On February 18 we were docked in Buenos Aires, about 125 miles up river and on the other side from Montevideo. We had visited here for two days in 2012:
So we decided to spend the first day getting out of the city on an excursion to visit an Estancia for a look at gaucho life. This started with a long bus ride through the country with a voluble guide who spent quite a while demonstrating the venerable rituals surrounding the drinking of mate. When we finally reached the estancia we were served wine or beer along with delicious empanadas.
Historically an estancia was like a ranch set in the pampas, a grassy area of Argentina where the animals could profitably graze. Gauchos are the Argentine version of cowboys, with such skills as horse riding and breeding and hunting with the bolo, a three cord weapon with a ball or stone attached on the end. The one we visited plainly dates back to that time and was once a working ranch but appears today to be maintained as a place for tourists. But it is well maintained to give a taste of the gaucho lifestyle.
The original ranch house is maintained as a museum containing furniture and other items dating back 100 years or more. It includes a fully decked out kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, dining room and chapel. On the front porch was a chair apparently made from the bones of a steer and it had a nice view of a large grassy yard and a stand of trees.
Leaving the house, we walked around the grounds for a while, taking in the trees, grass and flowers, and then walked over to the horse shelter. We didn’t see any cattle or sheep here, but there were plenty of horses. This grassy land is about all we would see of the pampas, a 300,000 square mile area in central Argentina of grasslands and few trees known for cattle raising. There were a lot of trees here, but they were probably planted by the folks who lived here.
The gauchos spent a lot of time leading horses around, apparently to demonstrate what they do on an estancia. There were two horse activities for the visitors, riding a horse in a group walking slowly around a track and riding in a horse-drawn cart. We did the latter – interesting, but too slow to be exciting.
We sat in some stands to watch the horse demonstrations. First the gauchos herded the horses to trot in a large circle. The horses probably do this every day so prodding them into line is likely not too hard. The best part of this demonstrations was a couple of dogs who lounged in the shade of the stands until the horses started to move, then shot out through the hedge to help guide the horses, with great enthusiasm and having a great time.
More interestingly, the gauchos engaged in a competition in which they would gallop at speed under a log from which hung some small rings. Using a lance about the size of a large fountain pen they would stand up in the saddle and try to lance the ring, often successfully. Giving the ring to a lady in the audience, it was explained, entitled the gaucho to a kiss from the recipient. It didn’t look easy (spearing the ring, not the kiss).
It was time for luncheon so we headed back to the main building. On one side of the entrance patio was a gaucho store (probably a mockup rather than a working store). The main building on the other side housed a vast dining room; it appears we were lucky because on some days they must host several times as many people as were in our party, the only one there today. We walked past the barbecue and a circle of bone chairs on our way in and sat at the long tables where we were served wine, beer and steaks or lamb. The steaks were pretty good, but the Argentines cook it longer than we prefer.
While we ate there was entertainment on a small stage. A singer & guitar player and some dancers. The dancers in particular were very good, particularly the one who danced at the end with a couple of boleros. We were behind a pillar, so photos were difficult to get.
Back on the ship this evening we had another show of Argentine dancing, including tango, gaucho style, drumming and bolo dancing. The three performers were quite good, but we would have been more impressed if we hadn’t seen the dancing demonstration at the estancia, which was at least as good (if less dramatic in presentation). Unfortunately, the lighting was pretty dark and I probably left my camera on the wrong setting, so the pictures aren’t great. Here are some anyway, to end our first day in Buenos Aires.
February 17 found us in Montevideo, the capital & largest city (1.4 million) of Uruguay. Founded in 1826, Montevideo is located near where the Rio de la Plata enters the Atlantic Ocean. It Is a city of diverse architecture and a relaxed atmosphere, an excellent city for walking. Which is what we did.
We have encountered Admiral Graf von Spee twice in earlier episodes, in the Falklands and Robinson Crusoe Island. Montevideo was the site of a famous 1939 incident, in the second month of World War II, involving a German war ship named after him. After the “Battle of the River Plate” against three British warships, the Graf Spee was effectively forced into the harbor of Montevideo while the British ships (one of which was effectively out of commission) guarded the river’s exit to the ocean. Uruguay was neutral at that time, though friendly to the British, and the rules of war gave the Germans only 72 hours to either leave the harbor or be taken into custody for the duration of the war. A disinformation operation by the British convinced the Graf Spee’s captain, Hans Langsdorff, that several more ships had joined the two guarding the river, so having suffered significant damage in the battle he decided he could not break out of the harbor. Rather than allow the ship to be interned by the Uruguayans, who probably would have allowed British access to it, he decided to scuttle the ship. After offloading all but a skeleton crew he sailed out three miles into the estuary, set explosives around the ship on a delayed fuse, then abandoned the ship in an Argentine boat. The ship’s explosion was spectacular and, because the water depth was only 36 feet, its antenna ended up sticking out of the water, where we believe it can still be seen, although we haven’t seen it. Captain Langsdorff killed himself in his hotel room a couple of days later.
As you leave the port there is a small garden of artifacts, one of which is the anchor of the Graf Spee.
We walked through the old city, an attractive area of palm trees, public art and old buildings with sculptural architectural details, which is really characteristic of the city as a whole. But it was Sunday morning and the streets were eerily empty of people.
We came to the Plaza Zabala, named for the founder of Montevideo, Bruno Mauricio de Zabala. In the center is an equestrian statue of Zabala. Standing on our veranda on the ship this morning, Rick was startled by a whole flock of parakeets flying right by our stateroom. We have seen parakeets in cages before, of course, but never a flock of these colorful birds in the wild. Unfortunately, it happened too fast to get the camera for a picture and it never recurred. But here in Zabala plaza we did see some wild parakeets high in the branches of a tree. Some brown birds were busily eking out a living on the ground, but we don’t know what they are called.
We proceeded on to Plaza Constitucion, the first plaza built in the city and named for the Spanish constitution of 1812. This is our second visit to Montevideo and last time there was a lively flea market covering most of this plaza.
But that only happens on Saturday and this time our visit was on Sunday, so the park was quiet and serene, at least in the morning. It is a nice place to sit on a bench under the trees and relax. In the center is a fountain covered with sculptures that we were told during our last visit was a memorial to the establishment of the city’s water and sewage system in the 19th century.
Along one side of the plaza is the Montevideo Metropolitan Cathedral. Built between 1790 and 1804 on the location of an older brick church that opened in 1740, the Cathedral is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception.
Plaza Independencia is the central plaza of Montevideo. It sits between Ciudad Vieja (the old city) and downtown Montevideo. A replica of one of the gates to the old walled city sits on the original gate’s foundation at one side of the plaza, and the town’s main drag, 18 de Julio Avenue, begins on the other side. It was first built in the 1830’s after the town decided in 1829 to scrap its walls and extend the city into an area beyond that they called the new city.
In the center of the plaza is a large equestrian statue of Jose Artigas, leader of the original independence movement in the early 1800’s. We encountered another statue of him in Punta del Estes. Beneath this statue, which was erected in 1977, is a mausoleum containing his remains.
On one side of the plaza is the Estevez Palace. Built in 1873, it served as the office of the president of Uruguay from 1890 to 1985. It now houses a museum of the presidency. Next to it is the Torre Ejecutiva, where the president’s offices are now located.
Just off the plaza is the Teatro Solis, Uruguay’s most important theater. It opened in 1856 and was renovated at the end of the 20th century. We were hoping to tour the theater, but we didn’t have any Uruguayan currency and they don’t take credit cards. Maybe next time. On the far side of the plaza, where the 18 de Julio avenue begins, is the Palacio Salvo. At 330 feet in height it was the tallest building in South America when it was completed in 1928. It was originally intended to have a lighthouse on top where the antenna is now. This building dominates the plaza and is considered a symbol of Montevideo.
We left the plaza to the left of the Palacio Salvo and walked down 18 de Julio Street. You will not be surprised to learn that we walked all the way to the public library, which was a pretty good walk on a hot day. But along the way was an interesting mix of modern and old buildings, many with beautiful sculptural details in their architecture.
We also encountered two plazas on our way up the avenue. In the middle of Plaza Fabini is a fountain with a large sculpture called El Entrevero, depicting a fight among gauchos and Indians at very close range. Plaza de Cagancha, which dates back to 1840, was named after an important battle against forces from Buenos Aires. In the center is the Pillar of Peace, erected in 1867. When we were there this plaza was gaily decorated with multicolored flags, probably for a parade or holiday celebration.
We finally reached the National Library of Uruguay, which sadly was closed (probably because it was Sunday). Founded in 1815, the library has been in this building since 1955. It has around a million books along with tens of thousands of other materials in its collection. In front are statues of Cervantes & Socrates. The woman standing in front, looking disappointed that she couldn’t go in after walking all that way to see it, is Mary.
We were pretty tired from all the walking in the hot sun so we headed back toward the ship the same way we had come. We passed some yellow flowering trees next to the library and after traversing Plaza Independencia again we walked up a pedestrian street in the Ciudad Viejo that was full of vendors. On the way we encountered a bronze fellow who looks like he hangs out all day in this café with just a cup of coffee. After the long walk we stopped in Constitution Plaza to rest on one of the benches near the fountain we saw this morning.
We returned to the port area along several streets we hadn’t walked in the morning. More interesting buildings and a small plaza near the water containing a lot of wall art.
Carnaval is usually associated with Rio de Janeiro in Brazil but Uruguay has a significant carnaval as well, lasting through much of January and February. We were there in February, but if there were any carnaval events that day we didn’t see them (of course, we weren’t there in the evening). Carnaval in Uruguay has a history extending back more than 100 years and there is a museum in the port area dedicated to it. We visited it, in a fairly nondescript pink building, and it was well worth seeing.
Although the signage was all in Spanish, which we can’t read, the exhibits were very colorful and creative. We are told that the galleries were each dedicated to a distinct aspect of carnaval, and it was clear that some were historical relating to carnavals in years past, but that’s about all we can tell you. But the pictures tell the real story of this museum, especially some of the wild masks and costumes.
One more stop before the ship was for shopping at Acatras del Mercado, a store we really liked on our first visit here. We finally found it and it didn’t disappoint, full of eclectic arts and crafts. As you can see in the picture we didn’t leave empty handed. And these guys are wizards at packing things for travel.
So that was it for Uruguay. After dinner we retired to sleep while our ship moved up the river to another country, Buenos Aires, Argentina.
On February 15 we anchored at Punta del Este, a popular resort town located on a peninsula where the Rio de la Plata meets the Atlantic Ocean.
Although the Spanish first set foot in this area in the early 16th century, it was not until 1907 that Punta del Este was first recognized as a village and it became a city in 1957. The area was originally inhabited by the Charrua people, the last 500 of whom were massacred by the Uruguayan government in 1831. Today it has a year round population of less than 10,000, but it balloons during the summer when vacationers, including Argentina’s rich and famous, flock here for the beaches.
After breakfast we boarded a tender for the long ride to the town’s port. It was morning and there were folks dressing the fish from the morning’s catch. Isla de la Lobos, about 5 miles away, hosts the largest sea lion colony in the Western hemisphere, more than a quarter of a million. A handful of them were in the water by the fish vendor, waiting for the trimmings they knew would be coming their way. This must occur every day.
There were birds waiting for scraps as well, some in the water and some sitting on floats.
Leaving all this action we walked around the fairly tranquil port and came upon . . . two sea lions, sunbathing on a concrete platform that tilted down under the water. They looked very relaxed; maybe they had already eaten their fill at the fish vendor’s.
We continued around the harbor and walked down along the beach. This is the river side of the peninsula where the beaches are calm. It is called the Mansa beach (Spanish for “tame”). There were a lot of flowers in this area, and really all over town.
We walked across the peninsula toward the Atlantic side. We found the public library on the way, but unfortunately it was closed. It looked like just a storefront facility, but its always good that there is a library for people who like to read. We also passed a small synagogue, in what was a very sleek but rather uninteresting modern building.
The beaches on the Atlantic side of the peninsula are called Brava (“fierce”) and are considered better for surfing than swimming. On a hill of sand overlooking the beach is a sculpture called La Mano (“The Hand”). The fingers of a giant hand reach out from under the sand, serving as a memorial to those who have drowned near here and a warning to those who might swim. It was constructed by Chilean artist Mario Irarrazabal during an open air sculpture festival in the summer of 1982. Made of concrete and plastic reinforced by steel bars, it was completed in six days and has since become perhaps the most recognizable symbol of Punta del Este. The idea is similar to a sculpture called “The Awakening” in Washington, DC (near where we live), which shows the head and arms of a giant arising from under the sand.
In the morning Rick went out on our veranda to look across at the city and a whole flock of parakeets flew closely by. It was too fast for a picture & we didn’t see any more. Quite a sight, since he had never seen parakeets out of a cage before, much less flying in a large flock. But we did encounter a few of them in the trees in a park called Plaza Jose Artigas. Jose Artigas was a leader of the original Uruguayan independence movement and this plaza is known for its art and handicrafts market. Unfortunately, the market was closed but we did see the statue of Artigas and it was a pleasant park to saunter through.
We walked up the rocky Atlantic coastline toward the end of the peninsula. The sidewalk had an interesting pattern of dark and light bars and birds were on some of the rocks. Several places were full of shells that the birds must have dumped there after eating their contents. We also passed a beach on the way, well used even if not the nicest white sand.
We walked up on the peninsula to visit the two landmarks in this area. Faro de Punta del Este is a lighthouse built in 1860. Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria is a Catholic church built in the mid 20th century that is painted an unusual light blue.
We walked back to the port through the residential areas of town. At the entrance we came upon a plaque honoring Astor Piazzolla, the Argentine composer who was the originator of tango nuevo. He spent many summers in Punta del Este and in 1982 composed the Suite Punta del Este. The classical duo on the ship, George and Agnes, usually finished their set before we went to dinner with a tango, introduced by George with “It’s tango time!” More often than not it was a tango by Piazzolla. They missed the plaque when in Punta del Este and seemed to appreciate it when we gave them a photo of it.
Well, that brought us full circle, back at the fish vendor in the tender port where the birds and sea lions were still entertaining the visitors. After spending a little more time with them we boarded the tender for the long ride back to the ship. We were relieved to re-enter the air conditioning on this very hot day.
We were anchored near Gorriti Island, which is close to Punta del Este. From the ship we could see Punta del Este beyond the island, and also the island’s beaches and boat harbor with its own lighthouse as we sailed away. The end of the Punta del Este peninsula, with the lighthouse and the church, could also be seen from the ship.
We reached Puerto Madryn, our first stop back on the continent of South America. on February 14. This city of almost 100,000 sits on the Golfo Nuevo which was shimmering in the morning light.
The town was founded in July of 1865 when 150 Welsh settlers arrived. They named the town “Porth Madryn” after an estate in Wales. This area of Argentina was largely settled by folks from Wales (the largest nearby towns are called Trelew & Gaiman) displacing the indigenous Tehuelche people who had lived in this area for some 3,000 years. Since the 1970’s, when its population was still only about 6,000, Puerto Madryn has been one of Argentina’s fastest growing cities.
There is not all that much to see in Puerto Madryn so we joined a private excursion to Punta Tombo to visit the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in South America. To meet the van we had to walk down a very long dock overlooking the water, where seals and birds were to be seen.
We visited the western part of Patagonia in an earlier stop at Puerto Chacabuco, which was lush with mountains, rivers and dramatic landscapes. https://baderjournal.com/2019/03/24/puerto-chacabuco-chile-2019/ But this part of eastern Patagonia was mostly fairly flat and covered by scrub bushes. It was a very long drive through this less interesting landscape.
When we finally arrived at the Punta Tombo Nature Reserve, there was still a fairly lengthy drive on a dirt road to reach the parking area. We passed a sculpture of what appeared to be penguins, and the grounds were filled with small bushes bearing bright yellow flowers.
From the parking area there was a boardwalk to the beach. It was a long walk, maybe a mile or more. On our last visit to South America we visited a much smaller colony of Magellanic penguins at a place called Otway Sound near Punta Arenas. https://baderjournal.com/2012/02/04/punta-arenas/ But the penguins are no longer at Otway and, in any event, Punta Tombo has the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in South America, somewhere between half a million and a million penguins according to what we have read. The total population of these penguins has declined by more than 50% since the 1980’s due to diminishing food supply among other things (some 40,000 are killed each year by oil spills). Magellanic penguins dig holes in the ground for their nests, which they guard ferociously, and they make a surprisingly loud braying sound. On our way to the beach we passed a large number of them, in their nests, under a bridge in the boardwalk and just walking about. It was very hot out & most of the penguins seemed to prefer the shade.
By the time we were there the chicks had pretty much grown up (eggs are laid primarily in October and November). We did see a number of them molting their dull gray baby down to disclose the Magellanic patterns underneath.
Penguins weren’t the only wildlife we encountered at Punta Tombo. Rheas are large ostrich-like birds that we saw pecking in the sand for something to eat. Guanacos were there as well. These are wild camelids closely related to llamas. In fact, some sources suggest that llamas are actually domesticated guanacos.
We reached the boardwalk overlook at the beach (you aren’t allowed on the beach itself, which is reserved for penguins). It didn’t look like half a million penguins there at the time, but there certainly were thousands. It was fairly late in the season so many may have left already (they winter in Brazil), many were in their nests away from the beach & many were on other stretches of beach. The whole time we were there penguins were walking to and from the beach.
While most of them were standing on the beach many were in the water, probably to cool off on this hot & sunny day.
Time was running short & we still had a long walk back to the parking area, so we hurried on to see one more beach. This one was a bit smaller, but still quite a lot of penguins, many in the water. There were also some molting chicks on the nearby rocks. We passed the first beach again & headed back along the boardwalk.
We hurried along the boardwalk, whose planks were not at all even. Wearing his sandals, Rick tripped on a board and found himself lying face down on the boardwalk. Two guys ran over and helped him up, to his embarrassment (he was neither too old nor too hurt to get himself up on his feet). The fall tore a hole in his pants by one knee and scraped the skin. It took the rest of the voyage for the knee to fully heal and there were some other lingering aches and pains as well. Worse, he was holding his (brand new) camera when he went down and part of one side was slightly bent. But it continued to work just as well, so that was a close one. On the walk back we encountered a penguin who thought it owned the boardwalk and a sign protecting a penguin crossing.
There were few highlights on the long trip back to the Prinsendam. We passed by the city of Trelew, another Welsh settlement. Founded in 1886, Trelew’s population is slightly more than Puerto Madryn’s. Near Trelew is a full size reconstruction of a dinosaur unearthed in Patagonia that was the largest land animal yet known. It is some 90 feet tall and 120 feet long. It is called Patagotitan mayorum (Patagonian giant).
We returned to Puerto Madryn, driving along a road on the opposite side from the water. Caught a glimpse of the Prinsendam sitting at the dock with the much larger Celebrity ship that was also with us in the Falklands. In the square where we were dropped off at the beginning of the long walk up the pier to the ship was a sculpture of a whale’s tail. Right whales breed in this area, but not during the season we were there. And a lot of folks were out enjoying the beach, near where we were walking and all along the beaches in front of the city.
Back on the ship, we watched from our veranda as birds (mostly kelp gulls & terns, or possibly cormorants) and dolphins scurried about on the bay.
We sailed away shortly before sunset. As we left the bay there was a long cliff along the water. It was Valentine’s Day and as we went to dinner we encountered the ship’s penguins already celebrating.
So that is the end of our penguin encounters (off the ship) for this voyage. We saw quite a lot of them, many more than in 2012, and they are always fun. We will leave you for tonight with a watermelon carved for Valentine’s Day & a towel jellyfish (we think).