered that even in this remote location the beef industry made its mark.
Research aside, I came to see whales and in that respect I was extremely successful. I saw them from the Playa El Doradillo beach just 22 km outside of Puerto Madryn where at high tide they come as close as they can to play and what I can only describe as “people watch”. Some new friends from the hostel and I rented a taxi and spent two hours at the beach watching the whales frolic. At the beach they were rolling around waving their tails and flippers in the air. Some cruised the shore with their head above water to get a good view of the crowd assembled on shore. Many of the whales had babies and the babies also seemed very curious to see people. Farther out in deeper waters whales were jumping out of the water. Scientists don’t know why they breech, but they often jump several times in a row. One whale liked waving its tail in the air and gave people an ample opportunity to get the “whale tail” photo. Whale watching from Playa el Doradillo beach has eclipsed any other wildlife experience I have ever had. It was absolutely incredible to see whales at such close range – and of their own volition. I know that everyone I shared the experience with felt the same way. Whale watching from the boat was also very rewarding. The first two whales we saw had white babies with them. These babies are born without pigment and darken over time. Only seven whales had white babies in the gulf this year.
Southwest of Purto Madry there are a couple of famous Welsh colonies, which I visited with my new friend Melisa. I cannot imagine getting off of a boat and walking into Patagonia’s interior to start my new life in that desolate lanscape, but some Welsh people during the 1800’s were far braver and heartier than I will ever be. Their relatives still keep the Welsh language and traditions alive in Trelew and Gaiman. These towns now have a unique tourist industry. Gaiman is particularly famous for serving Welsh high teas at proper tea houses that are full of antiques from the original settlers.
At the house where Melisa and I enjoyed high tea, we were greeted by a young man who had spent half his life in Gaiman and the other half in Southern California. He looked Welsh, was fluent in Spanish and American English, and had decided to settle down in Gaiman to carry on his family’s heritage. He and his mother ran the tea house together. He spent a lot of time telling us about his family’s history and showed us several family heirlooms. The butter churn and the cream separator were of particular importance to his ancestors. They were needed to process and preserve dairy products, one of the few luxuries that the Welsh immigrants had – and important components in all the pastries that were served at high tea: butter for the homemade bread, cheese, cream cake (traditionally served at very special occasions when there was a lot of cream on hand), lemon squares, chocolate cake, raspberry cake, and the traditional black cake (fruit and nut cake), and of course milk for our tea. Our enthusiastic guide said he enjoyed looking at the family’s antiques and remembering their simple life and simple pleasures, but the decadent selection of cakes served to us at high tea made me question how “simple” these pleasures really were. I enjoyed them none-the-less because wherever you are in the world, high tea is truly a pleasure.