Puerto Madryn, Argentina
09.06.2011 - 11.06.2011 14 °C
With volcanic ash cutting a swathe across Chile and Argentina, causing all airports in these to remain closed, we concluded the best thing to do was reschedule our home-bound flight and give ourselves time to catch the bus to Buenos Aires. Instead of a 3 hour flight, this would involve roughly 44 hours on the road - ouch! To ease the pain of this we decided a 2 day stop in the coastal Patagonian town Puerto Madryn would break up the journey nicely.
In complete contrast to the grey, ash-coated El Calafate we had left, Puerto Madryn was singing blue skies and sunshine the afternoon we arrived. Puerto Madryn is a small port town thriving on the tourism of whale watching and exploring of the nearby Peninsula Valdes Reserve.
At our hostel we met up by chance with the 2 British backpackers we´d met in El Calafate, James and Marco, and the next day Trav went out with them on 2 scuba dives. Ali had a luxurious morning to herself, doing a bit of shopping and then spending ages on the end of the pier mesmerised by 2 frolicking Southern Right whales only metres away. The whales swim into the bay at high tide every day from the start of June until December. Later that day as the sun went down we stood and watched the whales again from the beach as they cruised the bay just offshore.
With June just the start of whale watching season, we were among a very small flock of tourists in the town, most of who were detouring through Puerto Madryn by bus due to the ash. And was there ash! Excepting the glorious blue sky on our first day we awoke to streets clogged with ash-smog, blown around by gusty winds. The ash left a fine chalky layer of dust over everything - cars, pavement, shop-front windows and park benches.
With a whole day left, we went on a full-day tour of the Peninsula Valdes Reserve, a protected Unesco World Heritage site, 3600 square km and home to some of Argentina´s unique land and aquatic wildlife. Of the land animals, we sighted guanacos (like deer), rheas (like ostriches) and even a curious armadillo.
Down by the chilly yet sparkling clear water we visited a colony of elephant seals, all juveniles, lying flopped out and sleeping on the sand. Next we saw the sea lion colony, where we also by fluke spotted a lost and lonely Magellan penguin swimming in the surf, usually not seen here for a few more months.
Then we drove to tiny Puerto Pyramides, where our whale watching tour would launch from, and just happened to be the very first tour of the season. Ignoring the chilly winds and ever-present ash-cloud, we clambered aboard the large dinghy and powered out through the the swell to find us some whales!
The Southern Right whales come to Puerto Madryn and the Valdes Peninsula every year between June and December to mate and give birth. These beautiful, majestic creatures weight more than 27 tonnes and are 12m long. And suddenly, a whale emerged like a submarine beside our stationary boat, blowing water through its blow hole, and then gliding along the surface only to disappear again beneath the surface with a flick of their gigantic tail.
This left us waiting again time after time for these teasing animals to start the the game all over again. This was a truly amazing experience getting up so close to the whales.
We drove back to Puerto Madryn, with the cloud of ash descending densely along the streets. This was perfectly timed for our night bus to Buenos Aires, and after a ritual serve of mate (traditional Argentinian tea), we trekked through the cloud to the bus station - 20 hours away was the great city of B.A!