A Trip to the End of the World (part 3 of 3)

by Lynn and John Salmon

(Back to Part 1) // (Back to Part 2)

January 11, 1993 [Day in Rio Gallegos, then onward to Trelew]

Rio Gallegos was not one of the high points of the trip. We arrive at 7:00 am at the bus terminal, our bags are unloaded and deposited in a mud puddle. We try to leave our bags at the station for the day and are told to wait until 8:00 am, at 8:00 we are told it is not possible to leave luggage. Before having a clever idea like asking how much it would cost to "ship" the bags to Rio Gallegos, we set out, bags in hand, in the rain.

This is our 3rd time in Rio Gallegos, once again mostly just in transit to another place. Since we have 7 hours this time, we try to see more than the airport, but are met with limited success. The bus terminal is on the edge of town. Lonely Planet guidebooks seem to have a problem with maps. In Rio Gallegos, the city map stops about two blocks short of the bus station. (No excuses that the bus station has moved. The text gives its correct location). Furthermore, someone seems to have decided that the map's aesthetic appeal was marred by all those street names near the edge of the page, so they were simply left off. Result: we have no idea where we are until we walk a few blocks in an essentially random (and lucky) direction. Lonely Planet also failed to put a scale on the map of Rio Gallegos (flashbacks to the LP China book which had notoriously bad maps). We persevere through wind, cold, and rain to the center of town, where every confiteria is either deserted or barred. The only "high-point" of an otherwise dismal trek was when we saw a car coming toward us at high speed, and at the same time saw we were standing next to a very large puddle. Visions of being soaked from head to toe in muddy water flashed through our heads. Thankfully, they also flashed through the head of the driver, and he slowed significantly down and passed us so as not to splash us.

Finally, we get to the tourist office where they tell us there is not enough time to rent a car and drive down to the penguin colony at Cabo Virgenes 120 km south of town. We thought there was, but the tourist info woman assured us the road was too bad and we would need more time. She did recommend a breakfast place at a nearby hotel, but we found it only served guests. Fortunately, we found a deserted, but open cafe across the street and got some breakfast. There was a slight delay while the proprietor ran out to buy croissants, but they are the best croissants we have had in South America.

After lingering for a long time over our coffees, we move to the local historical museum, which is another example of a tiny, but lovingly cared for local museum. This one has everything its larger cousins have: geology, paleontology, flora, fauna, artifacts and rock painting from aboriginal inhabitants, memorabilia from early settlers, a bicycle ridden by Charlotte Fairchild from Buenos Aires to Rio Gallegos and back in 1965, the telephone exchange that served the town for 45 years, etc. All under one roof! You can't say that about the Smithsonian.

After a delightful hour at the museum we go to change our Chilean money into Argentine and manage to get in the bank only seconds before they close for siesta! Then on to a bakery (the same one that was the source of our breakfast croissants) to stock up for lunch, and finally to the airport where we still have time to kill before our flight to Trelew.

The flight is (surprisingly) on time, and we get to Trelew airport around 6:00 pm. There is an hour time difference because some parts of Argentina are not on daylight savings time. We encounter four car rental agents set up in the terminal so we ask for prices. The cheapest one has a 3 day rental with 1000 km for $292. Figuring it will cost at least $150 to take bus tours for two people, and enjoying the flexibility of having a rental in Chile, we take the car and head out into Trelew city traffic.

Drivers are only a little crazed and we soon learn that stopping at stop signs is not fashionable. Exactly when it is proper to yield is unclear, but we err on the safe side and yield to anyone going faster. The Argentines are "aggressive" about passing slow vehicles. It's a bit hair raising getting used to the very loose clutch and the numerous traffic circles (which we just don't have in LA) while trying to figure out how to get on to one of our maps.

We choose to park (Whew!) a block from our target hotel, the Hotel Touring Club, a sort of faded 1930's grand hotel. The hotel has seen grander times, but it has bathtubs! We always seem to find this kind of place once on our vacations: The Imperial in Delhi, Faletti's in Lahore, the Xinqiao in Beijing, the Hotel Darwin in Darwin.

January 12, 1993 [Penguins at Punta Tombo]

The best day of all! Well, at least one of us gets really excited about penguins and today we get to see 0.5 million of them on the loose at Punta Tombo.

We go bumpity bump in the Scuzio (our nickname for the Fiat Spazio we rented) for 2.5 hours over 110 km of dirt road to get to Punta Tombo. The car rental agent warned us that it was a very bad road, but it was far better than the "good" roads we experienced in Chile. Unfortunately, the Scuzio is a poor car for the conditions. The drive takes a couple of hours and is very dusty. The rear windows of the car won't stay open, and the passenger seatbelt doesn't buckle. We have yet to figure out one of the controls next to the turn signal.

We stopped a few times to observe some wild life hanging out by the road. We saw one very large rhea, some little rodents, and numerous small birds with punk hairstyles. We also spotted one live armadillo and one dead one being eaten by a large eagle. As we pull up the eagle retires to a fencepost 30 ft away, leaving the armadillo. We back off hoping the eagle will return to his lunch, but he just sits on the fence watching. I guess he's got time. I can't imagine very many creatures that would try to steal his lunch!

[Magellanic penguin]

Arrival at Punta Tombo did not disappoint, and any fears that the penguins may have all "gone fishing" are allayed. The first penguin encounter was with a stubborn penguin that planted itself directly in front of the car on the road and wouldn't move, not even when nudged by the bumper. We have read that penguins will bite if harassed so we don't try to chase him away. We do toss a couple of stones in his direction, but he doesn't budge. The road was pretty narrow, but we managed to finally get around him without getting stuck in the soft sand.

We parked and spent the next 3 hours observing the Magellanic penguins coming and going around us. One half million penguins summer along this stretch of beach at Punta Tombo. They head north to spend their winters in Brazil. There are clearly marked pedestrian trails for people to stay in, but these are completely ignored by the penguins, some penguins even dig their nests and set up house in the middle of the paths.

The penguins are not very concerned about people and just carry on. There is a constant coming and going of waddling 16" tall penguins making there way from their burrows to the ocean or back. Most just go down for a drink or a quick dip, but a few go farther out, presumably in search of food. The water is very clear, so we can see them swimming as they approach shore. We spend a while on a rocky outcropping that overlooks the beach and watch the penguins swim and walk. From here we can see that the colony extends far along the beach in both directions.

Many of the penguins are asleep in burrows or standing under scrubby bushes watching the passing parade of humans and other penguins. There were a lot of young penguins standing around chirping for attention but not getting much of it. The young are distinguished by their uniformly gray coloration and (apparent) lack of oil on their feathers.

After getting our penguin fill we took the Scuzio bumpity bumping back the 110 kms to Trelew passing through one seemingly random police check point, but John's Inter-American drivers license seems to be fine. We parked, covered in dust, outside our hotel.

January 13, 1993 [Peninsula Valdes]

We checked out of the Hotel Touring Club and set off for Peninsula Valdes with the Scuzio. A good portion of today's drive (~160 km) was over good paved road, very straight through the pampas, and take a right at the sign for Puerto Pyramides, named for the sandy pyramid shaped formations that overlook the bay.

At Puerto Pyramides, the only town with accommodations on Peninsula Valdes, we checked every hotel. There are 4 hotels and most are less than 10 rooms. We found a vacancy at the last place which was reserved for Auto Club Members. Although we are members, we didn't bring an AAA card with us, but we did have Inter-American driver's licenses which we got at AAA. These proved sufficient for auto club ID and we got the room.

Peninsula Valdes is very large and sprawling with gravel plus a few sand roads and some places with serious "washboard." What causes washboard? Here we digress on the virtues of the Fiat Scuzio:

  • the car is only one year old with ~55,000 km (to be fair, it was certainly a tough 55k).
  • adjusting the driver's seat is nearly impossible, requiring the passenger to disengage the under seat ratchet and the driver to repeatedly pummel the seat with two hands, nudging it about 1mm per hit.
  • there is no obvious control to spray water on the windshield
  • the seats are very uncomfortable (do Italians really have different posterior anatomies from us?)
  • the rear windows will not stay open
  • there is no trunk cover
  • there is a vent over the wheel wells which brings dust into the passenger compartment
  • the seat belts do not retract, and the natural hanging position is out the door
  • access to the back seat is accomplished by flipping the entire seat up which catches on the seatbelt when flipped back down
  • only the driver's side seat will flip up, therefore, no hitchhikers will be picked up because the driver would have to get out before they could get into the back seat
  • there is no way to lock the car without the key, the driver must either wait for the passenger to get out and reach over to lock the door, or get out and walk around to the passenger side to lock it.

Suffice it to say, our next automobile purchase will not be a Fiat!

Back to the log. We drove to North Point after lunch and witnessed the sea lions carrying on, loudly. The sea lions are pretty impressive. If there's a niche for large, fierce looking animals that constantly bellow and groan and snort, and occasionally lunge and have serious looking fights with one another, then these guys have it pretty much covered. The big males do most of the fighting, but the females do their share, too. Many of them are scarred and bloody.

Amazingly, some of the sea lions have dabs of blue paint on them! This is clearly a job for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom "Jim will apply blue paint while Marlin Perkins watches from the safety of the overlooking bluffs." At one point three lambs walk along the beach. Apparently no one was hungry because they made it past unscathed.

[Elephant seals]

Elephant seals fill a different niche - huge gray masses of flesh that haul up on the beach and go to sleep in overlapping sets of 6 or 8. Easily mistaken for large outcroppings of gray rock, they occasionally give themselves away by yawning. During our period of observation, two yawns constituted their entire behavioral repertoire. According to propaganda, they do some very spectacular fighting during the mating season. Now, apparently, is the sleeping season.

We drove south to another colony of penguins. This one is much smaller, but no less interesting. The sun is low and the light is perfect, so we burn a few more exposures. We also see a VERY LARGE bird (Giant Petrel?) sail by just out of reach off the edge of the cliff. This guy was about the size of a small single engine plane (ok, I exaggerate, but it was big).

At this point we are getting pretty tired of driving the Scuzio over these dirt roads, but the drive back rewards us with some additional animal sightings. We see a few guanacos, a couple rheas, many, many "punk partridges", plus a new animal, the Patagonian hare. We were driving near dusk when the animals seemed to come out more.

January 14, 1993 [Gaiman, then back to Buenos Aires]

We left Peninsula Valdes and headed back toward Trelew. We bypassed Trelew and visited the Welsh town of Gaiman, 17 km west. Gaiman was settled in 1886 by Welsh immigrants, and it has only been the last generation or two that have assimilated into Argentine society.

In Gaiman we visited a weird "attraction" made out of bottle caps, old cars, pieces of string, discarded paint cans and other detritus of 20th century technology. A sign reminds one at the entrance that "This is not Disneyland." The place is El Desafio, and is comprised of a labyrinth, a throne, a car-henge, a circus, and everywhere one looks are aphorisms painted on the tops of old paint cans (or whatever else happened to be handy). It must be experienced. This description does not do it justice

Gaiman's second attraction are the Welsh Tea Houses. We are in luck and find one open. It smells wonderful (baking pies and breads). The tea is excellent and is served with an enormous selection of tea cakes, breads, pies and scones, which were delicious. We ate our fill and then some only making a small dent in the pile, and we had missed lunch! It was a pleasant relaxing place to spend time until we had to leave for the airport.

We crossed another police check point on the way to the airport. This time there was traffic other than us, so we saw that they just stop people at random points and check IDs, basically. What purpose it serves, I don't know, but it gives the police something to do.

We returned the Scuzio with 826 km added to its odometer (we had a 1000 km allowance on this rental). Gas ran about 33 cents a liter in Argentina. We were not sorry to say goodbye to the Scuzio, but we realize the vacation is coming to a close as we leave on our flight to Buenos Aires.

In Buenos Aires we chose the Hotel Phoenix, which once had the Prince of Wales stay there. A realtor would describe the Phoenix as "charming" or "has lots of character" but we quite liked it. Especially the 100 year old elevator with the buttons labelled 3, 2, 1, 3 and all the mechanisms visible. "Keep arms and legs inside the compartment for the duration of the ride." It was late when we arrived so we did little other than shower and find dinner before bed time. Late dining hours are proving useful.

January 15, 1993 [Day in Buenos Aires]

We have a final day in Buenos Aires as the trip winds down. We slept in late, got some food and then made our way toward the Recoleta district. We never got there, but instead got a cab to take us to the zoo. The zoo was the only place we found that would not accept US dollars and needed Argentine pesos. We exchanged a $20 with an ice cream vendor near the entrance and made our way in.

The zoo was a nice way to spend the afternoon though some of the animal enclosures were a bit cramped. The polar bear in particular looked miserable in the 86 degree heat, but a new house is being built for him. The zoo had Patagonian hares running loose about the park so we got to see some up close. We also witnessed one getting chased by a duck. You are allowed to feed most of the animals at the zoo with special zoo-provided food packets.

After the zoo we headed back toward Recoleta, but once again didn't make it in the heat. We passed an Esso, "put a tigre in your tank" billboard. I remember that ad campaign from a while ago. Buenos Aires has some wide streets with painted lane lines on the roads, but they seem to be disregarded by the drivers.

We took a cab back to the hotel and then went to dinner. John had a good entree but mine was pretty miserable. We should have known better than to eat at a restaurant called the Palace of French Fry, but the Spanish name, the table cloths, and the butter patrol led one into a false sense of security about the place. Unpleasant memories of the dinner were assuaged by an excellent ice cream at a stand in the pedestrian mall area.

January 16, 1993 [Transit in Sao Paulo]

We were up late last night and had to get up at 4:30 am this morning to get to the airport to begin the major undertaking of getting home. It was raining when we woke up so we opted for a taxi rather than a walk to the airport bus 9 blocks away. It only cost $40 as opposed to $28 for the bus.

We had to wait in a huge line to check in followed by a huge line for customs, but other than taking a lot of time there were no problems. The lines were efficient and line-jumping was not an obvious problem. The Buenos Aires airport had a shrink-wrap service and perhaps 10% of the people had their luggage shrink wrapped before checking it. This seems like an excellent solution for backpacks with straps that could be caught in airline machinery.

The plane was full, but left almost on time. We arrived in Sao Paulo with 14 hours until our connecting flight to Los Angeles. Rather than spend it in the transit lounge we ventured out into Brazil. Customs in Sao Paulo had millions of people with heaps of luggage, while we had only a single day pack, having checked our bags through to LA. It was a good move, lugging two bags around Sao Paulo would not have been fun. We've never seen so many people with "something to declare" at customs before, but we maneuver past and are admitted to Brazil.

The person at the airport tourist info office spoke English and helped us arrange a tour of the city. We got on a bus and headed to town in a country where we speak far less of the language than we do Spanish. The bus dropped us at a point in the central city though Sao Paulo is pretty sprawling, a little like LA. It's kind of a cross between New York and LA in the feel it emits. We weren't sure where to go from the bus drop off, but a helpful passerby who spoke Spanish directed us to a tourist info kiosk in the center of a market area. It was Saturday and food vendors were out in force so we picked up some snack foods for lunch.

At the tourist kiosk the woman called the tour operator and two guys came and met us there. The tour was a ~3.5 hours drive around the city with a few stops. There were two guides, both multi-lingual including English, and one other passenger, a guy from Peru. The company was called GOOL.

Sao Paulo is spread out and we drove by a lot of places without being very oriented to where we were. We drove around and had many places pointed out to us including Republic Square, the Clinical Hospital, and University City as well as other buildings, memorials, and parks. Perhaps it's coincidence, but it seems like many streets are Dr. ___ or Prof __. I'd like to think this indicates a respect for learning. We also stopped at Sao Paulo University which is free to qualified students. Medical care is also free for all. One wonders about which is the third world country, the US or Brazil.

We then went to the Butanta Institute whose motto seems to be "if it's poisonous we got it." The herpetarium specializes in extraction of poisons for production of antivenom. There we got out and visited the snake museum which also included poisonous frogs and spiders. I especially liked the detailed anatomical exhibit showing how the head and jaw of a snake is constructed to allow it to open so wide.

We then drove through the Morumbi District. I believe this was one of the high class "Beverly Hills" type areas. We saw houses belonging to Pele the soccer player, Emerson Fittipaldi the race car driver, plus some mafia drug kings, and other "new " rich. We also drove through another ritzy neighborhood with homes of the "old" rich from the coffee industry and such. We drove by Government Palace, through the America and Europa Garden district, past an obelisk, and some other drive by sitings, but we also got out at the historical museum and spent some time there.

As the tour finished our guide caused some paranoia by warning us about muggers and telling John not to wear his watch visible on his arm, even though it was an inexpensive watch.

We walked to the Italia Tower and went to the 41st floor restaurant for coffee. It is possibly the tallest building in South America. The waiter was very nice to us. We don't speak Portuguese and he didn't speak English or Spanish. Eventually he communicated that there was a minimum charge and we communicated to bring us some appetizers or something to make up the difference after the coffees and he did.

We returned to the bus stop and took the bus back to the airport and waited around for the final 12 hour flight that will take us home and put an end to vacation. The transit lounge in Sao Paulo airport is far more comfortable than the main airport, though there is more to do in the main airport. Now a guy with 20+ pairs of shoes is frantically discarding the boxes to save weight for check-in to a flight. An airport employee came along to clean up the discarded boxes.

No one stamped our passports on the way out of Brazil so I guess we never left. Somehow we find ourselves back in LA typing in this log.

So ends the Great Patagonian Adventure of 1993.

Lynn Salmon <>{