On a hill in Puerto Madryn stands a native Tehuelche, in what look like his pants, looking out over the Atlantic Ocean. He’s been stood there for a long time. Way back in 1865, from this high vantage point, he is said to have spotted a ship – the Mimosa – as it dotted over the horizon and landed beneath him on the rocks below. This one-way spin on a tea-clipper cost the 153 travellers a hefty £12, and the two months aboard provided its fair share of drama, with babies born, wedding vows vowed and tragic deaths among its mish-mash of passengers, who’d set off on their trip from Bala, Birkinhead, Mountain Ash, Liverpool…
I spent not two, but three months in Patagonia, with my own fair share of stories which began, and ended, in this seaside city so rich in history. Our history. Our story.
For me, Puerto Madryn means I get to play tourist. Having settled into a routine, with my Chubutense lifestyle, sports clubs, classes and acquaintances in Gaiman, a little trip to the seaside always offers itself as a reason to smile. My first encounter with the city was way back in October, where I got to introduce Juampi to the South of Argentina for the first time. Nothing will ever compare to one’s hometown, especially when one comes from Salta ‘la Linda’ where objectivity goes head first out the window and bias and pride is blinding. Nevertheless, I was determined to share something special from this part of the world. Luckily, the Valdès Peninsula is a bounty of handsome, extraordinary wildlife. A gift. A priceless experience. Only they forget to tell you that the price is double if you ain’t an Argie.
Discarding the logistical nightmare that accompanies my day-to-day functioning in Argentina, including bank hunts, bus timetables and opening hours, our time spent in Madryn, Puerto Pirámides and on the coast of the Peninsula Valdès was incredible. Claiming revenge on the system, I let Juampi answer for the both of us when asked “Where are you from?” upon entry into the national park. Being a resident of Salta, rather than Llandovery, grants you access at half the price. However, my master plan of silence was to be my punishment and the joke was ultimately on me and I had to spend the entire day mute and dumb, so as not to let slip my blatantly hybrid Welsh-Madrileño accent and get caught red handed and beetroot faced. We took a mini bus tour from our hostel early in the morning, with a tour guide who had a tick that became more and more grating with every tock of the clock. Our timing was perfect: October is prime whale watching season and we were treated to a spectacle on el Doradillo beach, with whales larking about in the water quite literally a stones skim away. They came so close that we could make out the parasites crusted onto their fins, water belching out of the blow-holes as they chased and frolicked amongst themselves. On the long stretches on rugged, rutted, dusty paths, we saw alpacas, salt flats and sheep and arrived at what was to be one of the highlights of my trip.
Near Caldeta Valdès we got to see the penguins. Comical, ditsy and whimsical, even more so than in the animation movies we’ve all seen, we gawped as they obliviously performed their unrehearsed sketches to a beaming, chuckling audience. Yet this is nature, real life, wildlife. Some penguins stood, open-winged, praying to the sun gods, lapping up the vitamin D with a quiet closed-eyed content. Others scurried about hurriedly with places to go, people to see. One chewed on a lady’s shoelace, venturing close to the barrier then nose-dived into the safety of its burrow, escaping her excited hoots and cackles. The remaining penguins snoozed, upright, or trumpeted in sharp, clumsy unison: chests pumping, beaks honking. They eventually dragged me away. Though unbelievably reluctant, I knew we had more to see.
The rest of the day was spent around Punta Loma and Pirámides, where gigantic sea lions lay, like giant overgrown slug corpses on the sea shore. Hundreds clustered together, flapping, fighting, and budging each other for space and air, like monstrous barnacles they cling to the rocks, plopping into the water inelegantly every now and again. Nature gave us good theatre, as we watched two alpha males have a good old fashioned punch up in the water. Over a lady, naturally.
The next time I would come into contact with these creatures would be three months on, with my limbs squished into a wetsuit, sporting a snorkel and balaclava. The contact would be quite literal, as, my last Thursday in Argentina was spent swimming with seals and sea lions. Who knew this kind of excursion existed? Regardless, a group of us coughed up for this unique experience, though watching videos of sea lion attacks on YouTube beforehand was not my cleverest trick. In I hopped with no hesitation, clumsily bobbing about with my oversized flippers and steamed up goggles, ploughing full steam ahead towards the slippery grey bodies tumbling through the water. One puppy took a shine to a man in another group, and was over him and his hipster beard like a rash, kissing him, nuzzling his neck and following him back to the boat when it was home time. My moment with the seals was significantly less romantic, as one surfaced inches from my face and did a half-cough, half-sneeze, spluttering water, shaking its head and clearing off underwater. His mate, a lively little rascal, bit at my hand and another shoulder barged me. I’ll take it as a cuddle, and forgive his eagerness.
Anybody that knows me will understand that I usually can’t fight the overwhelming urge to run when I’m at the seaside (or anywhere, to be honest). There is absolutely nothing like training with my neck more or less tilted, owl-like at 90 degrees, looking out to the vast ocean, jinking and jiving past the roller bladers and Sunday strollers on the prom. I take my watch, and nothing else. I set off near the caves that the first Welsh immigrants inhabited upon arrival, resilient and battling against the icy July wind and waves, all those years ago. The watch bleeps when I reach the aluminium factory that brings in thousands of Bolivian workers each year, Madryn still promising hope and a home to outsiders. I don’t take pictures, I don’t use my phone, I don’t talk. I just enjoy the sensation of running fast, at sea level, in a new place with fresh air and endless kilometres to get into my legs. It’s my way of getting to know a place. High-speed running tourism, it may be, but it’s my weird little dimension where I can switch off from the world, and connect with it, just like that.
My first and last few days in Patagonia were spent in Puerto Madryn (neu Porth Madryn, i ti a fi). Full circle, like the big fat orange sun that rose on our walk back from Margaritas bar at 7am on our last night. As we walked, I contemplated one of the bays that can be seen from the shore. On the surface, it’s a tad shabby, gasping for a lick of paint, in need of somebody with a a rake, a bin, some polish. Yet it’s also polluted with giggles and squeals of toddlers dipping toes into the ocean, a beach littered with umbrellas and deck chairs, and the racket of crashing waves, sea lions and school trips. It’s not perfect, but it’s a lovely, charming seaside town a skip away from an infinitely wild and turquoise underwater wonderland. I can only imagine that this is the glimmering hope that the Welsh held on to, when cwtched in their caves, staring out to the nothingness that greeted them. Let’s just be grateful that they did so that the circle can go on and on and on.