29 January 2011

Pingüinos!

It was only 35 km to the penguins and I was excited to see them and road hard across the rolling country. After a climb I looked down a steep winding descent into a valley, and beyond on the horizon I could see the ocean, the water blinding with the sun coming up. The wind was only a breeze and I dropped down fast into the valley and after a small ascent turned through a gate where the pavement ended and it was gravel and sand. There was 22 km of riding on the ripio to reach the penguin colony.




It was bumpy, dangerous riding, the bike slipping on the large rocks and sand and I tried to follow the most-used tire tracks. But I was descending mostly and braking and I did not want to think about the ride I was going to have back. I saw guanaco and rhea and even a group of Patagonian hares, with the black patch on their rumps. But it was hard going on the ripio and I had to push the bike in places and it was midday when I arrived at the visitor center. It had taken more than 2 hours.

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I bought a ticket (foreigners pay 35 pesos; Argentines pay 10) and started down the path to the penguins. The penguins dot the hills and are walking everywhere and are unafraid of humans and will stop to stare at you curiously, then trot across the pathway and stop to pose for pictures. The gray, fuzzy-feathered new-borns stay close to their mothers and fathers near the nests beneath the jume bushes. Many of the penguins stood looking out to sea, heads held high and making a sort of call. They are funny little creatures but you must not get too close or they will peck at you viciously.




As I left the penguins I stopped and talked to a couple from La Plata, near Buenos Aires. They had been touring by car all through Patagonia and confirmed for me that a service station existed at Garayalde. I had lunch at the visitor center and refilled my water bladders for the 240 km of riding, and with a full load of water in my front panniers started back onto the ripio in the heat of the afternoon.

The wind had picked up blowing from the west, and the sun beat down upon me, and I did not realize how hot and windy and slow-going it would be to ascend hills of ripio. I was finally pushing the bike, monstrously heavy with water and sinking easily into the sand and stones. I was paying a high price for wanting to see penguins.

More than 4 hours later I was back onto the asphalt of Ruta 75. But the wind was blowing a gale. I did not have the energy for it and fighting the wind down the descent into the valley I had coasted through easily that morning, I saw a sign for “agro tourism” and a farmhouse and I walked the bike up a gravel path to where a man was sitting at a table.

His name was Guido and the farm was a working sheep farm which he was also developing for tourism. He offered me a spot to pitch my tent for the night and to have an asado with them and breakfast the next morning for 100 pesos. I did not want to go back into the wind and fight it up out of the valley and agreed to stay. His girlfriend Andrea sat down with us and we shared a mate. After we drank a beer and I cleaned up for dinner.

They keep a pet guanaco on the property named Samantha and Guido called her over to meet me, but warned me not to look at her directly. If you looked directly into her eyes she would put a spell on you, Guido said. I am not a superstitious man but I watched Guido call the animal over to him and quickly turn his back to her. I saw the guanaco's large black eyes and, whether or not I respected the dark power of certain animals to cast spells, I did not want to risk it and turned my back to her as she came to me.


I could feel her head against my back and then her breath upon my neck. I reached and touched her. Then she pulled out a mouthful of hair from the back of my head and I jumped forward. It was then I realized Guido had been trying to say that Samantha would spit on you if you looked directly into her eyes. He had confused the English words for “spell” and “spit”. Though the guanaco was not capable of spell-casting, her spit was a putrid, vile stinking spit the smell of which could only be taken away from a long shower.

I still had work to do getting the tent up and Samantha followed me and you had to constantly be aware of where she was so that you did not turn and be spit upon. She was curious about the bike and then came up behind me and over my shoulder began to bite at the tent poles.


We had an asado of mutton, potatoes and a salad of greens and tomatoes. The mutton came from the estancia and the taste of meat from an animal that ranges freely for its food and has just been slaughtered is a very different one--fatless and tender and tasty. There is no comparison to the artificially fattened and sedentary animals from which most meat is harvested and packaged in the United States.

After the sun set it was windless and we sat under the stars drinking vodka tonics and talking. Argentina was a fine country but the government was completely corrupt and taxes and inflation were making it hard for the productive class. Because Patagonia is a wealthier region than the north an additional tax applies to businesses in the south. It would be hard to start up a new business under the circumstances but Guido was trying and was looking into working with a mining company to quarry stone from various parts of the property. But with the new asphalt road to Punta Tombo that ran by his property the tourism side of his business was certain to pick up and I wished him luck. With an eye out for the spitting guanaco I walked to my tent and went to sleep.

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