Once again, almost a year to the day, I am back in Argentina. This time, under the special invitation of the Consulate General of Argentina in New York. The plan is to kayak the Ibera Marshes (the equivalent of the Florida Everglades) and hike the jungle of Pinialito and Iguazu (known for the famous huge falls) in the hopes of photographing Argentina’s endangered and threatened wildlife. But before all of that, I needed to travel south, back to the Valdes Peninsula, where I had left my equipment in storage. Although it would have been quicker to simply drive down, load the car and head straight back up, the temptation of exploring was a bit too much and I decided to take a month and wander my way around Patagonia, taking the long way back.
Estancia San Miguel
Nestled between Bahia Camarones and Bahia Bustamante, San Miguel is your typical Patagonian Estancia (ranch). Bordered by 35 kilometers of ocean front, thousands of hectares of pure steppe house a little bit over 3,500 sheep. Ricardo is the gaucho (cowboy) who takes care of everything. On the day of my arrival, shortly after settling down, he invited me to join him and some guests for an asado (Argentinean barbecue). With a huge smile, I gladly accepted. Little did I know that a big surprise was in store for me. In the Quincho (barbecue shed), fresh made pasta was hanging in the corner on a broom stick, and the fireplace was warmed to perfection. Thick bricks of charcoal had been lit hours ago and were now producing a nice bed of hot ashes, slowly cooking the lamb. The world is incredibly small, and as it turns out, the other guests were in fact friends of mine from Puerto Piramides. Gerardo, Vicky and Santiago, owners of the ACA (where I had stayed last year) were also friends with the owner of the Estancia. They had taken a week off and were on their way back when they decided to stop by for the night. As if this was not enough, also sitting at the table was renowned photographer Jasmine Rossi. Rossi and I had been communicating for some time but our schedules had always been impossible to coordinate. Rossi also knew the owner of the Estancia and was on her way to Valdez to photograph the Commerson Dolphins. Unfortunately, the dolphins were no where to be seen, so she decided to swing by for a couple of nights. My ACA friends knew Rossi by reputation from her time at the Peninsula, but as we found out during dinner, they were all from two blocks away in Buenos Aires. Small world indeed!!
The next day, Ricardo set our horses and off we went. During last night’s dinner, Ricardo had mentioned two whale carcasses on the beach and we wanted to find out more. At just about one kilometer from each other, a small minke whale and an old male orca laid on the rocks, their skin leathered by the sun. Ricardo told us that they appeared last September. It is quite common to find stranded whales, but the orca was something else. This was a huge and powerful male orca, at over 25 feet in length. There was no evident sign of trauma or wounds, and we figured the orca must have died of old age. We later learned that close to 50 pilot whales had been found, also in September, stranded in the nearby bay at Bahia Bustamante. After talking to locals, we realized that those three events coincidentally happened at the same time Pan American Oil was conducting seismic surveys in the area. If this was the case, it would not be the first time oil companies’ activities would be responsible for massive whale strandings. This could also be the cause for the massive stranding of 400 whales in the same area back in 1991.
The next day, we were invited over to Estancia La Ernesta where the owner, Gonzalo, was in the process of inseminating a 1,000 sheep. Sheep farming in Argentina is big business and Gonzalo took the time to explain every detail of it. Argentina is one of the best producers of merino wool in the world, the top one being Australia. And Australia makes huge money by selling the sperm of its champions. So every year, Australian frozen sheep sperm is sent all around the world! Now female sheep are inseminated as to assure they only give birth to the best offspring. Gonzalo uses both the sperm from his own champions (one came second in “Best Wool” and the other has been a number one in genetics for several years!) and sperm from Australia for insemination. When ready, estrogen is given to the female so that they are all ready at the same time. Vasectomized rams are brought in with little harnesses. The vasectomy is really important here. You don’t want to castrate the male. You want those hormones still alive, you simply don’t want them to reproduce. Those males have a specific and important mission, to identified which female is ready to be inseminated. The harness on the rams is fitted with a red chalk so that when they mount the females, they leave a big red patch on the female’s back. All females with red on their buttocks are then lined up and inseminated. It is not only in the “reproductive” realm that science is applied to sheep farming. The correct exact amount of sheep a size of land is capable to handle is also a matter of mathematics. Australia has one of the best ratios, with eight sheep per hectare. (Now please DON’T quote me on this, the information might be wrong and there are many other realities that may affect the numbers!) Argentina has anywhere between 0.1 to 3 sheep per hectare. Meaning that in Patagonia, if you have dry land, you might need as much as 1,000 hectares for 100 sheep. This data is carefully tracked and managed by the farmer. They rotate their sheep according to the weather and amount of food available. Gonzalo has definitely been doing good work because his wool is one of the best in the world and is sold to Ermenegildo Zegna.
My next stop was Bahia Bustamante, where I had briefly stopped by a year ago, while kayaking my way down to Comodoro Rivadavia. The place is an amazing little piece of paradise surrounded by 25,000 acres of pure Patagonian nature. With one of the greatest biodiversity of seabirds in Patagonia, Bustamante is home to sea lions, 60,000 penguins and orcas. In December 2008, the area, consisting of 100 kilometers of coast and totaling 600 kilometers square, was declared Marine Park.
The Bay became prime real estate in 1953, when Don Lorenzo Soriano was searching the coast to harvest seaweed. The plant was used in the production of hair grooming products. The place was known then as the Bahia Podrida (Rotten Bay). On the pebble beach, tons of seaweed would accumulate after each tide and rot under the sun. This was the perfect place to collect the marine plant using only horses and wagons. Back then, up to 500 people populated the little village. Times have changed a lot since the good days of seaweed. Nowadays, the industry has been greatly reduced and the rest industrialized, leaving Matias, Lorenzo’s great-grandson, to turn the village into an eco tourism destination.
On my first morning, I witnessed the sunrise turning the sky and clouds into a hot burning furnace. It was as if the sun had decided to explode and Armageddon was upon us. Deep hues of orange and yellow with dark purple edges, the ocean looked like a big piece of hot charcoal. Gradually, the intensity went away, and the sky filled itself with watercolor strokes. By 9 a.m., all clouds had disappeared and the blue sky reigned once again. Matias then suggested that we visit the petrified forest nearby. Dating from the Paleocene era, 60 millions years ago, those mineralized trunks are a visual reminder of a period when Patagonia was ruled by dinosaurs and was surrounded with active volcanoes. (If you’re interested in reading more about the Bahia Bustamante, click here.)
With little time left and much work to do, I needed to find a place where I could work — meaning have access to internet. I had several invitations to go spend some time in various Estancias, but none of them had cell phone coverage or internet. Fortunately, a connection came through from a friend, and Esquel would be my next stop. There, was a house waiting for me.
Welsh people have played an important part in Patagonia’s colonization. In 1862, coming aboard the ship named Mimosa, 1,500 of them founded the town Puerto Madryn. In 1865, Rawson was officially founded. The settlement was named after Dr.Guillermo Rawson, an Argentine Minister who supported the Welsh establishment. In 1885, a group known as Los Rifleros ventured west, following the Rio Chubut and establishing a new colony called “Colonia 16 de Octubre,” which later became the town of Trelevin and Esquel. Every year, their 700 kilometer horseback riding journey, from Rawson to the Andes, is reenacted with dozens of original descendants. Their itinerary was also going to be my way to Esquel.
The Rio Chubut is followed by Ruta 25 up to Paso de Indios. There, it turns north where Ruta 12 sidelines her all the way up past Piedra Parada. On one side of the dirt road, the river banks host green lush flora, while on the other side, steep cliffs and tall canyons block any attempts of escaping. The weather was perfect all day with just a tiny bit of clouds. As I got closer to the mountains a stormy system started to invade the sky. Wind began to blow from all directions. Around 6 p.m., I reached Piedra Parada (Standing Stone). This huge monolith stands tall and imposing. At 100 meters wide and 240 meters high, the piece of rock was at the center of a volcano extinct for thousands of years. It has since become a landmark and inspired thousands of photographs and paintings. That evening, this giant looked ever more impressive under a canopy of never-seen before, black and blue clouds. The sky looked like a giant battlefield where unknown forces fought for their dominion.