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Wild in Patagonia: a long trip definitely pays off for nature lovers.

When you think of Patagonia, you may envision dramatic, rugged vistas and the supernaturally blue ice fields at Los Glaciares National Park. But that's south and inland. Another Patagonia lies on the northern coast in Chubut Province, radiating from the city of Puerto Madryn (the name, Spanish and Welskt, indicates the mixed settlement of this area). This sickle-shaped port on the Golfo Nuevo is only mildly picturesque--but don't be disappointed, because abundant visual treats await you in this region. I stayed at the Peninsula de Valdes Hotel, a friendly, comfy, modern base which serves an excellent Argentinean breakfast that will tide you over for a day of adventure (hotelpeninsula.com.ar).

The way to get here is via Buenos Aires, a city that should already be on your travel radar, so take a couple of days to explore--after all, you've come this far! And there are many reasons to linger in BA: the legend of Eva Peron (visit La Recoleta cemetery), the passion of the tango (countless shows and restaurants showcase the art), the famous Argentine steak (everywhere, flame-grilled), the leather-centric fashion and housewares. If you want to be looked after in the big city, stay at the Panamericano (panamericano.us). The staff is fluent in English and will help you navigate the business of currency exchange, taxis, restaurants, shopping and which tango show gives you the best bang for your buck.

MEET THE PEOPLE

You could be forgiven for thinking that a place as remote as Patagonia, with its windswept rural setting and vast distances, would have no queer people in it, but you'd be wrong. A local Patagonian, Matias Emanuel Garcia., has worked with the Buenos Aires business-consulting firm GNetwork360 (responsible for the annual LGBT conference on business and tourism) and is the gay representative of Flamenco Tour (flamencotour.com). Both of these organizations assisted the trip I was on and are dedicated to bringing more LGBT travelers to the region, promoting Patagonia's unique blend of nature-based lifestyle and diverse culture. On my visit I was lucky enough to be introduced to a great gay and lesbian group and their allies, as Patagonia is cresting its own small wave of gay liberation, in a country where marriage equality has already passed into law. I also met friendly and dedicated local lesbian activists who balance their day jobs with grassroots advocacy work and growing Patagonia Pride through the organization DiverseX. Claudia Contreras Newbery and her girlfriend Natalia are hospitable and inspirational lesbians who rally the local community to participate in advocacy activities such as ending HIV/AIDS discrimination including changing the law around blood donation in their province, stopping the pathologizing of trans people, violence against women and girls, and other human rights issues.

EAT OUT

While Argentina is known for its empanadas and steak, you are on the coast in Puerto Madryn, so take advantage of the incredibly robust and fresh supply of seafood. I have never seen the likes of the whole fish, gigantic prawns, and scallops on the half shell that I saw in Patagonia. The simple presentation and fresh flavor will make you a pescetarian as fast as you can say "calamari" (which, by the way, is both large and tender). Dinner at Los Colonos makes you feel like you have been transported back to the days of settlement, so reminiscent of a ship's interior is the decor. It is a "maris-queria," but you can always order the staple "carnes"--beef and lamb. And as a side note to fussy carnivores, you may never be asked by a waiter here how you like your meat cooked; it just arrives the Argentine way, charred as though over an open fire. So get your gaucho on.

All this grilled protein is a fabulous way to store energy for a full day on the Peninsula de Valdes. The local whale-watching excursion is nothing at all like you might find in Provincetown (estacionmaritima.com.ar). Here you are in a very small boat, think dirigible, and garbed in the outerwear of an mariner. Handy hint: Bring the Dramamine. But I can assure landlubbers that this excursion does not disappoint. I spent possibly the best hour of my life far out on the sapphire-blue open sea against the majestic backdrop of Puerto Piramides (the chalky, angular cliffs resemble an Egyptian landmark). Whales mating and breaching at close range, at times passing as great, gnarled shadows beneath our tiny boat, is the stuff of dreams, and well worth a trek to another hemisphere.

After so much excitement (and to get your land legs back) you will need lunch at the family-style Quimey Quipan, where you can come down and warm up with a glass of local Malbec (very good) and a pot of mussels or paella.

Another amazing day excursion, and one that will make you think you're on another planet altogether, is to the Welsh-settled village of Gaiman (yes, pronounced gay-man), about 80 kilometers out of Madryn. The countryside around this historic community of 10,000 rural folks is so charming, with its pear and cherry farms and golden-hued fields cleaved here and there by the Chubut River, that you may thing of snapping up some acreage. Out tour bus stopped at a Welsh-style tea house, Casa de Te Gales Ty Te Caerdydd for the most abundant afternoon tea I have ever sampled. Scones, cream cakes, cookies, sandwiches, and endless pots of tea. Where are you that you could be sipping hot tea from blue and white china after a day of whale watching--Cornwall? No, you're at the opposite end of the world, and that realization alone is one of the gifts of Patagonia: Just being there makes you feel like a seasoned world traveler.

That afternoon tea will have spoiled your dinner, but nevertheless, because you are not likely to see protein this fresh at home, have a relaxed meal at Margarita Resto & Bar (margaritapub.blogspot.com) as late as you like because Argentineans tend to linger over their evening meal; it's not unusual to see parents out with their kids close to midnight. This pub with home-style cooking is loved by local queer folk and the in-crowd, and it's where I passed a couple of hours in the charming company of Claudia and Natalia over beers and the always exceptional local wine.

Being in Patagonia also means being in dinosaur country. At the very sophisticated and atmospheric Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio (mef.org.ar), I stood next to an extinct femur that was taller than me, and on my way from the museum I saw two artifacts that sang to my baby dyke soul: the heritage-listed Hotel Touring Club, where legendary outlaws Butch and Sundance stayed when they were on the lam, and some screen-printed graffiti that proclaimed Stop Homo Lesbo Trans Fobia! and Lesbian Power, with (nice touch) two pairs of scissors intersecting. Clearly the word of Claudia and Natalia is spreading!

I felt more than a little butch in Patagonia, and that transformation probably occurred on my 4x4 excursion, where I drove a quad through mountainous sand dunes, watched whales from afar, and a southern giant petrel the size of a private jet soared overhead on its way to roost.

BEFORE YOU GO

SPANGLISH A PLUS: While many languages are spoken in Argentina, Spanish is key, so learn a few handy phrases as once you leave Buenos Aires, not everyone speaks fluent English.

CURRENCY CAUTION: There seemed to be some tourist-targeted flimflam mery going on during my visit to Buenos Aires, so pay with small bills and watch change given to you by taxi drivers.

NATURE WINS: Patagonians are conservationists and proud and protective of the local wildlife. This means that pursuing whales, sea lions and other critters for your camera opp occurs in synch with the seasons, the animals' eco-rhythms and weather permitting. For example, a scheduled diving with sea lions may not occur due to these factors, so don't be disappointed: be glad that Patagonians are such good caretakers of the earth and not out to make a fast tourist buck.

CONNECT WITH QUEERS: When you're in town, reach out to Claudia Contreras Newbery via http://chubut-diversx.blogspot.com. ar and tell her Curve sent you.

HOW TO GET THERE

Fly to Buenos Aires and then connect to Trelew on Aerolineas Argentinas (aerolineas.com.ar).
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Title Annotation:EXOTIC ESCAPES
Author:Johns, Merryn
Publication:Curve
Article Type:Travel narrative
Geographic Code:3ARGE
Date:Mar 1, 2013
Words:1392
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