A Seacoast Estuary and a Submerged River: Puerto Deseado

Patagonia conjures up for most of us an image of desert steppes - but the region also boasts an extensive coastline, much of which is formed by high chalky cliffs.  There are small fishing villages - and, far south of Comodoro, in Puerto Deseado, a beautiful saltwater estuary that used to be a river.  Surprising Patagonia!

Puerto Deseado was first seen by Europeans when Magellan passed by this coast in 1520; it was first named in 1586 (or early 1587 depending on which account you read) by the English buccaneer, Thomas Cavendish, after his ship Desire.  The Spanish later established a whaling station, but Darwin found the spot essentially deserted when he stopped here on the Beagle in 1833.  Only in 1884 did today’s settlement get underway.  Today it is the largest fishing port in Patagonia, with a population of around 12,000, perched on the chalky bluffs of the Santa Cruz coast.  Puerto Deseado is also the source of one of the most grisly of Patagonian stories, again involving Cavendish, who returned to the area in 1592 with five ships.  The ship Desire, commanded by one John Davis, lost contact with the others and eventually returned to Puerto Deseado, badly in need of repair and with an exhausted crew sick with scurvy.  Desperate for food, the crew headed for the penguins, and killed some 15,000 birds by beating them to death with sticks.  (The birds were completely unafraid of humans and unprepared for their fate.)  The dried and salted penguins were stored in the hold - and later had their own gruesome revenge, as the worms that infested the penguins spread like wildfire in the ship, infesting the men and destroying clothing and even wood.  Many of the sailors died.

Happily, today the approach to penguins and other wildlife has changed somewhat.  Puerto Deseado is of interest for historic landmarks, including a century-old train station along a now-defunct line whose destination was to have been Bariloche, and an associated railway car used as headquarters by Colonel Varela, later assassinated in Buenos Aires by Simon Radowitzky, the Russian anarchist whose jail cell can be seen in the Ushuaia prison museum.  This is one of the most gripping stories of early 20th century Argentina.  The reason that Varela was in the area was to suppress an province-wide effort by the sheepherders and gauchos of the time, to demand better conditions from the large landowners who employed them.  The strikers reached agreement with the ranchers, who then did not carry out their promises, leading to a second strike.  The authorities of the time reacted with horror, regarding the strikers as anarchists (these were the times of the Palmer Raids in the US).  Many of the strikers were shot after surrendering.  You will encounter a statue in their honor, at the intersection of National Route 3 and provincial route 281 leading to Puerto Deseado, placed just a few years ago by the descendants of the strikers.

Despite all that history, the principal attraction is nature.  Just south of the town, a submerged estuary, the Ría Deseado, runs inland for over 40 kilometers; it’s the wet end of the mostly dry Río Deseado valley south of Pico Truncado.  The young Charles Darwin came here in 1833, and Francisco “Perito” Moreno explored in 1876, calling it. the “most picturesque spot on the coast.”  Local companies offer tours of this unusual habitat, which has a colony of Magellanic penguins, numerous varieties of aquatic birds, including the striking red-legged cormorants, and the breeding grounds of the Commerson’s dolphin.  You go out in rigid rubber boats that hold at most a dozen, enabling you to get up close and pretty personal with the many types of cormorants and other birds that nest on the striking cliffs lining the entrance to the estuary.  You might have tea or mate on an island further inland, where there are many penguin nests (some 100,000 penguins call the estuary home).  The time of year and the weather will determine if you can venture further into the estuary.  The quantity of dolphins present is also affected by the season - we were there in autumn when the numbers were down, and were happy to see any of these delightful animals.  They are something like miniature orcas, with striking black and white markings, and extremely frolicsome. 

Again depending on the weather and your circumstances, the second attraction, the Miradores de Darwin, can be reached by boat if the tides are right, or reached overland for a totally different perspective, if you have a little luck  and can arrange a tour with the owner of the estancia where the Miradores are found.  This area is extraordinarily beautiful.  The river cuts a sinous course between the hills, everywhere there are troops of guanacos and the small ostriches called suris, and you will likely see many other steppe animals such as maras.  Fossil seashells abound, including oysters of a size that would have fed several hungry diners.  From the heights of the surrounding hills you have a spectacular view of the river - far below you can see a spot where there was once a teahouse, now defunct as boats cannot reach it anymore.  Darwin’s journal recalled that he had never seen anywhere that seemed more isolated, and this is the closest that I’ve been to the 4x4 ads showing a car perched on top of a craggy peak in the midst of nothing.  Hard to get any further away from it all!

There are two ways to make a visit to Puerto Deseado - we did our trip as a stand-alone, flying from Buenos Aires to Comodoro on Friday afternoon, with a nice stopover for delicious seafood.  An early start on Saturday will get you to Puerto Deseado in - well, in our case four hours, because we stopped for coffee in Caleta Olivia, hard by the giant statue to the petroleum worker, and then stopped again to admire the views along the coast, and the statue to the “huelgistas” of 1921.  Fortunately we managed to both have a nice lunch and get on an afternoon excursion in the estuary.  And then on Sunday we toured the “upper” Miradores with the owner of the estancia, with just enough time left to return to Comodoro and jump on the plane.  A week later the tides were right during the day and our tour operator took a boat all the way up and that would also be fun.  You can even camp along the way in some sheltered cliffs.  Another day would be necessary to do this full day tour, as the drive back is about four hours - and there’s only one flight in the evening.  But with an extra day you could also explore the Cabo Blanco lighthouse about 90 km north along the coast, where there is a colony of seals, reportedly the largest in Patagonia.

The alternate way to visit is to include Puerto Deseado as the first - or final - leg of a trip from Comodoro across to the Chilean border.  And if you have a little more time, you can tack on an excursion to a petrified forest, the Monumento Natural Bosques Petrificados.  Puerto Deseado is south of Comodoro, all on paved road, first National Route3 and then provincial route 281 (125 kilometers).  Seventy-seven km south of the 281/RN3 intersection is the turnout for the Monumento, with 50 km of ripio (no facilities other than the park ranger office; as always in Patagonia, bring your own water, food, and top up the gas tank every time you can).  A few km north of the 281/RN3 intersection is provincial route 43, a dirt road leading to Pico Truncado and on into Central Patagonia if you are planning a much longer trip.

Bed, Board and Other Necessities

Car Rental.  Key rental agencies like Hertz are available at the Comodoro airport, or agents will meet you there (i.e. Localiza, which has an off-airport site; tel 0297-15-5924-093).  If you’d rather rent a 4x4, try www.Aónikenk@satlink.com, which can can provide a standard rental or a vehicle and driver.  Tel (0297) 446 6768.

Lucania Palazzo in Comodoro:  Moreno 676.  (0297) 446-0100.  Seafood restaurants at Puerto Cangrejo (444 4590), and La Barra on the Costanera (officially, Luis Mara).  

In Puerto Deseado, Hotel Los Acantilados, which sits on top of the cliffs (0297) 487 2167, fax 487 2070).  Dining at El Viejo Marino, Pueyrredón 224, and Puerto Cristal, España 1698, both within walking distance.  If you have a craving for red meat, El Pingüino at Piedra Buena 958 is the recommended parrilla.  A second hotel is available in town, the Isla Chaffers, San Martín and Moreno. 4872246/4870476

Darwin Expeditions, with an office also in walking distance from Los Acantilados, offers a fullrange of expeditions in the estuary, up to the Miradores (repeating the Darwin voyage), and along the coast.  See www.darwinexpeditions.com, email to EcoRia@pdeseado.com.ar, or tel (0297) 15 624 7554.

Visiting Los Miradores:  Darwin Expeditions will assist you to contact the owner of La Aurora, Matilda Wilson, who is a descendant of the founder of modern-day Puerto Deseado, Captain Oneto.  If she is able to take you on a tour, don’t miss it!

Tourism info in Buenos Aires at the Santa Cruz office, Suipacha 1120, 4325 3098, or www.pdeseado.com.ar

© Copyright 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, Richard W. Tripp, Jr.