Suitcase on wheels     stuck in the snow   sniffer dog

Friday, November 25, 2005

56. Penguins! (Puerto Madryn, Chubut, Argentina)

Many travellers I meet tell me they love Buenos Aires and would like to live there, and I can see why - theatre, culture, nightlife, a European feel, those are all things that drew me there way back in January, and it is a great city to visit. But to live there? - I don't think I ever enjoyed it. To begin with, I was trying to live off my English teaching wages which was a meagre $1100 pesos a month on average. I soon realised that was almost impossible, and had to dip into my savings to spend around $2000 pesos a month. Even that didn't allow me a great lifestyle - going out about once a week, eating out a few times a week (mostly in the cheapest places), and maybe one splurge a month (leather jacket etc). Then there's San Telmo, the barrio where I was living. I was only living there because my hotel was so cheap, but it does have a certain charm, for a visitor. But living there - well, I don't think there's a single tree in San Telmo. Or a park. I need a bit of green in my living environment. But the worst thing about where I lived was the buses. On my narrow "colonial style" street 4 bus lines passed. The bus system in BA is both a blessing and a curse - on the one hand it's a blessing as there are thousands of buses so you can get anyway at almost any time. I never have to wait more than 5 minutes for any bus as there's so many, that's something I'll miss wherever I decide to live next. But the curse is the noise and pollution they create. The buses aren't that old, as the government made the bus companies upgrade their fleets only a few years ago - but the drivers seem to redline the bus through every gear so they make A LOT of unnecessary smoke and noise. They also have a weird air suspension that hiss-hisses a lot. Roof-level exhaust pipes like they have in Australia and Chile would alleviate the smoke problem a bit, or adjusting the automatic gearboxes so they change gear earlier might help too. As it is, when 3 buses roar past in a convoy the black cloud they leave is horrible.
Anyway, as I was saying, most visitors who come would spend my monthly salary in about a week, so yeah, on that budget BA is a great place to visit, but to live there...

Gaiman - 05 - Roses
Random pic: Rosebush in a plaza in Gaiman, Chubut

For the third time I said goodbye to BA and my girlfriend, with the intention of returning in about a month. I headed south, to visit the great blankness of Patagonia. I say blankness because that's about what it is - thousands of kilometres of lush flat green windswept farmland, and not much else. My plan was to go whale-watching in Peninsular Valdes, then head south further to the Glacier region, maybe a visit to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom if I could be bothered, then back up a bit to Bariloche (near Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi on the map), and finally back to BA.

map of argentina
map stolen from

My first destination was Reserva Faunistica Peninsula Valdes, which is visited from the city of Puerto Madryn. That's about 2000km south from Buenos Aires, so I broke my trip in half with an overnight stay in Bahia Blanca. I could have taken an overnight bus direct from BA but I never manage to get a decent night's sleep unless I can sleep flat by lying across two seats. On the way I passed a lot of the farmland I'd seen on the way to Mar del Plata with Juan back in February (see #11. Beach road trip), and it was a lot greener now in springtime than at the end of summer when we'd gone.
In Puerto Madryn I set about looking for the cheapest tour agency to visit the Peninsular - most were charging about $90 pesos (US$30) which seemed a bit much... so when I met a group of American girls in the street I suggested we hire a car and visit it ourselves, which we did the next day.
First stop was Peninsular Piramades, where until December you can take a boat tour to see whales - something you can do in both NZ and Australia but I'd never gotten around to doing.

Peninsular Valdez - 04 - Matt whalewatching
"What do ye do when ye see a whale, men?"

Visitng the bay there at the moment were about 500 Southern Right whales, on a stopover on their annual migration from Antartica to Brazil. I think they return here to mate on the way back. Out we went in our boat with about 60 other tourists, into the waters of the bay where there were 3 other whalewatching boats circling 3 whales. Present was a mother and her calf, as well as another male whale. The guide was telling us whale statistics over the loudspeaker in Spanish, most of which I understood. What I remember best was when he started going on about the mating process. Unlike other species, the female will mate with multiple males, so he with the strongest sperm wins the natural selection race. For this reason the males have the largest testicles in the animal kingdom, at around 500kg each. Also he with the longest member has an advantage, as he can plant his load deeper thus giving it a head start. Their cocks can measure up to 3m long. Finally, since whales don't have hands to grasp the female, thrusting is difficult, but no problem, their cock is self-thrusting.

Peninsular Valdez - 06 - Whale
"Sing out for him!" was the impulsive rejoinder from a score of clubbed voices.

The whales were cool. And not surprisingly, huge. We saw the most of the baby whale, who was only 6 or 7 weeks old. The guide said the infants drink 600kg of milk a day, and grow about 2.5cm a day. That's a lot of plankton the mother must have to eat daily to feed them.

Peninsular Valdez - 08 - Whale
"And what do ye next, men?" -"Lower away, and after him!"

Enlightened, we drove half an hour the wrong way before backtracking and then headed to another bay where there was a small penguin colony, before heading off to to another bay to see a sea elephant colony. Male sea elephants are the big 4000kg fat buggers with the big noses, the females are a bit smaller and about 1000kg. One dominant male usually has reign over the whole beach, while the others hang around waiting to get some leftovers or knock him off his perch.

Peninsular Valdez - 20 - Elephant Seals fighting
Two males fight

Peninsular Valdez - 20 - Seal
A female sea elephant (I think)

After that we headed back to Puerto Madryn for the night. The next day we drove a few hours south to Reserva Provincial Punta Tombo, which is the site of the largest penguin colony in the world outside of Antarctica. Supposedly, there's around a million penguins there but we probably saw less than 1000.

Punto Tumbo - 01 - Penguin with chicks
A penguin with a couple of chicks

It was pretty cool nevertheless, the penguins are completely unafraid and waddle their funny walk from the beach up the cliffs, passing amongst the tourists, to their nests amongst a forest of bushes. I guess for this reason we couldn't see too many of them, most were hanging out in their nests out of sight.

Punto Tumbo - 03 - Penguin beach
Penguins on the beach

They were pretty funny, the way they waddled around the place. Most of them didn't seem to be bothered at all, and sat there sleeping and even snoring with their beak open, minding the nest while their partner was out feeding.

Punto Tumbo - 07 - Matt Penguin
Me with a penguin in his nest

From there we headed back north, to Gaiman, one of a handful of former Welsh towns. Well, the Welsh settled this region back in the day, and supposedly Welsh is still taught in some of the schools. Note the Welsh town names - Gaiman, nearby Trelew, Rawson, and of course Puerto Madryn. There's a handful of houses you can visit for afternoon tea and scones, and although it was a tourist trap it was still a nice stopover on the way back to Puerto Madryn. See the photo at the start of this entry.

Whaling quotations from Moby Dick, by Herman Melville


  • Any plans to visit Antartica once you get to Tierra del Fuego? That would be saweeet...

    By Blogger Nasty McFly, at 11:33 AM  

  • The penguins walking look like NZ ones, but the close up pics look pretty different - the black & white bit...
    you are getting close to the part of S.America that has always attracted me, I hope it's good

    By Anonymous bruce, at 2:06 AM  

  • No plans yet to visit Antartica - it's expensive and I don't have the clothes for it, I'm scraping by on my one pair of thermals. I'll check it out once I'm there, but it seems like the sort of thing I'd rather do when I'm old and retired.

    Bruce, I've never actually seen penguins in NZ!

    By Blogger mattyboy, at 8:14 AM  

  • I just came across this blog entry by chance. Puerto Madryn is one of my favorite places in the world and you gave it a nice description. Also, you are right - it is a female elephant seal.

    I'd love to hear more about your experience of setting up a business in Bariloche (I guess I should keep reading the blog?). I am Argentine-American and have lived in Buenos Aires and Puerto Madryn for various months and looking to find a way of establishing myself down there.

    By Anonymous Stephanie, at 3:36 PM  

  • Hi Stephanie

    Thanks for your comment - it was quite a few years ago I was in Puerto Madryn!

    Yes, please keep on reading for my take on setting up a biz in Argentina. But the short version is - loads of work to setup, especially in transport (6+ months of paperwork) or tourism (local tourism degree required, 3+ years of study), and it's hard to make a living even if you are used to living off pesos, which I was. Expect another 2 or 3 years of initial struggle to make ends meet until you get enough business. That was my experience anyway.


    By Blogger mattyboy, at 8:50 AM  

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