Argentinean Patagonia is the place to head for fantastic whale-watching and some unexpected Welsh connections
As you set off on your boat excursion, just off the northern coast of Patagonia, the anticipation will be beating through your body. Your pulse will be racing as you try to focus your eyes on the choppy water. And then, all of a sudden, there’s that moment you have been waiting for. When I saw that beast of a mammal, the size of a bus, angelically jump out of the water and then splash down with a huge belly flop, it was heart-stopping. That sight alone is worth the air ticket to Argentina.
The guides and drivers of the boats are experienced and will take you really close to these 18-metre-long creatures, and there is plenty of time to snap your Attenborough-style shots of the whales as you learn the most fascinating facts. Did you know the Southern Right Whale has the largest testes and penis of any living thing, with penises measuring more than 14 per cent of their body length? Well, you do now! Although they are huge, bulky creatures, they are also agile and active, and their antics are acrobatic. I saw plenty of activity on the water and it was almost as if the 12,000 world population of Southern Right Whales was all in the area.
Península Valdés in Patagonia plays host to the whales in autumn/winter (from June to mid-December is the prime time for whale-watching). More than 2,000 animals have been catalogued by the Whale Conservation Institute and Ocean Alliance - the largest breeding population of this species. The peninsula is also noted for its unique fauna and geology and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From October to March, penguins waddle their way to shore as well. You’ll also spot roaring sea lions, excited elephant seals, armadillos, guanacos (a cross between an alpaca and a deer) and grey foxes. If you're really lucky (or not!), you can spot orcas (killer whales) snatching seals from the shore at Punta Norte during April.
If you want to visit the peninsula independently, you can do so by getting a bus or hiring a car. The boats doing this excursion leave from Puerto Pirámides at around 10am, 12pm, 2pm and 4pm. However, I’d suggest that you pick up a tour from Puerto Madryn; otherwise you might be stuck in the small town of Puerto Pirámides and miss the rest of the peninsula. Wear warm clothes, as the area is generally quite windy and you’ll get splashed on the boat. You are provided with a waterproof cape on the boat, which makes you look a bit like a Martian or a marshmallow; I can’t decide which!
Puerto Madryn is a popular summer destination for its beach, and you can see modern Argentine holiday homes lining the coast. You can even whale-watch when you are soaking up the rays of the sun on the beach - the whales come as close as 200m to shore.
After the fun of whale-watching, you can relax and take a trip to the green, green grass of home. The first Europeans to settle in the area were Welsh, arriving in 1865 aboard a converted tea-clipper. Once they reached the valley of the Chubut River, their first settlement was a small fortress on the site that later became the town of Rawson, now the capital of Chubut province.
As they pressed across the country in search of more cultivable land, this hardy bunch left an indelible mark on the landscape in the form of Welsh-style windmills, schoolhouses and chapels. Although Spanish is now the most commonly spoken language in the region, I was told that 4,000 inhabitants still speak the Celtic language as their mother tongue. There are Welsh museums tracing their stories in Trelew (right next to the bus station) and Puerto Madryn (on the headland that overlooks the bay).
To get away from the bitter-tasting Argentinian beverage of maté (the national drink of Argentina, made from yerba maté), you can wet your whistle on some classic tea and munch down some cracking cakes. The best towns for Welsh-spotting are Trevelin, Dolavon, Trelew and Rawson, and all are easily accessible by public transport from Puerto Madryn. Complementing the Welsh cakes are display cases filled with Welsh hats and lace costumes, fading photographs, dressers covered in traditional ceramic ornaments, and fireplaces flanked by colourful tapestries. I’d say the best time to visit is in October, when the towns up and down the Chubut valley celebrate their Eisteddfods (the Welsh national celebration). You’ll be able to see national dances and the all-important Male Voice Choir.
Puerto Madryn is about a 20-hour bus journey from Buenos Aires. Buses are comfortable, with blockbuster movies, a stewardess and hot food included in the £20 price. If your budget stretches to it, the best way to arrive is by plane. Currently, there are three flights per week from Buenos Aires on Andes Airlines. Aerolineas Argentinas flies to Trelew, which is an hour from Puerto Madryn.
Where to eat
There are many good seafood restaurants along the seafront in Puerto Madryn. My favourite was Cantina El Nautico, where a meal for two, with wine, cost £25. (Av Roca 790, on the corner of Roca and Leopoldo Lugones)
Where to stay in Puerto Madryn
La Tosca: family-run hostel with a couple of double rooms and a mixed dorm. (Sarmiento 437)
El Gualicho: very popular and comfortable backpackers hostel, offering very nice rooms and excellent travel information. (Marcos A Zar 480)
Posada Del Catalejo: excellent family-run hostel with friendly English-speaking staff. (Mitre 446)
Here's my choice of tour companies offering trips, all for roughly £20-£30. Make sure you haggle!
Agencia Bottazzi: Martín Fierro 85, Puerto Madryn.
Moby Dick: Av de las Ballenas, Puerto Pirámides.
Jorge Schmid - Punta Ballena: 2º Bajada al mar, Puerto Pirámides.