Patagonia Welsh & Puerto Madryn Whale Watching

Did you know that Welsh is spoken in Patagonia? Apparently the reason dates back to 1865 when 153 men, women and children, concerned by the erosion of their culture and language caused by the influx of people to Wales during the coal industry boom, left Wales on the clipper Mimosa. They sailed from Liverpool through the South Atlantic storms to Patagonia, 1,400km south of Buenos Aires in Argentina, to a land where they could bring up their children according to their values.

When these ‘Pilgrim Fathers’ arrived in Porth Madryn (now Puerto Madryn), they found that the area promised to them as a ‘lowland Wales’ was actually an arid, semi-desert wasteland with very little in the way of food or fresh water. Despite this, and a few problems with crop failures due to the reversal of the seasons in the Southern hemisphere, they survived and their descendants are still there to this day.

Despite having been on three previous trips to Argentina, it wasn’t until last year that I first made the trip to Patagonia, which really should be top of the list for any self respecting Welshman coming to Argentina. On that occasion, I had the excuse of Wales playing rugby there and travelled with a tour group of fans. This time though, I was due to visit a friend in Buenos Aires and decided that at last, this was the time to trace some Welsh roots in South America.

The journey from the UK to Patagonia takes the best part of 24 hours, rather than the months taken by the settlers aboard the Mimosa, and they didn’t get the in-flight movie. Still, despite a day’s airborne travel being immediately followed by the internal flight to Trelew on the national airline Aerolineas Argentinas leaving me a bit jaded, the first panoramic view of Puerto Madryn, framed against the brilliant blue of the South Atlantic, soon perked me up.

Deep Mid-Winter

June in Patagonia means the deepest mid-winter, but the weather was pleasant, a crisp 13°C during the day and totally cloudless. In the summer the temperature here soars up to 40°C, making Puerto Madryn a popular beach resort for the Portenos of Buenos Aires who make the trip south to sample the lively beachlife and world class diving.

As I followed the road down into Puerto Madryn, the first impression was one of affluence. Driving along the beachfront to the hotel, the real estate is obviously much sought after, with a large number of expensive looking houses in a variety of architectural styles, although all with a common theme of large picture windows to enjoy spectacular sea views.

I chose to stay at the same hotel as my last visit. The Los Tulipanes is an apartment hotel, so the rooms are a decent size and have a small kitchen if you want to do your own cooking or make yourself a cup of tea. It’s comfortable, without being plush, but given the amount of time I expected to be in, that was fine by me. It’s also well located, a block or so back from the seafront and a short walk into the town centre.

As I checked in, I chuckled. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but the first accents I heard were Welsh. I was sharing the hotel with a small group who were also in Patagonia to check out the connection with home.
A couple of Quilmes’ (the famous Argentine beer) later and we each knew our family history back about three generations.

As you’d expect from a town with a strong reliance on tourism, there is a wide range of restaurants and bars too. Our first day coincided with a birthday for one of the group and we decided to celebrate. We met up at the appropriately named Mr Jones bar, a pleasant enough place, although I did have the misfortune to taste a wine which would have connoisseurs swooning over Le Piat D’Or, before moving on to a seafront restaurant Vernardino Club Del Mar.

As it was my first proper meal on this trip to Argentina I had no real option other than to select the largest steak in the building. Forget everything you have heard about the steaks in Argentina, it’s all lies. They are much better! One word of caution though – the Argentines are the opposite of the French when it comes to asking how you want the meat cooked. It’s very difficult to get your beef undercooked, so if you like medium, ask for medium rare.

The non-meat eaters didn’t go hungry either. Argentina may be vegetarian hell, but the seafood here is also excellent and worth sampling should you ever tire of red meat. Oh, and dessert wasn’t a disappointment either, with a fairly spectacular ice cream sundae topping the bill.

While we were at Vernadino, we were treated to an example of just how intertwined the Argentine and Welsh cultures have become in this part of the world. When the owner learnt that we were Welsh, he rushed home and brought his family back to meet us, including their baby son, Juan Williams!

The owner also pointed out the caves nearby, dug into the cliffs by the immigrants to shelter in when they first arrived in the area. The food and the welcome we received at Vernadino was so good that we didn’t leave until 1am, having seen off a significant number of bottles of much better local wine, and three changes of staff, most of whom ended up joining us as soon as their shift finished.

As we sat at this beachfront restaurant, it was obvious that the sea permeates all aspects of life in Puerto Madryn. Apart from the beach and diving, Puerto Madryn is home to a large aluminium works, where huge ships transport raw materials and the finished products. These are not the only ocean-going behemoths in the area though, and my next excursion allowed me to discover more.

Whale Watching

The visit to the Jorge Schmid Punta Ballenas whale watching centre at Puerto Pyramides on the Peninsular Valdes started early, with the air as crystal clear as I’ve ever seen it. The bus took us from the hotel, back along the road towards Trelew where the brown dustbowl of a landscape was broken only by short, stubby thorn bushes (and one lone tree) that feed the sheep for which the region is famous.

The Peninsular Valdes to the north of Puerto Madryn was declared a Natural World Heritage site by UNESCO in 1999 and is a fantastic location for whale watching. Depending on the time of year the southern right whale and the spectacular black and white orca or killer whale can be seen cruising in these waters, as well as elephant seals, penguins and several varieties of dolphin.

Peninsular Valdes is a large spit of land shaped like a mushroom and forming two huge natural bays to the north and south, which provide sheltered and slightly warmer waters, perfect for the whales to mate and calf.

Sipping a welcome coffee at the visitor centre and looking over the calm waters in the bay, I discovered that the Welsh weren’t the only immigrants to this part of the world. I spoke to a Scottish couple waiting for the boat who were touring Patagonia to explore the area their ancestors had emigrated to from the north of Scotland. They’d gone even further south than Puerto Madryn, which was apparently common for the hardy Highlanders who could withstand the bitterly low temperatures of southern regions of Patagonia.

Soon it was time to head out and dressed fetchingly in our bright orange life jackets, we climbed aboard the boat, housed in a V-shaped trailer, which looked as though it was made from the ribcage of one of the whales in the bay. The trailer was pushed down the beach into the water by a tractor and very quickly we were afloat and motoring out into the bay.

During May to September, you are most likely to spot the southern right whale, which was almost hunted to extinction. It was named the right whale, as it was so easy to hunt. It swims at a slow speed of about five knots which meant the whalers could keep up with it. As its body is made up of a high percentage of blubber, it floats when dead, making it easy to harvest. Now, since the species has been protected, the populations are slowly increasing, and these days the biggest danger to the whales is being struck by a ship.

It wasn’t long before we spotted two whales, signalled first by the spray from their blowholes. We manoeuvred our way to them and sailed next to them as they cruised along. It’s only when you get this near to them, almost close enough to touch, (although that’s strictly forbidden), that you realise the sheer size of these creatures. They reach up to 15m in length and have the potential to weigh 100 tons, although their bulk is belied by their acrobatic ability to breach, rising clear out of the water before crashing back with an enormous splash.

After about an hour cruising with the whales, we turned and headed for shore, our captain lining us up with the ribbed trailer and expertly driving the boat at full speed onto it. I’m sure he made an announcement in Spanish, but something similar in English about keeping your hands inside the boat might have been useful in making sure that we left with the same number of limbs we arrived with.

Welsh Brigadoon

Our final day in Patagonia was the highlight of the tour for me. Growing up in west Wales, I’d been told stories of the Welsh emigrants to Patagonia and as a small boy, it had seemed like a folk tale of a people living in a mythical Welsh Brigadoon. Now, I was going to see the village of Gaiman for myself.

Gaiman is the base for the Welsh community in this area, with the highest concentration of the language being spoken among the population. Although Welsh used to be the preserve of the older generation, Welsh Assembly initiatives such as sending supply teachers to the region on secondment to teach the language has made it fashionable with the younger generation. Indeed, it’s become so successful that a restaurant in west Wales recently recruited a waiter from Patagonia when they failed to find a suitable Welsh-speaking candidate locally.

There has also been a massive increase of interest in all things Welsh due to the inspired decision to play a rugby international in Puerto Madryn between Wales and the Pumas of Argentina. Despite the match being held during the football World Cup, there was a sell-out crowd, with Beatle-mania style scenes at the airport when the Welsh team arrived.

The village itself is home to a number of the original chapels and buildings built by the settlers, and many of these are open to the public. In addition there’s a museum dedicated to the local history housed in the original train station, which allowed the community to thrive when it gave the local farmers a distribution route for their produce.

That affluence has long gone, and Gaiman appears on the surface to be a tired place, reflecting the fate of some of the villages back in Wales. But as you delve deeper, you get a sense of a spirit amongst the local people, of their awareness that they are the guardians of something that is unique, with a determination to protect and nurture it.

In Gaiman, you’re as likely to hear Welsh spoken as Spanish, and shops will advertise their wares in either language. For example, during my visit I saw shop selling bara – Welsh for bread – standing next to one selling helados – Spanish for ice cream.

Gaiman is also home to a number of Welsh tea houses, such as Ty Te Caerdydd (Cardiff Tea House), made famous when Princess Diana dropped in for a cuppa when she was in Patagonia in 1995. In fact, you can still see the cup that she used, unwashed to this day.

Our party chose Ty Gwyn (White House) for our tea. The tearoom, as the name suggests, was whitewashed with the roof supported by broad wooden beams giving just the feeling of solidity that you feel a teahouse should have. The room was festooned with memorabilia from the origins of the community and its Welsh roots, from old photographs of the region to a beautiful old cash till and, of course, a Welsh harp.

The table, laid with fine blue china and covered with a white linen tablecloth, was soon groaning with torte negra, a fruit cake which is a local delicacy, a delicious apple cake, slices of home baked bread, accompanied by several varieties of jam and the Argentine speciality dulce de leche, a caramel-like spread made from milk, and of course tea poured from large tea pots covered with woolly tea cosies. This was all served to us by waitresses dressed in blindingly white aprons that wouldn’t have been out of place in Upstairs Downstairs.

Although happy to converse in English or Spanish, on hearing our party was from Wales, our waitress switched immediately into Welsh (much to the embarrassment of some of our monoglot friends). Hearing my native language spoken in South America with a strong north Walian accent was a surreal experience to say the least.

While in Ty Gwyn, we received another reminder of the ties between Patagonia and Wales when we were introduced to some players from the Draig Goch rugby club which had recently been set up in Gaiman and whose badge is a red dragon clutching a rugby ball with the flags of Argentina and Wales above it. They were quick to tell us how during the Welsh rugby team tour, several members of the squad had come to their club and held a coaching session with the players and juniors. As we spoke, I realised that I’d met one of them last year at a dinner for the travelling supporters where a dance company and a local choir had entertained several hundred people, celebrating the cultures of both countries.

The people of Gaiman are fiercely proud of their heritage and maintain many of the traditions we ascribe to Wales. They have a love of poetry and music, celebrated in the annual Eisteddfod cultural festival, and rugby almost replaces football as the first sport of the region. As my friend from the Draig Goch club said: “If my son plays football, he will play for Argentina, if he plays rugby, he will play for Wales.”

This excellent story was written by Neil Hughs.

For further information about the Patagonia Welsh culture or Trips in Patagonia and Argentina Whale Watching, please visit Say Hueque!

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