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Cabo Dos Bahias: Where the penguins are

Posted: April 6, 2012 - 9:12am
Penguins at Cabo dos Bahias live in burrows.  Polly Crawford
Polly Crawford
Penguins at Cabo dos Bahias live in burrows.

Editor's note: Polly Crawford was a reporter and associate editor of The Peninsula Clarion from 1985-1988, when she wrote "Perils of Polly." She also has written a series of "Peril" columns about Australia, Asia, and Central America. Her perils continue in Argentina and Chile.

If we thought yesterday was the penguin day, this day was 100 times better. Cabo Dos Bahias is definitely the place to go to see penguins in Argentina.

Glad to leave the crowds of Playa Union, we drove along pavement for about 250 km until the gravel turnoff to Cabo Dos Bahias. This was the motherlode! Thousands and thousands of penguins in and out of their burrows all across acres and acres of scrubland, braying, hugging, waddling, swimming, with a large herd of guanacos keeping them company.

Now we understood why their nickname was the "[filtered word]" penguins. They truly did sound like donkeys. They would point their heads straight into the air and out of their beaks came the sound of a donkey.

The preserve had built a boardwalk through the entire colony, and while it did keep the humans from walking among the burrows, it didn't keep the penguins from walking on the boardwalk. I bent down to say hi to one of them and he snapped at me. So much for penguin friendship. I guess I didn't look enough like a penguin for him.

It was a wonderful place to just stand and watch and listen to penguin behavior. We watched them fight with each other, hug each other, and caress their babies, which were still in gray feathers but about two-thirds the size of the adult. We watched how agile they were in water, swimming like little black bullets through the clear ocean, and how cute and clumsy they were on land. Yet we watched them hike up steep hills and cliffs and marveled at their endurance. Why would they choose to dig their burrows so far from the ocean? It seemed like a lot of work to us.

It was hard for us to tear ourselves away from the colony, but we finally did, and embarked on a 100-km drive down a terrible washboard gravel road to Bahia Bustamante, where the van's owner said we'd probably be able to camp, and where there'd be another penguin colony.

It turns out Bahia Bustamante is a private estancia (ranch) only for pre-registered guests. Camping was not allowed. Penguins were only visible through a pre-arranged boat tour. We hung around there almost an hour to get that information. By now it was 4 p.m. and we were looking at another 40 km of gravel and 200 km of pavement before we'd be able to find any place to camp. We shook our heads in disgust and headed out.

Our supposed campground guide showed several campgrounds in Comodoro Rivadavia, but to be sure, we stopped at a store and asked. They nodded, and instead of listening for directions, I had them draw a map. When we got to the first turn off, there was a campground sign! Yea! Then another, and another. But suddenly the signs stopped. We backtracked. We circled. We found what might have been a campground, but it was more like a specialized camp, and it had some kind of soccer activity in it. Miscommunication once again.

I turned to Lonely Planet. This guide was much more reliable. The only campground it showed was in the posh, oil-rich, ocean-front town of Rada Tilly. We were hopeful. It was Sunday night, and maybe the crowds had left,

We hit it right. We found a nice campground with space. By now it was around 9 p.m. and I was hungry. We found restaurants, but they were either extremely expensive or not serving anything, even though they seemed to be open. We never did figure this one out.

We went back to our camp and ate jelly sandwiches and hard boiled eggs. In fact, most of the trip we resigned ourselves to having cold cereal in the morning, eating out somewhere in the mid-afternoon, and having hardboiled eggs for dinner. Two-thirds of the way through the trip, in Chile, we found a jar of peanut butter and added that to our evening meal.

The next day was easy: mostly paved road to Monte Leon National Park for the night.

It was a good day: A short hike to more penguins where we had to vacate before 7:30 to avoid puma encounters, and a beautiful, mostly deserted campground on a wide sandy beach with a tidal range that reminded me of Cook Inlet. The water was about as cold, too.

It felt so good to set up the tent, relax, not worry about noise, people, bugs, heat...nothing. We slept well.

We were going to need that time of refreshing, for the next day was going to prove to be close to a nightmare.

Check next week's Recreation page for the next installment of Polly's perils.

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