LUGARES MAGAZINE Nro. 47
Pags. 56 - 63
By: Julia Caprara
Photos: Carolina Aldao
We whisked through Trelew city and continued on to our final destination: Puerto Pirámides, located 170 km away, as we wanted to focus entirely on the whales and were anxiously looking forward to our first encounter with them.
Puerto Pirámides is the only inhabited area on Península Valdés. Its one-hundred and fifty inhabitants are fully dedicated to visitors coming from all over the world for a personal encounter with the southern right whale, truly one of the most thrilling experiences of nature. These amazing creatures approach this part of the Patagonian coast between May and December for quite imprecise reasons, related with their need of nourishment and their reproductive cycle.
Neither whales nor tourists miss the show: with punctuality, they start arriving year after year in May until they gradually reach their peak in October, the prime season.
Minutes after crossing through the Ameghino Isthmus from the mainland onto the Valdés Peninsula, surrounded by the San José Golf in the north and the Golfo Nuevo in the south, we reached Puerto Pirámides and embarked on a catamaran for our long awaited adventure at sea.
The boat pounded mercilessly over the vigorous waves of Golfo Nuevo on our avid search for the whales. Finally, they came into view. Emerging from the blue waters, enormous, dark, submarine shapes, with water draining off their backs. My first feeling was of envy, watching them
move gracefully in the sea, while we held fast to what ever we could, as we rocked over the waves.
At times, they did not look like animals, more like prodigious mechanical contrivances, the type of Disney's artificial props set up to entertain tourists, tamely skimming over the surface.
Occasionally, they breathe out spurting water jets from their spiracles or submerge leaving their spectacular caudal fin gracefully tailing out of the water as if waving to the audience. Moreover this produced exclamations of admiration and the issuing machine-gunning of cameras. The most celebrated number in their show is when the colossus breaches: to watch these massive creatures rise vertically from the depth, 15 metre-Iong, several tons, leap and plunge into the water with a thundering noise heard at miles distance.
After the whale-watching excursion -which took over an hour- we savoured the delicious grilled squids concocted by Mumo at Paradise, the thriving hostel and restaurant in Pirámides.
Lewis no longer lives here
Trelew's history goes back to 1862, when a Welsh colony settled in Patagonia and sent Lewis Jones and Captain Sir Love Jones Parry Madryn as spokesmen to deal with the Argentine government. On their return to Wales, they both stated in their report the need to set up railways to connect Chubut Valley with Golfo Nuevo.
Lewis Jones' endeavour was crowned with the arrival on July 28th, 1886, of the steamer "Vesta", with over 400 immigrants and the first shipment of building materials for the railroads. That is how a small new town mushroomed around the working site facilities, later christened Trelew in honour of who liad been the driving force of the idea. Trelew means "Louis' town" in Welsh (Tre: town and Iew: apocope for Lewis).
Over a century later, Trelew has reached a population of 100 thousand, primarily dedicated to trade and tourism. The current authorities aim to underpin this profile with the renovation of the Paleontology Museum and the project for an astronomy observatory. On Fontana street, the Touring hotel, preserves its old charm. lts bar is a true relic, where the locals -who pledge eternal fidelity- enjoy a classic vermouth for the happy hour.
Inaugurated 15 years ago in the old railway station, The Regional Museum displays over a thousand pieces throughout six rooms, a journey through the region's history: since the Tehuelche and Mapuche Indian settlements, to the traces of pioneers and explorers who ventured to the solitude of Patagonia between 1520 and 1865. Dailylife objects of the Welsh settlers are also exhibited at the museum, as an old portrait of María Elizabeth Humphreys, the first white woman born in Patagonia, in 1865.
Dinosaurs, Fossils and Big Bangs
The grand opening of the renovated Paleontology Museum Egidio Feruglio occurred while we visited Trelew: a modern 1,800 m infrastructure, showing 1,700 fossils of dinosaurs and other animal and plant species that inhabited Patagonia's prehistory. The visit is organised as a journey through history as you walk its five rooms.
The itinerary begins with the first natives, going back 11 thousand years, and continues through the times when Patagonia was a much warmer place, some 30 million years ago. Then follows the Mesozoic period when dinosaurs appeared ending with the Paleozoic period, when single celled marine organisms and the first bacteria developed. Finishing with an audio-visual show on the beginnings of the Universe and the Big Bang theory illustrates the visitor on the origin of all things. A dino-shop and a dino-bar complete the tour, which demands two hours.
The museum has a branch 17 km from the city, in Park Bryn Gwyn which has been turned into a themed-park and divided in areas that show the geological history through fossils. Visitors can enjoy an extensíve discovery walk over the dunes of the valley of the Chubut river. It is hard to imagine that this region was once a vast plain. The fossils of sea-lions, oysters and diverse fish species prove that this was the bottom of the ocean a millions years ago.
A visit to the town of Gaiman is well worthwhile, located 12 km west on provincial route 7. Founded in 1874, Gaiman -meaning "flint stone"- is today an area of farms and fruit groves, where descendants of Welsh pioneers preserve their traditions.
Undoubtedly, the tea tradition is the best known here. A ritual that is punctually celebrated at four o'clock which includes delicious scons and pastry, apart from the typical black Welsh cake.
Caimans' points of interest are the old train station which operated from 1886 to 1962, the Egidio Feruglio museum, the Moriah chapel by the cemetery, the first school in Patagonia built in 1906, and the first Welsh home, or Camwy, constructed entirely of stone in 1847. In Patagonia you feel that there is so much yet to be discovered. Many times this intuition is confirmed.
As we ventured across the Chubut river valley, after 45 km the river disappeared, all of a sudden everything changed and the terrain became completely desolated. We took a detour and entered a farm full of fossilised tree trunks lying on the dry river banks. We were standing on a buried petrified forest, that eerily surfaced at certain parts. At the present a group of scientists are doing research work with the aim of opening the fossilised arboretum to the public shortly. The Chubut river originates from the snow
melting down from the Andes and flows from Río Negro to Bahía Engaño, where Rawson harbor lies.
The Welsh, who named the river Camuy, "meanderin, river", always settled near its clear waters. We followed the road that skirts the river, always flanked by poplars, and after 12 km reached the Florentino Ameghino Dam, a huge cement bulk -176 metres high and 250 Ion g- that provides electric power to the towns in the valley, Puerto Madryn and Comodoro Rivadavia. It must have demanded herculean efforts: the works began in 1950 and it mas finally ready to operate in the seventies. Upon request, it is possible to visit the dam and the powerplant, and see the generators at work, and walk along the inside tunnels of this bohemuth construction.
In the summertime, the village by the lake resembles a beach resort, offering water sports and fishing for rainbow trout, browns and pejerrey, although the only accommodations are afforded by camping sites and hostels.
After the tonina dolphins
The temptation of sighting the toninas drew us back to the sea. Belonging to the dolphin family, these mammals resemble small killerwhales: they leap and swim at amazing speed. They can be seen between March and mid-January.
We set out on a speed-boat from Playa Unión, an ocean resort which comes alive in the summer, located 4 km from Rawson city, the province capital. My group was not very lucky: we only spotted one tonina. Carolina's was luckier, that is why she is the photographer.
However, I enjoyed the adventure in open sea, no waves this time. We shared the Atlantic with colonies of swimming penguins and cormorants, who were a bit scared with the noise from the boats engines. To top the morning off another unforgettable lunch awaited us: shrimps, scallops and squid at a restaurant by the harbour.
We left Trelew and Patagonia in the afternoon. Leaving behind a land of vastness, of over-measured images, where history and the origin of things seem closer, almost at hand's reach.