Argentina: Seals and Penguins in Puerto Madryn & Trekking in Ushuaia

After the 8 days that we had spent in Buenos Aires, we knew it was about time to continue our journey. Between two weeks back and now, we cover about 4,000 km to the south. First, as to escape the city for a bit and to try out our camping gear, we chill for a few days at lake Chascomús which is just a few hours south of Buenos Aires. Then the more interesting part starts. We travel all the way down to Puerto Madryn. This is where we rent a car and visited a colony of half a million Penguins at Punta Tombo and saw many other animals such as Sea Lions at the Valdes Peninsula. Next up is Ushuaia, “Fin del Mundo” (The end of the world) or the southern most city of the world. Here we do a three day trekking through the beautiful Tierra del Fuego (fire country). All in all, a whole lot to write about again. Hit “Continue Reading” to read more!

Puerto Madryn

When Googling Puerto Madryn, you will find many pictures of whales swimming along the coast. How much we would have loved to see these creatures in real life, as we know how often we remember the beautiful experience of snorkling with whale sharks in mexico. We were however not lucky enough to be travelling in the right season for this. The animals were simply not there. Luckily, there are still plenty of other fish in the sea and animals on the land which we did get a chance to visit during our stay, which still made our time here pretty great.

Punta Tombo

As tours are about as expensive as car rental here and as we love to have our freedom while discovering places, we decide to rent a car for the first time during this entire trip. Important to know about South America is that you should never underestimate the distances between places. Where we at home complain about an hour of travelling and are exhausted after 10 hours of driving to Austria for a skiing holiday, here we have had two bus trips of more than 25 hours each already. Of course, we will not drive this much with our rental car (an old but descent Chevrolet classic), but we still cover a total of 750 km (of which man are on gravel roads) in two days and it takes 3 hours to get to our first destination, Punta Tumbo.

Punta Tumbo is home to the largest colony of Magellanic Penguins of South America, which grows up to a million during the busiest time of the season! Each year in late September, the Penguins migrate to the area all the way up from Brazil to nest. They stay here for a few months protecting their eggs and eventually raising their chicks and taking shifts in wiggling to the shore to catch some fish. It is beautiful to witness life in such a colony in reality while walking on the pathway which is meant for visitors like us. The fun thing is that the penguins could easily avoid us if they would want to, but instead many of them choose to stand alongside the path and are not bothered by us at all. When walking here you just recognize certain types of behavior and make assumptions of what this means for these animals. The colony is spread over a large area of land and its clear to see that some penguins really get a better spot for their nest than others. We guess that the least dominant males get the nests which are the furthest away from the beach and therefore have to walk the most to get food. For us there is not much difference to see though. Each penguin seems as cute as the other and it’s hard to imagine them fighting for females and for nests. They do make an incredible lot of noise of which I would not even know how to describe it. We thought we knew what kind of sound a penguin makes, but we were shocked and simply couldn’t stop laughing. Penguins spend most of their day “Protecting their nests”, which can in other words be described as standing around while keeping your beak up looking at the sun to keep your belly warm. And then there are the newbies, the chicks who are still covered in a thick layer of fur to keep them from freezing at night and during rainstorms. Where the adults of up to 25 years old are full of confidence keeping their beaks up and shoulders back, these little balls of fur look like they would rather just roll down a hill if it saves them the hassle of putting their one foot in front of the other. They will have to man up quickly though, as a trip back to Brazil is coming up soon!

A sad part to the story; the existence of these animals is heavily threatened as oil spills kill about 40,000 of them each year and as climate change makes them have to swim 40 km extra from the nest to find fish which often means starvation. Apparently 12 of the 17 penguin species are experiencing rapid population declines because of this. Renewable energy can’t take over soon enough I suppose.

Peninsula Valdes

After saying goodbye to the penguins, we hit the road again and drive back north for 4 hours up to the natural reserve Peninsula Valdes. Being told that there is one campsite on this Island, we decide to stay here in the village Puerto Pyramides. It is however not exactly as peaceful and relaxing as we expected. The campsite is basically just an extension of the beach and the idea is that you can put your tent anywhere you want. As it is Argentinean summer holidays, the camping is totally packed. At this point we are seriously considering just driving back to our hostel in Puerto Madryn “La Casa de Tounens“. Just before leaving we luckily find a nice spot which saves us the ride back to the city. After putting up our tent and securing it with stones in addition to our pins (the sand doesn’t really hold them well), we take a swim in the sea among the thousands of tourists and eventually end up at a little restaurant to have some dinner. At least, that was our plan but we didn’t think about the fact that restaurants here don’t serve dinner untill 8. We therefore got ourselves one of their delicious potato dishes, which Argentinean people always seem to do very well and afterwards get ourselves a delicious ice cream.

After a very windy night we get ready for our trip around the Peninsula.  While eating our granola in the car, we head to the most northern part of the island, creatively called “Punta Norte“. We don’t really know what to expect here as our map is kind of vague, but what we encounter is an amazingly good surprise. Just from the parking lot we can see a little chunk of the beach, seemingly containing some massive black/brown creatures which are chilling on the sand. This can only mean one thing of course. We cannot hold our excitement and make a run for the beach side, and we see thousands of Sea Lions as far as the eye can reach. In my mind sea lions were always just the mean and aggressive version of seals, but you simply have to start appreciate these animals when they are in front of you like this. I am one of those people who loves to watch nature documentaries, and this just feels like you are in the middle of one. The females are laying on the beach while the males are “fighting” with one another to secure their claims on them. A dominant male can mate with over ten females, which of course results in a huge female shortage for the less dominant males. A friend known as Ferry told me that this often results in penguins being raped by Sea Lions, but none of the Tourist Information signs at the place verified this. I wonder why. Even though the competition for fish with local fisherman continues, the reproduction process seems to be going just fine. All those small black dots on the pictures are the babies which were only welcomed to our earth about a month ago. On the same beach, a small group of Sea Elephants are located. We unfortunately cannot see much of these animals, as they are quite far away from where we can go and they have apparently decided that our visiting time would be the perfect time for a nap.

For the rest of the day, we drive around on the island for hours. Penguins also live on this island on various locations, although in smaller numbers than at Punta Tombo. The inland itself is not the most interesting as it is (to our eyes) just a huge chunk of flatness. To animals it must be much more than that as many species live here. Anne is our Armadillo spotter for the day, as she spots three of them. No pictures of those unfortunately as they are incredibly fast and shy. Animals which are easier to spot were the Guanaco Lama and the Choique Ostrich, which you both have to be carefull for while driving around. Both of them have been an important food source to the native Patagonians, but now they are a symbol for the area. Especially the Lama’s are represented on the island in big numbers. They always seem to be marching around in search of something, which is probably just food but maybe there is something else going on. You never know. These animals live throughout a big part of South America; I actually already spotted them quite a few times already during our bus rides. Next to many other birds, large flocks of flamingos visit the island each year. But not in this season.

Ushuaia, the End of the World

From the start of our journey in Cuba last August, our direction has always been clear and simple; We are heading south! At some point, this does not work out anymore. And that point (unless you have enough money to go visit Antartica) gets to you in Ushuaia. This is known as the most southern city of the world, “El Fin del Mundo”. Initially, we were wondering whether it was worth it to visit Ushuaia, as it meant a substantial amount of extra hours travelling. Eventually we decide to just go ahead and take the 36 hour trip to Ushuaia from Puerto Madryn, and in hindsight we are happy with the decision. This is however not necessarily because of the city itself. Sure, the city is very nice. It has a good atmosphere and there is definitely something to say about being at the end of the world, but for backpackers it’s mostly just a very expensive place. The reason we love it the most (and hated it at some times) is the impressive nature surrounding the city. As alternative to the expensive natural park, our hostel Cruz del Sur recommended us a hike through the freely accessible nature. It was great, but challenging!

3-day trekking Ushuaia, +/-45km (Laguna de Tempanos – Vinciguerra Glacier – Laguna del Caminantes – Cañadon de la Oveja)

Our hike was GPS tracked by Polar Steps, and I just put in some info to make it more clear for you what we did

Day 1

We have done groceries for the trekking already the day before, so the only things that remain are having breakfast and packing. Luckily we can leave the majority of our stuff at the hostel, so we only need to bring one big back pack containing the camping gear and clothes, and a small one with the food for the three days. Fortunately there is no need to bring a water supply as the water in the streams is as fresh as it gets (directly from the mountain’s glaciers) as long as you avoid the beavers. From the hostel we take a taxi to the starting point of the hike, which only cost us a few pesos as we shared it with some other people. We decide to do the hike on our own however, as we like to take our own pace during these days. Also, Anne has as painful injury to her groin and therefore it would not do well to walk faster than feels good for us.

Right upon arrival we find ourselves in a beautiful environment. The surroundings are decorated with yellow Buttercup flowers, and in the far distance we can already see our destination for the day, the Vinciguerra Glacier. The path soon gets us walking along a beautiful river which we eventually cross in order to start the climb up to the glacier. It starts quite alright. The paths are decent although sometimes a bit muddy and after about an hour we come across a group of wild horses. It is very impressive what heights and through what kind of terrains these animals can walk. After about two hours of ascending we are rather exhausted already, but continue our way determined to reach the top. Multiple times we are confident that we have to be there soon, and multiple times we are disappointed. Eventually, we saw a big clearing above us in the forest, but even this turns out to be just another pass through to another climb. This time it really is the last one though, but the steepest climb was saved for the last. Step by step we go on, and eventually we make it to the top. What we see here; absolutely stunning. The large glacier that we could already see from down in the valley, is now right in front of us. Right in front of it is a big lake named Laguna de Tempanos filled with the freezing water which just dripped of the glacier and will slowly make its way to the valley. This where we decide to sit down and just take in the beautiful view, while enjoying a bunch of crackers with salami, chorizo and cheese. We knew that Patagonia was famous for showing four seasons in one day, but it still takes us a bit by surprise when it suddenly starts to snow. Suddenly it just gets a bit too cold for us and we don’t want cool off too much with still a long hike in front of us, so we put our backpacks back on and complete the last few hundred meters up to the glacier itself. That’s what is really cool about hiking this way, you can really just walk into or on top of the glacier, which is awesome. Standing there, you feel very small with all these meters of ice above your head. Ice is pretty beautiful if you think about it.

Then there is this one thing remaining before we can call it a day, which is the descent. It always sounds so easy to just go down a mountain, but it isn’t. Especially not with tired legs and a big backpack. Luckily we have something really nice ahead of us which got us more excited to get down; our sleeping place for the night. We are carrying around a tent and other camping gear and the good thing about Patagonia is that you can basically just put your tent anywhere you want as long as it’s not private property. After four hours of walking back down to the valley, we find a beautiful spot alongside the river. This is where we put up our tent, have a nice risotto for dinner and went to sleep early. Exhausted.

Day 2

Waking up at a place like this is fantastic, really. Waking up with the pain we felt in our bodies, not so much. My shoulders and back ache after carrying my backpack up to the top of the mountain, and our legs would love to lay still for a couple of extra hours. But we stay optimistic as we know that we have a beautiful day ahead of us, although it eventually turns out to become more challenging than we anticipated. Breakfast is some crackers with Calvé Peanut Butter which we brought from home and some bread with a boiled egg. The process of setting and packing our tent goes smoother each time we do it, and within a few minutes after breakfast we are ready to continue our journey.

The second day of the adventure brings us through a long valley with high mountains on both sides. We follow a path that is largely affected by the forces of the weather. Trees have fallen over everywhere throughout the forest, which is not surprising due to the very strong winds that we encounter during these three days. It’s like a sort of tree graveyard continuing for kilometers in a row. What it does do is providing a very scenic view, as it makes the forest seem very lively while of course in fact the opposite is true. After about six hours of walking we start thinking that we must be nearly there, and then the path suddenly starts ascending. It just does not seem to stop, and to make matters worse, as a grand finale we have to climb a very steep path without any trees or anything around it to cover us from the wind. But then we make it up, and what we encounter is definitely rewarding: a deep hole with a very blue lagoon in it. Only thing left is to descend and prepare for another night of camping at again a beautiful location. A nice cup of tea gets us to warm up again, and another risotto is there to fill up our bellies.

Day 3

One more day to go. We get up both being a little bit nervous for the way down the steep trail that we went up the day before, but promise each other to just take it very slow and then everything will be alright. Which is exactly how it turns out. Relieved, we again continue our journey and start climbing up towards the place where we will get to the other side of the mountains from where we can walk back towards Ushuaia. It’s raining at the moment and strong winds continuously try to blow us away. All sorts of vegetation gets lost the higher we get, and soon we are surrounded by stones which were all cut of the surrounding mountains by the forces of the weather. It makes for a very impressive sight and we feel like we are all walking on the moon, except from that our legs still feel very heavy, if not heavier than before. When we get to the top, the sun suddenly starts to shine which makes the winds a bit more bearable. The moon like landscape suddenly seems to light up as the beams of the sun reflect on the wet stones surrounding us. Slowly we start descending and step by step we get closer to the trees and plants. But where the route especially on the first day were very clearly marked, for some reason last 20 kilometers do not seem as important and we often have to guess for what the right track is. Most of the time this goes well, but once in the forest in the valley, we somehow miss the track and totally get lost in the forest. It is not much to worry about as the direction in which we need to move is simply down towards the sea, but it does cost us a lot of extra time and energy to find our way. Time we have, but our energy is getting pretty low after these days. Eventually, after two hours of wandering around we find our way back to the path and continue following it. It takes us tree hours more to get out of the forest, and then we finally get that beautiful view over Ushuaia and the surrounding mountains, which feels like a true victory after hours in the dense.

We know that it is just a few kilometers more towards civilization and eventually take a taxi back to our hostel. I’m incredibly proud of ourselves and of course especially of Anne for completing this track despite her injuries. It was a lot of sweating, puffing and even swearing sometimes, but wow, what a beautiful place. What a beautiful experience.

Thanks for reading, and you will hear more soon!

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