Friday, March 2, 2012

A visit to Patagonia

I just spent five days in Patagonia, which is close to the end of the earth, the farthest south I've ever been. Chile and Argentina share Patagonia, and we were on the Atlantic, Argentinian side, in the little "seaweed village" of Bahia Bustamante, named after a Spanish captain who mapped the South American coast, fruitlessly sought the Northwest Passage, and ended up as governor of Montevideo in Uruguay.

The bay is a part of the Golfo San Jorge, and it used to be known as "Rotten Bay" because of the piles of stinking, rotten seaweed coating the beach. Don Lorenzo Soriano came to the Patagonian coast in the 1950's, seeking a source for the seaweed products he needed to produce his patented hair gel. He bought a ranch on the coast and gradually enlarged it. From 1962 to 1992 was the heyday of the seaweed village, with 500 inhabitants working to harvest, clean, sort, and process the seaweed into products like agar-agar for use in soaps, food, lotions, and any product that needed stabilizing and emulsifying.

An oil spill in 1992 killed off much of the most valuable seaweed, and in its place grew a decorative but commercially undesirable Japanese invader brought on the hulls of tankers. The seaweed business continues, but with only 50 workers, and with imported as well as local weed. Meanwhile, the ranch, now 200,000 acres of scrub, grassland, and desert, raises sheep that run free until the gauchos round them up for breeding, shearing, or sale.

The ranch is now within a national park, and the owners are trying to manage it in a way that preserves the grassland by rotating the sheep to new pastures. In the last six years they have also brought in a small number of tourists during a five-month summer season. Usually it's hot and dry from January through April, but unfortunately for us, Bahian Bustamante is just coming off the wettest two weeks in years, so some of our activities were rained out. More on that tomorrow.

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