Patagonian Small Towns

Jo and I sort of fell in love with the small town feel of Puerto Piramides when we went there for our ocean safari. And since we had a day to spare in Puerto Madryn before moving all the way to the southern tip of Argentina, we decided to just hop on some buses and explore the nearby townships of Trelew and Gaiman.

What’s there in Trelew and Gaiman? To be honest, if you’d asked us that at the start of the day, we would not have been able to tell you (It’s one of those things that we do without putting too much thought into it… #funpartoftravelling). But we do think it is pretty cool to go to a town that shares a name with one of my favorite authors (author of American Gods and the Sandman series – Neil Trelew).

That’s why we thought it was pretty cool that one of the first things we saw when we arrived in Trelew was…

A DINOSAUR MUSEUM! Yeah… I know we’ve been to one before. But they are kinda friggin cool!

There are dinosaur fossils EVERYWHERE. Is it only me? Or did anyone else ever wonder why they NEED to put all the dinosaurs with the open-mouthed ROOOOAAARR pose?

There are dinosaur fossils EVERYWHERE. Is it only me? Or did anyone else ever wonder why they NEED to put all the dinosaurs in the open-mouthed ROOOOAAARR pose?

Altogether now.... ROOOAAAAAARR!!!

Altogether now…. ROOOAAAAAARR!!!

And the one thing that made this Paleontology Museum different from the one in Cordoba was that we got to be really up close and personal with the fossils.

Dinosaur - to - us size comparison

Dinosaur – to – us size comparison

Apparently, Trelew is really near one of the biggest fossil excavation sites in the world. To this day, there are still active digs going on, and this Paleontology Museum is a key centre to store and restore the fossils. A big bonus for us was that we were able to see real-life Paleontologists at work.

Like I said... kinda cool...

Like I said… kinda cool…

Of course, there is more to Trelew than dinosaurs… To us, it feels like one of those towns where everyone knows everyone else. The main drag is along four perpendicular streets and beside the odd Starbucks and McPancho (NOT a real thing) outlet, the rest of the shops are Mom & Pop establishments… We kinda felt like we were in Stars Hollow on the set of Gilmore Girls.

Small town with a quaint town hall

Small town with a quaint town hall

with a charming train station...

with a charming train station…

with its own non working train... at least not in real life. We can still imagine the train chugging along

that comes with its own non-working train… at least it is not working in real life – like that has stopped us before…

As for Gaiman… It is a half hour bus ride away from Trelew. According to the various write-ups, Gaiman is supposed to be a quaint little Welsh town on the Argentinian countryside. While we did see a lot of signs pointing out how Welsh the different places are…

A Welsh garden.

A Welsh garden.

A sign advertising the Welsh town of Gaiman

Welsh Culture Town

Another sign with the Welsh coat of arms

Welsh farm with Welsh coat of arms… yes, the color Green is a very prominent theme in the town… wait… isn’t that Irish?

But to be honest, it was a little too… “small town” for us…. Apparently, we do have a limit to how small a town is before it loses its charms (Population of Trelew: 100,000, Population of Gaiman: 6,000).

We are City Folks.

The most fun we had in Gaiman? Sniggering at a giant robot playground where kids slide out of the robot’s bazooka boobs…

A dose of Awesomeness

A dose of Awesomeness

We are childish that way…

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The Head that Shattered a Thousand (ok, ONE) Window

One thing about reading travel blogs is that most of the time, you only get to see the best part of every traveller’s journey – the whale-watching at sunrise, the mouth-watering cuisine, the jaw-dropping mountain scenery and the crystal clear seas.

But the truth of the matter is that these moments make up about 20% of every journey. The rest of the 80% is spent doing the very mundane chores of sleeping, eating and… getting from Point A to Point B.

Nothing very much happens during this 80%… except when things happen.

So… you know that we took the ocean safari while we are in Puerto Madryn… We traveled to the Peninsula Valdes, took a boat, saw some whales… but what I left out in the previous posts is that it’s a good 3 hour drive from Puerto Madryn to the Peninsula.

At the travel agency, we were promised that it would be an exciting ride where we would be kept busy looking for/at land animals that make the Peninsula their home; animals like rheas (small weird ostriches), guanacos (small weird llamas), grey foxes (small weird foxes) and maras (small weird ermm… mouse/rabbit/guinea pig mutants???). There were also SUPPOSED to be “at least 181 bird species, 66 of which migratory, live in the area, including the Antarctic Pigeon”. And every once in a while, we were SUPPOSED to be able to get out of the vehicle to see “large colonies of sealions and elephant seals basking in the sun”.

To be fair, our guide tried VERY hard.

He would very suddenly get the driver to stop the vehicle and point in a general direction, shouting very dramatically “SEE!!!” (Now that I think about it, maybe he meant “¡Sí!”… it’s hard to tell with his ridiculously cute accent… complete with the inverted exclamation mark).

At the start, every time he did that, we would enthusiastically peer out into the distance, trying very hard to see what it was that got him so riled up… Most of the time, we would see nothing (I mean the guide is a trained nature guide so that means he has mutant telescopic eyes), but every once in a while, if we were lucky, we would be able to make out two black dots bouncing in the distance.

After an hour of seeing these…

SEE!!!

SEE!!! The Patagonian landscape is notoriously harsh… this means dried grass plains for hundreds of kilometres all round with strong winds of up to 30kns being the norm here.

Si!  Si

¡Sí!
¡Sí!

and these…

Our first sighting of maras...

Our first sighting of maras… kind of…

And guanacos... kindof... suffice to say... we saw the backview of many animals

And guanacos… kind of… suffice to say… we saw the back view of many animals that tried to run away from our mini bus

To put it mildly, it was a bit hard for us to keep up our enthusiasm.

We had more luck with flower, since they can't.... move

We had more luck with flowers, since they can’t…. move

What we were "Supposed" to see...

What we were “SUPPOSED” to see… at a “museum” of Peninsula Valdes at the entrance of Peninsula Valdes…

It didn’t help that at the few pit stops we made to see “beaches covered with colonies of elephant seals and sea lions”, we saw this instead…

Hardly a colony...

Spot THE elephant seal… Hardly a colony…

Apparently, we were too early for the mating season, so what we saw were essentially the horniest of the elephant seals…

Horny The One

Horny The One

I suppose THAT is something we could brag about.

So… while the guide managed to keep a VERY upbeat attitude throughout the whole journey, we gave up. On the bus ride back to Puerto Madryn, our disease of being able to fall asleep anywhere/anytime/anyhow caught up with us. Believe me, it is not easy to fall asleep with someone who aspires to be a Brazilian football commentator shouting in your ears, but somehow we managed to do it.

And that was when it happened.

I had just been woken up by an exceptionally loud “SEE!!” by the guide, and I was peering into the distance, slowly being lured back into dreamland when I heard a loud “CRAAAAASSSSSSHH”.

The window beside Jo had shattered into a thousand pieces. The amazing thing was that EVERYONE in the bus got woken up by the loud crash… except for Jo.

I had to gently wake her up and tell her not to move about too much (not a big problem – just-woke-up-Jo has the mobility of a drunk garden slug) because of the loose glass shards that were all around her.

There were many theories as to what caused the window to break. The favourite one was that a loose stone on the road flew at the window, causing it to shatter. I think that is possibly the case too, but I also want to say that our heads tend to roll about a lot when we fall asleep on moving vehicles (A LOT)… but that’s all I have to say about that…

Anyway, we had to make a quick pit stop and through sheer Patagonian resilience and South American ingenuity, the driver and guide managed to sweep up all the glass shards and fix up the window….

Glass is for wimps. Here in Patagonia, they patch broken windows up with cardboard

Glass is for wimps. Here in Patagonia, they patch broken windows up with cardboard

So yeah… Out here on The Road, 80% of the time nothing happens during the journey. But when they happen, they do so with a CRASH.

Whales… from a boat

Word of warning… A phrase that is going to come up in this post is: “a mass orgy of whales”.

In Journalism 101, we were taught the axiom that “Sex Sells”, so let’s just see how many of you read on to the end… (although I am slowly coming to realize that whale sex was PROBABLY not the type of “sex” that sells)

So… as part of our tour package to the Peninsula Valdes, we were brought to Puerto Piramides, a seaside village that is about 1.5 hours drive away from Puerto Madryn, where we would board a boat to Golfo Nuevo for an “up close and personal” experience with the Southern Right Whales.

I think we both fell a little in love with Puerto Piramides once we arrived.

It’s an incredibly chill cliff-side little town by the sea where the locals take leisurely horse-rides by the sea, old ladies sit around tea pots catching up on the latest gossips and the village children run amok around visiting tourists.

All this against a backdrop of ridiculously blue waters and untamed scenery. Add in a dash of impossibly fresh sea breeze, and I think we are pretty close to my idea of heaven.

Locals taking COOL horse rides along the shoreline

Locals taking COOL horse rides along the shoreline

While waiting for our boat, we decided to take a walk along the beach.

The village of Puerto Piramides and its beach are protected by cliffs that resemble pyramids (and hence PIRAMIDES). The cool thing about these cliffs is that they are believed to have been the ocean floor millions of years ago. As the waters receded and the cliff was exposed to millennium of erosion, we could actually see the different layers within the cliff walls. The most amazing thing for me was to see the different eras of fossilized invertebrates (some supposedly dating back 9 million years) embedded like the rings in a tree trunk.

A WALL of fossilized oysters, baby!

A WALL of fossilized oysters, baby! They have so many of these, they don’t even bother putting them in a museum

And then, there were the dogs…

The dogs

The dogs

We saw these two fellows looking forlornly at the sea… of course, Jo had to go pet them (who cares about fleas, right?) and we spent the next hour or so running up and down the beach (it is THAT kind of place).

A girl and (not) her dog

A girl and (not) her dog

Ok… back to the boat and whale sex.

From the moment we boarded our boat, through our boat ride to the middle of the gulf, we saw whales. TONNES of them. We didn’t even need to look out for them. They swam alongside the boat, and every once in a while, we could see one of them doing a joyous flip in the distance. Golfo Nuevo is positively infested with Southern Right Whales.

First Sighting

First Sighting

Nope... not ONE shot of a whale leaping out of the waters

Nope… not ONE shot of a whale leaping out of the waters

You know how when you have too much of a good thing, you cease to marvel at how wonderful they are? It was kinda like that with us…

Until the boat came to a stop in the middle of the Gulf.

Without the sounds of the engine running in the background, the whales started to swim nearer and nearer to the boat.

Probably as close as it gets...

Probably as close as it gets…

P madryn whale as close as it gets

It was also during this period of calm that we came to truly appreciate what a unique position we were in. We were in the middle of the sea with these gentle giants swimming all around us. There were no sounds of modern living… only the splash of the water as they flip about in the sun, and the occasional geyser of water from their blowholes as they breathe… We felt figuratively and literally dwarfed by Nature.

Close enough to take shots like these...

Close enough to take shots like these… The Southern Right Whales’ heads account for one third of its body length and they are easily identified by the white coloured outgrowths of tough skin on their gigantic heads. The callosities formed are unique to each whale… kinda like fingerprints for humans

And then it occurred to me… the breathing from the whales seemed to be unusually hurried… Also… why were they congregating in such large numbers???

Turns out they were literally clusterfucking…

According to our guide, what we understood (because no entendemos mucho español) was that the Sothern Right Whales engage in group mating. Large groups of ten or more males would jostle for position alongside a female and take their turns mating with the female, so yes… what we were seeing was a mass orgy of whales… I never thought I would live to see the day…

Now that you have that mental image… check out this video I made…

Whales… on a Beach!

We did it!

Our first MAJOR expenditure for this trip – an excursion to the Peninsula Valdes.

The highlight? To get up close and personal with the Southern Right Whales… although we were promised PROBABLE sightings of elephant seals, orcas, dolphins, penguins, rheas, and vicuñas (it’s ok… I didn’t really know what the last two were either)… IF we are lucky…

We probably should have been a bit more wary about the number of disclaimers the tour agency placed before we bought the tour package.(More on this in the next post…)

The day started off well enough. We left (VERY) early in the morning to catch the sunrise along Playa Doradillo. Any bitching we might have wanted to do about waking up at 530 in the morning was wiped away the moment we stepped off the tour van and onto the playa (beach).

Without trying too hard, we counted at least 12 whales along the beach front and they all seemed to be having a (hur hur) whale of a time frolicking and making silly leaps out of the water. According to our guide, that is the whale’s way of playing and communicating.

Fuuuuuuuuckkkkkk.....

Wanna know what is running through our minds? Literally “Fuuuuuuuuckkkkkk…..”

It’s quite unbelievable how close the whales were to the shoreline.

Whales and the shoreline

Whales and the shoreline

We were able to capture shots like this even with my lousy camera that only has a 3.5x zoom

We were able to capture shots like this even with my lousy camera that only has a 3.5x zoom

We were able to see seagulls trying to land on the whales to feed on the whale fat/blubber/micro organisms living on the skin on the whales. And after a while, the whales would invariably use various methods to flick them off like a grumpy old man fanning off pesky flies. Then the seagulls would try to land on them again and again… it was strangely mesmerizing to watch.

One for the Birds

One for the Birds

The thing about Peninsula Valdes is that it’s an outcrop in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. This creates a gulf (the Golfo Nuevo) which acts as a shelter of calm in the midst of the choppy and predator-filled Atlantic Ocean.

This creates a perfect place for the Southern Right Whale to mate and rear their calves. Incidentally, this also created the perfect place to be if you are forced to wake up at 530 in the morning…

Couldn't have asked for a better sunrise

Couldn’t have asked for a better sunrise

There are museums and there are Museums…

If you have been reading this blog long enough, you’d know that I am not the biggest fan of museums… especially those of the arty farty variety. And ever since the awesome dinosaur museum in Cordoba, I’ve kinda been in two minds about museums of “natural history”.

On the one hand…. DINOSAURS…. on the other… walking amongst the carcasses make me feel like I should be in a black tuxedo and that there should be someone chanting Buddhist mantras in the background.

But we figured that while we were in Puerto Madryn, we should do some “research” about the infamous Southern Right Whales before we go on the (SUPER EXPENSIVE) ocean safari to Peninsula Valdes.

And that’s the whole reason why we took a (very short) bus ride to the Provincial Museum of Natural Science and Oceanography. (Somehow I don’t think museum curators are the best people to come up with “snazzy” names)

I think this whale had been out in the sun for too long... Outside the entrance of the museum. Puerto Madryn has so many Southern Right Whales that they just leave them lying around everywhere...

I think this whale had been in the sun for too long… Outside the entrance of the museum. They have so many Southern Right Whales in Puerto Madryn that they just leave them lying around everywhere…

The main focus of the museum is, of course, on the “stars” of Puerto Madryn – the Southern Right Whales. For as long as people remember, these magnificent creatures have been calling at Puerto Madryn during their mating/birthing season. This provided marine biologists with a lot of opportunities to study these leviathans up close and do very thorough research on their habits and behavior. The museum is where they present the findings of their research to the public in simple-to-understand terms…. or at least I think that’s what they are trying to do… most of the displays were in Spanish and we couldn’t understand them…

Cool trivia... Jo's mouth involuntarily opens whenever she sees any pictures of whales... more to follow...

Cool trivia… Jo’s mouth involuntarily opens whenever she sees picture of whales… 

The "mouth" of an exhibit showing what it is like to journey through the insides of a Southern Right Whale... Very biblical... but what fascinated me more was that I didn't know the way the Southern Right Whales zhng their mouth... ah beng style

The “mouth” of an exhibit showing what it is like to journey through the insides of a Southern Right Whale… Very biblical… but what fascinated me more was that I didn’t know the way the Southern Right Whales zhng their mouth… ah beng style

The Southern Right Whale in relation to other marine mammals...

The Southern Right Whale in relation to other marine mammals…

Of course, beside the Southern Right Whales, other parts of the museum has extensive features on the other celebrity wildlife that frequent Peninsula Valdes (just around the corner from Puerto Madryn) such as elephant seals, penguins, seals and orcas….

orcas and elephant seals

These exhibits including one particularly disturbing video of how orcas “hunt” baby seals for food. *SPOILER ALERT*: they beach themselves so they can swallow the newborn seals. Other techniques include flinging the baby seals into the air and catching it in their mouths… gruesomely impressively.

*DISTURBING IMAGES AHEAD*

How about them apples? Images from the Museum

Putting the Killer in Killer whales? Images from the Puerto Madryn Provincial Museum of Natural Science and Oceanography

What we really like though, is that outside of the rather “heavy” scientific facts (again, we are still guessing here, because we don’t understand Spanish that well), there is a very strong and consistent message about conservation and preservation throughout the museum. It was obvious enough that even non Spanish speakers like ourselves cannot help but be knocked (hard) on the head by them.

At least... we THINK they look like pieces about conservation and preservation

At least… we THINK they look like pieces about conservation and preservation

Hands down, my favourite in the whole museum.  A photo shoot with children posing with fantasy/steampunk-esques props made out of recycled material

Hands down, my favourite in the whole museum. A photo shoot of children posing with fantasy/steampunk-esques props made out of recycled material. We forgot to note down the photographer responsible for this AWESOME series, so if anyone reading this can point out the artist to us, we would love to credit him/her

And the best part of all this? After the 2 hour or so browsing through the exhibits (it’d probably take a Spanish speaker twice as long), we were treated to a panoramic view of the Puerto Madryn basin where TONNES of Southern Right Whales (I just realized I kinda mean that quite literally… hur hur) frolic/wave/flip.jump in the sea…

Now... THAT's a panoramic view

Now… THAT’s a panoramic view

Pretty cool place to watch the (almost) sunset... (we still needed to catch the last bus back to town)

Pretty cool place to watch the (almost) sunset… (we still needed to catch the last bus back to town)

Truly spectacular!