Having settled into my hotel and had a much needed shower, I headed out to explore the town. My first afternoon in Puerto Madryn was free so I headed along the beach up towards the nearest peninsula, where I had been informed there were beautiful views, and a much anticipated nature museum, the Ecocenter. The views, were as promised, and the weather was lovely, so I really enjoyed my stroll up to the top of the peninsula. However, upon arriving at the Ecocenter I found that it was only open Thursday to Sunday, and then only from 3pm to 7pm. With opening times like that, it seems hardly worth bothering. Sadly for me, it was Monday, and I was leaving early on Thursday morning. So, I sat and enjoyed the views for a while, and, wandering around the perimeter of the museum I found I was still able to catch a glimpse of the skeleton of the famous Orca – Mel who used to rescue lost sea lion pups (usually a tasty snack for an Orca).
Heading back down towards town I stopped in at a museum that was actually open, detailing the colonisation of Puerto Madryn by the welsh in the 19th century. Did anyone else know that the Welsh colonised Patagonia? Because I certainly didn’t. Apparently the were trying to escape persecution by the English. Its just a pitty that the European settlers didn’t bring sheep to the area until much later, or they would have felt even more at home! The museum was quite good though, and just down the shore I was able to visit some man-made caves where the first settlers made their homes.
As an aside, one of the main problems that early settlers of the Chubut region had was a lack of fresh water. There is only one rather small river that serves the entire region, and even today water is a limited resource. Although this doesn’t seem to stop the current residents from almost drowning their lush green grass and elaborate flower beds in water in order to maintain them!
Just after sun set I headed out into town to try and find some dinner. After getting a quick drink at a highly recomended bar called Margarita, where I enjoyed a cold beer and watched the owner change a lightbulb, I headed to a restaurant recommended in my guide book as serving the best pizza in town. This restaurant did not disappoint, and for the extremely reasonable price of 50 pesos, I had a really wonderful dinner. Early to bed that night though, as I knew I had an early start the following morning for my tour of Peninsula Valdes, starting at 8am.
An hours drive, and a chance to wake up properly, into my tour, we arrived at our first stop, the visitors center for Peninsula Valdes, where they have a skeleton of a baby (but still absolutely enourmous) Southern Right Whale, the whales which the area is known for. Unfortunately for me, it was out of whale season, so this was the only specimen I was likely to see. But, beggers can’t be choosers, and it turns out this was exactly the right time of year to see baby sea lions. So we headed on, past Caleta Valdes, a bizarre mound of sediment deposited just off shore when the seas retreated some 90,000 years ago. Another 40 minutes later and we arrived at Punta Norte, where the sea lion colony was to be found. We had been informed that, if we were very lucky, we might get to see an Orca (or killer whale, although actually a dolphin, not a whale), as at this time of year they sometimes beach themselves rather dramatically in an attempt to catch a baby sea lion.
Seeing the sea lions was wonderful. As I said, at this time of year the mothers have young babies, who have just begun to enter the water alone, and watching them play in the waves was magical. They are quite a noisy bunch though! Waiting in tense anticipation, we watched to see if an Orca would appear. I wasn’t quite sure if I should be willing one to appear, or not, as of course it would be an incredible thing to see, but equally the idea of seeing a sea lion pup being eaten was not something I relished. Either way, the orcas never turned up, and after about an hour, we headed home.
My last day in Puerto Madryn was the trip I had been looking forward to most – a visit to Punto Tumbo and the largest penguin colony in Patagonia. After about 2 hours driving, the last half an hour of which was on a gravel track, we arrived at Punto Tumbo, a nature reserve south of Puerto Madryn. Here we bought our tickets and were given an hour and a half to wander through the reserve on specially laid out wooden paths. Immediately upon entering the park, we saw our first penguin. Right there next to the path, just minding its own business! It was amazingly close, and seemed totally calm about our presence. As I continued along the path up a small hill, there was another penguin. And then another, and another, and before I knew it, they were everywhere! Under almost every bush we passed there was a penguin or two, sitting or laying in the shade. At this time of year, the chicks have grown up and only juveniles and females remain, spending most of their time on land whilst they molt their feathers ready to head back to sea. Some of the penguins were looking a bit dishevelled, with half of their feathers missing, and the ground was absolutely covered in lost feathers.
My initial excitement about the few penguins near the entrance was premature. Within the main part of the park, there were penguins everywhere. Apparently in total this colony contains about half a million birds, and it is hard to describe just what 500,000 penguins looks like, but it was absolutely incredible. Dotted about the landscape like pieces of black and white litter, literally everywhere you looked there was a penguin… or six. It was amazing. Best of all was how calm they were about humans. When you got too close, some penguins would look a little upset, tilting their heads from side to side in an attempt to judge how close you actually were, but we were still able to get within less than a meter of most of them, and it was amazing.