The tiny Patagonian village of Puerto Pirámides sits at the heart of Peninsula Valdes Nature Reserve, an UNESCO World Heritage Site encompassing both land and sea. Famed for the mass of southern right whales that congregate here, and the pods of orcas that have developed a unique seal hunting technique, the area has much more biodiversity than its harsh environment suggests. Populations of elephant seals, sea lions and Magellanic penguins thrive along the protected coastline, not to mention the dozens of varieties of sea birds that also flourish here.
Sheep estancias dating back to the 19th century occupy the peninsula’s interior, and there are sheep everywhere, but even in this barren landscape there is a wide variety of extraordinary creatures. We frequently saw groups of guanacos, one of the camelid species endemic to South America. We had only one sighting of the ostrich-like rhea, but did manage to come across a couple of hairy armadillos, known locally as peludo. I’d hoped to spot a mara, a large hare-like relative of the guinea pig, but they remained illusive.
After an exhilarating day of whale watching we were heading to Trelew for an onward flight, but first we did a circuit of the peninsula. The vast empty landscape we drove through to Punta Delgada, on the southern tip of Peninsula Valdes, included the pink salt lake that was once mined commercially. It was a mesmerising landscape. Beneath vertical cliffs a group of sea lions make their home on a Punta Delgada beach. We spent some time walking around the lighthouse and watching the sea lions before heading to Caleta Valdes.
Caleta Valdes is the start point for a lagoon formed by a 30 kilometre-long sandbar, it’s a dramatic place to view elephant seals. The male seals are massive, growing up to six metres in length, and are extremely aggressive protecting their harem from rivals. Dominant bulls establish harems of dozens of females, letting out roars of displeasure as they noisily defend their territory. Around the beach there were females giving birth and feeding young pups as seagulls swooped down to fight over the placentas. It was a pulsating mass of activity.
As we watched, a huge male, upset by something, came careering through the mass of females and pups with remarkable speed and massive force. Despite the protestations of the females, it seemed impossible that one or more pups wouldn’t get crushed in the mayhem. Twice we saw pups disappear under the male marauder, miraculously, there were no casualties. Elsewhere we witnessed one cunning male hijack a female as she came out of the water in an attempt to start his own harem, other lone males lurked on patches of sand.
We headed north along the gravel road to Punta Norte Reserve where, every March and April, the colonies of sea lions and elephant seals are terrorised by ingenious pods of killer whales. Intentionally beaching themselves in a high risk strategy, the orcas of Peninsula Valdes are unique. Seeing them will have to wait for another trip. Close by is the Estancia San Lorenzo, a working farm but also a hotel and restaurant that has its own colony of Magellanic penguins. We stopped for a delicious asado of lamb before making the seemingly endless journey first to Punta Tombo and then to Trelew.
We decided to drive the nearly 300 km to visit Punta Tombo because it’s home to over 200,000 pairs of Magellanic penguins, the largest colony anywhere on the planet. The endless tedium of the Patagonian landscape had us wondering whether the journey was really worth it. Once we were walking through the nesting penguins (they build burrows in the earth), with sweeping vistas over the ocean and herds of guanacos in the distance, it definitely seemed worthwhile.
We spent our last Patagonian night in the Welsh town of Trelew. In the morning we had time to visit the Welsh village of Gaiman. This region was settled by Welsh nationalists intent on escaping English political and cultural repression to maintain Welsh culture intact. The first wave of 153 colonists arrived in 1865. The group included few farmers and only one person with any medical knowledge, a bit of an oversight if the colony was to survive in a semi-arid climate they’d been mis-sold as an earthly Garden of Eden.
There were many setbacks that almost destroyed the colony, but at the start of the 20th century over 4,000 people of Welsh decent were living in the region. Ironically, later immigration was mainly from Italy and other European countries, the Welsh became a minority and their cultural identity was again threatened. Today, the Welsh language is still spoken, alongside Spanish, there are Protestant churches and Welsh tea shops, and even an annual Eisteddfod festival. It’s quite bizarre.