Day 292: Puerto Piramides – Argentina – April 5th

The other main attraction of Puerto Madryn is the nature reserve of the Peninsula Valdes. The park is about an hour’s drive away from town, and is pretty desolate except for a small town and a few estancia (ranches) for tourists, it is mostly just land that’s blocked off from the public as it is mostly owned privately. Sheeps and guanaco roam the fields, and the wide dirt roads connect you around the peninsula and towards the Atlantic coast. Along the coast is where the magical appeal of this peninsula is as it is a hotbed for wildlife searching, including whales, sea elephants/lions raising pups, penguins and orcas!

As usual, the park entrance was staffed with tremendously helpful and patient rangers who can tell you exactly where to go, when to go and how. High tides are at 6:30pm at one spot, 5:30pm at the other so we should time our visits accordingly. Why? Because at high tide it’s the best time to spot Orcas beaching. This is the only spot in the world where these orcas have learned how to beach themselves onto shore to grab a few seal pups, then swim back into the ocean! CRAZY smart animals!

So hitting a less popular spot first, it was a rather unimpressive sight as the colony of sea elephants. You hear them a lot earlier than seeing them as they are hiding underneath the cliffs of the viewpoint. There weren’t many sea elephants at all, and the cool and massive males have already returned to sea, leaving us with a few pups and their nursing mothers. Not as interesting as we’d like watching marine mammals taking naps on the beach.

One cool spot is the supposed inspiration for the “snake swallowing an elephant whole” gig in the amazing The Little Prince, as the author as a pilot who flew pioneering flights up and down the Argentine coast. It is extremely impressive to see an island that looks explicitly like a hat, and then visualize it as being an elephant inside a snake. Awesome.

Most of the viewpoints now were empty, but that’s not important as we didn’t really come for colonies of sea lions or penguins, but rather the hoping we can catch a rare glimpse of orcas at their best: being predators. We arrived an hour before high tide, and by the swarm of people around the viewpoints this was the place to be. Numerous people were carrying their expensive camera equipment around, idly chatting and waiting for the moment. Massive tripods were already in place at the optimal spots, and we actually met a middle-aged man from HK who’s been here for 3 weeks, and only saw orcas hunting last night. Today, everyone is hoping for a repeat performance……

As if on cue, at around 6:30pm, the orcas started surfacing near the beach, as clueless sea lion pups swam in shallow waters while their mothers lay there napping. HORRIBLE PARENTHOOD! This was sort of like watching Jaws, except you don’t have scary musical scores coupled with awesome artistic direction, it really is just nature at it’s most interesting ways. The orcas swam around for a tense 10minutes and before you know it…. WOOSH! A massive orca (supposedly the mother of a few pups) crashes out of a wave, and within the splashes of water emerges three REALLY FUCKING SCARED pups running for their lives. It was amazing because a couple minutes earlier, the pups were still swimming happily even as the orcas were within 10m or so. We took a cool video which is too large to upload, but looking at it shows no conclusive evidence that pups were killed in this exercise! Just a mere practice run.

The funniest part during this was when the orcas came, and the HK man with his 200mm lens fought for space behind us whispered, “Ai, let’s get the big one out.” (in Cantonese). So I heard this, took a split second away from the waters to see what he was doing….and BAM. Probably the biggest lens we’ve seen, about the size of a scuba tank? Haha…hilarious.

Everyone was excited at what we just witnessed, and people with the massive Canon 600mm cannons (no love for Nikons. Not one bit!) were happiest of all as their weeks of waiting finally resulted into a clear set of pictures. From seeing the orcas to disappearing back into the ocean, it was barely a 20-30min ordeal, and we were DAMN lucky to have seen them beach, and to have taken a video at that! These people waited 3+weeks for this, we barely waited 2hrs!

Back at the hostel, we cooked up a storm while the owners brought along all their friends and had a nice BBQ. They were all workers at the nearby hotels, and one guy who spoke some English was talking to us, saying that the BBC had a full crew of 6 here, along with miniature submarines and helicopters to do the filming! He says they come every year for 2 weeks, starting at 4:30am and returning at 8pm… rain or shine! Next time we watch any of those wildlife documentaries, we would have a new found respect for the people that made it all happen. Tough job.

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Day 291: Puerto Madryn – Argentina – April 4th

There are two main sites around Puerto Madryn, and one of them would be the penguin colony we’ll be visiting today. After our rendezvous with penguins in the Antarctic, we’ve grown fond of these flightless birds and really can’t get enough of their wacky ways.

Driving an hour or so along similar Patagonian terrain, we reached Punta Tombo, a massive colony of Magellanic penguins. The national park, like most of Argentina’s parks, are well organized with good facilities to make sure everyone obeys their place in nature. Strolling through the museum, we got some good info of the variety of penguin species and their distribution within the southern hemisphere.

The location is rather strange though, as we’re used to seeing penguins with backdrops of glaciers and -2C water. These penguins are actually nesting on dirt, which resembles something similar to a desert? At first, we were rather excited to see penguins again, despite the strange desert landscape, it was still cool to see so many penguins nesting and molting.

After a while….we realized something we’ve never felt before…. We aren’t fond of these penguins! The inquisitive, crazy and cute penguins we’ve been seeing, walking clumsily around aren’t the same types of penguins as these guys! Sure, they still walk rather comically, but their temperament and colour schemes just doesn’t seem to work. They were still really cool penguins, and even now when the nesting season is almost over, there were still thousands of penguins lining the whole mountain side! During peak nesting season, this place is literally jammed packed with penguins from shore to peak!

Returning back to Puerto Madryn after a less than enthusiastic day visiting the penguins, we decided to take an afternoon detour to another Welsh colony of Gaimon, where there are several tea-houses…. =) Unfortunately, the tea-houses don’t have the usual funky Argentine hours of operations, and by 7:30pm they seem to have closed for the day….. so we wasted about 2 hours worth of driving along garbage-laden highways. Oh well, what we did do was buy some incredibly awesome lomo from Carrefour, and grilled them at the hostel. Steaks are the best meals ready in 5minutes! Throw in a bottle of Argentine malbec, easily purchased at any fine supermarket for a worldly sum of $7-$9USD a bottle, makes any dinner a magical moment.

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Day 290: Puerto Madryn – Argentina – April 3rd

Checking into the hostel, this place is totally awesome. Lightning quick wi-fi, well equiped kitchen with TWO stoves, comfy beds and clean bathrooms…and even nice staff! If you need a ‘perfect’ hostel, this one has it all, awesome facilities without trying to sell you too much (or anything?).

Probably because our day was not very interesting as we spent most of it wandering around the town looking for car rentals, except we went in the dead of siesta time and had to go home, take a nap and try again after waking up at 7pm.

The town isn’t as pretty as we’d imagine, but the town built a beautiful boardwalk lining the beach which faces the Atlantic Ocean. The waters are cold, but it’s full of life as kids play soccer, teenagers affectionately dating and full of tourists from a docked cruise boat.

We probably spent more time inside the hostel than out!

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Day 289: Bus – Argentina – April 2nd

Slept in and ate the last pieces of bread in the hotel. Spend all morning chatting with an Argentine couple in the hotel. The rest of the morning was spent lounging around the sun, reading books on our Kindle and catching up on our blog….which is still a work in progress.

Cooking ‘dinner’ at 4pm, we ate and took the 6pm bus to Puerto Madryn. From the foothills of the Andes, we’re not crossing the middle of Argentina towards a port city on the Atlantic Coast! The town itself isn’t interesting, but the wildlife reserves surrounding it makes it worthwhile to visit.

Only a 16hr bus ride, easy!

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4 days of transit

While stuck in Argentina due to the bus strike, we both got this crazy idea of flying back to China and give Dad a surprise as it was his birthday on May 14th! So we set off on one of the longest transits we’ll ever take, starting from Salta at 7am on May the 7th, we arrived in Shanghai at on May 10th at midnight!

Salta -> Calama -> Santiago -> Sao Paolo -> Toronto -> Minneapolis -> Tokyo -> Shanghai.

A 14hr bus ride and two 20+hr flights. A lost luggage and a lot of (bad) movies later, we showered and fell asleep in Shanghai!!! We stuck around China for 8 days, visiting relatives and spending an awesome birthday with daddy. Well worth’d!!!

As for us, we’re in Malaysia now, getting set to do some diving!! We’ll try to keep up with the blog =)

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A lot of updates…

Well, if anyone noticed, we’ve updated our blog rather quickly the past days….the reason is because we’ve been stuck in Salta in Argentina because there’s a country-wide strike for bus drivers wanting a 23% increase in wages. To offset inflation, 23% really isn’t that bad, so it makes sense…..

The main page only goes up to 5 posts on the main, so help yourself and look at some previous posts with some pretty pictures on it =D

We’ll be travelling to Bolivia, and we’re not sure how the internet connection would be, but the updates may slow down again!

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Day 288: Bariloche – Argentina – April 1st

Sometimes, camping isn’t actually that bad. Sleeping in a dorm bed is generally alright, but the mattresses sometimes have a massive groove in the middle. Sometimes you can manage, sometimes you wonder why you paid money for this when your camping gear is in your backpack and comfier than most. Oh, but now our pad is leaking…damn.

The drive from Villa de la Angostura into Bariloche winds around a national park, Nahuel Huapi, and despite driving along lakes and mountains for the past couple of days, this was probably the MOST scenic of them all! It’s hard to describe.

It is nice to go against holiday traffic, as there was a 3km queue going into Bariloche. Argentine government always have these checkpoints in and out of any towns, and despite not really checking for anything (at least they are polite) they always come up to talk to you. So we’re not envying the people on their way back home, waiting probably an hour before actually getting on their way. Don’t complain about traffic back home, it happens everywhere in the world!

Around Bariloche, there’s a popular route known as Circuito Chico, or small circuit, taking you around the lakes and into the national park of Llao Llao along with other scenic locales dotting the landscape along the coastline of a magnificent lake. Cozy log cabins, intimate tea houses and world class resorts line the road of Circuito Chico and it really makes a perfect spot for a family vacation. We drove along, got off for a few walks around the park area and thoroughly enjoyed the views. It was funny, as now the tourists have left the “No Hay Lugar” signs have now dropped the No and morphed into “Hay Lugar”, all within a 2-day span!!!

Deep into the woods, a town known as the Swiss Colony exists with a small road and cozy log-cabin houses, delicate restaurants and meticulous gardens make an awesome weekend for all. And what’s another Argentine retreat without…..a craft brewery!! We stopped by for two pints, snapping photos of the seemingly German-inspired looks and taste before heading back to Bariloche to return our car, and call it an end to our road trip.

Back in town, we didn’t load our iPhone’s email and couldn’t find the directions to our hostel! We headed to the marvelously located tourism office, smack dab in the middle of central square, and got amazing help and an awesome map telling us where everything is. We drove up to the hostel, unloaded our packs and asked for our reservation……which wasn’t there! W T F? After a few minutes of panic, we logged onto the hostel wi-fi and realized WE WERE AT THE WRONG PLACE!!!! Haha…after traveling for so long, all the hostel names sound the same =P

We checked into the the right place, which was actually a house converted into a hotel. And my my, what an awesome house, with a beautiful backyard with the view of the lake and tasteful décor. The owner was a bit taunt, but the service and facilities were great for us to sit back and just chill out for the evening. We booked a late bus ticket, so spending an afternoon lounging around the yard reading books wouldn’t be a bad idea at all. And at night, we caught up with one of our friends from the Antarctic cruise too!

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Day 287: Villa de la Angostura – Argentina – Mar 31st

Waking up, we realized that our inflatable sleeping pad is starting to leak. BOTH our pads are leaking, which makes it very odd, but we can’t really figure out where it is leaking as it is leaking at a slow rate. Guess we’ll just have to wake up in the middle of the night and inflate it a bit…..

We spent all morning trying to find a ‘breakfast’ place, took us forever to find something that’s open as Argentines like to eat late, and even harder to find a parking spot amidst the traffic. We contemplated of picking up a kilo of ice cream for the trip back, but sadly we left empty handed thinking we can pick something up in the next town (which we didn’t).

The drive in the Lakes District really is amazing, with winding roads weaving between mountains and lakes. Photogenic is a simple word, but sometimes pictures really don’t do a place justice as you it is hard to capture the whole atmosphere into a single photograph. The combination of the landscapes, the driving, singing along to our iPhone and the nice people you strike 5min conversations with made it an enjoyable drive.

Back into the town we visited before, this time still with daylight, we did a bit more sightseeing up the mountains, and we even stopped by for a beer in an craft brewery. This town with its lakes, is also the base of a massive ski complex, which makes it quite a tourist destination all year round. That really doesn’t justify how it has 3 craft brewers in a town of 5000! We grabbed a few pints at another beautifully decorated log cabin brewery, but the beers weren’t of high quality. One little snag was that we forgot we ran out of money! So we ended up paying with a combination of pesos and dollars, but they were jerks and gave us the official FX rate of 5 instead of the ‘blue’ market rate of 7.5-8!!

We checked a few stores and ended up buying a bottle of wine, just so we can use our $100USD bill to get some pesos in return. Haha. Win/Win situation? And the best part though, is that we managed to find the LAST TWO beds in a hostel! Woohoo! No more camping tonight!

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