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On the Road in Patagonia, Part 1: In Tierra Del Fuego, Darwin Still Rocks
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IN THE BEAGLE CHANNEL – This is a place where men come to be shocked and awed. The discovery of Patagonia is still a work in progress. Patagonia may be an enigma wrapped in a riddle of glaciers, mountain lakes, forests and wind-beaten steppes – and as such is impervious to fiction; reality is infinitely more powerful.

Forget Kashmir, the Himalayas, the Silk Road; this is reality secreting magic, legend and fantasy. Had he ever been to Patagonia straight out of Ireland, Irish poet W B Yeats would have marveled at its “violent”, not “terrible”, beauty.

The end of the world is immense, but inevitably some boundaries apply; the Colorado River to the north; the Atlantic Ocean to the east; Tierra del Fuego to the south; and the Pacific Ocean to the west.

From the Atlantic across the central steppes/altiplano and up to the Cordillera (the Andes) along the Argentina-Chile border in the west, most is still virgin, pristine land – and water. Silence is vast and liquid. Invisible to man, anchimallen (demons) patrol the central meseta (plains). Lagoons play host to flamingos and black-necked swans. Glaciers swell up to the point of forming dams between lakes – and then start breaking up with a bang, like they have done for millennia.

If there was ever a role model for the true spirit of a Patagonian trip, that would have been crack Argentine writer Roberto Arlt (1900-1942), who in the summer of 1934, as a columnist for the daily newspaper El Mundo, set out to travel in Neuquen (in northern Patagonia), the Cordillera, the lake region north of Bariloche (he described the Nahuel Hapi as “the most beautiful lake in the world”) and “I don’t know, maybe discover a new continent”.

He carried boots, a leather bag and “an enigmatic pistol”. In this austral winter of 2010, minus the pistol, I actually set out the other way, starting in Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world, heading north along the Cordillera and then the Patagonian desert (minus the ferocious winds, absent in winter), and ending at Neuquen wine country.

The Patagonian narrative has been spun for centuries by bold navigators and adventurers, hydrologists, royal mariners from Spain, Portugal and Britain, scientific investigation bulletins, devoted settlers, fierce pirates.

In the early 21st century, as the global South is trying to reclaim its rights, what was most interesting was to blend this narrative with the new wealthy North’s take on how this “arid, desert, windy, abandoned” Patagonia has become an open space and “a sea of opportunities” for foreign occupation.

Terra manuscrita ahead

Driving miles on end without seeing anyone on Ruta 40 – the mythical asphalt spinal chord of Argentina; navigating pristine lakes; trekking towards glaciers on sunset; trying to spot an elusive huemul (the Andean cerf, close to extinction), it’s not hard to comprehend how Patagonia inhabits humanity’s dreams. But it’s also easy to understand why Patagonia right from the beginning made the transition from terra incognita to terra manuscrita.

It all started with Cavalier Antonio Pigafetta, the scribe on Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s psychedelic 1519-1522 circumnavigation of the globe who first put down Patagonia on manuscript as he described “a man of giant stature … almost naked, singing and dancing and throwing sand over his head”.

This “giant” was christened as a Pathagon – the mythical giant in the wildly popular Spanish courtly novel Primaleon, published in Salamanca in 1512. Fiction also applied to the description of a guanaco (a Patagonian cousin of the llama) – an animal “with the head and ears of a mule, the body of a camel, the legs of a deer and the tail of a horse”.

The Portuguese court was sure what was later baptized as the Magellan Strait did exist – based on maps drawn in 1507 by cosmographer Martin Waldseemuller, who was inspired by notes from Amerigo Vespucci; America’s “discoverer” was sure there was a continent, or mundus novus; he had navigated the coast of Patagonia and identified – or dreamed – of a strait uniting the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Anyway, reality as legend always prevailed. Patagonia was the target of countless expeditions searching for the City of the Caesars – or Trapalanda, a splendorous abode full of treasures supposed to be somewhere in South America ever since Francisco Cesar, in 1529, offered a very imprecise description of the wealth of the Incas.

But most of all, for centuries Patagonia was an immense battlefield for greedy European colonial powers. It took the Spanish crown no less than two centuries to wake up to the designs of England, France and Holland – and evolve its own breed of colonization as self-defense. Spain never bothered to colonize Patagonia. They wanted to find a naval pass towards the Spice Islands. Then gold and silver mines were discovered in Peru – and they lost the plot completely. As much as Spain was keen to protect the monopoly of its American colonies, its sea power was risible.

In 1764-1766, John Byron – grandfather of the poetic lord – carefully explored the Patagonian shores, the Magellan Strait, the Malvinas islands, circumnavigated Tierra del Fuego and reached the Pacific around Cape Horn. Also in 1764, French navigator Louis Antoine Bougainville settled the islands he named Malouines, then Malvinas (but for English neo-colonialists they will always be the Falklands).

Ten years later, Jesuit Thomas Falkner warned, “Any great power could secretly invade Patagonia.” The English got the message; Spaniards were so incompetent that fabulous Patagonia was up for grabs. It was only in the 19th century that the Viceroyalty of the Rio de la Plata (River Plate) and then the government of Buenos Aires took serious steps to colonize the land, sending travelers, adventurers, explorers – and then the guns.

Beat the Beagle


In a never-ending narrative of Patagonian reality transmuted into fiction – and legend – it’s impossible to understand the present without retracing Charles Darwin’s legendary 1832 trip on the Beagle, when he was still an unknown 23-year-old naturalist. Arguably the most important characters on the trip were the Tierra del Fuego natives who Captain Robert Fitz Roy took to England with the first Beagle expedition in 1826 (he paid for all their expenses).

Before colonization, these fueguinos – living between the islands south of the Magellan Strait and Cape Horn – were around 10,000 in the 19th century, divided into four groups speaking different languages; two were sea nomads – the yamanas and the alacalufes, and two others were non-navigators, the onas and the haush. On the spot, Darwin met only yamanas and haush.

Of the captured fueguinos by Fitz Roy, three were alacalufes and one was a yamana. One of the alacalufes, christened Boat Memory, died in England in 1830. In December 1831, before setting out to sea, Darwin met the two remaining alacalufes – York Minster, a 26-year-old man, and Fuegia Basket, a 10-year-old girl – as well as the yamana, Jemmy Button (15) – legend says Fitz Roy bought him for a mother-of-pearl button). They had become so famous in England they had been received by King William IV; Fuegia Basket got a complete wedding outfit from Queen Adelaide.

At first, Darwin seems not to have learned much from the fueguinos – basically the yamanas, describing them as “atrophied”, “miserable” or “infected savages”. But he was not a racist – as Californian anthropologist Anne Chapman, among other authorities, has been arguing for years. He got along very well with both Jemmy and Fuegia Basket. But he thought the tehuelche Indians – the so-called “patagons” – were superior.

Darwin anyway was hostage to what British anthropologists developed as a mid-19th century paradigm – the notion that human race had evolved from brute primitives such as the fueguinos to the complex sophistication of Victorian, imperial Britain, ladies and gentlemen. Darwin’s cultural ranking, from the bottom (the fueguinos) to the top (the English gentleman) eventually softened up as he rebelled against the concept of progress applied to biology. No wonder he did not refer to “evolution” but to “descent with modification”.

What Jemmy and Fuegia certainly taught Darwin (while they were aboard the Beagle and also in England) is that “savages” could in no time become “civilized”. Darwin’s merit is that he started imperfectly by mixing cultural evolution with some instant impressions of the fueguinos and only later carried out a profound investigation leading to his revolutionary theory of natural processes.

It would be enlightening – for them – if planeloads of US creationists took the trouble to follow Darwin’s steps in Tierra del Fuego. Navigating tempests around Cape Horn or marveling at the landscape (“impossible to imagine anything more beautiful than the admirable blue of these glaciers”), Darwin was hooked by Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.

And so was Fitz Roy – who named “Darwin” some of these “great mountains” stretching from a bay west of Ushuaia to Isla Grande in Chilean Patagonia (unfortunately it’s impossible to navigate this whole region, including the impeccably named Fjords of Fuegia, during a harsh winter). And already, Darwin described what takes place forever as the glaciers melt – “the canal with its mountains of ice looks like a polar sea in miniature”.

Wanna buy a strait?

In Patagonia, reality always beat fiction hands down. In 1845, an unnamed Irishman who worked as a harbor pilot actually bought the Magellan Strait. Chileans had maltreated the tehuelche Indians, who then commissioned legendary chief Casimiro Bigua to go for it; after all , the tehuelches considered themselves the rightful owners of the strait and its surrounding areas. The sale was later annulled in Buenos Aires.

Tired of being oppressed by the English since annexation in 1536, the Welsh embarked on a worldwide diaspora – towards the US, Canada, Brazil, Australia. But some actually elected Patagonia as their promised land. This could have come straight out of a Jorge Luis Borges short story. Picture a sailor, Love Jones-Parry, Baron of Madryn, plus a typographer, Lewis Jones, telling Minister Rawson from the Mitre government, through an interpreter (none of them spoke Spanish) they wanted to found a Welsh nation in Argentina.

Rawson – today the name of a town in eastern Patagonia – went for it. As Welsh writer Horwell Jones would put it, “Being Celts they have the fortune – or is it the curse? – of having a vivid imagination …” So all 151 of them left Liverpool on May 1865. It took them decades to overcome all odds – the hostile land, the ultra-hardcore winters, the arid desert, the merciless winds, floods, and the not useless detail they were above all miners who had no idea about farming.

But then the tehuelche Indians set up camp near the first Welsh colony and this unlikely indigenous/settler coupling soon started trading and exchanging knowledge. This stands on its own as one of the very few significant examples of peaceful coexistence in four centuries of colonization of the Americas.

The Welsh ended up operating a total fusion with the Argentine nation. Ever since boundary problems with Chile in the early 20th century, they always wanted to live under the Argentine flag. Not to mention they also had the guts to cross the whole Patagonian desert to the west and settle down in lovely Trevelin, at the feet of the Cordillera, and close to the spectacular Los Alerces national park and the Chilean border. Trevelin at night looks like a ghost Welsh town at the end of the world. But it’s reality – not fiction.

Feel free to bask in my glow

It also seems that every reality in Patagonia is interchangeable with a heroic, larger-than-life character.

Think of French lawyer Orllie-Antoine de Tounens, who on November 1860 founded, under his authority, the Constitutional Monarchic Kingdom of Araucania, then annexed Patagonia. His title was King Orllie-Antoine I. He tried the trick twice more and eventually was jailed and deported out of Buenos Aires. When he died, the crown was inherited by his cousin, who without even moving from Europe conducted a lot of business to colonize “the new France”. The Arauco-Patagonian throne even had its own flag, shield and currency – billing themselves as fierce defenders of indigenous peoples’ rights. Even former US president Dwight Eisenhower was honored with a royal medal in 1966.

Yet few Patagonian characters can be as larger than life than Romanian engineer Julius Popper, a clever public relations man who went to Argentina in 1886 determined to find gold in Patagonia and literally moved if not mountains but steppes to get it.


Witty, sarcastic, a fine linguist and a darling of the Buenos Aires high society circles, not to mention dictatorial and imbued with imperial fantasies – some sort of enlightened tyrant – Popper set up a trend which would be fully replicated in the late 20th century; getting loads of precious, valuable Patagonian land in concession, without red tape, and always under his own terms (see part 2 of this report).

Darwin would have applauded Popper’s experience of Tierra del Fuego. He regarded the yamanas and alacalufes, “who live in canoes and fish as a way of survival”, as “doomed to extinction” (that’s exactly what happened).

On the other hand, he compared the onas to the tehuelches and even to the North American Indians – a race “that fully represents the primitive man in its maximum expression of moral and physical evolution” (but that did not also prevent them from being virtually extinct).

Darwin also would have agreed that Popper’s expression of what Tierra del Fuego is all about at a July 1891 conference is still matchless: “It is a country full of surprises; it is the land where the polar animals greet those of the tropics; where the call of the Antarctic penguin meets the prattle of the Equator parrot; it is the country of many topographic varieties, which has, in proportion, more vegetation than Mexico; more views and landscapes than Norway and Switzerland; in an extension smaller than that of Portugal it concentrates more contrasts of geography and hydrography, of meteorology and ethnography than in all the continent of Australia.”

The last yamana

Double-trouble colonization – religious and civilian, the latter accelerated in 1870 – exterminated virtually all indigenous Patagonians. In Ushuaia, stretching east-west along the Beagle Channel, 3,220 kilometers south of Buenos Aires, it is easy to note why the merciless austral weather and isolation would not dissuade northern Europeans – English, Scots, Danish, Dutch – to migrate during the 18th and 19th centuries in search of whale oil, seal skin, pastures for cattle, timber and strategic positioning to trade with the rest of the world. Then came industry – especially related to marine products. And finally, mass tourism.

Generations of global schoolchildren have been in awe of the lighthouse at the end of the world in the famous 1905 Jules Verne book of the same name. The lighthouse was real – built in the Isla de los Estados in 1884. In 1998, France donated a symbolic reconstruction to Argentina – and it’s right down there, in the same spot, not to be confused with Les Eclaireurs lighthouse, which can be easily navigated around, not far from Ushuaia. Navigating the Beagle channel at sunset in a small boat, one certainly feels touched by Infinite grace (anti-Darwin creationists would insist on a “hand from above”).

By 1933, there were only 40 yamanas left in Patagonia, including mixed race. Ushuaia had a few dozen Argentine men by 1884, some yamanas, missionaries and their families, for a total of 200 inhabitants. Now the population is close to 70,000. Ushuaia thrives in the self-described “end of the world” industry (not exactly true; nearby Puerto Williams, in Chilean Tierra del Fuego, at the Beagle southern margin, is actually the southernmost city in the world). It also thrives as “the most active gateway to Antarctica” (true, and the closest as well, at only 1,000 km).

The only remaining authentic yamana – an anthropological treasure – is octogenarian Cristina Calderon, a daughter of yamanas who speaks the language fluently. She lives in Puerto Williams, along with some mestizos who work in the fishing industry. Darwin might have loved her as much as he was fascinated by Fuegia Basket, as she is perhaps the last living human link with Patagonia’s Arcadian past.

Next: The end of the world is on sale

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
• Category: Foreign Policy • Tags: Argentina, CIA 
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