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A Whale of a Christmas in Puerto Madryn

ARGENTINA | Friday, 26 December 2008 | Views [1646]

The bus was warm and smelt distinctlly of feet as we found our seats. It had been delayed for 2 hours and Retiro was packed with throngs of people heavily laden with Christmas miscellanea. Puerto Madryn, in Chubut province in Patagonia was 18 hours away. When the bus stopped in Viedma, early in the morning, it was sweltering, the AC wasn't working. They patched it up and we continued and arrived in the seaside town late in the afternoon.

Our hostel, where we were to spend Christmas, was clean, had a kitchen, wireless and rumours of a parrilla. We arranged a tour for the following day to Peninsula Valdes, the reason for being there.

The peninsula is a protected wildlife park and yet another world heritage site. We visited the informative interprative centre with what were introduced as the “best bathrooms in South America” (which were quite plush, I admit, but the search continues) and then on to Puerto Piramides. The small port is famous for whale watching, the main season being from September to the end of November so we were going to be lucky to catch any on Christmas eve.

We climbed aboard the boat installed on a contraption which a tractor pushed out into the wash. The skipper turned her about and we were off, with the words that there was no guarantee that we would see any whales but that they had seen a few yesterday so it was 50-50. After an hour and with chalky cliffs in the background a female southern right whale appeared with her months old calf. You really have to see a whale to understand how enormous and majestic they are. We circled for a half an hour, the calf curious and getting almost within arms reach at one point. Amazing.

After a packed lunch on the beach, back in the bus and up to Punto Norte. There are two places on the planet where orca hunt by a technique known as intentional stranding, I'm sure I've heard David Attenborough describe the spectacle of a killer whale crashing on to the shoreline hunting baby seals. One is thousands of miles south-east of Madagascar and this was the other, but only in March. So we contented ourselves with some young elephant seals, yet to grow their trunks. They practiced fighting, in preparation for their contests for harems, growing to massive sizes, up to four or five times the size of the largest sea-lions who shared the sound with them. No killer whales although five had been seen in the morning.

Darwin visited the peninsula on his voyages on the Beagle and a number of the fauna are named after him, Darwin's Lizard etc. Turning south, we passed Rhea, large emu-like flightless birds, a Patagonian hare, which is actually a relative of the rodent and a tiny Patagonian fox. Down a 40 km spit of gravel filled with tidal waters from one 50m gap to a Magellanic penguin colony, comically protecting their eggs and busily pottering about.

In most countries in South America the big night for celebrating Christmas is the 24th. A supermarket shelf stacker had told us they shut at 8 and we made it back by about7, planning to check the parilla was working and get some traditional fare, patagonian lamb and a few Christmas treats. It had closed at 6. We ran around looking for anywhere open and managed to come up with some ravioli, a packet of carrot-tomato sauce with extra fibre, 2 salamis, some bread and 2 industria argentina kinder surprises. The Christmas dinner of kings! We got some wine too.

Back in the hostel there didn't seem to be anything organised and the parrilla was only half built The kitchen was quite crowded so we opened a bottle and played cacho outside in the garden – there wasn't really much room inside either. Getting hungry we ventured into the kitchen and about 6 seperate groups were all cooking, but not together, against each other, almost jostling, eyeing up utensils and pots down to cutlery. There didn't seem to be an end in sight so we had the bread and one of the sausages. No-one spoke to each other. Nairy a christmas tree or a bit of Slade. Claire asked an American girl for a knife to cut the sausage, there were none left and they seemed to have a spare for their cheese plate. She said 'no' curtly and carried on. We played the ballad of new york and opened another bottle – it was clear that this hostel was ignoring all signs of Christmas. Sure we have the pen-knife.

Just before midnight we ventured out, lots of kids out on the streets with sparklers and down to the beach front. Fireworks and screamers were set off all over the city. The kids swapped their sparklers for bangers and everyone came out to go for a midnight stroll along the seafront.

We woke up on Christmas morning to greet our roommate, a quiet polite couple from Basque who had been on the tour to the Peninsula. They were similarly impressed with the hostel and had decided to leave that day but not before an interesting chat about the roots of their language and ETA and separatism. The wi-fi worked at least so we were able to get in touch with home before preparing our ravioli feast. The kitchen was jammers again, with the same people, even more emboldened. The basque guys donated us their utensils and I elbowed in. It was a nice meal in the end, followed by our kinder sorpresas but we agreed that it felt more Christmassy on March 17th on O'Connell St. A long pleasant walk along the strand filled the late afternoon and we stole a quiet moment in the kitchen to pop some corn, After the usual suspects spied the popcorn they seemed to run out en masse and buy some. There was a run on big saucepans and the microwave as we retired.

There was no heavy heart as we packed up to move away from the christmas vortex that was that hostel.

Tags: christmas, fireworks, whale, wildlife


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