The largest Welsh community outside of the UK found an unlikely home 142 years ago in Argentina’s Patagonia, in the province of Chubut.
In the 19th century many Welsh emigrated following attempts by British officials to restrict the use of their native language. Argentina at the time had a very open door policy towards immigrants, especially those who agreed to populate the empty expanses outside of Buenos Aires. In 1865 a group of about 150 Welsh people, led by Michael D. Jones, who called for a ‘little Wales beyond Wales’, set out on a converted tea-clipper, the Mimosa, to establish a new life in the isolated Patagonia, far from the influence of the English language. Over the next 20 years the original settlers were joined by more Welsh migrants from Wales and the US, and they founded the four towns of Rawson, Gaiman, Trelew and Puerto Madryn. Of these four, Gaiman has the most concentrated population of Welsh descendants and is a hub of Welsh culture.
History has it that the Welsh lived very peacefully with the Tehuelche, the indigenous population who helped them survive their first years on the opposite side of the world. The provincial governor of Chubut, Mario Das Neves, said to the Welsh Senate earlier this year, when he visited in attempts to promote cultural tourism, that the Welsh presence in Argentina is ‘one of the few peaceful colonisations in history’.
He also told a story of Neved Jones, granddaughter of the first colonists who arrived in the Mimosa. “One Sunday during the religious service, when Neved was seven or eight, she was sitting next to her mother. She heard the door open and turned around and saw an Indian enveloped in his poncho and two other young Indians. She exclaimed in Welsh, ‘Indians!’ and her mother responded in their native tongue ‘they are children of God just like us’. The three took a seat in the bench in front of them and listened to the remainder of the service. It was the tribal leader and his two sons, elegantly dressed in white. When the service was over everyone got up and said hello to them.”
Das Neves concluded the story: “The most southern colonisation of the world was set in motion with the arrival of the Welsh who made sure that their customs survived. And the indigenous people shared their bread and poetry.
“Today history continues: the roots of both cultures belong to one land. They mixed their blood and opened their souls; we have lived sharing the same dreams.”
‘Gaiman’ is actually a Tehuelche word meaning ‘sharpening stone’; and the nearby city of Trelew bears a Welsh inherited name, meaning ‘Lewis town’, in honour of Lewis Jones, an early Welsh pioneer.
César Gustavo Mac Karthy, the mayor who accompanied Das Neves on his tour of Wales, said that they want to increase cultural tourism in Chubut because, “we have a lot of history to share, and because the Welsh culture has integrated in our region, it is likely that more and more Welsh from Wales will come and visit us.”
Aside from a few structures in Gaiman like the Bethel Chapel built in 1914 and the squat stone Primera Casa, First House, built in 1874, Trelew and Gaiman look like any other small Patagonian town. The Welsh culture, however, is evident. The Welsh prime minister Rodhi Morgan said in a meeting with the provincial governor on his tour of Wales: “I remember that in my visit to Trelew a few years ago, people greeted me first in Welsh and then in Castellano. That was a fascinating experience.”
While Welsh is almost always a second language, it has been reintroduced in the school system in an effort to revitalise the culture. The violet flowers and poplar trees so unique to Gaiman also reflect the Welsh, who were the first ones to introduce irrigation systems in Patagonia. Interesting tid bits like this, along with displays of belongings of the first settlers, can be found at the small railroad station converted into the Museo Histórico Regional (Tues-Sun 3-7pm $1).
The Welsh culture can be experienced firsthand by frequenting one of the famous teahouses. While the first teahouse was a gathering place for local farmers in the 1940s, since then many more have opened to accommodate adventurers passing through Gaiman on their way to the arguably more exciting things Patagonia has to offer, like glaciers, mountain trekking and whale-watching.
The oldest active teahouse in the area is the Ty Gywn. If you have ever been to Wales, you may well be pleasantly surprised at just how similar the interior is to that of a typical Welsh granny’s home: elegant, yet quaint. The teapots are wrapped in colourful knitted tea cosies and the tablecloths are embroidered with traditional Welsh designs. Near the cash register they sell postcards and trinkets brazen with the national symbol, a red dragon, but don’t be tempted by souvenirs; your money will be much better spent by indulging in the complete Welsh tea service, about $25 per person.
The ‘Welsh tea service’ is a combination of local and Celtic customs. Argentine black tea is served with milk and sugar, accompanied by sweet treats, a large platter of pies, cakes and other delicacies that will warm the heart and expand the waistline. The most delicious of them all is the ‘torta Galesa’, Welsh fruit cake, which is a dark, dense, spiced cake spotted with chunks of dried fruits and nuts. Legend has it that the original recipe was created by the first Welsh colonists in an attempt to bake a nutritious and long-lasting cake with the scarce ingredients available at the time. Other afternoon desserts are apricot squares, custard pies and pastries that suspiciously resemble Argentine facturas filled with dulce de leche.
Another well-known and extremely touristy teahouse is the Ty Te Caerdydd, marked by a giant teakettle on the front lawn. Ty Te Caerdydd owes most of its popularity to Diana, Princess of Wales, who stopped in for a cup of tea during her visit to Patagonia just two months before her death. The blue jeep, purchased during her stay, is now used by the municipal government of Trelew, who nicknamed the car Lady D.
Every spring, Trelew hosts the largest Welsh event in all of Latin America, the Eisteddfod festival. Over a 1,000 visitors from other parts of Argentina and abroad come for the celebration of Welsh literature, music and performances. This year the festival is on 2nd and 3rd November.
Non-Welsh related things to see and do:
Gaiman is a random town: some other strange things it has to offer visitors include a seaweed drying factory, and El Desafío, a monument created out of recycled tin cans and plastic bottles by the local artist, dubbed by the local media as ‘the Dalí of Gaiman’.
Eight kilometres south of Gaiman is the Parque Paleontológico Bryn Gywn (daily from 4-6pm, $4). There you can see stratified fossil beds dating back some forty million years.
Where to stay:
Gaiman is a small town and you can probably see all you need to see in one or two days. If you decide you do want to sleep there so that you have time to check out the dinosaur bones, recycled park and Welsh museum, best to stay at the Ty Gywn, which offers nice rooms, complete with the smell of freshly baked goods.
Otherwise, head back to Trelew and stay at the Hotel Touring Club where the décor hasn’t changed since Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid stayed there.
How to get there:
From Buenos Aires you can fly or take a long distance bus from Retiro to Trelew, 16 hours. From Trelew the bus company ‘28 de Julio’ makes trips every 45 minutes between the main bus terminal of Trelew and Gaiman.