Coastal Patagonia: Valdes Peninsula and Puerto Madryn – Penguins!

6 12 2011

Photo by Monique Poesiat

The ride on the double-decker sleeper bus from Buenos Aires to Puerto Madryn is a positive learning experience for me! It’s got lots of leg room, entertainment, food, and as long as one has ear plugs and sleeping mask, one can manage quite fine. We are on Route 3 (Ruta 3), which goes all the way to the end at Tierra del Fuego. The gentle rocking of the bus and distant engine noise seems to aid in sleeping. Most of us sleep through the night, and are up at dawn marveling at the sunrise. Still, even then, nothing to break the horizon. Over fourteen hours and no hills, no ocean, just what looks like sage from horizon to horizon.

After what seems like an eternity or a mirage, billboards emerge, shouting for all to see: “PUERTO MADRYN” in so many kilometers. We learn that the reason we don’t see trees is the area is nutrient poor. Incredibly, everything around us is volcanic ash, devoid of good nutrients. This is why there are no trees. We finally pass through some “painted hills” like in Oregon, though the colors are different. The layers are ash. This means ash deposited here came from the other side of the continent, the Andes!

Finally things descend and the Atlantic Ocean emerges, viewable to the east from north to south. As the road drops, a city emerges into view; it’s Puerto Madryn. Cargo ships lie at anchor offshore, and there’s a long pier with more ships tied up.

Semi trucks are coming and going from the pier with cargo. Industrial sized fishing boats, and Argentinian Coast Guard ships are also docked. As we navigate the town’s roads, we see auto dealerships, restaurants, banks; on the waterfront I see kayak rentals, some kite boarders, and hotels – signs this place is a beach destination in summer season.

It’s about 9:00 a.m. We come to a stop on the waterfront boulevard at the Hotel Costanera. Seems a right place to be, steps from the beach! We’ll spend two nights here. So we disembark, to check in and get right back out because we are headed south, to see a Magellanic Penguin colony this afternoon! We are going to the Reserva Provincial Putna Tombo, the largest Magellanic Penguin colony in South America!

The hotel room is a bit outdated, but at least the bathroom has been recently overhauled. It will be OK for a couple of nights. The “window” of the room looks out onto a narrow interior column of other hotel “windows.” So, we cannot see the beach from here.

Although it’s on the Atlantic coast, Puerto Madryn is situated in one of the bays of the Valdes Peninsula. It was founded by the Welsh in 1886.

So it’s, nestled in the Golfo Nuevo, sheltered from the force of ocean waves. The beach is pleasant, and we would be taking strolls along the sand. The tourist business is year round. In summer (January to March) it’s popular with Portenos from Buenos Aires seeking beach time. In August to early November, wildlife tourists flock here to witness the spectacle of Elephant Seals, Southern Right Whales, Southern Sea Lions and Magellanic Penguins rearing their young.

Well, it’s off to the penguin colony! I’m very excited to see the penguins in action. Having seen so many documentaries I imagine myself immersed on the beach with tens of thousands of squawking tuxedo-clad flightless birds. We are all horrified to learn it’s a two hour ride to get there. O-M-G. I don’t have to tell you what we just finished! But as I was to learn, this is Patagonia, and it’s often a long way between highlights!

The nothing-ness of Patagonia continued until we arrived on a dusty, windy road at the Reserva Provincial Putna Tombo, where the Atlantic coast, with its wind and waves, is in full force. So, if you can imagine, it’s like Eastern Oregon right up to the sandy beach! Soon, something unexpected emerges.

There are penguins! There are penguins walking amongst the growth that looks like sage or juniper. We walk along trails built for viewing. We’re told that right now, the penguins have come in for mating season, paired up, mated, and eggs have been laid. We’ve arrived at the egg-tending part of the reproductive cycle. That means that at any given time, one parent is at sea foraging, and the other is on the nest tending. Here, Magellanic Penguins dig burrows for their nests. I don’t know why. It sure is windy. Maybe that’s why? But instead of a million penguins fighting for real estate on a beach, the penguins walk up to a half mile inland and dig burrows amongst the little hills behind the coast.

Penguins don’t walk. They waddle. They are so cute!

Check out this waddling video! Penguin finding home!

And here, I’ve got them coming home from foraging at sea. They are all coming home to their spouses.

Got to love these guys! They were not at all bothered by us! They would just stop, look at us, and then go on their way home. We never could figure out how they find home!

There’s never a boring moment with penguins!

They were coming and going all afternoon. We were respectful of their paths. They were here for business…to get to their nests so their partner could go to sea and eat!

Tomorrow, we are to visit Peninsula Valdes proper. We will see the elephant seals, seal lions and other wildlife! Can’t wait!


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