Part 3 : Trelew, Gaiman, Dolavon and the Dique Florentino Ameghino
Trelew lies on the RN25, the Ruta 25, that crosses east to west from Puerto Madryn in the east to Esquel and Trevelin in the west. It’s a mere 20 miles from Puerto Madryn, but it must have seemed a vast distance if, like the first settlers, you were pushing everything you owned along a track in a wheel barrow. From Buenos Aires, it’s a bit further at some 870 miles.
The Welsh settlers established their main town at Rawson, named after the mid 19th century Argentine Minister of the Interior, just down the coast from Puerto Madryn and then ventured up what later became the Ruta 25 moving east to west. Trevelin lies in the foot hills of the Andes on the border with Chile, some 429 miles away. It’s about the same distance as from Edinburgh to Dover. And, between Puerto Madryn and Trevelin there are one or two towns and…..well, nothing really. Straight, straight roads, sheep, rhea, road-kill and the odd stop for petrol.
We chose Trelew as a base. It’s not the most exciting place in the world and, to be honest, quite a poor little town. People haven’t an awful lot of disposable income which is evident if you try and find a restaurant. I suspect any money that might be termed ‘disposable’ finds its way into the town’s Casino, which is large, brash and clearly inviting.
There are plenty of snack bars and a few fast food kiosks in Trelew; but it’s hard to find somewhere decent to eat. We were struggling one night and were contemplating a drink in a bar, hoping that they’d start to serve food at one point. On the next table were three very weather-beaten, extremely large and burly men.
One stood up and came over. He realised we weren’t Spanish so in very broken English he said, “You Ingles?”
“Welsh”, we replied (gulp), “Gales.”
He turned back to his friends and shouted, “They are Gales. They are Gales.”
The largest and burliest one stood up and came over.
“I am Gales. I no speak Welsh and only a poco Ingles”
And then, very proudly, he added,
“My name……Iwan Williams”.
It’s a strange world.
They then suggested we eat down the road and we left them to their beers and their banter.
But, you don’t come to Trelew for the place itself…although it has one or two unique qualities and some hidden gems.
Mr Pugh runs the Museo Regional Pueblo de Luis, the Lewis Historical Museum, for, of course, Trelew has taken its name from Lewis Jones, who, with Captain Sir Love Jones-Parry, founded the town in the early 1860s. Mr Pugh didn’t speak Welsh but was extremely proud of the artefacts saved from the times of the early settlers and donated by families who can trace their ancestors back to Bala and other towns and villages in Wales.
In 1886, the Chubut railway was established. A single line taking the steam train, brought over from Berlin, up the Chubut valley from Puerto Madryn to, eventually, Las Plumas, a total of 154 miles. It closed in 1961 and the station has become the town’s Museum and the train is parked outside as a remnant of an earlier time.
Around the corner is Capel Tabernacl, built in 1889 and the oldest building in Trelew. Like all the Welsh chapels in Patagonia, it’s sadly locked and only open for services. It sits in the middle of a row of shops, slightly set back and looks, well….rather quaint, but in excellent condition and clearly in use.
The piece de la Resistance, however, is Trelew’s Touring Club Hotel.
It’s a large hotel with an old bar / cafeteria at the front. Inside, like so many of its kind, it hasn’t changed for decades. I’d read about the place before we came and we sat at an old table and enjoyed an Imperial beer. We walked over to the oldest espresso machine I’d ever seen, three feet wide and four feet tall with a pump that would be capable of clearing the bilge water out of a tanker. The owner smiled at us.
“Can we look in the back room?”
“I’m sorry”, he replied, “I don’t open it any more. Except for school groups. or on special occasions.”
“We’ve come a long way. From Wales. Just to see it.”
He thought for a while and then opened a drawer and pulled out an old key. He waved to a young waiter and said something to him in Spanish. We followed the boy out of the bar and across a courtyard to a series of old doors. At one time, they were motel-style apartments but no longer in use. He opened a door and turned on a light, a bare bulb in the ceiling.
There in front of us was a bedroom. The bed was made and covered in an old geometric-patterned quilt cover. There was a gun on the bed and an old sewing machine in the corner. A coat and hat were on the rack in the corner and there was a suitcase and trunk with clothes spread out. Someone had lived here and had left in a hurry, taking things with them but clearly intending to return.
This was the room of Robert Leroy Parker who had stayed here in 1905. Better known as Butch Cassidy, he fled from here to Cholila and later across the Andes to Chile. I don’t suppose he had settled his bill and the room was never cleared or touched. It remains as it was. It’s absolutely fascinating.
We were staying in probably the best hotel in Trelew, the Hotel Galicia. The foyer and staircase are like something from a 1930s musical. A grand sweeping staircase in black and white marble. It’s a thing of beauty. The rest of the hotel is, well….it’s OK. No, it’s fine. It’s clean, warm and, whilst the breakfast might be a bit disappointing and the views from the rooms non-existent, it could be a lot worse.
We picked up a hire car at Trelew airport. For some totally inexplicable reason, it was cheaper to go to the airport by taxi to collect the car than to walk down to the agency in town to pick one up. Cheaper by over £100. Reason? I haven’t a clue. Hire car companies realise that once you step off the tarmac and onto the minor roads anything approaching you at more than 20 kmh is like being attacked with a stone-firing gatling gun. As a result, it’s impossible to arrange insurance for the windscreen or the tyres and the CDW excess is a mere £1000! It’s worth covering yourself for this before leaving home.
Paperwork completed, we headed back past a life-sized diplodocus, through Trelew and out onto the Ruta 25.
Gaiman is the first town you reach and an important centre as it’s one of three where Welsh is still practised and encouraged. It was built on the banks of the Chubut river, also known here as the Afon Camwy. It has a population of some 5,000 and holds its place as the cultural centre of Yr Wladfa Gymreig. It was founded in 1874 by David D. Roberts who saw it gain municipal rights in 1885. David D. Roberts’ house has been retained as a museum, complete with all of the original fixtures and fittings, household and personal goods. It’s stone, very basic, but quite an achievement, all things considering.
The Chubut railway arrived in 1905 and the tunnel in the town built so the line could be extended to Las Palmas, or Dol y Plu, as it was known.
The town has its own Welsh pub, Y Mochyn Du, and it’s own Welsh rugby team, Y Draig Goch. ‘Gaiman’ itself isn’t a Welsh word but rather Tehuelche indian for ‘rocky point’.
Most tourists come here, either because of their personal interests in following the route of the Welsh settlers or for, as its called in Lonely Planet, the ‘tea ceremony’. It conjures up images of Japanese paper houses, small bowls without handles being turned three times and faint oriental music.
In fact, tea houses, Casa de te, used to be prolific in Gaiman but now there is but a small handful. Ty Te Caerdydd, would seem to be the largest, judging by the advertising boards as you enter the town. However, it’s not exactly in town, but quite a distance away down gravel roads. O.K. perhaps Princess Di did take tea there back in 1995, but they’re clearly milking the connection.
Instead we opted for Ty Gwyn, a lovely tea house set just back from the main street. It was 2 p.m. and we joined the queue of mainly Spanish visitors for afternoon tea. The main room was laid out just as you would have expected. China cups, saucers and plates, a large ‘Brown Betty’ teapot per table covered in a crocheted tea cosy and waitresses serving bread and butter, jam and scones, cheesecake, bara brith, chocolate sponge, victoria sponge, apple pie and custard tart. Endless cups of proper tea made it a perfect afternoon.
And that’s when we met Camila. Camila’s family owns Ty Gwyn. Her grandmother makes the cakes and the sandwiches and Camila and her mother are ‘front of house’. In Welsh, Camila told us that she remembered Princess Di visiting the town. She had been chosen by school to present the flowers on the Princess’s arrival but, because of her name, the Royal security had suggested someone else. It’s a cracking story to take through life.
Camila asked where we were from and then asked whether we knew a Guto Jones. Knew him? He had played with our children from an early age, my wife had taught him, we had watched him grow up and were friends with his parents. We were still in touch with him through Facebook, as was Camila. The next think we knew he was there, on the screen of her telephone….only he was in Texas and looking somewhat bemused, Fortunately Whatsapp made sense of the mystery, but it just goes to show how very small the world has become.
As we left, so did the largest party who’d popped in later on for a paned and a piece of cake. Thirty travellers, mainly British, who were travelling from Santiago in Chile, through Terre del Fuego and up to Buenos Aires, aboard a huge, amphibious truck.
We walked the back roads, past Capel Ebenezer, Capel Tabernacl, Capel Bethesda and past houses bearing names such as Bryn Teg and Yr Hen Post and past Coleg Camwy, closed for the summer holidays. It’s odd being greeted with Bore da by people in the street and stopping at a cake shop to see a huge Welsh flag advertising the Urdd Tour for 2017.
The town’s museum is fascinating. The curator spoke Welsh and was busy with a Spanish lady who had come to trace her roots. We looked through the Visitor’s book and picked out people from areas we know well….and there was our own Guto Jones, who had called in one day;
Diolch am y sgwrs. Wedi rhoi’r ‘byd yn ei le’ go iawn (Thanks for the conversation. Puts the world properly in its place)
It was time to head back to Trelew. Welsh thrives here in Gaiman. It’s enthusiastically supported and promoted from within the community and lives on in the street names, the names of the shops and in the cultural exchanges between the town and the old homeland.
The following day we headed back through Gaiman and continued along the Ruta 25. The intention was to reach Los Altares, a spectatular rock formation halfway between Trelew and Esquel. Unfortunately, half way, is still a little under 200 miles along a very straight but not very fast road. It became clear, after a couple of hours, that it was too much to do in one day. We hadn’t seen another car so far and breaking down out there didn’t bear thinking about. We turned left and headed for Dique Florentino Ameghino.
The Ameghino gravity dam lies just under 100 miles from Trelew. It protects the towns in the Chubut valley from flooding when the snow melts in the Andes and the river rises. The dam opened in 1983 and has a small town attached with 200 inhabitants. The lake itself is beautiful and the route down to it winds through amazingly lovely countryside. It’s a pleasant change from the arid scrub flatland of the area around the main road.
On the way back we stop in Dolavon. What a contrast to Gaiman. There is a population of nearly three thousand, but, despite the Welsh settling here in 1865, it’s hard to find much evidence beyond the street names and the actual name of the town.
We stop outside of the town’s museum. There’s a lady sweeping the boardwalk. She stops and looks curiously at us. Clearly, we’re the first visitors that day……that week……..maybe that month…..She reacts like a teenage girl who has just realised her parents have opened the front door and her boyfriend is still in the bed! We’re clearly a surprise.
We head down endless gravel roads in search of Capel Bethesda, Capel San David, Capel Carmel and Capel Ebenezer. Gates are locked and bolted, Chapels look unattended. The language is not as strong here, nor, it would seem, is the commitment to keep it going. ‘Wales’ is here….but you have to look long and hard for it.
The road is endless but the whole area is spotlessly clean. Not a discarded settee or mattress anywhere. No plastic, no refuse, no litter. Many places throughout Europe would be envious of this. Farms are tidy and well kept. Estancias freshly painted and looked after.
It’s time to move on. An hour’s flight will take us to Terre del Fuego and the end of the World. Sounds promising.
For Part 4 : Ushuaia, click here