Patagonia is a place we've been reading about, seeing photos of, and researching for years. It's the prevailing reason we came to South America. We wanted to see for ourselves what makes this region embodying Chile and Argentina so exceptional.
Our next stop after Buenos Aires was Puerto Madryn, Argentina, a small coastal city known for whale watching and penguins, our first official stop in Patagonia. It took us about 18 hours by bus to get to here, a trip that seemed like an eternity. Traveling by bus certainly took longer than taking a plane but it put into perspective for us the massive distance we were covering.
Watching the countryside go by through the windows was never ending, it reminded us of driving through the Dakotas back home at dusk. Hazy horizon, abandoned shacks roadside, farm trucks pulling 5 trailers, more abandoned shacks, crosses along the roadside, barbed wire fences, windmills making revolutions in slow motion. We had heard many times how desolate this part of Argentina is and it wasn't exaggerated.
We made it to Puerto Madryn early in the morning and set out to find our next Airbnb. Our host was amazing again, welcoming us and helping us plan out our time in the area. One place she highly recommended to us was a place called Punta Tombo, where half a million penguins travel to at this time to find their same nest and same mate they return to every year.
She even offered to drive us there, and we instantly took her up on the offer. When we arrived at Punta Tombo we started seeing penguins before we even got out of the car. They were everywhere, hiding out in their nests and walking in front of us, close enough to touch. We hiked out to a point where we could see them swimming out of the water, poking their heads out for air a few meters from shore and lying down on the warm rocks as soon as they reached them.
They would rest only moments before quickly making their way upright and heading instinctively in the direction of their nest, clearly on a mission. It was entertaining to watch them tediously flinging dirt while fixing their nest or see the chicks sleep walking in the warm sun. The ultimate bird watching. Seeing exotic animals along the way is always a highlight for us.
The next day in Puerto Madryn we put our PADI certification to good use. Punta Loma is a nature reserve about 15 minutes by boat from Puerto Madryn. There is a stable colony of about 600 sea lions, with a few elephant seals in the mix. Punta Loma is the only place in the world where sea lions have been documented to approach humans and play with them.We were skeptical at first, concerned with the well-being of the sea lions, wondering if it was in the best interest of the seals to be interacting with them. After some research we felt better about our decision to encounter them up close.
Our diving guides (Aquatours Buceo) were among few with permission to dive with the sea lions. They must follow strict guidelines regulating the number of divers in the water, how many boats in the area, etc. Those with permission to dive the area are closely monitored from shore, ensuring these guidelines are followed. There is absolutely no feeding of the animals. The nature reserve also closely watches the colony to ensure our presence has no negative impact on the sea lions.
After reorienting ourselves with our diving equipment we dove in off the boat and swam about 30 meters out. From there we made our descent, following a lead rope to the ocean floor as it had rained the night before decreasing the clarity of the water. Our guide signaled for us to come to our knees on the bottom, and there we waited. Less than 5 minutes later three appeared, quickly coming into focus through the stirred up water. They were instantly curious, coming close enough to touch. They would bite our flippers, nibble at our fingers and kiss the top of our heads. They would circle around us for a few minutes, disappear and then reappear out of nowhere. The experience of being underwater with them and truly feeling a part of nature for a while was indescribable and a privilege we'll never forget.
Puerto Madryn is also known for incredible whale watching. Unfortunately we just missed the peak season to whales in the area. During high season people travel from all over the world to photograph the orcas here, not because they're easy to see but because of their remarkable hunting technique. The orcas can be seen beaching themselves to kill sea lions on shore, waiting for the right level of tide to make their kill and the right time of year when there are sea lion pups around. Southern Right whales are also seen daily from shore in Puerto Madryn, if you happen to be traveling through at the right time of year.
Puerto Madryn was a place we thought was just a stopping point on our way south, but it had much more to offer than we ever expected. The beautiful and expansive coastline was just the beginning of Patagonia and we couldn't contain our excitement for what we knew was just around the next corner.