Sunday, November 30, 2008

Vacation: Week Two

Here is the second installment. A little delayed but I hope you enjoy it! (New photos are also posted on Picasa.)

My second week of vacation was really wonderful. I arrived at the national airport at noon on Monday, November 17 only to find that the travel agency hadn’t made my reservation, but luckily there were still seats left and it ended up being cheaper than I would have paid the agent. A quick flight landed me in the world-famous region of Patagonia in the rapidly growing town of Puerto Madryn. The area has exploded in the last few years due to an aluminum factory as well as tourism (thanks partly to an UNESCO classification) and there is construction everywhere. I walked around a bit in the sun and wind and found an agency through which I booked two separate day tours. Later that night I had dinner with a Canadian couple I met at the airport. She found out she was pregnant just before they left and hasn’t had the easiest time of traveling but was a very good sport.

The first full day, Tuesday, started with a 7:30 a.m. pickup by our soon-to-be-dear guide Eloy. This day was just me plus three other women, an older lady from Spain and a traveling duo I would spend the next day with as well, Sarah from the UK and Susanna from New Zealand. The first stop was a river-to-open ocean boat trip to see tonina dolphins, and they did not disappoint!

Before the dolphins we headed up-river just a bit for a glimpse at a few flamingoes that were migrating; it’s rather unusual for them to be there and our boat captain was nice enough to share them with us. I’ve been on a constant quest for flamingos and was grateful for the chance to see a group of them flying in formation in an unexpected place.

Tonina dolphins are pretty small, black and white, fast and playful. The water was really clear and we could see them perfectly, and they also obliged us with lots of jumping out of water. Sometimes they’d be alone and other times as many as six or seven would be swimming together. They liked to ride the nose of the boat as well as the waves, which were pretty high that day due to the wind. I took a few decent shots, but Sarah got some excellent pictures that she has promised to send me. Here's one I took:

From there we headed to Punto Tombo, home to the world´s largest Magellenic penguin population during half of the year. Considering all my penguin knowledge was based on a particularly famous documentary on the topic, it was weird to see how these particular penguins live on this barren Patagonia beach. We could see penguins dotting the landscape all around us, Every year the males arrive first to ‘clean house,’ which means finding their old hole in the ground and digging out the debris that has accumulated over the past half year. Then the ladies arrive and head to the same hole – apparently, they mate for life. Two eggs are laid, one for “back-up” we were told, so many couples will have two chicks. The babies were just starting to hatch and we were lucky to see some of their tiny, furry gray heads - as well as hear their insistent peeps. The parents take turns sitting on the eggs/watching the chicks and going to the ocean to eat. Here is a shot of some of them filing back from the ocean to relieve their partners:

They walked among us and were really fun to watch waddle around, but we were warned not to touch or provoke them since inside their cute little beaks they have a sharp hook that can drive a hole through your hand and give you a nasty “I’m still digesting fish” infection. They didn’t seem to irritable, however, and even crossed our path several times. We had a great time watching them.

On the way back to Madryn we dropped the Spanish lady off at the airport and the four of us proceeded to a famous hotel bar in Trelew called the Touring Bar where Butch Cassidy used to hang out. Then we dragged Eloy out to dinner with us after begging his boss to let him be our tour guide again tomorrow.

Wednesday was an even earlier day, and Valeria knocked on the hostel door at 7 a.m. sharp. I was sad that our request to have Eloy as a repeat guide wasn’t fulfilled but Valeria was great. This day we were 20 instead of 4, but I still got a window seat and was able to save Sarah and Susanna seats next to me so I was happy.

The Valdés peninsula is the largest in the Atlantic ocean, and we spent Wednesday touring it. Here is an image of the peninsula:

We arrived at Puerto Pirámides, a small bay at the base of the peninsula, at about 9:00 am for the privilege of being the first whale-watching boat of the day. This turned out to be very lucky as we were only about 20 people on the boat, while other boats were packed to capacity at 50-60. We had tons of room to move around and see the whales from all angles, including a high perch that afforded a really lovely view of the whole whale under water.

It’s the end of the season for these southern right whales. They arrive in the bay every July or August to mate, during which time there is a lot of jumping and tail slapping I’m told. By November the males have gone and it’s only mothers with their babies left, and they’ll head out soon, too. Since the moms haven’t eaten since July, they aren’t doing much jumping these days, but I was able to see some babies learning to jump (the next day, not on this tour) and that was quite fun. There was an orphan calf who was being passed around from mother to mother which we all thought was very sweet.

A mother will nurse for two years. We learned that a whale’s milk is actually excreted from her body into the water and is thick like butter so it doesn’t dissolve; the calf will then move in and suck in the milk from the water. During these two years the pair will make the journey several times between the bay at Pirámides and the south of Argentina where they feed so the calf learns what to do once on his own. After that they separate and the mother gets knocked up again; no living in families for these whales. Hopefully one mom steps up and takes the orphan calf on full-time once they move on, otherwise he’s pretty much done for.

Among the many mother-calf pairs we saw, there was also an albino calf! Apparently a few are born each year. Their skin is translucent and the fat you can see through their skin is white. In time their skin will turn grey and then black and it doesn’t seem to be bad for the baby in any way, but it was certainly cool for us to see. It was so easy to make him out under the water. The mother – who was hosting the orphan at this time, too – gave us tail after tail out of water, which really never stopped being beautiful to watch. They are huge and yet so graceful. Here is the mother and her albino calf:

After the boat ride ended we got back into the van and spent the next several hours on a gravel road through the desolate Patagonian landscape to see the rest of the peninsula. We made three more stops, one to see a much smaller penguin colony than the day before, and the other two to see sea elephants and sea lions and the chance to spot an orca. I admit I was stumped to tell the difference between the two even after it was explained to me many times. The sea elephants live in the ocean but come to the beach once a year to shed their skin, while the sea lions live there year-round (I think – I may also be getting these backwards).

On the road we saw tons of sheep, recently sheared by the local gauchos. There is so little rain and therefore so little life on the peninsula that the sheep are allowed to roam freely to feed, only getting rounded up once a year for their fur. Each sheep is marked so there’s no funny business, and there is a law that says you may shoot a man if you find him stealing your sheep. We also saw many guanacos, a member of the Cameliad family (which I mentioned in my posts on Bolivia and Peru). We saw several pairs and packs of emus, always running away from the noise of the van, and were lucky to catch a glimpse of a strange animal called a mara, which looks like a giant bunny crossed with a dog.

There were two no-shows in terms of wildlife. The one we were promised we’d see were armadillos. I never had an interest in them until I thought I’d see one, but sadly they were on strike that day. The second one was very unlikely to see but nevertheless I was disappointed: orcas! The peninsula is one of the few places in the world where orcas will beach themselves to chase sea elephants and sea lions. It’s not high season for them yet but people had been seeing them in the water in the days before. One interesting thing I learned is that orcas are a type of dolphin, not a whale.

At the end of the tour I had them drop me off in Pirámides instead of going back to Madryn. Pirámides is quite possibly the most perfect little beach town ever invented. I could live there easily and not-so-secretly started plotting my return. It has one road that runs through it that forks off to the beach. There is an ATM and wireless internet, yet no dock junking up the bay. Boats are put in and pulled back out by trailers attached to tractors. Only 400 people live there and there are strict building codes since it’s technically part of a national reserve. People are friendly and largely relocated from the blur of Buenos Aires for a quieter, simpler life.

I had made a reservation in the one hostel in this tiny little beach town and quickly discovered the major problem they face as a community: housing. My 12-bed dorm room had more like 20, and half of the beds were occupied by people living there. To make a top bunk my own I had to remove someone else’s clothes and stash them among the rest of her worldly belongings scattered about.

As soon as I had checked in and claimed a bed I made the short walk to the beach. Within two sandy steps I realized I was about to traipse over the outline of a court of some kind and quickly stepped back. The two boys playing greeted me amicably and offered to teach me how to play what I can only describe as beach shuffleboard. One was a chef and the other worked at the swanky hotel on the water. Suddenly I had friends in town, and the housing crisis was made even more apparent by the shared house they live in: two rooms, one for living, cooking, and eating, and the other with five beds packed in tight. Still, it was obvious they were all happy in the pristine setting and I didn’t see any signs of roommate angst among them.

That night we went for a long stroll on the beach, the pitch-black moonless sky a perfect backdrop for millions of stars. I noticed that some constellations were upside down, and then I noticed that the waves seemed to be glowing. I went to the water’s edge and noticed that my favorite natural phenomenon was occurring, and strongly, this night: glittery phosphorescence. I spent a long time playing with it, throwing handfuls of pebbles into the water and carving outlines in the sand. It was the strongest I’ve ever seen it save one night on Shaw Island several years ago. We could also hear the whales out in the dark water exhaling from their two blowholes (apparently, if it isn’t windy, this makes a rather cool V shape).

The next day, Thursday, I lounged on a chaise in front of the fancy hotel, drank grapefruit soda, ate calamari, and read an entire book. I was supposed to catch the one bus of the day at 6 p.m. back to Madryn and spend another night there before my flight the next afternoon, but my new friends found me a ride the next morning and I stayed on another night. A second night walk to the beach revealed that the phosphorescence had already gone. Its replacement was a swarm of what seemed to be migrating beetles, small and light brown and inoffensive except for their obnoxious quantity. The next morning while I drank coffee and waited for my ride I noticed that they had all seemingly died in the sun – hundreds of tiny beetle corpses littered every exposed surface.

I arrived to Madryn and subsequently to Buenos Aires on Friday without any complication, other than riding in what was surely the oldest plane still in service. That night was Sol’s monthly wine tour, a fantastic event of walking to posh stores and drinking different wines inside of each. I had Saturday to decompress and then my friend Katharine arrived from Philadelphia Sunday afternoon.

Stay tuned for a blog about her week here and our fantastic Thanksgiving. My time here is quickly wrapping up… less than three weeks before I’m back in Seattle!


Sunshine said...

Hi, my dear!
Thanks for teaching me so much -there's lot of info in this post that I wasn't aware of!

Hope you keep enjoying yourself in here & PLEASE PLEASE PLEASE (or how I say it in phonetic way: PLIS PLIS PLIS!) stop talking about your soon to be departure! That makes me sad!

Renée said...

Wow, your vacation sounds amazing. Your journeys inspire me to travel sola. I can't believe you're leaving in only three weeks! Our numbers are dwindling quickly! No te vayas! I want you to stay a little longer and be my gchat pal in Buenos Aires!

Sara said...

Less than three weeks left in Argentina? What are your thoughts on that? Sad, anxious, nervous? I'm sort of all three and I still have like six weeks left, but the future looks uncertain still. Although, now I'm pretty sure I'll be back.

The penguins were adorable!

Sarah P said...

Amazing! What a great vacation :) And I also love phosphorescence. I once was in Alaska for two weeks and I saw phosphorescence in the bay, it was like fireworks under the water as we rode on our boat at night. One of the most beautiful things I have ever seen.

I'm excited to see you when you come home, but sad that you will have to leave South America, because it seems like you have such great adventures there.

How was Thanksgiving? I wanna know all about it :)

Anonymous said...

You are so informative! And I'm so jealous that you saw baby penguins! I remember seeing flamingos on the beach in Puerto Madryn, they seem so out of place down there.

They are rheas (nyandus in Chile, I don't know what they call them in Argentina), by the way, not emus. Way more awesome than emus.

I LOVE YOU said...
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日月神教-任我行 said...
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