Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Winter Whale Watch: the Word from Madryn

Recently I wrote about the Southern Cone winter, stressing skiing in Argentina and Chile, but the Patagonian coast is also a worthwhile winter destination – in Argentina, at least. Except in the desert north, where upwelling from the Humboldt Current keeps the waters cool all year, the Chilean coastline tends to be wet and inhospitable in winter.

On the Argentine side the climate can be cool but, by contrast, the air is dry and the famous Patagonian winds tend to abate at this time of year. That’s partly why coastal Chubut province, in particular, has become a popular destination for Argentine winter holidays.

Primarily, though, it’s the abundance of wildlife on nearby Península Valdés that gives the city of Puerto Madryn (pictured at top, courtesy of María Alicia Sacks) a longer tourist season than most of the region. The village of Puerto Pirámides (pictured above and below), which is actually on the peninsula, is more convenient for watching the southern right whales that frolic along the eastern shore of the Golfo Nuevo, but its accommodations and other services are fewer than the larger city’s.

Consequently, most visitors to the region stay at Madryn and visit Valdés as a day trip – although, in fact, whales also breach beneath the headlands at Playa El Doradillo (pictured below, courtesy of María Alicia Sacks), only 15 minutes from downtown. This year, though, the June eruption of Chile’s Volcán Puyehue has reduced air travel to the city, which is 1,300 km south of Buenos Aires, making long-distance buses the preferred option. That’s a 20-hour marathon from the capital, but services range from merely comfortable to fully reclining seats that provide nearly as much space as business class on international flights.

The View from Buenos Aires and Puerto Madryn
For the latest from the region, I recently exchanged emails with two friends, Silvina Garay of Say Hueque Travel in Buenos Aires and María Alicia Sacks of Puerto Madryn’s municipal Secretaría de Turismo. I translate their comments in the following paragraphs.

WBB: Has the ashfall affected flights to Puerto Madryn and Trelew?

Silvina Garay: Yes, Puerto Madryn’s airport is very small and normally has only a few flights. All the same Madryn, and the principal airport at Trelew, have had no flights for a month. Most of our clients have decided to take buses.

María Alicia Sacks: The real problem is that suspended ash is keeping the flights from arriving. This is because of the ash plume that’s blowing over Patagonia and, depending on the wind, is reaching our coast, just as it’s affected Aeroparque [Buenos Aires’s domestic airport) and Ezeiza [the capital’s international airport].

WBB: Have you noticed any reduction in the numbers of foreign travelers because of the volcano, as they would usually travel by plane?

SG: It’s really hard to measure because it’s low season here, when passenger numbers always decline. And we don’t work much with the Brazilian market, which is the biggest national market in winter. It’s true that most of our clients travel by plane, but we haven’t received any abnormal number of cancellations because of the ash.

WBB: What about the whale-watching season at Península Valdés? Has demand for hotels and tours fallen because of the volcano?

SG: I can’t say in detail. From our point of view [in Buenos Aires], it’s about the same as last year.

MAS: All the services are operating fully. Just the other day we had a great whale-watching trip in Puerto Pirámides.

WBB: Is there anything else worth mentioning?

SG: I would re-emphasize that Península Valdés and Bariloche are both destinations with good long-distance bus service. Many of our clients who had to take the bus because the ash closed the airports were glad they did so.

MAS: I can’t say exactly when the flights will start up again. It all depends on the ash. Clearly this has had an economic impact on us.

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