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Touring Patagonia

Argentina's beloved Poet Jorge Luis Borges once said, "There is nothing in Patagonia." Like Timbuktu it has burned an image in the American imagination as the end of the civilized world. Not your typical tourist destination. But the very remoteness of Patagonia, covering the southern third of South America, makes it a mecca for wildlife, who come there to breed far from the pressures of the human world. That's what inspired Rachel Anne Goodman to make the arduous journey.

Touring Patagonia
By Rachel Anne Goodman

Listen with RealAudio: Patagonia

Photo: Tony Hoffman
The Patagonian coast is twenty hours by plane from San Francisco, but it might as well be Mars. No water, no trees, just a vast landscape of sagebrush stretching to the horizon. The main attraction is Peninsula Valdes, a hammer-shaped landform jutting into the Atlantic 600 miles south of Buenos Aires. It is home for an astonishing array of wildlife.

Just south of the Peninsula, half a million Magellanic penguins come ashore at Punta Tombo each spring to reproduce. They're named after Magellan, the first white explorer to land in Patagonia in 1520. The animals still outnumber the humans 10 to one.

Small groups of Argentinean tourists step gingerly around the nesting birds who eye them with indifference.

Adam: If you cross the equator to see this it's really worth it. I mean, it's really amazing.

I wanted my son Adam to see that places like this still exist.

Dozens of foot high birds in black tuxedos waddle up the beach calling for their mates. The birds are so thick, it's like New York city during rush hour, with every one dressed for the theater. It was this kind of scene that sent Charles Darwin into ecstasy when the Beagle sailed here in 1832 and got him thinking about natural selection.

It's survival of the fittest on the gravel highways of Patagonia, sometimes the only way across hundreds of miles of desert. My Argentinean friend, Flavio Quintana, gives us tips for staying alive.

Flavio: Never push the brakes. And keep your hands loose, It's like driving in snow.

Rachel: The car in front of us is having a hard time.

Flavio: Don't push the brake!

Flavio's pickup truck is riddled with holes. Every time a car passes, he has to brace the windshield with his hand so glass doesn't wind up in our laps. Rental cars are 200 dollars a day and ill-suited to the terrain. We pass a mangled steel carcass left as a warning to bad drivers. If you're faint at heart, try the air-conditioned, double decker tour buses with tinted windows instead.

Most visitors stay in Puerto Madryn. You can rent a room with a kitchen for about 60 dollars a night. Ten miles down the coast is Punta Loma, a national preserve for sea lions and cormorants.

Perched on a cliff forty feet above the beach, a wooden platform gives us a perfect view of hundreds of sea lions mating, fighting, or nursing their pups. Black and red Cormorants nest right on the cliff face beneath us.

Whale watching After the sea lions, we head to Golfo Nuevo on the Peninsula's southern flank. It's the hotspot for whale watching.

Our captain Diego steers the boat full speed into the Gulf and soon we are staring at the upended tail of one of the third largest creatures on earth. It looks like a black porcelain statue towering over the boat.

Captain: I see him, look down there.

Rachel: Underneath us? Oh, that's his face, he's coming right underneath us.

At first all we can see are some blurry white markings, then, like a picture slowly coming into focus, the whale's head surfaces.

Whale watching in Golfo Nuevo is an exercise in mutual admiration. As the whale and her calf inspect us from below, we lean over the side to stare into a huge intelligent eye. Whales have had advanced brains for 30 million years. We humans, on earth for only one thousandth that time, nearly wiped them out. They seem to have forgiven us, and it's a good thing, too. One swipe of that tail, and we would be history.

Although the population of tourists here has doubled in the past three years, Patagonia still remains as travel writer Paul Theroux described it. "The emptiest part of America." There is still wilderness here, and a sanctuary for wildlife unsurpassed in the more populous world to the north.

More Information: Considering a trip to Peninsula Valdes?

Info about accommodations, tours, etc., contact the City of Puerto Madryn Tourism Department:

e-mail: municipio_madryn@cpsarg.com

snail mail:

Municipalidad de Puerto Madryn
Secretaria de Turismo y Recreacion
Avenida Julio A. Roca 223
Puerto Madryn, Chubut, Patagonia
Argentina 54-965-53504/ 52148-CP (9120)

or contact:

Organismo Provencial De Turismo
Avenida. 9 de Julio 280
TE/fax 81113-81383

Bilingual Whale Guides

Jorge Reinoso tel (0965) 21785- Trelew
Pedro Seibt tel (0965) 52608- Puerto Madryn
Carlos Tapia tel (0965) 36585- Trelew
Lorena Boyd tel ( 0965) 21848- Trelew
Elena Ulrich tel (0965) 51822 - Puerto Madryn

Conservation Group/NGO wildlife conservation
Fundacion Patagonia Natural
Marcos A. Zar 760 - c.c. 160
Tel/fax 54-965-74363/72023/51920

9120 Puerto Madryn- Chubut, Argentina
e-mail: fpnat@satlink.com


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