How on earth is Nefyn on the idyllic Lleyn peninsula of North Wales twinned with Puerto Madryn, 8,000 miles away on the rugged coast of Patagonian Argentina? Surely this particular ‘twinning’ is the result of a blindfolded dart player and a world map?
I’m always a little bemused as to how towns in Britain are continuously linked to obscure places in far flung corners of the world. However, this particular Welsh – Argentinean link is not as random as one might think. Inhabited by Latino looking gentlemen with names like Jorge Jones, Mario Richards and Diego Stevens, the towns of Puerto Madryn, Trelew, Gaiman, Rawson and Dolovan hold further clues as to why a small piece of Cymru exists in a parched, windswept landscape that looks like it needs a damn good drink. I had been in Nefyn a few weeks before beginning my South American backpacking trip and distinctly remember seeing the ambiguous sign ‘Nefyn twinned with Puerto Madryn, Argentina’. I also remembered thinking ‘what a load of rubbish’ and thought nothing more about it. After a large helping of humble pie, here I was several months later in Argentina, staring at the same sign confirming this bizarre pairing of two regions thousands of miles apart. I had to know more.
Despite the distinct lack of daffodils and much needed Welsh rain, I began to piece together a fascinating history to a region steeped in Welsh heritage. A group of 160 patriarchal Welsh spearheaded by the staunch nationalist Michael D Jones, sick of English dominance and foreign meddling in their daily lives, set sail for Argentina aboard the tea clipper ‘Mimosa’ on July 28th 1865.
Their dream was to establish a ‘New Wales’ where their religion, language and traditions could flourish without the English governments intrusion. On the strength of surveys carried out by seafaring explorers and the promise of farmland from the Argentine Government, these hardy early settlers persisted with the unfamiliar and harsh terrain and eventually established a Welsh colony in the area of modern day Puerto Madryn.
It took the iron-willed bunch three years to find a consistent water supply and
they permanently lived in fear of attack by their new next-door neighbours, the barbaric native Indians. Before long the enterprising settlers had developed an amicable trading relationship with the Indians. Luckily, instead of beheading the new Welsh arrivals, the Indians were more interested in trading meat and animal skins in exchange for bread and butter.
Gradually, communities started to thrive. More boats arrived from Wales, firstly in 1874 continuing up to 1911. Chapels were built not only for religious worship, but also for educational and judicial reasons. Despite living under Argentine laws and sovereignty, they met no opposition over maintaining their strong Welsh customs and practices.
Arriving some 140 years after the first Welsh we were pleasantly surprised to see Welsh traditions still prominent in the communities surrounding Puerto Madryn. For the duration of our visit, we stayed with a family in Trelew, 40 miles south of Puerto Madryn. We had a fabulous time experiencing local life living with a genuine Argentine family. Incredibly friendly and hospitable, we’d met purely by chance a few weeks earlier in a Buenos Aires restaurant; we accepted their invitation to visit immediately. It was just a bit of a shame we couldn’t understand a word they were saying. Our limited ‘ola, por favour, gracias’ vocabulary did not stand a chance against rapid fire Spanish!
In the neighbouring town of Gaiman, it is still possible to see the tiny brick cottages built to house the first Welsh settlers who all must have been the size of hobbits.
Gaiman has many teahouses with obvious Cymru origin and décor; names include Ty Gwyn, Ty Nain and Plas y Coed. The walls of the teahouse were adorned with Welsh flags and memorabilia. Lace tablecloths and china crockery gave the place even more authenticity and given centre stage were signed photographs of Lady Diana who had visited the teahouse in the 1990’s. Our friendly Argentinean waitress, Senorita Griffiths, who actually served the Princess that day told us that there are still elderly in the community that speak the Welsh language fluently and that Gaiman holds an Eisteddfod Festival every October!
The landscape of coastal Patagonia is of stark contrast to the green, grassy hills of North Wales. Vast, treeless, brown arid plains stretch out hundreds of miles into the hinterland of the Chubut province where sheep and cattle graze in their thousands, albeit in a slightly drier and more windswept terrain than their Welsh counterparts. Away from the towns, it’s the kind of place where nature rules, in fact certain areas of Patagonia are so inhospitable there’s are ratio of less than one person per square kilometre.
The sea largely affects the climate around Puerto Madryn and Trelew and therefore temperatures are fairly mild hovering around 10 degrees Celsius in July. In the southern hemisphere’s summer months of January and February, Puerto Madryn boils. Those stupid enough not to protect themselves from the ferocious sun beating down through South America’s diminishing ozone layer, end up a similar colour to the Welsh dragon as temperatures reach up to 40 degrees Celsius.
Rainfall is infrequent on the coast and virtually non-existent on the desert lands of the Patagonian plateau, possibly the biggest difference with North Wales, which the settlers found out the hard way. Whether blowing off the Atlantic or from the Patagonian plains, strong winds torment the whole area and would have made life extra difficult for the new arrivals. In winter these winds are bitterly cold and biting to which I can testify!
We also had the good fortune of travelling to our host’s 12,000 hectare cattle farm, six hours away on unsealed 4WD only roads. Set in more mountainous terrain than Puerto Madryn back on the coast, the landscape of the family’s gigantic ‘estancia’ reminded me of Snowdonia National Park. To reach the farm we drove on and on through eerily spectacular Patagonian steppe country, passing only a handful of other cars.
This part of central Patagonia is so overwhelmingly huge and featureless you can visibly make out changes in weather fronts hundreds of miles away. With the road stretching out to the horizon it’s the kind of place that makes human life seem pretty insignificant, you’d need a very reliable vehicle – breakdown recovery must cost a fortune out here. The remote family farm emphasised just how desolate and inhospitable this region of Patagonia is, which makes the settlers efforts all the more impressive.
We began to realise what an incredible achievement it must have been for the pioneers to leave Wales behind, spend months at sea then work incredibly hard to start a new life in Argentina. More than a century later the Welsh legacy in Argentina is still very much alive and prominent. Over the years the determined, strong-willed Welsh persevered with all manner of challenges and firmly established a community spirit that still exists today. For the people of North Wales to be twinned with such an area, having understood its colourful history and on-going role in preserving Welsh tradition, it is quite an honour.