As I have been blogging at the Smileyâ€™s website about our sabbatical experience, my husband and I have also been blogging about the more touristy activities we have done and about how we as a family are adjusting. For this blog, I thought I would cut and paste from our family blog, so you can also learn about our wonderful 3 days visiting Patagonia several weeks ago. We started at Puerto Madryn, the gateway to the famed natural habitat for penguins and whales in Patagonia, Argentina. It was a great vacation for all, especially for the kids who didnâ€™t need to look at one ruin and got within touching distance of a whale.
We travelled the 1300 Km (670 miles) on a â€śCama Suiteâ€? Sleeper, a Double Decker bus where the chairs pull out fully and the foot rest lifts up to create a comfortable bed. These sleeper buses are a very common way to travel here, since the trips are much cheaper than flying and likely a little more reliable (Aerolineas Argentina is known for cancelling flights and never leaving on time because of their fleet of â€ś10â€? planes). We saved about 400$ each by taking the bus, and since they drive during the night one doesnâ€™t lose much time. So, backpacks and suitcase in hand, we rode the SubTe (metro) to the bus station in downtown Buenos Aires and then hopped on our 8:30pm bus. They fed us dinner and breakfast and played two movies. Our only complaint was the loud music videos that they played until 10:30 pm, making it difficult for Sam and Alex to fall asleep (children here donâ€™t go to sleep much before 10pm â€“ how they do that, I donâ€™t know!). Otherwise, we all slept reasonably well and had a great time hanging out on this bus for 16 hours. Yes â€“ 16, which was way better than the ride home which was on a less fancy bus, took 22 hours, had seats that did not make true beds, a toilet right next to us that exuded a continuous odor of urine and was labeled not to be used for â€śsolidsâ€? (????). Needless to say, our ride back was not much fun but the children did amazingly well.
In Patagonia, we spent a day touring Peninsula Valdez and another driving along the coast to Punta Tombo, the area with the largest penguin colony outside of Antarctica. Both days turned out to be fabulous, with the kids consistently rating their experiences greater than 8/10. We stayed in a hostel called El Retorno (poor boys got to hear their parents wax nostalgic about their backpacking days in Europe) where we were lucky to get our own room and bath for the 5 of us and were hosted by a wonderful couple.
So day 1 in Patagonia, we joined a tour of 10 others and travelled in a little micro bus all around the Peninsula Valdez. This is a wildlife reserve although there are still private sheep farmers there whose familyâ€™s estancias (ranches) had been there before the reserve was created. The highlights were the whale watching that we could see right from the coast â€“ the whale we saw must have been 100 yards from the beach â€“ followed by a whale watching boat ride. Turns out that for 9 months out of the year, the whales come to this protected bay (protected from the Orca, their main predator) where they mate and deliver their young before returning to the ocean further south. The bay is deep very close to the shore, so it is common for them to come very near the coast.
The whale viewing boat ride was spectacular. The kids loved the adventure of the yacht speeding out into the bay, hitting the waves with spray going in all directions. We spotted a whale pretty quickly, a medium sized whale that was literally fascinated by us. He/she/it made sure to study each and every one of the 40 of us on the boat â€“ literally. The whale kept circling the boat, coming up frequently right next to the boat, in arms reach, its barnacle covered forehead and mouth glistening in the sun. Alex was so excited when sitting at the bow, the whale came up next to him and blew out of both blow holes, covering him in spray. He and my husband (Michael) could see the blow holes open and close in unison. I was busy further back on the boat trying to capture all this on â€śdigital?â€? while trying to avoid spray, people, and falling on the slippery heaving deck. This one whale provided us a show for a good 30 minutes, after which, understandably he got bored and left. We then found a pair of whales, a mother and her calf that was about 4 yards long. That was a joy too, to see the two heads coming up together and the two tails hitting the water. Unfortunately, we were not able to get a photo of both.
In the afternoon, we drove around the peninsula on a â€śsafariâ€? looking for native animals: mara (a large hare that we realize now was the hare that roams around the Buenos Aires zoo on its own), guanaco (small relatives to the llama), a small burrowing land owl, and nandu (emus) which are the South American version of the ostrich. We also stopped at a small penguin colony that was fine to see but didnâ€™t compare in the least to the one we visited the following day. We also visited a sea elephant colony, where the males languished by the water with their 10 females around them, braying (sounded more like farting) every once in awhile and chasing of younger males who dared to lumber by.
Day 2, we visited Punto Tombo to see the massive penguin colony and on the way, take a dolphin boat ride. Again, the kids loved the speed boat ride just as much as the dolphins. It took a good 20 minutes to spot the first dolphin, since they were busy eating when we first set out, but once they finished their meal they surfaced to play. It also helped to locate another dolphin sighting boat so we could share the 8 dolphins surrounding both boats. They were soooo cute (!) according to all of us! They are called Toninas, are the smallest of dolphins and look a bit like Orcas â€“ black and white. They love to play, chase speed boats, jump up next to them, then dive under and jump out on the other side. Several got in front of the other speed boat and swam at the same speed, constantly right in front of the boat, leaping in and out of the water. They can also reach speeds of 80 km/h and literally were able to come from behind in our wake and then pass us, no problem!
After a bagged lunch of ham and cheese sandwiches and a 2 Â˝ hour bus ride on a dusty and hot road, we reached Punta Tombo where the Penguin Colony is. Again â€“ fabulous. We were literally surrounded by 1/2 million penguins (that is the official number that live there) as we walked on this small path through their habitat. Under every wooden bush, there was a nest dug into the dry dirt and a penguin roosting on its two eggs. Next to the nest, there was invariably another penguin, keeping guard. At times there were two penguins snuggling in the nest (and yes, Alex and Michael were privileged to watch two mating under their bush). Penguins were also on the march, crossing the path or walking on the path to wherever they were going. There was a definite â€śpenguin roadâ€? that led from the small hills to the beach with dirty penguins wobbling down and clean, wet penguins returning to their nests. At the beach, we could see 20 â€“ 30 penguins hanging out at the edge, some getting into the water and others bobbing on the waves for a nice swim. More inland, as far as you could see, were small rolling hills covered by burrows of nests, little heads poking out of the nests or little bodies standing as sentinels next to the nests. The sight was quite surreal, almost lunar with all the small craters. The picture we have doesnâ€™t capture the panoramic feel of hills with their sentinels. And the penguins werenâ€™t the only animals living there. Along a swatch of the beach, among the penguin nests, sheep and guanaco grazed. Most of the Patagonian landscape was a bit dull and brown (semi arid) but the penguin coast was just gorgeous.
Generally, the penguins didnâ€™t pay much attention to us. They would look at us, when we looked at them and would try to walk around us if we were in their way (the wardens made sure that people gave the penguins the right of way). Alex found an aggressive penguin that came chasing after him, pecking, when Alex got too close. A bit scary! One lady bent down to touch a penguin (forbidden and very upsetting to George) that pecked at her for every attempted touch. We were told that they do bite.
We learned that the penguins come to Punta Tombo every year to nest. They mate for life, find each other at the same nest year after year, where together they take turns roosting and then raising the chick. Every once in awhile, we could hear one of the penguins who was roosting honk loudly (they donâ€™t need cell phones), calling its mate back to the nest so it could go to the ocean to swim and eat. Once the penguins are a few months old, the family takes to the ocean and rides one of the currents back up to the waters near Brazil, eating and growing along the way. They donâ€™t go back onto land. They then turn around and take the current back to Punta Tombo to start the cycle all over again. Cool, no?
That day ended with our bus ride back to Buenos Aires â€“ the one that was not pleasant and almost a day long. We got back home about 7 pm the next evening, washed up, ate and crawled into bed. It was so worth it!