Friday, January 8, 2010

Valdez Peninsula, Argentina

The Valdez Peninsula is a large barren mass of earth that juts out into the Atlantic Ocean, connected to the mainland by a thin isthmus. On each side of the isthmus are two insulated bodies of water, San Jose Gulf and New Gulf. Due to the isolation of these gulfs many marine mammals find their security ideal for birthing and raising their young.

The primary draw to the area this time of year is the presence of the Southern Right whale. The whales are in the area giving birth to their calves and typically remain until mid-December. In addition to the whales, the peninsula is rich in life with the presence of elephant seals, sea lions, penguins, sea birds, and at times, Orcas.

After spending a few days in Puerto Madryn, I moved into a hostel onto the peninsula so I could be closer to the “action”. There is one small village, Puerto Piramides, that has campsites, hostels and a few restaurants, but otherwise, the 2,500 square miles of the peninsula is flat, treeless, and uninhabited. I traveled on the interior’s small network of dirt roads.

Whales: The wind had been increasing all day, and there was a chance that the port would close the harbor, and prohibit any more of the whaleboats from going out. We made it out, but our boat was the last one for the day. Several whales were spotted rather quickly and we never spent too much time with one whale. The captain was very respectful of the whales’ space and would cut his engines before getting too close. The whales would then, sometimes, approach us. The whale has a natural sense of curiosity, which is one of the traits that contributed, sadly, to it getting the name “Right” whale, as in “the right whale to hunt”. It was exciting to get close to the whales, but the ride was anything but smooth. By the time we returned to the beach, almost everyone on the boat was soaked.

Elephant seals: “Bunch of lazy fat kids lying out on the beach.” Because these six-month old seals will not be going out to eat on for a while, they conserve energy by not moving much –at all. Their much larger parents were currently out in deep waters feeding.

Sea Lions: Sea lions are different from seals, in that they have “arms”, rather than just flippers, and have the ability to walk on all fours while on land, and they also have external ear “flaps”. The larger male was easily spotted amongst his harem of dainty females, with his nose high the air showing off his “king of the jungle” like mane.

(Orcas were spotted the day before I arrived. They often visit the north end of the peninsula to feed on the seal lions. This corner of the peninsula is in fact a famous feeding ground for Orcas - if you have ever watched the Discovery channel, and have seen how Orcas can swim up onto the shore, temporarily beaching themselves, to grab an unsuspecting seal – this is the place where that happens. The only place in the world I was told.)

Magellan Penguins: The most common type in South America. The birds burrow holes in the hard ground to build their “nests”. Many fuzzy little grey offspring could be seen popping their heads out these holes. Also known as Jackass penguins due to their ongoing braying, which sounds very much like a donkey that has backed up into an electrical prod.

Guanacos and Rheas: The two signature land animals of Patagonia were readily present within the peninsula’s interior. Without any real predators present, there are ample chances to see these swift-footed animals, and many young ones following right behind. With the exception of the very northern parts of Argentina, you no longer see Llamas, but once you get to Patagonia, further south, you start seeing their camelid brother, the Guanaco. The first time I saw a Rhea crossing the road, completely freaked me out. I had no idea that a miniature ostrich existed and never would have expected such down here.

Being on the peninsula truly felt like you were a visitor into someone’s home. It was incredibly tranquil, in that the whole point in being there was to observe -to be a fly on a wall in a place that had no walls. Once outside of Punta Piramides, the only sounds you heard were that of the surf, the wind, and the sounds coming from the animals.

My most memorable moment was one evening about two hours before sunset (much like the photo of the bay above). The light was soft, with an easy breeze, the water calm and dark. I walked out onto the rocks to the right of the bay to get settled in for the sunset. Sitting there alone, I noticed a break in the water’s surface, then another, and another. For over an hour I sat and watched maybe five whales, some with calves, swim into the bay individually and, for lack of better word – frolic. They breached, rolled, flipped their tails, and seemed to be having a grand time. I felt blessed. Unlike the rougher water during the whale tour, things were now calm and you could easily spot the whales when they broke the surface. I had an unobstructed balcony seat. Initially, I was upset because I had neither my camera nor binoculars, but then took great pleasure in the fact that I was forced to just sit there and enjoy the show. It is impossible to be in the company of whales without wearing a grin. If any animal can emit goodness, it’s a whale.

(While on riding on the peninsula, I ran into this German family that were traveling together on two older BMW R100’s. They had taken their girls out of school for a year to travel South America – six months going down, and six months going back up. What an education!)

Michael Lewis plans to spend the next five years traveling the world solo on his motorcycle. This is not a travel video; it's a series of short interviews aimed at unraveling the thought process that led Michael to trade his house, his business and most of his worldly possessions for a life on the road. In part six, Mike speaks about his desire to interact with different people and cultures, as well as his project dedicated to the support of quality education for the underprivileged children of the world.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Chubut River Valley

Photos: Top: Bariloche, flooded plain, Chubut River Valley, view of Puerto Madryn

I do not understand the allure of Bariloche (Argentina). It had been such a topic of conversation among travelers, a destination that always seemed to spark such excitement, but I could not find it. The “Swiss Alps of Argentina”, sits on a rise above Lake Nahuel Huapi in the Seven Lakes area. You cannot deny that it is beautiful, but no more than many other places in the region. Main street is dominated by chocolaterias as big as Best Buy stores, but otherwise lacks any real charm. In fact, the thing that I remember most about the town was how people would park their cars along the seawall so that the crashing waves would shower down on them, giving the car a good power wash. They would sit there for 4-5-minutes and then drive away with their wipers on while another grubby car waited to for their space. Simply fascinating theatre!

The weather finally broke and I headed south in moderate crosswinds down Ruta 258 through El Bolson, then on to Tecka where I would catch the road east to cut across Argentina via the Chubut River Valley. What I did not know at the time was that this would be the last of seeing anything green for a while, and just how remarkable the ride as going to be.

It would have been possible to cross to the Atlantic side in one day, but I did not see the point in that. This was to be my introduction to Patagonia (a word that has sparked excitement for me for over two years now), and I had no intention of rushing through it. Research told me that there was one gas station, and one hotel, midway across the country in the town of Los Altares. From there, it would be on to Port Madryn, and for the first time since beginning the trip, a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean.

The eastbound two-lane road crossed several rivers before meeting up and following the Chubut River. Almost immediately after turning east I pulled the bike over on the shoulder of the opposing westbound lane to take some photos. It was a flooded river plain with my first ever wild flamingoes (note to self: get that telephoto lens soon). The road eventually caught up with the Chubut just before reaching my night’s resting point, an Automobile Club of Argentina – a gas station/motor lodge combo kind of thing.

In the morning, I ordered a couple of sandwiches from the woman behind the station’s counter, had a cup of coffee while I waited, then got back on the road. The land became more and more barren, but produced some impressive rock formations along the route. The river came and went but never strayed too far. I saw my first of many sheep on this stretch of road, and my first Guanaco (relative of the Llama). The guidebooks tout this stretch of road from Los Altares to Trelew as one of the most beautiful drives in Argentina, and it did not disappoint.

Before reaching Trelew, I stopped for some tea in the Welsh dominated town of Gaiman. There, with the eyes of a dozen or more Princess Di portraits following my every move, I “enjoyed” stale crust less sandwiches, day-old pastries, and, of course, some tea. I wanted to stop and say that I had a proper cup of tea in Welsh-Argentina, and damn it, I did! However, it was one of those places that catered to busloads of tourists while on day excursions from their cruise ships. Based on the expressionless faces on the “been here too long” wait staff, my lone arrival just disrupted their day’s rhythm. Clearly, a tour bus was not scheduled, and my presence meant break time was over (the place was empty). My request to hear some Tom Jones was met with the same humorless expression.

After following the Pacific Ocean for almost the entire trip, it was exciting to see the Atlantic Ocean for the first Time. With the bike stowed away in the hotel’s parking lot, I had three days to upgrade my fading tan, stretch my legs on some beach walks, and try my first Patagonian lamb.

Puerto Madryn is a poplar weekend beach town for Argentines, and serves as a launching point for tours to the Valdez Peninsula, a nationally protected breeding reserve for Southern Right whales, sea loins, elephant seals, penguins, and various land animals, and my next stop.

Historical note: Puerto Madryn was founded when 150 Welsh immigrants landed on its shores in 1865. The immigrant’s arrival was in response to an offer by Argentina’s government in which 100 square miles of land would be give to those that would settle in the still unconquered land around the Chubut River. The settlements were successful and there is still a strong Welsh presence today.

Michael Lewis plans to spend the next five years traveling the world solo on his motorcycle. This is not a travel video; it's a series of short interviews aimed at unraveling the thought process that led Michael to trade his house, his business and most of his worldly possessions for a life on the road. In part four, Mike discusses the expected costs of his adventure tour, and the creature comforts he will have to live without.