Penguins & Patagonia Adventure: Exploring Península Valdés

The day after our rainy arrival on Península Valdés, the skies still held remnants of the rain of the day before, which only made the views more spectacular as we explored the 16 kilometers of coastline at Rincón Chico.

Estancia Rincón Chico is a privately owned parcel of about 100 square kilometers (a UNESCO World Heritage Site, all of Península Valdés is privately owned), but unlike the majority of landowners here, Rincón Chico owners Agustín and María have devoted their property entirely to the wildlife. Formerly a sheep ranch, the sheep are now gone (except for a few who remain on the estancia as pets), and the land is beginning to return to its natural state, with the grasses growing taller and the wildlife returning. Rincón Chico is managed through the foundation Conservación Península Valdés (CPV), created to protect this beautiful, wild place.

The Land Rover in the photo below, with the casco and lodge in the far background, offers an idea of how vast and majestic this property is. Agustín estimated it would take the better part of a day to drive all the way around the entire property.

If you visit Rincón Chico, you’ll have the opportunity to see southern right whales, elephant seals, sea lions, orcas, penguins, and numerous species of birds and fish. Agustín and María have cameras set up at watering holes throughout the property to study and track what animals live and roam there. Some of the footage we saw included guanacos, armadillos, wild cats, and myriad birds.

We didn’t have to go far to see rheas, like this one who liked to hang around at the lodge eating the flowers.

More elusive were the Patagonian maras, very large rodents with cute donkey-like faces who run like jackrabbits. They were quite shy, but I did manage to get a quick photo.

I confess this place is so magical I even found the tarantulas adorable.

One of the highlights of our three days at Rincón Chico was spending an entire morning sitting among the elephant seals on one of the beaches. The seals’ lives are full of drama, and to sit in silence and witness their lives for several uninterrupted hours was amazing.

And, the great thing about having some rainy and windy weather is that the clouds make spectacular sunsets.

At night, Rincón Chico goes completely dark (the generator shuts off at midnight, though there are a few solar-powered lights in the lodge). The silence is complete and almost unreal. It’s incredibly peaceful.

I love this photo of John and me with our incredible hosts, Agustín and María. If you ever want to experience Rincón Chico and Península Valdés, remember that visits to the estanciasupport the work of Agustín and María to continue the conservation of the property, the science of learning about its creatures, and rewilding former sheep pastures. I certainly hope we’re able to return again very soon!

Birding in Buenos Aires

It’s fair to say that most people who travel to Buenos Aires do not come to see birds. They come for the food, the tango, the Teatro Colon, and the amazing architecture. And if they are looking for birds they are probably stopping on their way to visiting somewhere else in the region.

Yet there are amazing birds to be seen within city limits.

And you might not find the best place to see them mentioned in most guidebooks. That’s because the place you’ll want to go didn’t exist until 1986. And if you do read about it you might also read that it’s a place for tourists to avoid for safety reasons.

But having spent a number of mornings and afternoons there, I can report that I never felt in danger — and I was lugging around a very large camera. The park was busy with joggers and kids on school trips. I even passed a large group of police cadets in training one morning.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t be heads-up — but that goes for any part of the city.

So what is this place?

It’s the Costanera Sur Ecological Reserve, and it’s in the Puerto Madero area, a short walk from most hotels.

More than a hundred species of birds have been spotted in the area. In just a few days of walking around I spotted more than 25, including this turkey-sized bird known as a Chajá (or, in English, Southern Screamer):

Being from the Midwest and now living in the West, I miss seeing cardinals. So I was thrilled to come across this red-crested cardinal:

I was surprised to learn that this species is not actually related to the cardinals I grew up with; it’s part of the tanager family.

I also sighted a curious Great Kiskadee:

And if you want to see parrots, you’re almost guaranteed to see a species or two, like this monk parakeet:

And don’t forget to look down once in a while, or you might miss the many turtles and iguanas:

If you can make time to visit this reserve when in Buenos Aires, I highly recommend it (note that it’s closed on Mondays).

Most important, it is possible to go naturing and birding in Buenos Aires, so don’t miss this abundance of flora and fauna in the city, even if you’re on your way somewhere else.

Penguins & Patagonia Adventure: Next stop, Puerto Madryn

After a couple of sunny days in Buenos Aires, the next stop on our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure was the much cooler, windswept oceanside city of Puerto Madryn in Patagonia. The amazing two days we spent here were arranged by Carol Mackie de Passera of Causana Viajes (indeed all the Argentinian details of the trip were arranged by Carol, but our visit to Puerto Madryn was specially and thoughtfully curated by Carol to fit our literary theme). Also a naturalist and guide — whom John and I met 12 years earlier for a few days of excursions after volunteering at Punta Tombo — Carol arranged for a tour of the local history museum, Museo del Desembarco, followed by a traditional Welsh tea with Argentinian authors in the beautiful historical building of the Welsh Association.

We (pictured below, from left: Marcelo Gavirati, Silvia Iglesias, and Carlos Dante Ferrari — plus me, John, and Susan) had a wonderful chat about writing, culture, travel, and the fascinating Welsh history of Patagonia (the Welsh arrived in Puerto Madryn in the 1860s) and its thriving community here, all as we devoured scones, bread, pastries, and tea.

Carlos Dante Ferrari is the author of eight books, including one translated into English, The Patagonian Rifleman.

Marcelo Gavirati is a professor and has published many books and articles on the history of Patagonia, including this article in True West Magazine, which focuses on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’s arrival in Argentina.

Silvia Iglesiasis a journalist, teacher, poet, and novelist. She has published two books of poetry — Perfect Bodiesand Strange Bodies —  and a novel, Yaoyin.

This next photo features our entire group as well as association staff, all of whom were wonderful and so much fun to spend the afternoon with.

Thanks to Susan for the terrific photos, many more of which can be found on the Adventures by the Book Facebook page.

Our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure: First stop, Buenos Aires

It was more than a year and a half ago that Susan McBeth and I began planning our Penguins & Patagonia Adventure by the Book, and when we found ourselves in Buenos Aires at last, we could hardly believe the trip was finally happening (and a small part of our group would be headed to bigger adventures yet, in Antarctica). But we had three days in beautiful, balmy Buenos Aires first — and we knew the best way to overcome the jet lag after our early morning arrival would be to stay awake, get out in the sun, and walk around. So we headed to one of the city’s biggest treasures (and one of John‘s biggest obsessions): Reserva Ecológica Costanera Sur.

This gorgeous ecological reserve comprises 865 acres on the banks of the Río de la Plata. It was only a couple of miles’ walk from our hotel, and once inside the reserve, it was hard to imagine we were still in the middle of a bustling international city, except for a few glimpses through the greenery. The birders among us were especially happy with the myriad species of birds found throughout the reserve.

Of course, the ecological reserve is only one of the city’s many treasures; this being an Adventure by the Book, visiting the gorgeous El Ateneo bookstorewas another priority.

Located inside a former theater, this bookstore is a joy to wander through, even if it has only one small English-language section. We posed for a group photo with My Last Continent overlooking the former stage, which is now a cafe. (Not pictured: The Tourist Trail.)

And no literary tour is complete without an homage to the typewriter — John led us to this typewriter repair shop, which had a lot of vintage machines for sale. It was a good thing that we had weight limits on our baggage and couldn’t make any purchases, no matter how tempting.

We officially kicked off the Penguins & Patagonia tour with a welcome dinner in the lovely Puerto Madero district, with a gorgeous river view as our backdrop. (Just out of view is Santiago Calatrava’s breathtaking bridge, El Puente de La Mujer, or “Woman’s Bridge.”)

Thanks so much to Susan for the great people photos! And, for many more photos and captions from this journey, visit Adventures by the Book on Facebook.

Meet the Fiordland-crested penguin

If you’ve read My Last Continent and The Tourist Trail you’ve met the Adélie, gentoo, chinstrap, emperor, and Magellanic penguins. Last year, we delighted to meet a new species: the Tawaki, or Fiordland-crested penguin. (Tawaki is the Māori name, meaning crested; these birds are found only on the South Island of New Zealand.)

The amazing Tawaki live in the rainforest, nesting under tree roots and bushes. They hike from the ocean across sandy beaches, over sharp rocks, and up steep banks to get to their nests. Sadly, there are only about 3,000 of these incredible penguins left on earth.

The Tawaki are endangered due to several factors, including predators on the island (non-native species such as stoats, possums, rats, and feral cats), climate change, and human disturbance (from tourists to the fishing industry). Tawaki are very shy, and it’s rare to see them — and when you do, you have to be very careful to keep your distance; if they come back to shore to feed their chicks and a human is near their path to the nest, they will get frightened and return to the ocean, leaving their chick to go hungry.

How can you help penguins like the Tawaki stay with us forever?

  • Consider giving up seafood, or even cutting back. You’ll save more fish for the birds, and you’ll help ensure that penguins and other creatures don’t get killed by fishing nets and longlines.
  • Be a respectful birdwatcher. Visit penguins with guides who know how to keep a safe distance, or learn about their habitat so that you can be sure to stay out of harm’s way.
  • Do all that you can to combat climate change (see the Climate Reality Project and Cowspiracy for some good tips).
  • Support conservation efforts like the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels, which monitors penguins and works on the ground to ensure protections for them.

And keep learning! The more you know of these majestic creatures, the more inspired you’ll be to help save them. Join us in Patagonia in October to meet Magellanic penguins up close and personal at the largest colony in the world. This journey will be a small group of travelers who will meet with local researchers to learn more about their work with this colony, and with any luck, we’ll get to meet Turbo the Penguin as well (the inspiration for the Admiral Byrd character in My Last Continent and for Diesel in The Tourist Trail). Learn more here.

And thanks to John Yunker for these wonderful photographs.