LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 95
Pag. 60 al 73
By: Rossana Acquasanta
Photos: Nacho Calonge
A TRIP TO PUNTA NINFAS
The long journey to eastern Patagonia started in Buenos Aires. We made a stop for refreshments at a ranch ("estancia") in Olavarria, and as from Viedma our itinerary almost constantly followed the coastline. Crossing dunes, and skirting cliff-edge beaches, we made a complete circuit around Peninsula de Valdes, went through Puerto Madryn and continued to Punta Ninfas, the distant end to this trip featuring choppy seas and endless gravel beaches.
First we had planned a classical tour of Valdes, but fate decreed our project should be more ambitious, so suddenly Nissan turned up with its little jewel, the XTerra. Nobody asked for it, it turned up of its own accord.
However, we weren't going to ignore it: we decided to do highway touring, the favorite Argentine traveling style. And while we were at it, as we were already going so far afield, we might as well stretch the trip along the coast beyond Puerto Madryn. So Punta Ninfas became our final destination.
Three of us made up the LUGARES team: photographer Nacho with his slew of cameras, lenses and tripods; Carolina Aldao, who didn't want to miss the chance of driving the 4WD, which suited me perfectly. We left Buenos Aires late one Wednesday afternoon with our tank full of gas, piles of CDs and tape cassettes, maps, a kit for mate tea, and off we went, eating up the miles, straight to Olavarria.
Without leaving the paved road, we headed straight for the ranch a stone's throw away from that spot, where we would sleep the first night.
We arrive almost at midnight to an undeserved reception from the Larrañaga family in full force -owners Cristian and Claudia, little Pilar and Ignacio in their pajamas, plus a friend, waiting for us with a set dinner table, as though it only were 9 o'clock... They made us feel a little better by assuring us that in their house they always got to bed late, and true to their word, after a generous and healthy repast, accompanied us in an after-dinner chat until the wee hours of the morning.
On the following morning we toured part of the property, where there are plenty of horses, and llamas! This is a perfect place to bring your children; there are only two guestrooms, usually offered to families, with adults in one and kids in the other. "That way nobody bothers the kids, and we can give them exclusive attention," commented Cristian.
By midday, a delicious aroma of barbecue began spreading around, leading us by the nose to the quincho ("barbecue house"). There we found "don" Roberto Valenzuela, an Olavarria baqueano (gaucho tracker) in his seventies, with more pep than all the rest of the town put together, busy spreading the coals under the meat. He is in charge of the cattle and horses on the ranch; efficient and unassuming, no sooner was the asado (barbecue) ready than Roberto bade us bon appetit and took his leave.
We did justice to the empanadas and the grilled beef and, "bloated" with good cheer and food, we said our good-byes with a prophetic "see you soon".
To spice up the ennui of the plains, we made a very slight detour to the west, going by De la Ventana Hill. The twisting and turning roadway made things more interesting, and until we reached Bahia Blanca, Caro kept her foot off the brake. A storm was brewing, and our world began to fill with threatening clouds that thickened and produced volleys of lightning, followed by bucketfuls of rain.
The deluge continued until we were almost at Carmen de Patagones. Caro, despite her tiredness, was satisfied: "this baby is "something else", she chortled, patting the wheel. That is when we christened the 4WD the Silver Bullet, inspired by its steel-gray color. We entered the last town in Buenos Aires province, ready to sleep in any bed. But it wasn't to be. So we crossed the Rio Negro to take shelter in Viedma, the "ex-future" Argentine capital city.
A quick spin along the waterfront, on Francisco de Viedma Avenue and beyond showed us a quiet city with a tree-lined shore and the splendid river that gives it its name.
Two bridges span the river, and there is also a wharf for the ferry plying between Patagones and Viedma.
Afterwards, we went to the roundabout, looking for the exit for the sea lion colony. With this reference, getting to the entrance to the public beach we saw a Tourist Information Office. I went in to ask for pamphlets and make some inquiries.
Surprisingly, there were no brochures, and I had to give them all my personal information instead, because it turned out to be a "disguised" police post. They said that this procedure was "for travelers' safety", as "should anything happen, we've got your data on record". They also told us the beach road was in good condition for traffic, saying "the sand is firm thanks to the rain, and the dunes haven't covered the road surface."
We followed the road, heading towards the sea, whose closeness was betrayed by the (rather tumbledown) lighthouse on our left.
We headed right, and were now assured of not letting the blue sea out of our sight for hours; if we had followed Route 3 that goes directly to San Antonio Oeste, we would have missed this beautiful stretch, with cliffs on one side and steppe on the other. The air was teeming with huge flocks of red and yellow-chested parrots that nest in the cliffs; alongside the road, the ears of wild oats alternated with uña de gato (cat's claw), covered with bright fuchsia colored flowers.
Three kilometers after passing the La Loberia Beach tourist complex, the paved roadway ended. We got to Bahia Creek in a break in the dunes, a built-up area with a handful of houses each with its mill. When we started the descent, we began to understand what the Viedma police had been trying to tell us: the road surface began to practically "disappear" in the sand, covered by the dunes.
Only when we arrived at Caleta de los Loros, did we find a visible trace of the road again. Getting "up" on the road surface of Route 3, we enjoyed the smooth paving up to Salinas Grandes, at which point it became disastrous, full of repaired patches.
Once we had passed the provincial frontier, the paving magically became billiard ball smooth. Route 3 kept leading us southward, and we passed the monolith surmounted by the sculpture of a whale's flukes, now unfortunately scrawled with graffiti, and it was 7 p.m. on the dot when we got to the Peninsula de Valdes protected area. We paid our entrance fee and covered the 35 km of the long Ameghino Isthmus, the link between the peninsula and the continent.
At its narrowest point, the isthmus is seven kilometers wide; to the north stretches San Jose Gulf, and to the south Nuevo Gulf. The steppe was very green, a welcome sign of spring.
Puerto Piramides appeared below us, with its houses spread right up to the dunes; the whale sighting boats, that had already left the bay were visible at anchor, but Nacho, who during the last part of our trip had suffered like a trooper because, in his words, "this trip is longer than a boa constrictor", only wanted to go running out to see the whales. Caro pulled into the parking lot of The Paradise, our favorite Piramides hotel, we dumped our things in our rooms (ours had the Jacuzzi!) and we went to the beach.
It didn't matter to us that the waters of Nuevo Gulf were inkier than those of the North Sea; nor did we care about the sudden cold and gusts of wind that created whitecaps on the waves. We had to go out and see the whales, and so we did. Of course we couldn't use a semi-rigid rubber raft under those weather conditions. Several operators are authorized to take tourists out for whale sightings, and LUGARES had already tried almost all of them, except the team led by Peke Sosa.
His sons are in charge of providing this service for the hundreds of tourists that stop at Piramides every day. Quite a job. We cottoned on to a discreet little group that had also decided to go out to sea, and boarded the Azul Profundo (Blue Deep). I liked the Sosa style; no forced approaches or chasing, and no noisy loudspeakers, no sir! When the marvelous creatures appear, engines are turned off and so is the loud running commentary, that is reduced to a few whispers.
Mostly what is heard are exclamations of emotion from watchers.
The other program one shouldn't miss is that of scuba diving. Nacho and Caro made their first dive with Juan Benegas, an expert explorer of Gulf waters. Caro, who is imperturbable, had a whale of a time; however, the over-anxious Nacho insisted on getting out immediately: his initial expectations of zooming around like a torpedo were premature, so he was disappointed. Juan is an expert in his field, and no one can feel frustrated with him around. The "christening ceremony" was carried out at Punta Pardelas, where the rocky outcrops extend downward into the sea. Even for old hands, this is a real adventure.
A mere 17-18 km away from Piramides, we turned towards the sea and got to Punta Pardelas, a place one can stay for hours. The tide was low, leaving in view a vast flatland, bordered by a long hillside that Nacho climbed so as to get a better view of the scene from on high.
The broad beach, full of irregularly shaped reflecting pools, was like fragments of sky fallen to the ground. The waves beat incessantly against a jagged shore, full of caves and inlets that showered back a salt spray every time they hit. And the whales …. Oh, yes! God bless them! There they were - a few mothers with their young, cavorting freely, with no boats to bother them, safe from our greed. Never again will we miss this sight of the whales at Punta Pardelas, never again.
From the road one can see Salina Grande, a wide blotch of rabid pink. But the pinkness is a mirage, an effect of reflection by water.
Further on appears Salina Chica and, before getting to the lighthouse, on the right, we enter Rincon Chico. Maria Olazabal, one of the heirs to the ranch, and Agustin Ayuso, her companion, manage this hotel venture that started less than three years ago, and have never slowed down since then. Rincon Chico is the perfect place to combine the "good life" with fauna sightings, carried out under the strict supervision of a biologist guide.
This is quite a luxury on the steppe. Just as we had appeared, we disappeared again, with Agustin heading towards the coast to watch the walruses. The females were all with their young, so the community was at peace, featuring a lazy giant "Alpha" Male, spreading out his three-ton weight as he dozed, and ringed by a group of resigned outsiders.
Animals are present almost everywhere. The maras (Patagonian hares), for example, run around the house all the time, but don't let you get near. The moment you try, whoosh, off they skip. I try to imagine what the east of Patagonia was like before the arrival of the Welsh settlers in the mid-19th century, when maras, lesser rheas, tinamous, skunks, armadillos and countless birds of numerous species "lorded it" over land and air. A time when there was no need for European hares or red foxes, and when sea lions and walruses formed a literal "living carpet" on the whole Atlantic coast.
No white man and no sheep. I had never witnessed a shearing. So one day, the machine arrived.
The previous afternoon we had returned from an escapade to Trelew in a Cessna 182 with pilot Oscar Fratesi, a Trelew inhabitant - and we landed on the ranch's airstrip; just like the "old days" when they used to receive correspondence and merchandise by air. Still savoring the flight, we went straight to the pens: the men were busy checking the sheep's teeth to determine their ages and classify them.
I was impressed by the shearing. By the resignation of the sheep, the antediluvian belt-driven engine that powers the shears; the workers, engrossed in a task that requires high precision. Nobody talked. In the poorly lit shearing shed there was an atmosphere of gravity and urgency. That night, we went to the pub in the Punta Delgada lighthouse, a place that is always worth visiting. The hotel also is a very good one. But the pub has a snooker table, a real temptation to take it easy after dinner.
The steppe was bustling with new life. Lesser rheas with their charitos (chicks), and copetonas with their tiny young, guanacos with their chulengos and the mares with their foals. All the way along the road north to La Ernestina these scenes repeated, making our trip seem all too short.
We were received by Juan Copello, suntanned and "fit to kill!" Country life does wonders for Juan, and he spends all his time making improvements. The guest house has grown. Now there are four guestrooms with a private bathroom, and the dining room has been transformed: part of it has been converted to a sitting room that faces the sea, like all the other rooms in the house, a real luxury; the other part, in two levels, is the new dining room, separated from the sitting room area by a dividing wall with an open window, and a two step stairway.
Punta Norte surely is one of the planet's most impressively beautiful destinations. If not, it deserves to be one, thanks to the wild sea that shapes those steep beaches whose long stretches are only transformed to the view by the haze produced by airborne salt spray, by the multicolored gravel deposits , by the dunes with their abruptly undulating topography, and by the fauna that chose this place to live in: penguins, sea lions and the killer whales that come at the appointed time to hunt them.
La Ernestina enjoys the privilege of occupying a considerable portion of Punta Norte, and Juan knows this. That is why he never lets a guest wander around on his or her own; he personally takes groups to the penguin rookery and they tour it following his precise directions. It is quite a spectacle watching these birds making a bee-line from their nests to the sea, diving in, swimming and going back again. In a bee-line, of course. It is crucial not to scare them. Juan usually rewards his well-behaved guests with a trip to the lighthouse at sundown...
Complete with the gin tonic he prepares on the spot. The first one should be drunk at the foot of the lighthouse, while admiring the shoals that appear at low tide. The second should be drunk at the top, after having ascended the spiral staircase, chatting and laughing at the improvised bar counter, while one watches the sky redden and the clouds go purple, blue and orange, to end up in a scenic grand finale in different hues of red.
"Estancia La Elvira" is an exception in the natural offer of the Peninsula, because here one can live the experience from a sea view perspective. It opened to tourism a couple of years ago in a "make or break" venture. The central ranch-house is inland, occupying a depression in the steppe, and here one can lead a typical country life.
To compensate this, one has the "Parador de Caleta Valdes", located in an unbeatable spot on the high coastal cliffs facing the endless blue of the sea. To the left of the Parador, stretch the tongues of land and sea of the little bay. There is a walkway arrangement affording different viewing points. For the same reason that the Parador is a mandatory way-stop for visitors who tour the island, La Elvira is a valid option for overnighting before continuing on one's way.
San Jose Gulf
-"Do you like seashells?"
-"Did you find them?"
-"If you like, I can sell them to you."
-"Where did you get them from?"
-"$2 for the big ones and $1 for the small ones."
Ten year old Juan has a booty of seashells, either left on the beach by the tide or by divers. Little Rolando imitates Juan, bringing another seashell.
-"Look at it against the sun, and you'll see how many stripes it's got."
-"Isn't it a shame to sell them?" - "Yes… er, Nnno."
Then up comes the tiniest, Javier, with some "sharks' teeth", wanting to trade them for coins. From the sea come Jesus and his brother with a box full of robalo, pejerrey and small fry that they're going to sell in Piramides.
All the foregoing are permanent residents at Playa Larralde, a shantytown whose entrance is signaled by a whale jawbone arch. We had got there by going down Route 3, and taking a road that led us directly to Playa Villarino, "alongside" Larralde. Both of these are settlements combining mobile homes, city buses converted into housing, and shacks tenanted by fishermen and their families. Most of them "up-camp" and run at the approach of winter.
In the Isla de los Pajaros Fauna Reserve Center (the island is right in front of it), we found nobody. The replica of the San Jose Fort Chapel destroyed by the tehuelche war-party in the past seems a little dilapidated, however, it is still a moving sight. We ended our trip again in Puerto Piramides, with fine weather and a "world of whales" cavorting in the sea.
Before you could bat an eyelid we were heading out in a semi-rigid rubber craft with Micky Sosa and an English couple.
The afternoon was ending and conditions couldn't be better - zero wind, cloud and waves. The sea was incredibly smooth and calm as a pond.
The whale cub's enormous head emerged right beside our boat; its mother, keeping a certain distance away, called the baby back and played together with it for a while. Then the baby returned and swam repeatedly back and forward underneath our boat. Its mother meanwhile emerged, sunning herself, the baby swam towards here and stretched out beside her, fin to fin.
We stayed there till darkness forced us out of the water. It was a glorious feeling being only centimeters away from the skin of this gentle creature. How can such an enormous beast as this cetacean be so delicate and sweet? Perhaps this is the reason that watching them brings one a sensation of infinite peace.
First we made a "pit-stop" for refreshments and a rest in Puerto Madryn. We lodged in the El Solar de la Costa, a cute little hotel in the city's best neighborhood, Barrio Sur, and located on the seafront avenue. Well-slept, and after a bracing shower, we left for "Estancia El Pedral", right beside Punta Ninfas.
It is no easy matter to get there, but Wendt von Thüngen, Maria Jose Gonzalez Bonorino's husband, she being one of the owners of this ranch-house, had been very precise with his instructions: you have to go past "Estancia Los Pinos", on Cracker Bay, do another 10 km up to a ramshackle white fence gateway, and then do another three km inland. The road takes you to a hillside that you have to descend along a steep track in terrible condition. Having done all this, finally, around the last curve we saw the house. It is in a hollow, with its red tower peeping above the crowns of the trees in an ancient and thick wood.
This secret refuge was built by Maria Jose's great grandfather, Felix Arbeletche, in the late 19th century. He did this to mitigate the homesickness his wife felt for her native Basque countryside; this explains the architecture, typical of French manorial architecture of the period. It also explains the wood and the shady location. However, his wife was never able to enjoy this place, as she died before it was completed; a double tragedy for "don" Felix. Currently it is still the venue for family gatherings, especially at Christmastime, when the house fills with children and young people.
The house is so pretty, one doesn't feel like leaving it. When one goes out touring, one looks forward to returning to this delightful loneliness surrounded by flowers and trees; to its comfortable rooms and to its details and very appropriate antique furniture.
Then, of course, there is all the rest, and believe me, it is really worthwhile. Walking to a distant gravel-strewn beach, strolling to the cliffs, sailing on the sea, fishing. And, sooner or later, paying a visit to the place where the land abruptly ends in a series of high, bare cliffs and a lighthouse. An uninhabited finisterre. That is Punta Ninfas.