Page 1 of 2 ON THE ROAD IN PATAGONIA, Part
In Tierra del Fuego, Darwin still rocks
By Pepe Escobar
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
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",
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
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
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
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
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.