Monday, February 15, 2010

Circle South America: Puerto Madryn - Argentina

Dear Family and Friends,

Happy Valentine’s Day!
The entire southern tip of South America is known as Patagonia and it is split between Chilean Patagonia on the Pacific side and Argentine Patagonia on the Atlantic side. It is like a separate region of both countries with their own unique cultural diversity. Citizens in both countries consider themselves as superior to their northern neighbors, much like the Catalonians of eastern Spain…..bigger, stronger, more hardy, more industrious and, in some cases, more intelligent. If left up to most Patagonians, on both sides of the border, they would split off from their respective countries and form more perfect unions. Not, however, with each other. Chilean Patagonians and Argentine Patagonians are at constant odds with each other, squabbling over territory, lakes, and each other’s attitude.

So how did the region get its name? When this region was discovered by the explorer Hernando de Magallanes (Magellan), he and his men saw no indigenous people, but they did see their footprints in the snow. These indigenous people were perhaps a bit larger than the average height for European men of their time (about 5’6”) but because they wrapped their feet in animal furs to walk through the snow, their footprints looked huge to the explorers. Consequently, they named the region Patagonia, which literally means “land of people with big feet”.

We arrived at Puerto Madryn, Argentina at 7:00 AM. This beautiful gulf and the Peninsula Valdes were also discovered by Magellan in 1520; however, unlike Chilean Patagonia, which was settled initially by the Germans, Argentine Patagonia was settled by the Welsh, who fled religious persecution in Great Britain, and came here around 1865, often through the United States. While all of Patagonia also has significant Spanish and Italian influence (they say the populous speaks Spanish with an Italian accent), the Welsh farming culture still thrives.

The Pampas is a broad desert, much like the Falkland Islands appeared to us, just with lest rocks and more sand and gravel. The countryside is a treeless, low scrub flatland that stretches as far as the eye can see from the sea. The city of Puerto Madryn, with its 85,000 friendly people, is a green jewel on the coast but only because they irrigate it like crazy during the summer. They are an eco friendly bunch, recycle everything and conserve as much of their 8” of annual rainfall as possible. For you Map Heads, Puerto Madryn is at 42° 45’ 42” S latitude and 65° 81’ 38” W, or about the same latitude south as Chicago is north.

The land in this area is all privately owned and is divided up into huge parcels of about 24,000 acres each. This is the average size farm or ranch. Many of them are cattle ranches, but most of them are sheep farms, used for the production of wool and lamb meat. These animals are not fed, they graze. The water they drink is from wells that produce only brackish water, which is thought to be why their meat has such an unusual taste. It is hard to imagine how these healthy, hardy animals can survive on what looks like so little natural foliage and, in fact, it is not easy. Each animal is allotted about 10 acres to survive.

We took a tour this morning which took us out to Punta Loma to see a permanent “resting” colony of sea lions….an outcropping of rocks in the gulf where they rest up after they leave their breeding colony. These elegant mammals are separated into a group of females, who are the harem for a dominant male, and assorted “puppies” or newborns as well as young males called “teenagers” even though they are only four years old. Our tour guide, Mary, told us the dominant males “copulate” up to 10 females at a time (no wonder they need to rest) and they all get pregnant. After calving their single pup, they nurse them for up to four months while the dominant males leave to go out to sea to feed, leaving the females to rear the pups. However, the females are ready for breeding again after only NINETEEN DAYS! Consequently, adult female sea lions are, for all practical purposes, permanently pregnant for their entire 25 to 30 year lives. No wonder there are 500,000 Southern sea lions in this area with a southern hemisphere population of 1.4 million.

Mary also told us one of the big problems is the “teenage” males who are trying to become dominant males. They will rush the rocks trying to “copulate” a female and they are so aggressive they will trample the pups who might accidentally get in their way, killing or severely injuring them. While that is sad, it kind of sounds like teenage males in other mammal species.

From the sea lion colony we went to a working sheep ranch, known as an estancia. We visited Estancia San Guillermo, where the owner and his staff gave us a real treat. They performed a sheep shearing demonstration with a real gaucho shearing two sheep, a yew and a huge ram, for our group. It was incredible how calm and non-confrontational these docile animals were as this really buff gaucho carried them around and wrangled them into complex positions a yoga instructor would admire. I hope the pictures explain the process but when finished he ended up with a pile of wool the size of a large bean bag chair and when he cast it out across a 6’ x 10’ sorting table, it was amazing to see the wool was in one piece.
The ranches keep breeding rams as a ratio of about 1 ram to every 15 to 20 yews. The rest of the males they castrate so their energy goes into producing better wool. How they do this is unbelievable but if anyone is interested I will tell you. This estancia is really close to town, about five miles away and they have been plagued with lower than normal rain and packs of stray dogs from town who wander across their land killing the sheep, not for food, but for entertainment as they do not eat their kill. To survive they have reduced their herds from the normal 1500 to only 500. They sell the wool and also lamb meat but their biggest source of income is from tourism today. We loved the demonstration, drinking the local green tea called Mate (pronounced MA ta), and petting their guanacos (part of the Llama family) and horses and watching the gauchos work.

Finally, we visited the Ecocentro Puerto Madryn Museum, the first center in Argentina exclusively devoted to studying marine ecosystems. It was quite fascinating and we learned a lot.

We are at sea today, sailing north along the coast of Argentina for Montevideo, Uruguay where we will drive up to the Juanico Region where over a million gallons of wine is produced each year. I am sure Vicki and I will partake of a sip or two while there. The next day we will be back in Argentina in Buenos Aires for two days so you will not hear from me again until we are at sea on Friday. Until then, God Bless you all.

Jud and Vicki

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