Into Patagonia

Monday, October 31st 2005

The next day I bought a ticket to Puerto Madryn, about 700 miles south of Buenos Aires and one of the largest towns in Patagonia - a name so evocative of wild mountains, glaciers, winds and rain that I found the thought of large towns there quite strange.

So I headed up to Retiro bus station for the last time, and left the homely surrounds of Buenos Aires for parts unknown. On my journey around the 'guays I'd only taken a small pack of stuff but now I was carrying everything I'd brought for the first time. I really had only brought essential stuff but the weight and bulk of my pack were pretty considerable, and my hiking pole hanging off the side was a danger to passers-by, but I got to the bus station without maiming anyone.

The Puerto Madryn bus which pulled in first was huge and luxurious, and I feared a repeat of my journey to Asunción, but this time the big bus was mine. I slept pretty well on the way down, only waking at one point to see a sky stunningly full of stars. When I woke in the morning I was in Patagonia. What a great place to be! Endless flat grassy plains extended away as far as I could see, with no sign of human influence beyond the road. Eventually, Puerto Madryn appeared out of the mesmeric plains and we arrived there at 2pm. It was a cool, sunny, windy day.

This part of Patagonia attracted immigrants from Wales in the 1800s, and it's strange to see places with names like Trelew, Rawson and Trevelyn on a map of South America. Nearby Trelew was hosting its annual Eisteddfod while I was in Madryn. Madryn itself today isn't very Welsh, though it has streets with names like Calle Jones and Avenida Williams, and the occasional Welsh flag flies.

I hired a bike to cycle to a nearby sea lion colony, Punta Loma. The colony was 17km away, not really far at all, and before I had left for South America I'd competed in a 12-hour overnight cycle race on forest tracks so I felt easily up to this. However, I faced three serious problems. First, a continuous strong wind was blowing against me; second, after a few kilometres of tarmac the road became a sandy track; and third, even the largest bike I could hire was far too small. I suspect I cut a ridiculous figure as I pedalled through the sand slightly slower than walking pace, a determined expression on my face, almost kneeing myself in the forehead each time I pushed the pedals.

It took me two hours to get to Punta Loma, and I was exhausted by the time I made it there. But it was impressive - a huge colony of sea lions, grunting and honking as they lay on the beach. There must have been a hundred of them. As I watched, the tide was coming in, and the animals were heading out for a swim. More and more of them dragged their massive frames up off the beach and into the sea, and once they were in it was astonishing to see how quick and agile they were. On land, they looked like everything was a struggle, but in the water they raced about.

As the incoming tide encouraged the last few sea lions to get off their arses and go out swimming, I decided it was time to head back to Madryn. The journey back was far more fun, with a tailwind propelling me through the thick sand a little bit faster than walking pace. I listened to some music as I rode, tried to pretend I didn't look preposterous, and made it back in about half the time my outward journey had taken, even with a brief stop at a secluded beach called Playa Paraná where a rusting shipwreck lay just off shore.

The next day, it was time to push on south, to Ushuaia - the southern-most city in the world. I was having a good Spanish day, and successfully found out how to get to Ushuaia, worked out which company was going soonest, bought a ticket and had a little chat with the person selling it, and I even managed to give my Spanish a bit of an Argentinian accent. I hit such form only rarely during my journey, and left Madryn in a good mood on a bus that would be my home for 18 hours as it rumbled another 600 miles further south to Río Gallegos, near the southern tip of mainland South America.

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