Puerto Deseado – Patagonia in a single port

Distance saves it from mass tourism.
Bonnie Tucker / FST
Located at the mouth of an estuary that harbors legions of sea creatures, the Santa Cruz fishing port of Puerto Deseado is an ideal base for getting to know Argentina’s Patagonian coastal steppe. In addition to birds and dolphins – quickly and easily accessed by boat – it offers sheep ranches, history, lighthouses, dramatically desolate landscapes, a petrified forest, unique sea kayaking opportunities, and a bit of adventure to those who are willing to do a bit of traveling to get there.
….foto Lobos Kayaks BG.jpg … This city of 13,500 inhabitants is 2,000 km south of Buenos Aires by road, or 286 km if you fly from the nation’s capital to Comodoro Rivadavia in Chubut (2 ½ hrs) and rent a car or take a bus from there (3 ½ hrs). It is a full 128 km off the National Route 3 coastal trunk highway, has no direct bus or air link with BA, and can accommodate no more than 300 tourists.
… foto Mapa Puerto Deseado … In January and February the government airline LADE runs 30-passenger SAAB flights to Puerto Deseado twice a week from Comodoro and once a week from El Calafate (both in southern Patagonia), but they are not coordinated with commercial flights to and from Buenos Aires. All these time- and distance-related considerations will probably keep the town safe from mass tourism for some time to come. Until then, it will remain the haunt of a select group of people – most of them foreign tourists – who do not seek luxury, but rather birds, history, outdoor activities and a different lifestyle.
…foto Puerto Deseado aéreo BLOG.jpg … THE LAND. The landscape around Puerto Deseado is predominantly flat, with what look like flattened buttes in the distance. They are long-extinct volcanoes that formed when Africa and South America began to part ways 130 million years ago. As one drives in from Route 3 in the morning, they seem to come unstuck from the steppe and float just above the ground in the heat. The salt flats that shimmer in the sun here and there speak of repeated marine ingressions.
… foto Casa roca BLOG.jpg … In town, houses and other buildings have found accommodation amid and atop daunting volcanic outcrops of the Jurassic period, which also appear along the pebble beach north of town. The strangest natural landmark of all is the large slingshot-shaped rock on the bank of the estuary opposite the fishing port. British privateer Thomas Cavendish, who named the place Port Desire (after his flagship HMS Desire) in 1586, dubbed it Tower Rock, but it is known locally as Piedra Toba.
… foto Piedra Toba BLOG.jpg … Its location in flat terrain near the mouth of the estuary allows navigators to get their bearings; they know they have to keep it to their left whether entering the port from north or south.
The Deseado estuary is another freak of nature. It once harbored a broad rushing river that drained the water of a huge glacier-fed lake at the foot of the Andes into the Atlantic. The lake, shared by Argentina and Chile, is called Buenos Aires on this side of the Andes and General Carrera on the other. The Deseado River practically dried up as a result of an Andean cataclysm: the ice plug stopping up the Baker River broke in what is now Chile, and since then most of the lake’s water has been emptying into the Pacific. The Deseado River, left with the contributions of two small tributaries, was reduced to a trickle, and as the last ice age came to an end and sea levels rose, the Atlantic occupied its 40-km-long estuary. British naturalist Charles Darwin, who reconnoitered this area in 1833 during the round-the-world cruise of the HMS Beagle, immortalized the far reaches of the estuary in his diary. Today’s anemic river meanders down a broad clay valley bounded by red volcanic canyon walls that were eroded away by an impetuous watercourse that is no more. Like Darwin, today’s travelers have the feeling that nothing has changed in at least 10,000 years.
… foto Miradores Darwin 2 BLOG.jpg … THE CITY. The city’s most notable cultural attraction is the Mario Brozowski Regional Museum, which exhibits an interesting collection of artifacts from the HMS Swift, the British sloop of war that ran aground and sank in the harbor in 1770. The museum guide tells visitors that the vessel, based in the Malvinas (known as the Falklands in the Anglophone world) was on a reconnaissance cruise and took shelter from a storm inside the entrance to the estuary. There, the low tide left her stuck on an uncharted submerged rock. When the tide changed she managed to get free. But when she moved further down the estuary she ran aground on another rock, and sank a mere 50 meters from the shore at a point that is now just 50 meters from the present-day wharf.
… foto Museo BLOG.jpg … All the 93-man crew except the cook and two Marine privates reached the shore safely, and an officer and six sailors made an epic voyage back to the Malvinas in the Swift’s little shallop to bring help for their mates. The cook’s body was found and buried, but those of the two privates remained missing for more than two centuries. In 2005, underwater archaeologists who were exploring the interior of the sunken ship found a skeleton. The British Embassy took the remains to Buenos Aires and interred them in the British Cemetery.
The sector of the museum dedicated to the Swift aims to show what life was like on board a ship of this type in the 18th century. One of the indications of the enormous social differences that existed between officers and crew is the contrasting quality of the eating utensils they were assigned.
… foto Vagón Histórico BLOG.jpg … The city’s claim to national fame has to do with tragic events surrounding a VIP railway car that was built in 1898. It served as the headquarters of Army Lt. Col. Héctor Varela, who, as the commander of a regiment sent to put down a rebellion of ranch hands in Santa Cruz, ordered mass executions of 1,500 people here and elsewhere in the province between November 1921 and January 1922. Their deaths were avenged by a German anarchist who assassinated him in Buenos Aires in 1923. In 1980, following the closure of Puerto Deseado’s railway, Varela’s rolling headquarters were saved from the scrap yard by a popular uprising. For several years the railway car served as an information point of the city tourist office. If you want to see what it looks like inside, ask at the Tourist Office and a guide will accompany you.
… Vieja Estación BLOG.jpg … The large three-floor stone former railway station, built in 1909 by Yugoslav master stonemasons, was intended to be the terminal of the “National Patagonian Railway” that was supposed to have linked Puerto Deseado on the coast with Bariloche at the foot of the Andes. Construction of the railway progressed at a rate of one kilometer per day, but it ground to a halt in Las Heras 280 km inland. The terminal building is now a cultural center that commemorates the history of rail links in the region. Like other residents of Patagonia, for whom the “iron horse” was their only land link with the rest of the country for many decades, deseadenses (Puerto Deseado residents) still miss their railway.
--- foto Puerto Deseado centro Darwin BLOG.jpg … The city’s main oddity is its lighthouse church, whose tower has a fixed beacon that is attended by the Navy. In the surroundings there are two more conventional lighthouses: the abandoned one on Penguin Island 21 km out to sea, and the one on Cape Blanco 88 km from town, which is still functioning.
IT’S WORTH FIVE DAYS. There are enough things to see and do in and around Puerto Deseado to warrant a stay of five days. You should plan your schedule according to your priorities.
… foto Cormoranera BLOG.jpg ….… Spring, when birds brood and raise their chicks, is the windiest time of the year. If you are going specifically to see the birds and dolphins in the estuary, or make the trip to Penguin Island out in the ocean, plan that excursion for the first day. Why? Departure depends on the weather conditions, in particular on the wind. If the weather is fine on the first day you will be able to go straight out to sea and get your pictures. You can’t tell what the second day will be like. If it is bad on the first day, you can reshuffle your program if you have days to spare. There are three outfitters, and one of them will have room in the boat for you. It is easier to reschedule an excursion if you have booked your stay through a travel agency and can let them take care of the problem.
The season runs from mid-October to mid-April. The climate tends to be cold and windy, but in summer the temperature can surpass 30ºC. Pack a lightweight waterproof windbreaker, a fleece sweatshirt, a long plastic raincoat with a hood if you plan to do the sea excursion, summer clothes, comfortable hiking shoes, a cap, sunglasses and sunblock.

Following are the main excursion options.
THE CLASSIC ESTUARY CRUISE. (Three hours) Not too far from the dock, you can photograph five species of cormorants close-up from the boat; disembark to view some of the 17,000 Magellanic penguins and hundreds of seagulls that nest on Bird Island, and observe sea lions and various species of migrant and local birds in their rookeries in the estuary.
You can also get to the rookeries by kayak. Pods of little black-and-white Commerson’s dolphins accompany boats at the mouth of the estuary.
…. Foto Toninas BLOG … PENGUIN ISLAND. (Six hours) If the weather permits, grab the chance. You will never forget it. This island is home to 30,000 Magellanic penguins, but the stars are the members of a 2,000-strong colony of rockhopper penguins, a species with red eyes and bristly golden eyebrows whose regional base is the Malvinas and South Atlantic islands.
… foto Pingüino penacho amarillo BLOG.jpg … This is the only nesting ground of rockhoppers near the continent. There are also colonies of sea lions and a few elephant seals.
… foto Isla Pingüino 2 BLOG.jpg … (fotógrafos con pingüinos) The 12- and 24-passenger semi-rigid rubber boats follow the sheltered curve of the coast south of town to a point facing the island and then make the 3-km crossing, passing a large sea lion colony on a big rock island on the way.
… foto Isla Pingüino 1 BLOG … (lancha) The abandoned lighthouse and seal processing facility are reminders of stable human presences on Penguin Island that terminated long ago. Passengers eat a picnic lunch on the beach, and take care not to get too close to the nests of the aggressive skua gulls (jaegers) when they walk about.

VAN NOORT HILL. (Six hours) This is a boat excursion to a spot halfway up the estuary from Puerto Deseado, and a hike up a hill. During the nautical part of the excursion, tourists may see small penguin and cormorant rookeries and be accompanied by some Commerson’s dolphins.
They disembark on the beach where the Hoorn, the smallest ship of a private Dutch survey expedition commanded by Willem Schouten accidentally caught fire while undergoing caulking and was abandoned in December 1615.
… foto Willem Schouten BLOG.jpg (a la derecha)

Schouten, a partner in the survey venture, continued south with the Eendracht, the remaining vessel of the expedition, and shortly thereafter discovered Cape Horn, the southernmost promontory of the Tierra del Fuego archipelago that marks the southernmost passage between the Atlantic and Pacific. It was a stormy day with poor visibility, and Schouten didn’t realize that the promontory was on an island; he thought it was the end of the continent.
… foto Cabo de Hornos BLOG.jpg … He named the cape after Hoorn, the Dutch port from which the expedition had set out, which was also his birthplace and the namesake of his burnt ship. English navigators later called the cape “Horn” and their Spanish colleagues phoneticized the name to “Hornos.”
Near the beach where the Hoorn burned is a hill that has been named after Olivier van Noort, a Dutch corsair who was the first navigator of his country to sail around the world.
… foto Olivier van Noort BLOG.jpg … (a la derecha) Van Noort reconnoitered the Deseado estuary in 1599 while on his way to the Pacific Ocean to plunder Spanish ports and trade with China, but he crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan, which at the time was the only known passage between the two oceans. His four-year circumnavigation of the world led to the formation of the Dutch East India Company in 1602 and to the expedition of Schouten, which sought an inter-ocean passage that would allow other Dutch merchants to get around the Company’s monopoly of the maritime route through the Strait.
But there are also those who point out that in 1578 a storm blew the ship of English corsair Francis Drake south from the Strait on the Pacific Ocean side of the continent, thus allowing him to discover the waters of the southernmost passage that today bears his name: the Drake Passage. But it is doubtful that he got far enough east to sight Cape Horn. His discovery was kept quiet so that the rivals of the English Crown would not make use of it.
… foto Cerro Van Noort BLOG.jpg … After the long hard slog up the hill for a panoramic view of this part of the estuary, the excursionists descend to enjoy a picnic lunch on the beach while the guide tells them pirate stories.
… foto Miradores Darwin BLOG.jpg … DARWIN’S OVERLOOKS. (Full day) There are two overland routes to the different lookout points at the far end of the Deseado estuary, and the time actually spent getting there and back will depend on whether the group descends to the canyon floor to look at a cave with ancient rock art, because getting back up to the top is not that easy and takes time. Excursionists have plenty of time to contemplate the trickle of water in the broad, red canyon, and empathize with Darwin, who was struck by the timelessness of the desolate scene below and around him. The trip up the estuary to this cave can also be done by boat. However, it must be made at high tide, taking care to return on time to avoid being stranded when the tide goes out.

THE PETRIFIED FOREST. (Full day) There is a place in the heart of the steppe that was devastated long before the estuary canyon lost most of its water. Called the Petrified Forests Natural Monument by the National Parks Administration and the “Jaramillo petrified forest” by locals because it is near the town of the same name, it reminds us that 150 million years ago a volcanic cataclysm felled great forests of gigantic araucarias and other trees when the climate was temperate if not subtropical.
… foto Petrificados 1 BLOG … The volcanoes on the horizon and at the entrance to the reserve provide a suitably bleak and singed-looking setting for the petrified tree trunks, some of which are big enough to make humans feel like midgets.
Guanacos roam amid the fossilized remains and low scrub bushes, and grey foxes hang around the visitors’ center hoping that some tourist will forget that feeding the animals is forbidden.
This place is 250 km from Puerto Deseado, but it – and the landscapes and wildlife seen on the way there and back – are well worth the time and money spent to get there.

THE CAPE BLANCO LIGHTHOUSE. (Full day) The months of October and November – shearing time in this part of Santa Cruz – are a good time to go out to this lighthouse, because watching shearers at work can be an added attraction during a stop at one of the ranches along the way for a barbecue lunch that a travel agency can make a part of the program.
… foto Esquila BLOG … The Navy-run lighthouse is still operating, and the keepers will tell you about life in this solitary spot as their cat naps in a corner. The facility perches atop a tall windswept promontory of volcanic rock that separates a gulf marked by pounding surf from a sheltered cove.
… foto Cabo Blanco BLOG … You will need field glasses or a camera with a really big telephoto lens to spy on the fur seals and cormorants on the rocks off the cape.

BEACHCOMBING. People who are fascinated by what the sea leaves on beaches can indulge to their heart’s content on a pebble beach and amid a series of seaweed covered tidal pools at the Cueva Leones caverns a short walk from downtown Puerto Deseado.

HORSEBACK RIDING. Visitors who enjoy horseback riding and Patagonian ranch ambiances can sign up for a day in the countryside organized by the owners of the Cis Tours travel agency, who are also ranchers.

FISHING. Cis will also take you shark fishing.
… Tiburón BLOG.jpg … The only creatures that Puerto Deseado can’t offer are whales, although a few of them do stop by at the end of May on their way to their breeding ground in front of Puerto Madryn in the Golfo Nuevo (Chubut) 600 km further north. But that’s another story.

Puerto Deseado info

City Tourist Office
San Martín 1525; (0297) 487-0220

Cis Tours (travel agency)
San Martín 916, Of. 1; (0297) 487-2864

Darwin Expeditions (tour operator specialized in wildlife and kayaking)
(0297) 156-247-554 / 154-132-887

Los Vikingos (tour operator specialized in wildlife)
(0297) 487- 0020 / (0297) 156-245-141

Ría Extrema (tour operator specialized in diving)
(0297) 487-1065 / (0297) 156-258-180

PHOTO CREDITS: Kayakers inspect a sea lion rookery in the Deseado estuary, courtesy Darwin Expediciones. Map, city tourist office. Aerial view of Puerto Deseado, courtesy Darwin Expediciones. Las Nubes cabin court, Bonnie Tucker. Tower Rock. The end of the Deseado estuary, Bonnie Tucker. A wooden table retrieved from the wreck of the HMS Swift undergoes a desalination treatment in the museum laboratory, Bonnie Tucker. Varela’s railway car headquarters, Bonnie Tucker. The old railway terminal station, Bonnie Tucker. The lighthouse-church in downtown Puerto Deseado, courtesy Darwin Expediciones. Photographing nesting cormorants is easy in the estuary, Bonnie Tucker. Commerson’s dolphins follow tourist boats, Bonnie Tucker. Rockhopper penguin, courtesy Darwin Expediciones. Photographers entranced by rockhoppers on Penguin Island, Bonnie Tucker. A Darwin Expediciones semi-rigid heads toward Penguin Island, Bonnie Tucker. A period portrait of Willem Schouten. Cape Horn in better weather than Schouten had, Bonnie Tucker. Period portrait of Olivier van Noort. Hikers descend van Noort Hill, courtesy of Iggy. The Darwin overlook of the La Aurora ranch, Bonnie Tucker. Petrified Forests Natural Monument, Bonnie Tucker. Shearers at work on a ranch near the Cape Blanco lighthouse, Bonnie Tucker. The Cape Blanco lighthouse, Bonnie Tucker. No-nonsense shark fishing, courtesy of CIS Tours.