The first European settlers of this very sparsely province were from Wales. They were looking for a home where they could preserve the Welsh language, and a group of a few hundred came to the bank of the Chubut River, one of the few rivers in Patagonia. (The Chubut is about 45 miles south of Puerto Madryn). One of the first things they did was build a train track from their homes on the Chubut to the protected harbor at Puerto Madryn. Living here is extremely difficult, and the Welsh settlers were lucky that the indigenous people showed them how to get by. Welsh is still spoken by about 3,000 people who mostly live in a couple of towns on the river (Trelew and Gaiman). The schools in these two towns are bi-lingual---Welsh and Spanish--and they celebrate many Welsh traditions.
Mom and I didn't get to visit the two Welsh towns, having chosen a full-day excursion to the UNESCO World Heritage site, a nature reserve on the Valdes Peninsula about 2+ hours from Puerto Madryn. We thought the long ride would be scenic. We were wrong. It was fascinating, but I have never seen such a desolate place. Mile after mile of the same flat desert land, with only scrubby bushes and low plants growing on it. It was mesmerizing. After about an hour, we stopped at the visitor's center at the entrance of the preserve. Private ranches cover the large peninsula, so it's a little different than most government parks.
Soon after we left the visitor's center, we were on the 2+-mile wide isthmus linking the peninsula to the continent, and soon after we left the paved road for a gravel one. We could see the Gulf of San Matias on the north side and the New Gulf (Golfo Nuevo) on the south.
Continuing northeast, we finally arrived at the northeast tip of the peninsula, Punta Norte. This peninsula is the only continental breeding area of elephant seals in the world. We walked out to the cliff overlooking the ocean, and lining the beach were dozens of elephant seals and a few sea lions. We didn't get real close, and I was glad I had the binoculars from my cabin along. Most of the elephant seals were babies, and the adults were all molting. (Note: the babies were over 100 pounds and the adult males are over 21 feet longs and top 6,000 pounds.) Although most just laid on the beach like they were dead, a few kept throwing sand up on their backs. I think the sand helped to exfoliate the old skin off as a part of the molting. One huge sea lion did walk along the beach, swim in the surf, and then walk back out for us. Quite a show.
After watching the beach action for a while, we re-boarded the three buses and rode to an estancia (Estancia San Lorenzo) about 30 minutes away. The sheep shearing shed at the ranch has been converted for the tourist season to a dining room, and we had a delicious roasted lamb lunch. The meal started with beef empanadas, cheese, and olives, followed by salad, lamb, and bread, and topped off with a flan and some dulche con leche (creme caramel). One of the best shore excursion lunches I have had. As expected, the lamb was especially good. Like in New Zealand, it was a little weird to see these cute young things in the fields and then on our plate 30 minutes later.
After lunch, we boarded a WWII era truck (like one used by the army to carry soldiers) to ride for about 15 minutes to the Magellanic penguin colony near the beach. This colony has thousands of penguins who come to the area to birth their babies. Every bush seemed to have a penguin on a nest or a tiny chick. None of the babies were out of the nests yet. According to the guide, the Chilean volcano that had been constantly erupting since July 2011 had thrown tons of ash over Patagonia due to the westerly winds blowing from Chile to Argentina. This ash has severely disrupted air traffic, the weather, and the penguin egg-laying cycle.
The penguins were everywhere! Not as many as in Antarctica, but still impressive. They waddled around us and to/from the beach. We couldn't see them go into/out of the ocean due to the slope of the beach, but it was still fun. They had several guides watching us to make sure we didn't stress or disturb the penguins, but they were obviously not afraid of us.
Too soon we had to leave to make the 2.5-hour ride back to the Silver Whisper. Although we had seen a few wild animals on the ride out (guanacos, maras, and a burrowing owl), we didn't see anything on the return. Just desolation--not even many sheep.
The Silver Whisper sailed for the Falklands about 5:30 or so, as soon as we returned to the ship. We cleaned up after the dusty trail walk and then had a drink in the bar before going to dinner. Mom and I were back in the cabin by 11:30 and ready to sleep. We didn't know at the time that our next three days would be at sea, and that our next port of call would be at the end of the world.