, , , , , ,


Before there was Chile, before there was Argentina, there was Patagonia. Before there was a Patagonia, when in 1520 the great Portuguese navigator Fernão de Magalhães named it Patagâo, it was the many-named home of many-speaking peoples who had, as we now believe, migrated over hundreds of generations from far away Asia. Patagonia had no existence for them, only the hundreds of names for “home of our people” in Tehuelche, Mapuche, Puelche, Pehuenche, Yaghan, Het, Poya, Selk’nam, Haush, Yamana and Kaweskar and many, many others. They lived in the vast pampas of Patagonia, some joined by near common languages, all joined by hunting –especially the new-world cameloid, the guanaco and the flightless rhea— and gathering grasses, roots, berries, fruits and other flying, crawling, scampering edibles, while those with access to the coasts and in-land waterways, added that which swam and burrowed and fastened to rocks.

Before that and before that; before any of these peoples or creatures, this Patagonia-to-be was separating, with the rest of South America, from what was to become Antarctica and southern Africa, rotating clockwise and northward until, by 64 million years ago, the great continents of earth were in about the same position as we know them today. 20 million years later the central Andes were in their infancy, the South American plate being crushed, folded and pushed by the diving Nazca oceanic plate.

Then there was ice, more than once, advancing up from the south and down from the mountains, over many millions of years. Stone was crushed and soil compacted. In the centuries of no ice between the centuries of ice, in the Cretaceous when the dinosaurs dominated large terrestrial life, shallow oceans advanced and retreated, leaving what looks to us like carpets of soil, rolled out one over another. Depending on the rains, the run-off and catchment basins, those we can see are an inch or so thick, some several feet. Some of these inland seas, where now are acres of thorn-forest and scrub bushes, had the depth, slope and soil consistency to let loose massive underwater landslides of cobble, sand and silt, each settling in bands of their own kind. Some of the carpets run straight and true, undisturbed for millennia while being lifted vertically hundreds of meters from their old ocean beds. Some are bent and folded and crushed, the earth below them both rising and pushing laterally.

Torres del Paine

The astounding Torres del Paine –-which is the occasion of this story– and companion massifs, were not to come until 52 million years after the Andes began to form. (The Sierra Nevadas in California are only 5 mya for comparison; the Rockies between 70-40 mya.)

These Towers of Blue (as the original Mapuche, Paine, has it) did not grow volcanically, though some of the nearby mountains did, but were carved out of these uplifted seabeds by the most recent advance and retreat of the great glaciers. The south-walking people discovered them, and the surrounding lakes, valleys, forests, pampas about 10,000 years ago. Indeed evidence of human handiwork has been found at the farthest reaches of Tierra Del Fuego (also so named by Magellan) from those times.

What seems to be the tops of these magnificent structures was once somewhere in the middle. A side-wise flooding of granite while everything was still underground pushed its way between the layers of the carpet. As everything continued to rise, and the fierce weather of the upper air began to erode what was rising, this “loccolith” resisted longer and preserved the underlying layers while around the Torres they fell away, into valley and east-stretching pampas.

Torres del Paine
credit Will Kirkland


Soon after Magellan, who, although Portuguese, sailed for King Charles of Spain, came more Spaniards, most calamitously, Pedro de Valdivia, a lieutenant of Francisco Pizarro, conquistador of the Incas to the north-west of the Patagonian peoples. Several hundred years of war began between the Spaniards’ colonial drive to take what wasn’t theirs, and the Mapuche’s resistance to the taking. Ninety percent of the native peoples of Patagonia are estimated to have died before modern Chile and Argentina took shape. The final burials came as the two countries fought between themselves in the late 1870s, using indigenous people as shock troops, in what was called in Argentina the “Conquest of the Desert.”  The great Argentine hero of the campaign, General Julio Argentino Roca , has only recently begun to lose his status as the Washington-Lincoln founding father of Argentina as the scope of the genocide against the original people has become more widely acknowledged.


Patagonia, it seems, also had a role in Charles Darwin’s paradigm shattering theory of evolution.  On his famous trip with Capt William Fitzroy on the Beagle in 1831-36, were three Fuegians, as they were called.  Having been captured in 1828 by the same Fitzroy, “civilized” and brought to meet the queen of England, they were being returned.  When young Charles, not yet onto his his theory of evolution, compared them to their near cousins, other Fuegians who greeted the Beagle, in their guanaco-clothed state, and strange, “100 word vocabulary” (guessed Darwin), he was impressed with the adaptability of the human species. They were not perhaps as perfectible as the pigeons and cattle of his observations but clearly human beings could change over time; these Fuegians seemed to be an intermediate stage between our long-before ape-like forebears and ourselves, he posited.


By the early 1850s, fleeing the turmoil of the Revolutions of 1848 in Europe and the economic whip-lashing that was their progenitor and their offspring, and encouraged by Argentina and Chile increasing their migration quotas — to civilize the uncivilized– tens of thousands began arriving: Welsh, British, Italian, German, Spanish. Each group, following kith and kin to “paradise” collected in areas still known as Germanic, or Italianate or British. Welsh is still spoken in a few small areas. [Read Bruce Chatwin’s 1977 In Patagonia for an account of his travels to some of these enclaves.]

Torres Today

400 hikers a day come to test themselves on rugged treks up and around the bases of the towers.  Not necessarily to climb them but to embark on 6 or 11 day full-pack hikes  — in all kinds of weather.  Rain is a constant, intermittent presence, appearing as half-day drizzles or quick, sudden showers.  Wind might come with the rain, or in for a solo act with blue sky seats and applauding white clouds.  The hikers keep on, whatever; outfitted in, you guessed it, Patagonia, North Face, Sierra Designs boots, pants, shirts, slickers, hats.  Not a worn-and-torn set of Levi’s to be seen.

Though the hundreds of visitors skew to the young side, many of them camping, not hoteling as the older cohort do, in the decent, if small rooms, at the Torres del Paine hotel.  None of these, some of whom looked old to our own old crowd were  were there for gin-rummy or long pool-side lounges.  Everyone was up and out, perhaps with walking-sticks, taking three-hour guided walks of the flanks of the mountains and the remnant forest of an enormous fire, in 2005, or were off on full-day van trips to visit innumerable loops around brown pampa hills, herds of guanaco, hopes for a puma-sighting, views of lakes,  and boat rides in fierce winds to see the long tongue of glacier melting itself into Grey Lake.

Lake Grey, Clouds and Glacier
Photo Will Kirkland

What is Written

Of course there are travel guides, national-park descriptions, blog posts and even local news reports about Patagonia and, on the Chilean side, the Torres del Paine.  What I like to find, always, is what native writers have seen and shared about their own environs and people.  For this the absolute best beginning point is the Whereabouts Press collection of Travelers’ Literary Companions. Both Argentina and Chile are represented in the series, and each volume has several short texts about Patagonia.

From Argentina  comes a wonderful 1962 Jorge Luis Borges story “The South”  about a mild mannered man who after dreaming of the “wild south” for many years, goes to meet his death as a man should, getting satisfaction for insults offered in a rat hole bar. Luisa Penulfo contributes a story, “Arrowheads,”  about a modern woman and her boyfriend going back to the old ways, as she thinks, seeking evidence and relationship with the life of the original people. Like Jose Michael Vargas’ “Pikinini”, in the Chilean volume,  it does not end happily. Not in murder and massacre but in confirmation of the nearly complete extirpation of the native.

Chile of course, is the home of the incredible Pablo Neruda, poet, ambassador, and one of the brightest stars in the poetic firmament.  He contributes two pieces. “The Chilean Forest,” in Hardie St. Martin’s translation, begins,

Under the volcanoes, beside the snow-capped mountains, among the huge lakes, the fragrant, the silent, the tangled Chilean forests….”

The second, while not of Patagonia proper, is an absolutely wonderful homage to Valparaiso, where he made his home as a young man for many years.  “Roaming in Valparaiso,” translated by Hardie St. Martin, closes with:

I have lived among these fragrant, wounded hills.  They are abundant hills, where life touches one’s heart with numberless shanties, with unfathomable snaking spirals and the twisting loops of a trumpet.  Waiting for you at one of these turns are an orange-colored merry-go-round, a friar walking down, a barefoot girl with her face buried in a watermelon, an eddy of sailors and women, a store in a very rusty tin shack, a tiny circus with a tent just large enough for the animal tamer’s mustaches, a ladder rising to the clouds, an elevator going up with a full load of onions, seven donkeys carrying water up , a fire truck on the way back from a fire, a store window an in it a collection of bottles containing life or death.

Besides the Borges story, Argentina offers stories of Julio Cortazar, the great modern novelist, and from Luisa Valenzuela, an early feminist and writer or fictions and poetry.  Cristina Siscar’s 2007 “The Desert” evokes the austere, never-ending pampas on the way to the mines of the deep south, and their reflection in the lives of the few people who live there, that the traveler recognizes it immediately.

A fine, contemporary journal-travel-literary volume is False Calm/ Falsa calma, 2005, by Maria Sonia Cristoff, admirably translated by Katherine Silver in 2018. Cristoff “returns home to chronicle the ghost towns left behind by the Patagonian oil boom. “

Highly recommended!

And though most of us would not associate one of the best known authors in the world with Patagonia, Antoine Saint-Exupéry certainly is. He lived for 15 months in Argentina-Patagonia, setting up the first airmail service to the scarcely populated south. His Night Journal is an account of his time, and near death, there.