Visiting Welsh Patagonia – an Argentine journey

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Inside the St David's Centre in Trelew

Inside the St David’s Centre in Trelew

On the 27th of July in 1865, Puerto Madryn, on Argentina’s Atlantic coast in the province of Chubut, received some unusual visitors, visitors who were in fact aiming to stay. It was a group of Welsh settlers, hailing from all over Wales (mostly mid- and north Wales), who had set sails from Liverpool in May of the same year, aboard the Mimosa tea-clipper. The settlers had come in search of a better future, with the aim to safeguard Welsh culture, heritage and language, and to this day, 150 years later, Welsh is still spoken by 3rd, 4th and 5th generation settlers.

The early years were hard going for the Welsh – Chubut in the region of Patagonia proved far less hospitable and fertile than the new dwellers had hoped for – and they suffered from lack of food, bad harvests, floods and other mishaps. The Welsh, however, persevered and the first permanent settlement, Rawson, was established by the end of 1865. With the help of the native Tehuelche, the Welsh slowly began to prosper and create something of a home from home on the bleak Patagonian prairie.

Over the next few decades, the Welsh colony grew and several new settlements were established; Gaiman in 1874; Trelew in 1886; Esquel and Trevelín near the Andes in 1906 and 1884 respectively, among others. Even though Welsh culture and language have lost ground in modern times, there is still a strong Welsh influence in this part of Argentina and with the anniversary of the first arrivals on Argentine soil coming up this summer (or winter, as it will be in the southern hemisphere), there is an even greater emphasis on all things Welsh in the area, with eisteddfods (festivals of literature, music and performance) and other events. This is also a very scenic part of Argentina with plenty to see and do for visitors.

in the Puerto Madryn history museum

in the Puerto Madryn history museum

Modern day Puerto Madryn, where the Welsh first landed, has the least visible Welsh influence, but then it’s also grown much larger than its humble beginnings and is these days home to some 80,000 inhabitants. Although a small museum, housed in the old railway station, depicts the history of the city, with a strong emphasis on the Welsh history, Puerto Madryn is mostly a good base for exploring the nearby great outdoors, in particular the Atlantic coastline and the nature reserve of the Valdés Peninsula. The area is well-known for its fantastic marine, wild and birdlife, including penguins and whales.

An hour’s drive or so, south of Puerto Madryn inland, lies Trelew, an important commercial centre with a proud Welsh heritage. It’s home to the San David/Saint David’s Centre, which is open to the public and includes a Welsh Cultural Centre. They hold numerous special events throughout the year and also Welsh classes. Trelew and nearby towns and villages, including Rawson, Gaiman and Dolavon, all have traditional Welsh chapels that can be visited. Gaiman, although diminutive in size with only some 6,000 people, is perhaps the best known and most active centre for all things Welsh in Patagonia. Most people here are Spanish-Welsh bilingual, there is a wonderful regional museum replete with Welsh memorabilia and what with the chapels and teahouses you might as well be in rural Wales as it was in bygone days.

the Welsh chape in  Trelew

the Welsh chape in Trelew

The teahouses of Gaiman need a particular mention of their own and whatever you do, don’t have lunch before you visit. There are numerous to choose from along the quiet, residential streets – some of them double up as b&bs, some have their own in-house museums, but above all they’re worth a visit for the tea & cakes. The pot of tea is usually substantial, the brew piping hot, strong and inviting, while the selection of cakes, pastries and home baked bread is enough to satisfy the greediest of appetites. Dinner might also have to be cancelled on a Welsh tea day.

Almost 400 miles away, on the other side of the country, at the foot of the Andes, lies the town of Esquel, which, along with nearby and much smaller, Trevelín, formed a second Welsh colony, created a few decades after the original settlements along the coast. The Welsh influence is less strong in these parts, but the area is very much worth a visit for the beautiful Andean scenery. Another major tourist attraction is La Trochita, also known as the Old Patagonian Express. This narrow gauge steam train starts in Esquel and runs in two sections, Esquel to Nahuel Pan and El Maitén to Desvío Thomae.  This humble train has featured in travel books by Paul Theroux and Bruce Chatwin and, although not Welsh by any means, it’s a wonderful way of experiencing the remote landscape, seeing it for the first time just like those hardy Welsh pioneers might have done over 100 years ago.

For further information click here.

For more information about the 150th celebrations, click here.

By Anna Maria Espsäter

First UK Rights

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