|December 25 - 31 -
On Christmas day, we drove into the San Telmo area to visit the old mansions and to see if the traditional Sunday street market was going. It was in full swing when we arrived, with lots of people wandering around in their Christmas finery. We also found some more tango dancers and then visited a very busy cafe for lunch. It was interesting to see so many people out and about on a holiday that, in the states, would traditionally be spent at home with family.
We then headed south to continue our journey. As we got out of the city, we began seeing families picnicking on the side of the road. The rights-of-way on the roads here seem to be very wide and on Christmas we saw many, many families taking advantage of the grass and trees to spend the day relaxing or playing. We made it as far south as Las Flores where we found a lovely municipal campground on a lake where we saw our first black-necked swans. As the sun dropped, the wind came up and chased everyone, including us, to shelter.
The next couple of days were spent heading south toward the Valdes Peninsula. We drove through fields and fields of grain that were being harvested by what appeared to be itinerant workers who travel with their machinery and trailers to sleep in. We would see them congregate in the towns where we believed they would set up camp until they were hired to harvest the grain. It was very interesting to see convoys of grain harvesters traveling down the highway. Of course they took up half the roadway, so it made for a challenging drive.
We also passed over several train crossings where the control gates were manually operated. The guard would come out of his little building and using a wheel, would lower and raise the crossing gate.
Crossing over the Rio Colorado south of the city of Bahia Blanca, we entered into Patagonia - yeah! Then we got stopped at an inspection station where they wanted to confiscate our fruit, vegetables and meat! Lucky for us, the inspector didn't want to climb into the camper so we got off lucky. But this is going to become a common experience. We had been warned of these inspections, although we expected them only at borders of the Provinces. In reality they can be anywhere, plus the borders. This makes it difficult to have food with us, but we'll deal with it.
We stopped again for the evening along the Rio Negro River and the twin towns of Viedma and Carmen de Patagones. Viedma has a bit more in the way of services, and we needed a laundromat, so we set up camp along the river. After walking around the city during the afternoon siesta time, we took a balsa or river launch across to visit Carmen. The siesta time is a frustrating experience here and we find it difficult to believe that such an advanced country as Argentina would want to have its business close down for three to four hours every afternoon. If we need to get something done, we need to complete it by 1pm before the city closes up.
We then continued south and got our first taste of the flat terrain that some travelers describe as monotonous. We enjoy the open vistas as we are on constant lookout for animals, birds and anything else we find interesting. We also got our first full day of driving in the rain. Rain in an area known to be arid and dry? Yes, that is what we found. In the late afternoon we arrived at our first main wildlife reserve in Patagonia - Península Valdés. This Reserve is also a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. Among the wildlife that can be found here are Southern Right whales, Magellanic penguins, Orcas, sea lions, elephant seals, guanacos, cavys, hairy armadillos and scores of sea birds. This also happens to be one of two places on the planet where Orcas use the intentional beaching of themselves as a hunting technique to get sea lion pups off of the beach. As gruesome a sight as it might be, it is a fact of life and would be interesting to see. Unfortunately we probably won't see this as the pups don't start swimming until March.
The peninsula is quite large and to explore most of it, we ended up driving over 120 miles (200 km). We did get to see everything we hoped to see, other than the whales. It was a very satisfying day!
Deciding to spend New Year's Eve in a quiet place, we decided to drive to the lonely lighthouse at Playa Ninfas, on the other side of Golfo Nuevo across from Península Valdés. After a quick stop in the main city of Puerto Madryn to get supplies before siesta - something we just barely managed, we headed out on dirt roads where our four wheel drive became necessary to cross the many flooded, muddy waterholes blocking our path. Arriving at the lighthouse, we found it non-operational, but overlooking a great stretch of cliffs with lots of seals on the inaccessible beaches below. The perfect place to relax for a couple of days and to welcome in the New Year.