Sunday, 31 July 2011

Las Ballenas

With a month left in Argentina, a porteña friend asks me if I want to take a trip to Patagonia to see las ballenas (whales) which migrate to Puerto Madryn, a town half way between Buenos Aires and the southern-most tip of Argentina, every winter to enjoy the relatively warm waters there. She sends me a picture of the whales as if I need any more convincing. ‘Tengo muchas ganas!!!’  I reply (adding the obligatory ten exclamation marks in true Argentine-style) and so we discuss our trip where we plan to practice each others' languages and enjoy the peace of the expansive, tranquil landscape of Patagonia for a long weekend.

First of all, to get there we have two options: plane or coach. Plane, as always, is more expensive and also comes with the risk of delays due to volcanic ash from the volcano that recently erupted in Chile. We choose the coach, which on the other hand is half the price and is a mere 19 hour journey each way. Yes, some years ago I would have balked at this too; thought twice about submitting myself to being cooped up with a bus-full of strangers for such a length of time but, South America alters your perception of distance. Aside from this, coach journeys on this half of the Americas are a highly novel experience (for us gringos at least) with air-hostess-like service, food brought on trays, wine, films and so on. On this occasion we are even treated to a game of bus bingo. The steward, Mathias, announces the numbers over the microphone one by one and does his best to imbue the experience with enthusiasm and suspense – not an easy feat when you consider that it is essentially a game more devoid of excitement than any other.

So, twenty hours later (I have yet to travel on a bus on these shores that is not delayed by at least half an hour), sated by the bingo, films and food we arrive in Puerto Madryn to our hostel room which is the size of a large sauna, and has much the same appearance as one too.

Day one, we watch lobos marinos (sea lions) playing in the sea and lazing on a sandy enclave from a viewpoint. We are highly amused by one frisky male sea lion’s attempts to ‘seduce’ a female. He clearly will not take no for an answer and uses his sheer blubbery heftiness to pin her down.

Day two, we get up early to see the ballenas at a place called Punta Flecha. At 9:30am on the beach it is freezing but we are thrilled to see the whales come so close to the shore, spurting water, flicking their tales in the air every so often. Later the same day we take a tour to see elefantes marinos (elephant seals) and are taken within a stone’s throw of them. Their burpy, groany noisiness is hilarious, the way they heave themselves across the sand and huddle cosily together is charming as are their human-like mannerisms when they scratch themselves pensively.

Day three, we want to take a boat tour from Punto Piramides to see the whales up close. However, our plan is scuppered by the windy weather which means there are no boats departing until much later and we have to catch our bus back to BsAs that evening. However, all is not lost as we enjoy the serenity of the small town and have a slow-paced delicious lunch overlooking the sea.

All in all a perfect antidote to Buenos Aires, and the perfect way to mark the end of this trip to Argentina (I will certainly never forget that game of bus bingo either…).

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