Punta Tombo Nature Reserve

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"If you encounter a penguin on the road, who has the right of way?" asks the young park ranger. We were speechless before a question like that. Still, as we were in a nature reserve, there should be an obvious answer. But apparently not.  In a typical Buenos Aires accent (and with natural confidence) a young girl standing next to me dares to respond: “The penguin.” I instinctively reproduce in my mind a hypothetical “riiiiigghhhht, my little weasel,” like Profesor Salomon from the Chilean children’s TV show. But his exclamation never comes. Only the wind. The lone Argentine steppe wind coming from the ocean.
 
One day in December, we traveled to the Punta Tombo Nature Reserve on the northern coast of Argentine Patagonia.  In this area of ​​the Patagonian steppe, dozens of rocky cliffs are crashing over the Atlantic Ocean, and its sparse plains are the natural home of numerous marine species, which for unfathomable reasons, chose such arid landscapes to pass much of their existence. The rest of the year they spend their time frolicking in warmer waters off the coast of Brazil.
 
Just 62 miles south of Trelew and Rawson, and 105 miles from Puerto Madryn, Punta Tombo is home to the highest concentration of Magellanic penguins in the world. More than 200,000 pairs breed there every September. They prepare their nests and incubate for 42 days between November and February each year to prepare their offspring for adulthood, a process that can be seen live (like a reality show on Animal Planet) in a special two square kilometers installation at Punta Tombo. The protection of the nest, incubating the eggs and feeding the chicks is a joint effort.
 
Maybe it's the soft ground of the steppe near the coast that makes it possible for these seabirds to build their nests. Or the dense bushes of the zampa, the quilembay, Chilean yaoyín, and the brothers, cousins ​​and nephews of the coiron family of grassses (poa, pluma, llama, duro), that at times are essential protection from the sun’s treacherous rays. It’s not certain. The only thing clear is that after the response of the little know-it-all next to me, it's time to start the tour.
 
At 20 inches tall and almost seven pounds in weight, two-legged and winged, it is impossible not to think of them as human; men or women of awkward gait in evening attire (the unforgettable visual cliché), but humanoids nevertheless.
 
We continue, along with about 15 visitors, mainly Argentines, down the dirt path about six feet wide, winding through the underbrush. The penguins are scattered everywhere. One over there escaping the heat in the shade of a handrail, another lying in a cave, a third group talking lively under one of the two bridges that no longer appear to have been installed for the purpose of our walk, but as a roofed boulevard for these privileged animals.
 
Accustomed by now to human presence, these little shy animals approach the tourist, but the ranger gave us strict instructions: do not touch them, do not approach them, do not give them food, and no smoking, even outdoors. Their cries fill the air.
 
But in this penguin sanctuary, they are not alone. They are accompanied by several other endemic species of the Patagonian coastal plateau. There is the southern mountain cavy, their mousey appearance gives away its kinship with the guinea pig. Herons, hares, foxes, guanacos, mara snakes, and ostriches, too, appear at every moment to fill the rectangle photography window. Then we recall the statement: "They have the right of way."
 
Cormorants, petrels and terns, with sea lions and elephants, Southern Right whales and dolphins complete the fauna inventory of an area that at first glance to the layman's eye is no more than a wasteland. It may be, but a wasteland full of surprises. 
 
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