It Was the Best of Tours, It Was the Worst of Tours


Puerto Madryn could be a stand-in for just about any other beach town in the world, but after being in Buenos Aires with no beach to speak of except for the aforementioned brown river, we got much more enjoyment out of it then we usually would. “Look!” we would cry. “Water is blue!”

Then, “What is that strange smell?”

“It’s air minus the smell of diesel fuel! Will the wonders never cease?”

We only had two days in Puerto Madryn just to break up the time traveling from Buenos Aires to Ushuaia. Since it took 22 hours just to get to Puerto Madryn, I would come to see this as a wise decision on our part.

Our first day was rather uneventful, but still quite gratifying. Walking along the beach, grabbing a pizza at a cafe, and sleeping in an actual bed occupied most of our time. The second day was a bit more complicated. We had booked a tour to see Peninsula Valdés which is pretty much what you do if you go to Puerto Madryn. Now, I’m not exceedingly fond of tours, and Adam is even less fond of them, but since we had such a limited amount of time, I thought that this would be our best option. Well, it was and it wasn’t.

The trouble started first thing in the morning. When the alarm went off at 7:00AM, Adam looked outside doubtfully. “It can’t be 7:00 yet, it’s not light enough,” he said.

I looked at my watch and the travel clock. They both said 7:00. This satisfied both of us enough to get up and prepare for the tour. The shuttle was supposed to pick us up between 8:00 and 8:30. Since both Adam and I have an obsessive aversion to being late, we were sitting on the bed, ready to go, staring out the window at 7:45. A little after 8:00 we decided that we had better go down and wait outside just in case. Time passed. 8:25…8:30…8:35…8:40…8:45. Adam suggested that perhaps something was amiss. My stomach sank with each passing minute since I was the one who completed the transaction, all in Spanish, and I felt sure that I had misunderstood something. I wanted to say that I would call them and find out what was wrong, but phone Spanish is still way out of my league and they would probably think it was a prank call. I decided to ask the front desk for help; maybe they could call for me. I walked inside and on a whim asked instead, “¿Que hora es?

The man looked at the clock on the computer. “Cerca de ocho,” he replied.

¿Como? Somehow we had missed the fact that Buenos Aires recognizes daylight savings time and most of the south does not. It was actually an hour earlier than we thought. Well, that was a relief in one sense, but there was the little matter of standing around for another 45 minutes waiting for the shuttle. So again it was 8:25…8:30…8:35. The man at the front desk came outside and asked if they still hadn’t come. “Well, obviously not,” I didn’t say, but instead shook my head in bewilderment. He called the company and they informed him that they were on their way. At 8:40, after two hours of waiting, we got on the shuttle bus only to see that there were three seats available and none of them were together.

We solved the seating problem by always being the first people back on the bus after each stop. At first when we switched seats, people stared at us as if we had broken some sort of unwritten seat-saving code. But I say if you are going to be late and make everyone wait, you don’t deserve to get your seat back. In this way we managed to mete out the tiniest bit of justice that was within our control.

Our first stop was Puerto Pirámides, a teeny little beach town—the only town on the peninsula. Rather than pay $60 extra to take a boat trip, we opted to just walk down the beach and soak up the temperate ambiance. Nothing new or exciting here, but still a welcome activity. We poked at some crabs in the tide pools, took a few pictures with the new camera, and went into town to grab a bite to eat. Since we were supposed to meet the rest of the group at 12:30, we decided to have a quick lunch by stopping at the hot dog stand. Until I came to South America, I never realized how boring I was being with my hot dog toppings. We had mayo and mustard with corn and potato chips. Delicious. Then we wandered out to the beach for one last look, keeping a close eye on the time, as always.

One thing that is constantly irksome about being from a place where time is relatively meaningful is that when you travel in places where time is a suggestion rather than a commitment, it can drive you insane. Adam and I are both paragons of punctuality. Even when I know that I don’t need to be on time, it physically pains me to be late. I just can’t do it. So even though we knew that hardly anyone would be at the meeting place at 12:30, we couldn’t help being exactly on time. When we finally left at 1:30, we were cursing our scruples and wishing that we could be comfortable with being as inconsiderate as most of the other people.

After Puerto Pirámides, we drove to see a colony of Magellanic penguins. I was expecting that we would be viewing them from a cliff looking down on them on the beach, but many of them toddle up the hillside to relax in the many crevices along the top. Being just a foot or two away from adorable penguins that would easily fit in my backpack led Adam to reiterate his usual warning about not picking up the animals and trying to smuggle them home. After watching them for a while and taking many pictures of them, I decided that they would not make very desirable pets anyway, as all they seemed to be interested in was sleeping and grooming their feathers.

The next stop was an elephant seal colony, but after the penguin experience it was disappointing to have to view them from so far away. Most annoying was that one of the couples, who had apparently decided that they were the only people on the tour, were so late in coming back that the tour guide had to go find them and bring them back (which she had to do at the next stop as well). They got on the bus all smiles with no apologies and no sense of responsibility for holding everyone up. I hate people.

Our last and best stop was Punta Norte where we got a nice bonus in addition to the promised sea lions. As we pulled into the parking lot, we saw several armadillos wandering around. They were almost completely tame and took little notice of the people following them. They really are unbelievably cute with their little rhinoceros-looking backsides waddling around looking for the food that their petite noses sniff out in the most ridiculously cute way. Suddenly there was an armadillo standing right next to me. “Come on,” he seemed to say. “Go ahead and pet me. I’m not going to bite.” So I reached down nonchalantly and ran my hand over his tough skin a few times before the urgent smell of food somewhere overtook him and he hurried away. The best way to describe the feel of an armadillo is that it is like petting thick toenails that have wiry hair growing out of them. Not exactly appetizing, but I don’t rule out putting the words “pet” and “armadillo” together in the same sentence in the future. You know, as in, “Oh, don’t mind him. That’s just my pet armadillo.”

The sea lions at Punta Norte were abundant and entertaining. The babies were testing their limits venturing into the water, the females, when they weren’t running after the babies, collapsed exhausted on the sand, and the large males bellowed at anything that molested them: a baby, another male, a seagull. Between the bellowing males, the cries of the babies, and the calls of the mothers, the beach was raucous (and a bit smelly), but watching the antics of the sea lions frolicking in the waves, their smooth coats shining in the occasional burst of sunshine, was worth all of the petty annoyances that we suffered during the day.

On our way to Punta Norte, I happened to hear a Duran Duran song playing softly on the radio. Now, quite some time ago, I came up with a theory that stated that any time I hear a Duran Duran song (it has to be played by someone else, not initiated by me) something good is going to happen. In fact, this theory has been tested so many times that I would venture to call it a law. There are some people who are still skeptical about the Duran Duran theory, and for those people I would like to submit one more piece of evidence to the ever-growing pile: Just 20 minutes after I heard “Ordinary World,” we saw an awesome sea lion colony and I got to pet an armadillo.

I had to keep the delightful events of the day in mind as we made the two hour drive back to Puerto Madryn. On the way back the guy sitting next to me kept falling asleep and every time the bus would turn slightly to the left, the upper half of his body would sag against my shoulder. I kept having to push his dead weight as far to the right as possible and then I would quickly remove my support, startling him awake. Besides dealing with Sleepy McLeaner, the French guy in the stupid hat talked incessantly, and the air conditioner was set to arctic. I would have said something about the temperature, except I noticed that while I was bundling myself up in my jacket, several other people were stripping down to their t-shirts. So being the paradoxical considerate-misanthrope that I am, I zipped up my jacket and started thinking how I might go about acquiring an armadillo.

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