Located in eastern Patagonia this is Argentina’s 2nd biggest fishing port and is a lively beach resort. This was our base from which we took tours to two of the world’s most imporant nature reserves.
Peninsula Valdes is home to sea lions, elephant seals, magellanic penguins and orcas (killer whales). The biggest attraction, literally and figuratively, is the southern right whale but, unfortunately they are not here at this time of year. We took a boat ride to do some snorkelling and get close to some sea lions. We also saw a pod of dolphins putting on a spectacular display (tough to catch on camera though). We also saw our first ever penguin in the wild. After that we went to Punta Norte to see a huge beach full of sea lions and a few elephant seals. There were also 5 orcas patrolling the beach looking for a snack. We were incredibly lucky to witness one of the orcas attack a sea lion. To do this it almost beaches itself and creates a big wave to wash the sea lion its way. We were gobsmacked. We overheard the park ranger telling someone that it was the first time he had seen it (are we jammy or what?). On the way back we stopped at Caleta Valdes to see a small colony of magellanic penguins. On land we also saw guanacos (of the llama family), nandus (small ostriches) and pichus (hairy armadillos).
Punta Tombo has the largest magellanic penguin colony in SA (half a million). They are also known as jackass penguins because of the braying noise they make. We walked amongst the nests and they were totally unafraid of us. The chicks are now over 2 months old and big and fluffy. They are actually bigger than their parents who have lost 1/3rd of their weight whilst feeding their chicks. The chicks are moulting so there are feathers everywhere. When they finish moulting in March they will instinctively go into the sea for the first time. Their parents follow about two weeks later. Jackie thinks they are really cute and wants a penguin as a pet. The tour also included stops in Trelew and Gaiman. This area was settled by Welsh farmers in 1865 who, frustrated with English domination asked the Argentine government for permission to settle in Patagonia where they could have more political autonomy and keep their language, religion and cultural identity. In Gaiman we had a Welsh tea which included lots of yummy cakes. In Trelew we visited the Museo Paleontologic Egidio Feruglio which had a good collection of dinosaur bones and fossils from Patagonia.
We then headed south along the coast. Half way through the journey our bus broke down. As everything in Patagonia is miles from anywhere there is an unwritten driver's code to help anyone in trouble. We were lucky that a bus from a rival company stopped only a short time later and picked us up.
Our saviour bus, only an hour later than scheduled, got us to the oil town of Comodoro Rivadavia. This is where oil was first discovered in Argentina (1907) and it is surrounded by oil pipelines and drilling dogs. It's a dry, dusty and windy place. Here we visited the Petroleum museum. Jackie was fascinated by a trilobite fossil - 465 million years old - boggling. The only exciting thing to happen here was that one of Jackie's teeth disintegrated. Fortunately we were able to get an emergency repair and it only cost 30 pesos (6 pounds - what a bargain).
From here we went inland to:
This town is a little oasis in the otherwise dry Patagonian steppe. We stayed at a small farm called Chacra Labrador. It is owned by Nicolas and Analiese, first generation Argentines of Dutch descent. They grow afalfa for animal feed and cherries which they supply to Marks & Spencer and Tescos (look out for the labels). Nicolas’ family estancia (which he administers) is now producing organic wool for the Japanese market. He says he can get 30% more for it than regular wool (and is laughing all the way to the bank at the silly people who are willing to pay more for the meaningless label “organic”). Analiese makes delicious homemade jams, alfajores (Argentine sweet cake) and chocolates. A real home away from home.
The main reason to come to Sarmiento is to visit the Bosque Petrificado Sarmiento (petrified forest). 65 millions years ago a volcanic erruption covered a forest in ash which was then buried beneath sand and water. The silica in the sand slowly replaced the organic matter of the trees (permineralisation). What results is stone that looks exactly like the original tree. Some trees were even encased in a covering of “petrified sand”, which is the secondary process where the organic material that has leached out of the tree and surrounded it, is then permineralised. These bizarre “rocks” are located in a moonscape of awesome beauty. Spooky.
We then headed further down the coast to the historical town of Puerto San Julian. Magellan, Drake and Darwin have all stopped here (and now us too -- what a lucky place!). It is here that Magellan, upon meeting the giant Tehuelche natives with their feet wrapped in llama skins, named this place “big feet land” or Patagonia in Spanish. In 1520 Magellan used the large bay to winter in during his circumnavigation. The crew was frustrated, scared and mutinous. There was a mutiny attempt but Magellan got control of the situation and hung, drew and quartered Juan de Cartagena and Luis de Mendoza and hung their body parts in four positions, north, south, east and west of the bay. There was no trouble after that. 58 years later, in 1578, Francis Drake, the English pirate (oops, hero), also entered this bay to winter during his circumnavigation. While exploring the land, some of the crew discovered the remains of the gallows errected by Magellan along with human bones. Drake, too, had a mutinous crew and used the same island that Magellan did (the Island of Justice) to behead the ringleader Doughty.
We stopped in San Julian only briefly and went inland again to visit a large ranch called Estancia La Maria. This had been a sheep farm but, in 1991, Volcano Hudson erupted and wiped out the sheep. The government didn’t help the farmers so many went out of business. Estancia La Maria was purchased by Fernando, a retired civil servant and amateur archaeologist because of the ancient cave paintings on the property. There are 87 caves with paintings dating back 13,000 years. Many of the paintings are of hands and most are “negatives” done by placing their hand (always the left hand) on the wall and spitting paint at it. There are also paintings of guanacos, rhea, foxes and many unidentifiable things (modern art or space aliens?). One painting, located in a cave in a dead end canyon, clearly shows a guanaco being chased into the canyon and trapped (well, that’s Peter’s interpretation anyway. Jackie thought she saw one that looked like Mickey Mouse - perhaps not).
We then took a bus to Rio Gallegos and a short flight to Ushuaia on Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost city on the planet. We have now travelled the entire length of the continent but we're not done yet.
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