Puerto Madryn

dsc08842Golfo Nuevo, 2016

July 31, 2016

Buenos Aires is many things, but restful is not one of them. The city, aside from when you are waiting for a restaurant check, operates at a manic pace. We tasted relaxation during our last week with a trip across the Río de la Plata to the scenic coastal Uruguayan town of Colonia del Sacramento. But our attempts at restful days began in earnest on the Península Valdés.

On the map, Península Valdés is the circular bump tenuously connected to the South American mainland about halfway between Buenos Aires and the tip of the continent. There is one settlement on the peninsula, a three street town called Puerto Pirámides with 400 humans, twice as many unleashed dogs and twice again as many southern right whales. The journey from Buenos Aires includes a two hour flight, an hour bus ride to Puerto Madryn to transfer to one of three daily buses (one on weekends) to Puerto Pirámides. For our trip, only the plane was confirmed, as neither of the other legs offered advanced booking or schedules online. Despite this relative lack of firm information, each transfer worked with little confusion. We found ourselves greeted in Puerto Pirámides by our host Tina and her unleashed dog Donna in a dust-covered pick-up truck to save us the trouble of walking the final meters to our accommodations.

This close to the sea, the wind turned the cloudy damp air from unpleasant to raw, but inside our room there was homemade bread good enough to inspire poetry, enough of a kitchen to make meals, coffee and tea, and the anticipation of the whales to come. Fernando, the other half of our hosting party, expressed shock at the weather. He half-boasted, half-lamented that Puerto Pirámides never used to get rain. He promised it would improve.

Tina advised that it would be best to wait two days to take the whale-watching tour, the wind made it difficult for the boats to get far enough into the protected bay known as Golfo Nuevo to find the goliaths. The first full day, then, was spent gathering groceries from the limited supply of the one of the two stores with stocked shelves in town, walking on the beach followed/led by three lovable/annoying dogs, and making plans for hikes to see sea lions and elephant seals when the weather improved from prohibitively bitter to basically chilly. In the middle of the night, the power went out.

A loss of electricity in a town this small, with so few other comforts, might not make that much of a difference. It might even be welcomed. The loss of power enables a final and complete break from the world beyond walking distance, disrupting the tether of the connection that even the feeblest of wifi signals provides. And for the first day of the outage, this proved to be the case. We had enough cash to pay for the whale-watching excursion. Their boats were filled with enough fuel and paying customers to make the journey into the bay worth their while. For 90 minutes, we came close enough to the beasts for them to spit on us with their blowholes. We made dozens of sightings, sometimes of two or three whales at a time, enough for me to give up trying to capture each new encounter with a camera, but not so many that each new break in the surface of the water by a head, fin or tail failed to produce a palpable kick of exhilaration followed by an almost involuntary pointed finger.

We returned to shore, hiked up and down the largest dune within walking distance. At 5pm, the power returned, but by 930pm it was gone again. It lasted long enough to cook a meal and warm the room to the point where we could remove our outer layer of clothing. By morning, however, the only difference between the inside of our room and the outside world was that the floor of the studio remained dry. We sought out a café in the hopes that morning tea would keep us warm until either the weather improved enough to make hiking anything more than a chore or our room hospitable enough to enjoy a rainy day of books and naps. But the weather did not improve and the power did not return, the café remained as cold as our room.

Tina did her best to keep us warm. She asked Fernando to start a fire in the fireplace in the sparsely-furnished building next to our room that serves as their base of operations. On his trip to the mainland to pick up his two visiting teenage daughters, Fernando had spoken to the guys working on the power line. They had told him that the electricity would return at 7pm. In the meantime, he would gather his generator from a nearby campsite to provide enough power to get the heat running again. He told us how for his first few years in Puerto Pirámides, he had lived in a tent before constructing the building in which we were now standing. He said the power often went out when the wind was strong in the winter, but the worst had been for several days and that had been three years ago. When he left, Linda, who has been ill for much of the trip, fell asleep in front of the fire and I read until there was no longer enough light.

Fernando returned with the generator, powering it with the pickup truck that Tina had used to pick us up from the bus. We cooked another meal and the electric heater warmed the room. At 10pm, the generator disappeared, along with the pickup truck and the chill returned. Fernando had gotten, at best, incomplete information from the guys working on the line. We wondered why Fernando had not had the foresight to build fireplaces in the studios given the frequency of the power outages. Again, living without electricity is possible, but life without heat becomes unsustainable after a certain period of time.

For us, that certain period of time arrived the next morning. Even as the sun shone, even as Tina gave us more freshly-baked bread, even as our plans of sea lions and elephants seals remained incomplete, even as Fernando’s optimism about the imminent return of the power remained, it was time to go. Fernando’s daughters had the same inclination. “Everyone is leaving the town,” Fernando said mournfully. He offered us a ride back to the mainland to Puerto Madryn. There, we hoped to find wifi and another Airbnb, dipping into money that we had not intended to use for our trip.

However, whatever Fernando lacks in foresight or intuition, he makes up for in resourcefulness and generosity. Rather than drop us at a café to begin our accommodation search, he spent the hourlong trip calling around to the people he knew in Puerto Madryn to find us a place to stay. Fernando’s gregariousness means that this could have been any one of a dozen hostels or hotels. He called ahead, he drove across the town twice, and after four or five stops and plenty of negotiating on his part and impatience from his daughters, he presented us with a private room in a hostel, a block from the beach. That he paid for.

While Puerto Madryn could not offer up isolated beaches and elephant seals, its location across Golfo Nuevo meant the whales were not far away. In fact, they were even closer than they had been in Puerto Pirámides. On the first day, from the shore I watched as one frolicked (as much as an animal that enormous can frolic) in the waves not 50 meters from shore. The next day, at one moment within eyesight there were seven separate whales visible from the beach. On the final day, as we walked to the bay to say goodbye, one leapt out of the water, nose to tail. While the whale-watching boat trip had offered the thrill of proximity, it still felt like something of a curated experience. To see them without the aid of others, within swimming distance, created a more tangible marvel. It was less of a show: they were here (as they are every year) and we were here with them at this point and time together in Puerto Madryn.

20160729_180244Puerto Madryn, 2016

dsc08783Golfo Nuevo, 2016

dsc08804Golfo Nuevo, 2016

dsc08811Puerto Madryn, 2016

dsc08818Golfo Nuevo, 2016

dsc08826Puerto Madryn, 2016

dsc08829Puerto Madryn, 2016