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The International Writers Magazine: South America

The Puertos of Patagonia
Tim Robinson
In shades of grey rather than clear black and white - that is how many people imagine dolphins to appear. These Commerson’s dolphins, zipping to-and-fro around our boat in the cold Atlantic waters off Patagonia, had a sparkling black and white colouration that disproved prior assumptions. They are a highlight of the wildlife watching trips available from three small port towns in the south of Argentina.


Peninsula Valdes, together with its gateway town of Puerto Madryn, is the most famous venue for marine wildlife in Argentine Patagonia. As probably the premier whale watching destination on the continent, this popularity is well deserved. However, there are three other puertos or ports (Rawson, Deseado and San Julian) further south in Patagonia that provide less well known but spectacular wildlife experiences as well as history and fine seafood.

Peurto Rawson is the first of the ports I encounter when heading south. It is 5km downriver from Rawson, the capital of the Argentine province of Chubut, but it is also very accessible from the more desirable base of nearby Trelew and only 80km from Madryn and easily visited as a daytrip from either.

This accessibility ensures that plenty of people have made the journey here today to see the port’s year-round main attraction – the beautiful black and white Commerson’s dolphins – and when we leave the slightly run-down harbour (and its resident sea lions) the large zodiac is filled to capacity.

One of the smallest dolphins, with a length of approximately 1.5m, Commerson’s dolphins (known as toninas locally) are fast, playful and extremely photogenic. They are also very obliging, frequently breaching and bow riding and it isn’t long before around a dozen dolphins have come to investigate the zodiac.

The views from our boat are close-up and thrilling, although the sheer number of people in the boat does sometimes block an otherwise great view.

If you have luck, you might also encounter a Southern Right whale on your boat trip, as we did. Although I had seen good numbers of these magnificent animals further north off Puerto Madryn, it was still mesmerising to get another glimpse.

Zodiac tours are available directly from the port, although many people arrive at Puerto Rawson as part of a tour from either Trelew or Puerto Madryn which combines dolphin watching with a visit to the spectacular Magellanic Penguin colony further south at Punta Tombo.

Heading down the RN-3, the main east-coast road, I need to branch east for 216km from Caleta Olivia to reach my next port of call, Puerto Deseado (Port Desire). The town itself looks similar to most of the other settlements on the coast of Patagonia; slightly ramshackle and not overly prosperous but not lacking in charm.

Darwin visited whilst on the Beagle, one of several famous past visitors including Bruce Chatwin but although the least convenient of the three ports to visit, the wildlife here is varied and accessible and the landscape is spectacular and unique.

The Ria Deseado is an old river valley that has been flooded by the Atlantic and stretches for 42 km inland from the town. It provides a fantastic environment for wildlife, especially birds, although much is also to be observed offshore including the highlight of the area, a large colony of Rockhopper penguins.

Two main boat trips are available. The first explores the river valley and provides an opportunity to see a great variety of birdlife (mainly cormorants including the elegant Grey cormorant) as well as Commerson’s dolphins. Trips to the sheltered waters of the inlet are not as dependent on good weather as is the excursion to the offshore Isla de Los Pingüinos (Island of the Penguins).

Although the crossing can be relatively rough and the cost is slightly higher, the wildlife experience on offer is fantastic. The guides here are experienced and professional and the small zodiac contains only eight tourists so the views are excellent. Within minutes of leaving the harbour we have spotted (or been spotted by) six Commerson’s dolphins which we stay with for 10 minutes.

Continuing into the open waters of the Atlantic, there is delight on board when a pod of Peale’s dolphins appears and accompanies us out into the rougher waters. Larger and more traditionally dolphin-like than the Commerson’s, they are inquisitive and may follow the zodiac for the entire one-hour journey to the island.

Disembarking from the boat you immediately realise you are visiting somewhere special. The uninhabited island is rocky and rather barren but utterly magical. An old lighthouse and the remains of a penguin processing factory are the only signs of man’s activity.

The chief species you will see here are Magellanic penguins, sea lions and the occasional elephant seal, plus the only Rockhopper penguin colony easily accessed from mainland Argentina. Walking amongst the Rockhoppers on what is virtually a cliff it is hard to understand how the penguins make it up there until you witness it – of course they hop! The birds have zero fear of human beings and an hour passes quickly just sitting and observing them.

The Magellanic penguins on the island are equally hospitable, despite the fact that many have young chicks (I visited in December). As we slowly make our way through the large colony, there is noise and activity all around although no alarm. Obviously, the penguin processing plant must have been quite prolific in its time.

Thankfully the visitors here today leave with only photos and a great experience, although before we disembark we are able to approach a large group of sea lions basking on the shore. They are mainly large males and their sheer bulk is impressive this close-up.

Back on shore it is time to eat. Puerto Deseado is a fishing port and it doesn’t seem right to go for the parilla (barbecue) option so tempting in other Argentine restaurants. So I order arroz y mariscos, a tasty mix of rice and seafood, similar to paella. The seafood here is high quality and still cheap despite the creeping increase in Argentine restaurant prices.

Back on the RN-3, I relax in my fully reclining bus seat while the conductor changes the DVD. Hopefully it will be more interesting than the last one which was as tedious as the never changing scrubland scenery flashing by the window. That said, the landscape does have a certain soporific appeal and every now and then the appearance of a Lesser Rhea or a group of Guanacos enlivens the view.

Pulling into the small bus station, I get the impression that I am going to stop in the sort of Patagonian town I would normally only see from a bus when travelling to a more high profile destination.

Historically important, but these days a minor port town, it is windswept and quite chilly despite the start of the Argentine summer. The town’s large natural harbour has been visited by Magellan, Drake and Darwin. Magellan conducted the first mass on Argentine soil at San Julian and his name for the local people he encountered, patgon (big foot due to their large size) led to the naming of the area as Patagonia. The large Falklands memorial in town, which includes an actual fighter plane, betrays the fact that the airfield here was used by the Argentine air force during the Falklands War.

I apply sun cream and take the five-minute stroll from my hotel on the seafront to the departure point for one of two daily departures to view the wildlife, numbers allowing. Again my first encounter is with Commerson’s dolphins. The boat here is small and the visitors fewer; only four other people make the trip. Movement on the boat is unrestricted and the views are particularly good. After the dolphins we visit some mixed cormorant colonies before landing for a stroll on the beach amongst a large colony of Magellanic penguins.

With no long boat journey, guaranteed sightings and ease of organisation, Puerto San Julian is an ideal place to break a long journey along the east coast.

Later, as I finish my day with fresh langoustines and wine, in a warmly-lit restaurant, it occurs to me that you can never have too much of a good thing. That evening I find myself scanning my guidebook to see if I will have another opportunity to see my favourite type of dolphin further south on this trip and happily I will. Commerson’s dolphins are addictive.

© Tim Robinson March 2010

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