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Patagonia – the Welsh Connection

The streets bear names like Lewis, Morgan and Jones not Gutiérrez, San Juan and Independencia. The churches are protestant not catholic, and made of rough stone. And the tea is served with milk and sugar, not lemon and honey. This is Gaiman, the most Welsh of the Welsh settlements in northern Patagonia. It’s also only 50 miles from Puerto Madryn, springboard to Península Valdés. Gaiman and its larger neighbours Rawson and Trelew date back almost 150 years.

The tea is served with a lot more than just milk and sugar. Buttered bread; fresh scones with homemade fruit jam; egg custard tart; piping hot apple pie with dulce de leche; and an immense array of the most scrumptious traditional Welsh cakes. Add to this the crocheted tea cosies, the rose gardens, the lace, and the soundtrack of male voice choirs (on CD, admittedly) and you might forgive yourself for thinking you are in Wales.

The first Welsh settlers – 153 of them – arrived in Patagonia in 1865 as part of a philanthropic project headed by Professor Michael Jones who envisaged a ‘little Wales beyond Wales.’ Patagonia was chosen because it was remote, and far from the evil influences of the English.

The first years were tough and the settlers had to rely on gifts and cooperation from the local Tehuelche people. Low rainfall tempered by occasional flash floods meant that crops which were extremely hard to propagate were washed away in an instant. The fact that very few of the initial group were farmers, and none were doctors, made the early years even tougher.

It was the establishment of a canal system along the banks of a 50 mile stretch of the Rio Chubut which gave the community a foothold on the land. By the early 1880s the area was Argentina’s largest wheat producer and in 1886 construction began on a railroad which would take their produce to Puerto Madryn and beyond: to Buenos Aires and the rest of the world.

The population ebbed and flowed – new arrivals were tempered by the departure of some 200 Welshmen in 1902 after a dispute with the Argentine government about military conscription. In spite of this loss, the community continued to grow, and by the start of WWI the population stood at about 4000 people.

After the war the region’s expansion persisted, both in terms of population and economy. Its complexion changed, however, as most new arrivals were of Mediterranean descent. Soon the Welsh were a minority and the use of the Welsh language declined too. Ties with Wales were all but severed, and Chubut became Argentinean…albeit with many Welsh place names and surnames.

In 1965, the centenary of the settlers’ arrival, a large contingent from Wales attended the festivities. This marked a sea change in the way speaking and being Welsh was viewed by the people of Chubut. Welsh was taught in schools again (by teachers brought out by the Welsh government) and Welshisms such as the annual Eisteddfod and the teahouse culture were reinstated. None of this would have happened if Welsh had not experienced a resurgence in Wales itself, as taxpayers’ money would have been impossible to obtain for faraway Patagonia if the Welsh government had not seen the dissemination of their culture as valuable. Current estimates place the number of Patagonian Welsh speakers at somewhere between 1500 and 5000 – some of whom do not even have Welsh ancestry!

Vaya Adventures can arrange half-day trips to Gaiman from Puetro Madryn. The teahouses only open at about 3pm, so if you arrive after lunch you’ll still have time to wander the streets, visiting the museum, the original Welsh school and a couple of the chapels, before you feast.

To get a flavour of Welsh Patagonia before you go, I’d recommend the 2010 film Patagonia which tells the story of a thirty-something Welsh couple who visit Patagonia to photograph the historic Welsh chapels in the area. The subject matter isn’t endemically Welsh or Patagonian (there’s a love triangle) but the cinematography and the scenery are spectacular. After watching you might want to visit some of the chapels and the canals – this too can be arranged. This is best done as a whole day trip including a visit to Gaiman.

By Nick Dall