Argentina part two: Welsh Patagonia, Monday 17th – Sunday 23rd February 2020

The return of our long-distance travel maps!

The bus from Buenos Aires took 18 hours through the night, arriving at 8am. We were delighted to learn that the long-distance buses in Argentina have toilets as standard, since we had to get used to holding our bladders until the unscheduled stops during long bus journeys in Asia and New Zealand. Unfortunately, Jay’s first experience with an Argentinian bus toilet was not a good one! Shortly after leaving Buenos Aires he went to use the facilities, but couldn’t get the door open. A staff member gestured that it wasn’t locked, but just needed yanking open really hard. Which Jay did, right into his nose, dislocating his septum. And just as his concussion was getting better! Luckily the impact didn’t seem to worsen his headache, and his nose is still attached, if a bit more wonky than before.

After the sweltering heat of Buenos Aires, the bus was a thermal shock. The air conditioning blasted continuously at us, and we couldn’t adjust it. Unprepared, we each only had a thin layer to cover ourselves with and spent most of the journey freezing cold. This was made much worse when we drove through torrential rain and it poured through the window beside us. Unfortunately there were no other seats we could move to, so we blocked it up as best we could with the curtain and kept all our stuff off the soggy floor. The landscape outside was endless plains of grass with herds of cows grazing as far as the eye could see.

At about 10pm, just as we were settling down to sleep, we stopped at a bus station and lots of people got off the bus. We stayed where we were until the conductor came along and told us we needed to get off. In a combination of broken Spanish and wild gesticulation we managed to work out that we would be getting back on after they had cleaned the bus, so we could leave our main bags in the luggage storage. We were told to be back at 11pm. We pottered around the bus station, establishing as suspected that there wasn’t anything for sale that we could eat, then brushed our teeth in the bathroom and headed back out for 10:50. The bus was nowhere to be seen. We both went immediately into full panic, dreading the prospect of having to spend the night at the bus station, fork out for new tickets, and the logistical nightmare of trying to get our bags back when we couldn’t speak the language. After running back and forth like headless chickens for a while, we spotted some other passengers we recognised from the bus. It turns out they had taken the bus away for cleaning and for the staff to have a proper break. The relief was immense! This is yet another example of something that for local people is so obvious and normal it doesn’t need thinking about, but if you are new in a country and nobody has explained it, can cause massive confusion.

Just before dawn, Jay woke up to see morning light streaming through the red curtains. Peeling one aside, he was surprised to no longer see the green plains of northern Argentina, which had given way to what appeared to be endless desert. On the eastern side of the bus, a millimetre-wide strip of blue stretched across the horizon. Shortly after dawn we crested the escarpment above Puerto Madryn and had our first glimpse of the city, with the brilliant rising sun shining through a blanket of haze. Jay’s first thought in his bleary half-asleep state was that it looked like a town in Wales, before remembering where we were. But the Welsh history was exactly what had brought us there.

We first learned about Welsh Patagonia several years ago, by chance whilst watching a BBC documentary. In 1865 due to ongoing persecution of the Welsh people by the English, Professor Michael Jones was keen to establish a “Little Wales beyond Wales” where the Welsh culture and language could be preserved for future generations. The Argentinian government was offering large tracts of land to immigrants in order to protect uninhabited areas of their territory from invasion by Chile, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

The Mimosa set sail from Liverpool on the 28th July 1865 with 153 people on board, including whole families and pregnant women. One baby was born at sea, and four died during the perilous crossing. We can only imagine the horror that these people must have experienced when they arrived on the shore of the desert to find that the fertile land they’d been promised did not exist. They had been told that the region was similar to South Wales, and would be suitable for farming. For the first two years they lived in makeshift caves carved out of the clay cliffs, struggling to find potable water, fertile land and building materials. Expeditions inland regularly ended with people not returning, and the group dwindled. The only reason that anyone survived at all was due to the generosity of the native peoples, the Tehuelche, who showed them how to cope with the harsh conditions. After two years, many of the settlers opted to repeat the perilous journey across the Atlantic and return to Wales. For the few that remained, habitations were eventually set up along the Chubut Valley, where the river provided a source of irrigation. The Welsh settlers were the first to use modern irrigation techniques to make the wide basin farmable, an idea suggested by Rachel Jenkins. We saw no evidence of fertile land as we arrived into Puerto Madryn, where the surrounding land is as arid and unyielding as when the Mimosa arrived.

The town of Puerto Madryn (originally Porth Madryn) is relatively bustling, considering how empty the surrounding countryside is. During the winter months whales enter the gulf to breed, and tourists arrive by cruise ship and aeroplane to witness them frolicking in the shallow waters. Sadly we were there at the wrong time of year, so didn’t get to see any whales.

We arrived early in the morning, checked into our hostel and used the shared facilities to clean ourselves up before heading off to explore. It was glorious to see the sea with bright sunlight glinting off it after the stifling heat of Buenos Aires. The sea of Golfo Nuevo led out into the warm Argentinian sea beyond. Past that was the Atlantic, and on the other side, home. It felt fitting to be here, now, near the end of our year-long journey. The seafront was dotted with monuments to the Welsh settlers, and even some Welsh graffiti. Jay was moved by the combination of Welsh and Argentinian flags flying. After a coffee: espresso served the Argentinian way with a glass of sparkling water and a sadly milky biscuit, we headed to the museum “de los hombres y el mar”, a very small – but free – natural history museum. The collection was small and slightly esoteric, but there were some interesting displays, including a decent-sized whale skeleton: actual bone, not a cast! At the top of the building, which was originally the house of Spanish merchant Agustín Pujol, a small hexagonal room boasted 180 degree views over the whole town and out to the sea.

The exertion of walking to and around the museum after minimal sleep was too much for Jay, and we headed back to the hostel. As well as the ongoing concussion recovery, he was starting to cough and sniffle with a virus picked up somewhere during our stay so far in Argentina. He went to bed in our “mini room” and Maeve went out to buy supplies for dinner. The room was odd: a decent-sized bunk bed and little else, with just enough floor space to move our bags around, and huge cages for locked storage under the bed. There was a “shared en-suite”: a clever idea to reduce the number of bathrooms by linking two rooms with a shower and toilet, but not executed brilliantly. A sign on the door requested that you knock before going in in case your neighbour was in there, and a plastic concertina door provided the last defence against an errant neighbour wandering in to see you pee. The toilet in our en-suite had a problem and kept draining water, which was surprisingly loud and echoey. When it became obvious that the toilet wouldn’t be fixed that day, we explained that Jay was unwell and we really needed a quiet room for him to rest, and were delighted to be upgraded to a triple (easily four times the size of our mini room) with a proper private bathroom. Jay rested for 24 hours in our lovely new room, then we had an awesome lunch of fried tofu we found in a local health food shop.

The following afternoon we went for a slow walk up the coast, and again we were both very aware of Jay’s physical limitations. With the addition of fighting off a cold, he was in a challenging limbo of recovery: was he feeling lethargic because of illness, concussion, poor sleep or simply because he had barely moved all month? He watched the joggers passing by on the beach with envy. Along the way, we enjoyed watching terns and gulls engaged in aerial acrobatics, clustered around a spot where there had presumably been a fishing boat earlier in the day, as the beach was littered with tiny fish. A solitary person swam the length of the coast with a float bobbing along behind them.

Despite our slow pace, we made it to the Museo del Desembarco which marked the point where the Welsh colonists arrived and settled in their original caves. It was deeply moving learning about the anguish and the trauma they went through. We had real emotion for these displaced people, who were trying to escape persecution and found only terror and threat in those early years.

We learnt about the new flag they created: the stripes of the Argentinian flag with a Welsh dragon in the middle. The highlight of the museum for Maeve was seeing the midwifery bag carried by Esyllt Roberts, la partera of the Mimosa ship and the new colony.

We found a reasonable (if carb-y) dinner and lovely beer. Unsurprisingly we did not partake of the cone-of-pizza that seems to be a thing here!

The next day we took a bus to Trelew (pronounced Treleo – which sounded a bit Welsh to our ears); from here we planned to visit one of the main remaining Welsh colonies in Gaiman. The landscape as we approached was a vast steppe, full of desert plants and the local alpaca-like animal, the guanaco. The vista stretched endlessly into the distance, with the massive azul sky above. We checked into an Airbnb apartment for a few days’ of rest, and were delighted to find an ice cream shop with vegan flavours on the way to a local supermarket. With the luxury of a proper kitchen for once, we made a huge pie with actual real vegetables.

We took a local bus to Gaiman, nestled in the Chubut river valley, where the Welsh settlers’ irrigation system allowed a permanent settlement to be created.

We started by visiting the old railway station, which now houses a museum run by a 3rd-generation Welsh Patagonian man whose grandmother came from Caernarvon. He told us that we wouldn’t hear Welsh being spoken in the streets anymore, as everyone speaks Spanish/Castellano as their first language, however there is a resurgence of Welsh for the younger generation, and teachers come to the town every year from Wales to teach at the local school. We also met a local teenager who spoke to Jay in Welsh (with an Argentinian accent!), who had recently returned from a college in Llandovery where he’d been on a year-long exchange programme. The museum housed lots of artifacts that the original settling families had brought with them: a huge Welsh harp, a piano, lots of pottery and hand-embroidered fabrics. There was also the original town plan which documented how the land had been allocated to each family. On the way out, we bumped into a couple from Carmarthen who had traced some of their relatives to the town. It was their first day there and they already thought they’d found someone they were related to and were excitedly following a number of other leads.

The original railway tunnel to Puerto Madryn has also been preserved as a sort of museum, with information points giving the history of the building of the railway. It was interesting, but mostly we just enjoyed being out of the heat of the sun for a while! Afterwards, we headed to the ‘Native Peoples Museum’, where there were some horribly racist posters featuring ‘racial typing’ by facial features.

We visited the ‘First House’, a low, long mud building which was the first built by the settlers in the town. It was cool and dark with a mud floor and tiny rooms. It still housed many of the owner’s belongings including the chests which had transported their goods across the ocean, and a cast-iron stove.

The town was full of tea houses serving something called a ‘Welsh Tea’, and were doing a roaring trade. During his year living in Wales, Jay had never come across a Welsh tea, and had never heard it mentioned by his Welsh parents. We’re still none the wiser as it was obviously not vegan and extortionately expensive, and all the menus just looked like a generic Cornish cream tea. We enjoyed seeing signs all over the town in Welsh and Spanish (and only occasionally English).

Our final calling point in the town was the Bethesda Chapel. It was sadly closed but it was still nice to see such a familiar building in such a strange, arid setting. We really couldn’t have been further from the landscapes of Wales!

A great sadness of the area is that the settlers, fleeing English persecution, had desperately wanted a New Wales, and had been promised their own land for a town. Once there, the Argentine government also apportioned sections of the Chubut river land to other immigrants from Spain, Italy and elsewhere. It is now a melting pot of cultures which is welcome and vibrant, however it does also mean that Welsh is barely surviving, except as a draw for tourists. The settlers never had the opportunity to realise their dream of a land that was truly theirs.

We were exhausted after the day in the sunshine and while Jay was starting to turn a corner with his cold, Maeve was just starting hers. Back at Trelew we passed through a plaza where some kind of beat-box performance was taking place. We noticed a stand that said ‘Vegan Pizza’ so we bought some. It was incredible, and it was also where we learned that vegan cheese is not really a thing here. When we queried what it was made of we were told it was pureed potato!

The next day Maeve was really poorly and we just stayed in bed to rest. We sorted our next accommodation and travel plans and just took it as easy as possible.

The following day our kind Airbnb host gave us a lift to the bus station and we started the next phase of our journey, one which we’d been looking forward to since before we left the UK. We were finally heading South, to Ushuaia, the most Southerly city in the world, and the gateway to Antarctica!

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