Archive for the ‘ The Americas ’ Category

Caribbean Notes


Caribbean Notes

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2018. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


San Juan après la deluge

We arrived in San Juan a year after Hurricane Maria with a mixture of trepidation and shameful curiosity. Gawker tourists, we looked for damages caused by the last great storm, worried that there would be a repeat while we were there. Strangely, we felt disappointed when the cab driver who took us from the airport to our hotel said “Nothing much was done by Maria to the areas of San Juan you will see.” The Condado and the Old Town seemed practically untouched. “Tourists are coming back, but still mostly on weekends.”

The next day, June 22nd, began with a torrential rain that drenched me as I went looking for morning pastry. The sunset, however, was a ball of fire mushrooming through the sky In between, the strong wind caused a few kites to hit us at the Morro Fort. where kids in a riot of colorful T-shirts were spending their field trip from the summer camps.

The campers went to the Priagua stand on the margin of the Fort for shaved ice. We headed to Barrachina Restaurant in the Old Town San Juan which claims its bartender Ramon “Monchito” Marrero, in 1963, made the first Pena Colada, Puerto Rico’s National Drink. Next to our table, a better informed fellow-tourist challenged that claim. “In fact, Pena Colada was invented in the Caribe Hotel here.” We opted out of the controversy and ordered Mojito , which seemed more refreshing and appropriate for the hot day, even though it owed its provenance to another Caribbean island, Cuba.

Walking down the cobble-stoned street of picturesque Old San Juan, I met a “legislators’ aid” at the square where their chamber, as well as the mayor’s office are located. “Nothing much,” the aide said when I asked what was on the agenda that day. Her husband’s schedule seemed more eventful: “I am retired and have come down for my weekly lunch in town with her,” he said smiling.

The “Presidential Suite” next to our room in the hotel seemed to have been just occupied. This we noted upon our return from the resort’s glorious “infinity pool,” on the cliff at the edge of the sea, where we left five women in various degrees of obesity eating drumsticks from a bag that said KFC!

“We all go to the beach this evening, “the man said. “We go in the water and walk backward. Then we throw a piece of our old clothing into the ocean.” He was describing the rituals of the “Night of San Juan.” That is “John, the Disciple,” he pointed out for clarification. “The celebration takes place here in San Juan, but also in all of Puerto Rico as it is our national tradition.” This was June 23.  My interlocutor was our Uber driver. “There are now 1500 Ubers in Puerto Rico, half of them in San Juan,” he said. We took them often as they were reasonably priced, clean and readily available. But the scooters had already arrived too, we observed.

Slouching toward 80

I never met him but his presence was announced at the beginning. A few doors before I reached my room on the cruise ship, I noticed the many stickers on his door. “Happy 80th Birthday,” one said. A picture of a balloon was monogrammed “80”. He protested in another sticker: “I am not 80, I am $79.99+tax,” and in another, “79-ish.” Resigned to reality, he rationalized in the next sticker, “80 years in the making.” Pleased with himself, he now boasted, “I am not 80 … I’m 21 with 59 years of experience.” Alas, he ran out of space on the door.

I sympathized, empathized, with the man, but to no avail. The excursion I was interested in had an upper age limit for passengers: 80.

I did not see anyone on the ship who looked 80 or older, although the woman sitting next to me once, near the pool, may have been one. She was still, looking toward the light grey of the overcast sky that was almost seamless with the ocean water it had made its own color. There was a wheelchair next to her and a cane.

There were a few other persons with disabilities on the ship but many more on the edge of infirmity by sheer overweight. You found them often in the cafeteria with plates piled up with foods. The aforesaid excursion also disqualified people weighing more than 250 pounds.

The crew

There are 1, 985,” Sue said. “That includes everyone in the crew, the 2000?” She corrected me, “No, 1985.” Chastened by the young server, I asked exactly how many of those worked in the restaurants. She stumbled and said, merely, “The food and beverage department is by far the largest.” We shared a pre-assigned big table with another couple every night, in the sit-down dining room. Four seats remained unoccupied the whole time. The rest of the cavernous restaurant and the two other restaurants in the balconies above it, however, were jam-packed.

Three people attended to us. The man from India who took our orders and brought the food was too busy, but the other two made up for him in chatting us up. The drinks man was from Colombia and brought me the news of the World Cup, unsolicited. Orlando, as I came to call him accordingly, did not care that my limited knowledge of the details of the game equaled my lack of serious interest. When, one night, a band played Colombian music in the restaurant, Orlando came wiggling in the narrow isle next to us, inviting us to join him in “Waka Waka,” which he called the “national dance” of his home land. Far from me to refuse. There we were, the two of us, I following the movements of his arms and limbs. He complimented me, but more to the point, he flaunted his credentials: “I teach dance in Miami, where I live.”  The third man, a Jamaican who served as the floor manager for our area, nodded as though to verify.

The members of the crew sign up for an 8 month contract. “I love this job,” Orlando said. “We have parties every night; we have computers, movies, food, drinks, everything we need.” They even had their own dedicated Wi-Fi.

“There are only 5 from the U.S.,” Orlando said, counting himself as one since he lived in Miami. “The rest of the crew come from many countries. The biggest group is from India,” he nodded his head toward our food server. Then, he continued, “from the Philippines, and Indonesia, and recently, more from China.”

The Teen scene

On the other side of the Jacuzzi from me, I noticed a young blonde girl and a boy. He was listening to her in what seemed as seduction in an American teens’ game, his bright smile matching the allure of her soft skin. As she talked, his long arm smoothly moved behind her shoulder to touch the top of her arm. Presently, however, she waived to a lad just a few years older who was approaching from the right. He was wearing red-rimmed sun glasses and his short hair was tinged blonde. His smile was mischievous. He sat at the edge of the water. The three knew each other and the couple listened for a few minutes to what the newcomer said. Then they came out of the Jacuzzi. The girl went to the other side but still close enough for me to notice her taking a puff. “Juul,” the lady next to me nudged my side, knowingly.

Hitched and Unhitched

The couple we shared a meal with was here to celebrate their “First Anniversary,” by which they meant it was a year after they met. He was 74 and she around 60. They were both widowed some time ago and they met through on-line dating sites. They seemed fitted for each other. At the very outset she said she was “shopping,” and sure enough, soon she was wearing a diamond ring on her finger which he bought at the first island we stopped at.

We went to the beach, instead, on an open-sided jitney with all- you-can-drink booze — local beer and a rum punch. When appropriately buzzed, the boisterous guide asked if anyone was here to celebrate a birthday, wedding anniversary or, as an afterthought, a divorce. The hands of two young women sitting in front of us went up. One of them said “We are here to celebrate my friend’s divorce.”  Indeed, they looked but happy in their large sun glasses. We only cheered as no one volunteered an alternative salutation.

The young woman with a well-mannered young son sitting at the next table to us in the restaurant one evening was the picture of brave but poignant single-motherhood. Their limited conversion was supplemented with her reading about the next day’s excursion options.

In a bar we visited afterwards, we alternated looking at the masterful dancing of a young couple to the live jazz music, on the one hand, and the stoic look on the face of an older African American man sitting by himself, on the other hand. We had seen him in the same place with the same posture the night before. The young dancers were presently replaced by another couple who chose to dance with their toddler in their arms as he sucked on his milk bottle. A dignified, sad-looking, bearded Indian man stood stirring at the spectacle. I had noticed him before, forlorn and lonely, in other corners of the ship.

A handsome woman in a one-piece swim suit occupied a chaise in the same corner of the pool area, reading, every time I passed by. A couple in their forties chose to spend all of the days on the ship just by themselves, declining to step onto any of the Islands at which the ship stopped.

On the night before last of the cruise, once again, ladies dressed up and some men put on Tuxedos. The African American man was in the bar in a nice suit and tie, distinguished. He now shared a long sofa with a couple as he had done with us before. When the music began the couple went onto the floor. She was as good as a professional dancer and he was also good enough. When the tune ended, we all applauded. For the next number, the woman asked the African American man for a dance.  He was her match! We were all delighted with the performance, except perhaps the woman’s date. In his white Tuxedo, he looked pensive.

Union and reunion

“We planned it for months and as soon as the schools were out we came,” the cheerful mom told me about her big group from Massachusetts. “We are just neighbors from this small town 10 miles north of Boston; some of us have kids in the same schools.” She pointed to several teenagers on the jet-skis in the waters of Sint Maarten before us. The Chinese-American man with a backpack who walked along with me in Barbados was from Dallas, but “my cousins and others in our group are all from California,” he said, “there are 14 of us.” The Chicago man  I met in the Jacuzzi, had come with friends and relatives from “all over the country, some 22 of us.” The African-American woman who joined our conversation told us about the mud bath she had taken on the island of Antigua that day. “You should have seen my sister who is 72, climbing those rough roads. She loved it.” Her group, from southern California, was 12 strong. “We made this cruise a reunion of family members.”  There were several Spanish-speaking Latino groups, some included multi-generational family members.

Cruising and its discontent

The Jacuzzi served as our prime conversation nook, as it was in the open air area on the top deck. We soaked since the cruise allowed us a lot of time to do nothing. There were some evening “activities” but they were all past our bedtime. We peeked into one show. It was boring.

The overcast sky hid the famous vivid Caribbean colors for most of the trip. Even the sunset eluded us. The islands seemed all alike:  almost totally dependent on the tourist industry. The parts we ventured onto were often tunnels of shops and stands catering to the gullible cruise passengers. We walked ourselves free in Antigua and visited the most prominent structure of the town of St. John’s, the 19th century Anglican Church on the hill, where its bishops have the exclusive right to be interred. Down by the wharf we saw the big sitting statue of “the father of the nation,” the man who rose as a labor leader to obtain independence from Britain in 1980’s.

In Sint Maarten, the Dutch part of the small island shared with the French Saint-Martin, we were pitched its “unique” folk liqueur of Guavaberry rum, as well as Desperado, which is a mixing of beer and rum, but ended up buying a bucket of 3 common Caribbean beers and a couple of diet cokes. This was part of a package a shrewd woman negotiated with us as we asked only to rent two beach chairs for an hour.

Small’s Island

“He took a liking to me when he heard that I read a lot,” said the man who asked to be called Small. “I was only 12 then, but I remember that day well.” He continued “and then, later, whenever he came back from England to visit, he would give me more of his books.” The author he was talking about was Sir Derek Walcott, the winner of the 1992 Noble Prize for Literature. We were standing in a park named after him in Castries, St. Lucia.

I had asked Small to tell me his own stories of Walcott. “He was very nice. He was born in this town and when he left to live in England he gave a big party in his house. I was too young, but my cousin went and he said ‘what a party!’” Walcott went to St. Mary’s College here and even though he continued at the West Indies University, Small said, “he is buried up there in the grounds of St. Mary’s College,” pointing to the green hill on our left.

The lush green St. Lucia island nation with “some 131 beaches” has “130,000 people,” according to Small. The surprise is not that it has produced a Noble Prize winner, but that it has two Noble Laureates to claim as native sons!

Small took me to see the bust of both in that park as he said excitedly, “both were born on the same day and month!” For him, obviously, this was just as important a surprise. Indeed, the signs on the busts indicated that William Arthur Lewis was born on January 23, as was Walcott a few years later. Lewis also won his Noble prize, in Economics, a few years earlier, in 1979. Notwithstanding, the pride of the town was the “500 year old” Mimosa tree which stood in the center of the park, Small said.

As we left, we had a man take our picture. The local dialect is distinct. I asked Small how to say “thank you” to the man. “Mercie,” Small said. This is an Island which has changed hands between the British and the French numerous times. It revels in its mixed culture. Even Lewis’s “notable saying” under his bust had nothing do with economics; it said that a nation without culture is a “desert .” Now that would be an insult to the people whose island grows jungles of bananas and mangos .

Across the street in this English dominated town, stood its main temple: a Catholic Cathedral of colonial French architecture, with the capacity for some 2,000 parishioners.

Hurricane was not on Small’s mind, even though the wind had now picked up and we felt a few drops. “My favorite Walcott book is his ‘A City’s Death By Fire’,” he said. St. Lucia, with its wood buildings has survived too many of them.



From Anchorage to Denali


From Anchorage to Denali

Keyvan Tabari

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2015. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



Abstract: Alaska does not sit still. That epigram, more apt for Alaska than many other places, justifies this snapshot as a method of reporting my impressions from a few days spent in July of 2015. It covers a tour of Anchorage to Denali. This is a most important part of the state. Anchorage is the “Center” of Alaska as much as, say, Paris is to France: it is by far the most populous city and the cultural, economic and political center of Alaska. Denali is the National Park that is a most attractive magnet for visitors; bigger than New Hampshire, it presents Mount McKinley and much more in the way of  natural wonder. The “railbelt” between Anchorage and Denali is a significant slice of the state, representing its small towns and rural communities. The changes which all these three places have undergone in their short lives are symptomatic of much more which can be expected to come. One can only hope for an accurate recording of their passing present.



We came to Anchorage by bus from Whittier, a deep water port some two hours away which could accommodate our ocean liner cruise ship. Anchorage is surrounded by water as a peninsula in the Cook Inlet which is too shallow for large vessels. Our bus driver who doubled as a tour guide pointed out a building half buried in the ground on the other side of the road: “That is the only structure left from a little town here after the earthquake of 1964.” The Great Alaskan, or the Good Friday (March 27, 1964) Earthquake, which at a magnitude of 9.2 was the world’s second-largest ever, destroyed practically all Anchorage as well. What exists in Anchorage today is from the rebuilding since.

Not that the previous Anchorage was that old. We stepped down from the bus into the cavernous William A. Egan Civic & Convention Center. The swanky modern structure was one of the three facilities in downtown, large enough to hold major events for thousands. The other two, within our walking distance, were the   Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center and the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts. For our first stop we chose to go to the Kimball Building, the oldest building we could find. Dating from 1915, it still had “antique” fixtures and flooring.  It houses a gift and tea shop with eclectic items, producing a “quaint-meets-cool” air. Called Kobuk, the shop offers Victorian teapots, English and Russian china, lace, linens and teas and candies, as well as Alaskan-made soaps, lotions and bath salts.
The cheerful woman who ran the store told us that it is a continuation of a dry goods and sewing shop, in business since 1967.  She said the name Kobuk came from a trading post in northern Alaska, where the map shows there is a Kobuk valley. She was proud of the tea the shop still served in samovar, a reminder of the past Russian history of Alaska. The original owner, however, imported gourmet coffees before it was fashionable and the locals now reward Kobuk as the place to go for “real” coffee. We followed their example. Walking to the back of the store, we entered a cozy little room which used to be the proprietor’s kitchen and living room. We got our coffee and fresh-baked pastries at the counter and sat on the wooden chairs at the wooden tables and chatted with the young women who served, as well as a fellow customer, about the history of Anchorage. There were a few Dena’ina (original Native Alaskan) settlements in this area before the first white men, Bud Whitney and Jack Brown, came to live here in the 1910s.

Anchorage’s location was fundamental in its growth. The number of settlers grew substantially when this site was chosen in 1914 as a railroad construction port. The city’s economy was centered on the Alaska Railroad which was completed in 1923. It enjoyed massive expansion from the 1930s to the 1950s as a major hub for the increasingly significant air transportation and military sectors in the U.S. economy.  Even today Anchorage’s International Airport is the world’s third busiest airport for cargo traffic, linked to Anchorage’s location along “great circle” routes between Asia and the lower 48 States.  The Port of Anchorage receives 95 percent of all goods destined for Alaska. The Anchorage Air Force base was important during the Cold war because of its proximity to the Soviet Union. The JBER military base today still employs so many that with their families they comprise about ten percent of Anchorage’s population. Anchorage grew to become the largest city in Alaska. There are almost twice as many Alaska state employees in Anchorage as in the Capital, Juneau. When oil was discovered in Prudhoe Bay in 1968, Anchorage became the natural center of its corporate management. Some of Anchorage’s few high-rise buildings today bear the names of oil companies, including BP and ConocoPhillips.

The building that attracted my attention was the shiny Anchorage Museum. Its façade is unique. It is sheathed in some 6,000 square meters of custom insulated fritted glass, as explained to us, with glazing type and patterns never used before .  The docent who led our group for a tour of the museum’s Alaska gallery was a retired lawyer. She said the museum was a main cultural center of the Anchorage community, but is also consistently ranked among the state’s top ten visitor attractions. Accordingly, it received some 180,000 visitors annually who come from all around the world. A man with a T-shirt that read “Urologists are the Plumbers of Humans, “pushed his way through our large crowd to get close to her. So close that she had to tell him “Please back off a bit.” He explained to me that he was not wearing his hearing aid, as he smiled, adding that he was from Coeur d’Alene, Idaho: “It is beautiful; after Alaska you should come there!”  Perhaps being a tourist justified uncommon behavior. We were in Alaska, however, and our docent with her no-nonsense demeanor wanted us to pay attention to her summary of the state’s history.

Using the miniature and full-scale dioramas in the gallery as substitute for power point, our docent shared her insights into the lifestyle of Alaska’s Native peoples. There were several of them but she referred to all as Eskimos in general. “Despite what you might have heard that is not a pejorative term; and the Eskimos themselves use it,” she said.  She believed in the “still dominant explanation” that those original natives of the land came through the Bering Sea. She briefly covered the exploration and settlement by the Russians, the gold rush era, the impact of the Second World War and statehood in 1959. Then she discussed the oil industry and the special yearly payment by it to every resident. This is the dividend from the Permanent Fund created by law, she explained, so that at least 25% of the state’s oil money would be put into a dedicated fund for future generations, who would no longer have oil as a resource. She said the payment is made in October, “just in time for many to take a vacation outside of Alaska before the onslaught of winter.”

Our docent then told us about the settlement of the Native people’s right to the land over which the oil pipeline from the north to the port of Valdez was built. By a Federal law in 1971, the Native claims were “abrogated” in return for land and money given to some 12 major Native regional corporations and over 200 smaller local village corporations.  She said this was an innovative approach to Native settlements which engaged the tribes in corporate capitalism. The benefits accrued only to those with at least one-fourth Native ancestry. It was hoped that this would help preserve the Native culture as well.  If the corporations were managed well and made profit, they would enable the members to stay instead of leaving Native villages to find better work.

The docent told us that there are “no reservations” for the Native people in Alaska, “you will find them mixed with others in Anchorage.” We did not find anyone on the streets of Anchorage who would stand out as a Native people. According to the 2010 census, American Indian and Alaska Natives constituted 7.9%  of Anchorage’s population of 291,826; breaking down to 1.4% Inupiat, 1.1% Yup’ik, and 0.8% Aleutian. We did run into several of the “Blacks or African Americans” who constitute 5.6% of Anchorage’s population. We also saw a few of the 8.1% who are Asians, and the 7.6% who are “Hispanic or Latino.” The sight that startled us was a woman with a Muslim headscarf driving a Taxicab in downtown Anchorage. Anchorage boasts the most ethnically diverse schools in the United States; even the least diverse schools in Anchorage rank in the top 1% nationally in that regard. By the time of the 2012 census, the proportion of “Non-Hispanic Whites” had declined to 66% in the census from 83.6% in 1980. Yet they were the people we commonly found in places we went in order to meet the “local” inhabitants.

The information desk at the Museum sent us to Club Paris, a dark busy luncheon favorite which was “voted as having the best steak in town for 16 years.” Glacier Brewhouse which advertised itself as “Where Alaskans meet Alaskans,” had a waitlist of more than an hour when we went there for dinner. It was at the Moose’s Tooth Pizzeria, however, that we saw a crowd of about 200 guests being fed. The Pizzeria was called Anchorage’s “No. 1 family restaurant,” but it also claimed to be where “yuppies and hippies” met. A man who said he came here regularly explained its popularity to us: it is both a brewery and a pizza place. On the night we were there it was celebrating  its recent designation by CNN as the No. 3 for having the best pizza in the whole country! At Sullivan’s downtown we saw a different type of clientele: two chic young women were having lunch while their teenage daughters who had just come in with full shopping bags sat at the next table, all four intermittently discussing the sale at Nordstrom in the new mall right in the center of town. This could have been the scene at any affluent suburban town of the lower 48. Anchorage also had its own Costco, Wal-Mart and Starbucks, but they were far from downtown.

When we asked our taxi driver for sights to see in the center of town, he just mentioned a couple of museums in addition to the one we had seen. On our own, we walked a few block to the western end of downtown and discovered Elderberry Park with its playground for children which overlooked the Knik Arm of the Cook Inlet. We started from the trail head that connected to the coastal trail along the Knik Arm. We were warned that this coast consisted of mostly treacherous mudflats with glacier silt, under the seemingly solid face, which is revealed when the notoriously high tide is out. Unwary victims have gotten stuck in that mud. We could see the silt The city’s other seacoast at the opposite Turnagain Arm of the Cook Inlet was the same. We were not able to find any marina-type activity near the water in Anchorage. Around Lake Hood, close to the International Airport, we saw the “world’s busiest floatplane base.”  Seaplanes were anchored in the water next to little cabins. Flight tours from here were advertised. Anchorage, we were told, is a major cross-country skiing city with some 105 miles groomed trails within the urban core. As we drove on the highway along the edge of the huge JBER military base, we noticed trails with high poles for lighting over them. In this summer evening, joggers were using the trails.  The slopes of the Chugach Mountains were to the east.  A diverse wildlife population exists within urban Anchorage, we were told, and bears and moose are regularly sighted. We did not run into any during our stay.

Early in the morning, the streets of Anchorage were even emptier when I went to Sizzlin’ Café which promised local ingredients in its breakfast. I asked if they had oranges. The young waitress came out with an orange in one hand and three tangerines in her other hand. I chose the orange. No plate or knife was offered; when the bill came I was charged 4 dollars for that orange.  I asked for the special of the day and got a heap of oatmeal in a bowl with little paper containers of brown sugar, raisins and shaved almonds. I spread that day’s The Alaska Dispatch News before me. This daily Anchorage paper is by far the most widely read newspaper in the state. The front page on this day, July 30, 2015,   had articles of national importance. On the currently most talked about issues, its headline was that Alaska’s two U.S. Senators (both Republican) were asking for more details about the Nuclear Agreement with Iran. President Barack Obama’s announced visit to the city in August was the subject of another major article.  He was to give a major address on climate change to a conference of representatives from 20 counties forming the Arctic Council. The President was also expected to travel throughout the state and “engage directly with Alaskans.”  A columnist, in the inside pages of Dispatch News, wrote that Alaska politicians should be civil toward Obama.

Anchorage usually leans toward Republican candidates in state and presidential elections. Today’s paper re-printed an article from Washington Post on Sara Palin, the former governor who was the Republican Vice -Presidential nominee in 2008. The article was about an interview that a current Republican candidate for President, Donald Trump had just given to a radio station devoted exclusively to covering Palin called Mama Grizzly Radio. Trump said that he would love to give Palin, now a reality television star, a position in his administration if he won the Presidency, “Because she really is somebody that knows what’s happening, and …I think people know that.” The warm feeling was mutual. The week before, Palin praised Trump as “the candidate giving voice to untold millions of fed-up Americans witnessing a purposeful destruction of our economy and the equal opportunity for success that made America exceptional.”  She was quoted in the article as saying that, like her, when you go to New York you must see Trump, with whom she usually had a dinner of pizza!

There have been several attempts to replace Juneau as capital with Anchorage or a site closer to it, such as Palin’s own hometown of Wasilla. The reasoning is that the majority of the state’s population lives in the “railbelt” between Anchorage and Fairbanks. The latter, the second largest city, however, has joined much of rural Alaska to successfully oppose such a move as they feared concentration of even more power in Anchorage.  We now went to see those rural areas of the railbelt.

The term “railbelt region” is defined more in connection with the “electrical grid” served by Alaska’s six regulated public utilities. Its northern part, between Anchorage and Fairbanks, is also served by the Alaska Railroad. We took the Alaska highways which were parallel to the railroad, to go from Anchorage to Denali Park, some 237 miles away. The first part, Alaska Route 1 was also called the Glenn Highway. This was a rather flat road but we could see the Chugach Mountains looming to the east.   It passed through small town like Eagle River from which many commuted to Anchorage for work.  It took us to the agricultural town of Palmer some 42 miles away. Palmer was where in the Great Depression, 203 families were sent from the colder northern Midwest states to start a farming colony. They now grow peas, potatoes, carrots, rhubarb, lettuce and cabbage.

Glenn Highway connected to Route 3 in the eastern reaches of the town of Wasilla. From there Route 3, also known as the Parks Highway went straight to Denali. Named after George Parks, a former governor of the Territory of Alaska, this was a mostly two-lane, smooth road, with green forests and pink fireweed between us and the mountains to the east. Fluffy clouds filled parts of the sky. On dial 98.1, a commercial classical radio station from Anchorage played a piece by Hayden.


From the Parks Highway we could see the historic Wasilla Railroad Depot which was now the city’s Chamber of Commerce. It was around the corner from the Mayor’s office. At the intersection of Main Street and the Highway was a big poster on the wall. It said “Want Cash? Give us” above the picture of a wedding ring and, then, a telephone number  . The ring had double meaning as that wall was one side of a store calling itself “Pawn and Bargain Center,” with another sign below it which read “Gun, Loans” with a drawing of handgun . I walked into the Chamber’s office behind this store to ask for a map of Wasilla and some information. The young man across the counter gave us a map with an x marked on it. He was prepared for tourists who usually just wanted to know where the former Mayor, Sara Palin lived.  The mark showed where her house was. “But it is in a gated area across the lake and you only can see it from the other bank of the lake,” the man said, “look for a Best Western and her house is to its left.”  He said the gates were put up in the last few years. I took a short path at the end of the “Lake Lucille Camper Park” to reach a deck facing the Best Western. The lake was pretty but big.  There was a couple on the deck and a woman lying at its end smoking, with her daughter running next to her . The man did not know about the Palin house. He said he was from North Carolina and on vacation to celebrate his 30th anniversary. His wife smiled sweetly as he continued. “I was stationed at the air force base in Anchorage then for five years.” He said he had seen more of Alaska in one day of this vacation “than in all of those five years.” The smoking woman nodded toward the other bank of the lake, indicating that was where Palin’s house was located. I squinted and could only see the white paint of some structures in the trees.  Later that day the menu in a pub some 60 miles north of here reminded me of Palin’s famous saying: a hamburger was named “I can see Russia” .

The Iditarod Trail Headquarters was on the street we took to go to Lucille Lake. The Iditarod Sled Dog Museum is two miles down on Knik road, which was the original wagon road from Knik south of here. Wasilla has an Iditarod Elementary School and an Iditapark & Wonderland Park. In the local brochures we read that the Iditarod race was begun by a group of Wasilla area people worried that the art of dog mushing would be lost because dogs were being replaced by “snowmachines;” they hoped thus to revive interest in sled dogs. The race is on the Iditarod Trail used by the miners from Knik to Nome which followed the original Native Athabascans’ trails.  It now begins every March in Anchorage and heads north to Nome.

The legend and lore of the Great Race attract national attention. The race is based  on a 1925 humanitarian diphtheria epidemic serum run to Nome, over the old Iditarod mail trial. This began in Nenana, 50 miles south of Fairbanks: On Jan 27, it was too cold for the planes to fly, so a relay team of 20 mushers, using over a 100 dogs, passed the serum package from village to village along the trail to Nome, arriving on February 2.

In Wasilla, on the way back from the Lake to the Parks Highway we spotted a store with this sign: “OMG: Cheep Smoke;” and there was another: Drive through Dogwash.”  Driving north in Wasilla, on the side of the Highway we noticed a sign for a towing company, calling itself: “Happy Hooker.” There were several strip malls here. When we drove in the direction of downtown Wasilla, we went through many blocks of houses with large lots, resembling prosperous suburbs of the U.S. At a major intersection in this residential area there were three evangelical churches, one of them called King of Kings.

When we asked about Wasilla from the concierge in our hotel in Anchorage, she referred to it dismissively as just a “highway town.”  Wasilla grew with the new wealth created by the construction of the Trans-Alaskan Pipeline. We saw other highway towns which have not been that lucky, a series of communities that grew up around lodges every 10 miles or so at creek crossings and lakes, about the same distance apart that an 1898 Gold Rush miner could travel by foot or horse in a day. After Wasilla at Mile 42 of the Parks Highway, there were Big Lake at Mile 52, and others, all the way to Montana Creek at Mile 97.


Talkeetna was different, we were told, and we went to see it. It is more than 14 miles off the Parks Highway, on a “Spur Road,” which branches eastward from the Highway at Mile 99.  Talkeetna is “historic” by Alaska standards: it will celebrate its 100th anniversary next year. It was built by miners, prospectors, adventurers and the railroad. Turn of the 20th century buildings line the one-block Main Street. Many are full of stores and shops catering to tourists But Talkeetna is also an artist community with a funky style.  Ice cream is still made in an antique machine On a side street there was an outdoors art show, where we also saw posters announcing a number of upcoming events.  The residents boasted that the only parking meter in town is, in fact, broken, but they also said that they volunteered in the library and the town’s radio station. The last “whistle stop” train in the U.S. runs through town; the locals “flag” the train to stop for them.

Talkeetna is now less a supply station for miners and trappers than it once was, but it is the staging area for climbing as it is the closest town to Denali. That is the name in the local Athabascan language for the mountain which is also called Mt. McKinley. At 20,320 feet, its southern peak is the highest in North America -some 700 feet taller than the second highest, Mount Logan in Canada. According to a ranger stationed in Talkeetna, every year roughly 1200 folks com  here from all over the world to “jump off” for the Denali Base Camp. In Athabascan, Talkeetna means “where the rivers join.”  There are three of them: Chulitna River, Susitna River and Talkeetna River. We walked to the end of the Main Street to the bank of a very wide river created by the confluence of the Talkeetna and Susitna. We brushed aside vendors selling “Mexican souvenirs,” and saw signs protesting the proposed dam on the Sustina River. We did not see Denali as we had hoped; it was behind clouds in the distance.

Toward Denali

Back on Parks Highway, we paralleled the Susitna River’s currents north for a while. With the green of the trees and the white of the mountains snow, the river made a beautiful dramatic scene against the gloriously blue sky . We now had our first view of the Alaska Range which is in an arc east-west on the southern edge of Denali Park.  We were enticed by signs to stop and look for the Denali (McKinley) peak in the Range . The sign at the lookout warned us that “The peaks of the Alaska Range are so high they create their own severe, unpredictable weather, which often hides the scenery.”  It asked: “Is Denali out today?” It was not.

From another sign we learned that the suffix “tna,” as at the end of Susitna, meant river in the Tanaina language . We also learned that people who live along the rivers and coastline of northern Alaska are predominantly Native American –Yup’ik, Inupiat and Athabascan. There were three Athabascan cultures in the territories: the Tanaina (or Dena’ina) country hugs the ocean, including what is now Anchorage. They are unique as the only Athabascans who had direct access to the sea. The rest are landlocked and river-dependent. To the north of the Dena’ina is the land of the Ahtna Athabascans, mostly extending east across the Denali Highway which was some 100 miles from we stood, at the town of Cantwell. North of the Athna -along the Tanana and Yukon Rivers, near and north of Fairbanks, another 150 miles away- was the third group, the Tanana Indians who always used those giant rivers as roads across their territory. The animals, foliage and place we saw on our journey all still hold special use and meaning for these three groups, whose own roots go back in Alaska thousands of years.

There were two lookouts on the Parks Highway for viewing the Denali peaks. They had overnight parking for campers. The camping tourists helped day visitors like us look for Denali. The interpretive signs projected heights and positions of the mountains in the Alaska Range facing us. But the angle and shape of numerous mountains depicted changed as you moved your position. It was not uncommon to mistake another mountain, or even a glacier, for the snow-clad Denali peak. A friendly camper pointed out my mistake but could not point out Denali as it was “hidden behind the clouds.” She told me that in the early morning she stood looking for Denali “a good two hours” before the clouds moved enough to reveal “the high one,” which is Denali in the Athabascan language. We were reduced to quip that it was not really all that hard to find Denali:  just look for the biggest concentration of the clouds in that direction, Denali is right behind it.

Camper cars and RVs constituted much of the traffic on the Parks Highway which offers much not just to vacationers but also more serious students of nature. As we drove, we were fascinated by the diverse environments the Highway traverses. The Susitna River Valley is full of thick forests and birch trees.  North of it, in the wide open Broad Pass, there was mix of small spruce and low shrubs called “taiga.” We learned that there are more taiga forests in the world than any other terrain: they cover 30% of the earth, stretching across Alaska, Canada and Russia. The Broad Pass which is a low gap across the Alaska Range is also a dividing line where rivers to the south drain into Cook Inlet and those to the north flow to the Yukon River. Further along on the Parks Highway, 210 miles from Anchorage, we were in high tundra.  This was followed by Nenana River which starts from the Nenana Glacier to the southeast, crossing the Parks Highway and paralleling it closely for some 30 miles. Then it carves its way through the Alaska Range and forms the Nenana Canyon.

Old time Alaskan residents have an appropriate term for traveling in such wondrous land: “bearfooting.” It is verb that means losing yourself in the moment when you find yourself looking at a phenomenon of nature and cannot remember what day of the week it is, and you don’t care. It was that experience which such a resident mentioned when I asked her what she liked the best about Alaska. She was a construction worker on the Parks Highway who flagged the cars to stop as this segment of it was reduced to one lane due to the road work. We were at the top of the line and I noticed the sticker on her helmet which said “Alaska Girls.” She explained that this was because all the construction workers today were women, , except the ones who were striping the road.  “We call them strippers,” she said, laughing.  She was a mother of three grown kids. Her house was about 70 miles away but she stayed near the construction site in a trailer while working. Construction work paid well.  She worked in bars during the winter when “there are tons of tourists – the Parks Highway is plowed- many come to snow-machine but also to hunt.” She said she hunted too. She liked “everything” about Alaska. “We have everything here, water, fish, scenery,” she punctuated. Her recommendation for us was: “Go to Trapper Creek south of here and take the Petersville Road which is not paved after the first few miles. That is the shortest route to experiencing some of the wild which is real Alaska.”

Denali Park

From the deck of the Grande Denali Lodge which was perched high on the hill just outside the Denali Park we had a panoramic view of the Nenana River and Canyon. The strip of hotels, shops and restaurants by the Nenana Canyon which passes as the business district of the area, and was also called the Canyon by the locals, was also under our feet We could see the Denali Park and its entrance amidst the forest of spruce trees.  All of these were in a framework of mountains all  around us We sat down in the bar of the Lodge to read about the history of the Park. It was established as the Mount McKinley National Park by Congress in 1917, one year after the creation of the National Park Service. Credit is given to Charles Sheldon who, beginning in January of 1908, spent 10 months around Kantishna Hills, now “Mile 92” from the Park entrance on the road that has since been built in the Park. Sheldon devoted much effort to make this a preserved and protected national park.  What impressed him the most was the view he saw south from Kantishna of a 30-mile massif that plunges straight down to the tundra. That was the north peak of Mount McKinley.

The mountain was known since the English explorer George Vancouver first charted it in 1794. The first climber tried to reach its summit of Denali in 1903.  In 1896 it was named Mount McKinley by the American gold-seeker William Dickey. He wanted to honor presidential candidate William McKinley who had championed a gold-based currency. The local Koyukon Athabaskans, however, has long known it as Deenaanlee, meaning the “High One” . Sheldon followed them, but made the name simpler as Denali. That is the name used now by the Alaska Board of Geographic Names, although he U.S. Board of Geographic Name still calls it McKinley.

In 1917 Mount McKinley National Park also had another purpose which was the creation of a game sanctuary.  There were wild animals here, “the big five” being the grizzlies, caribou, wolves, moose, and dall sheep. Indeed, the efforts to stop the practice of harvesting wild sheep and caribou to feed the people had begun before and directly contributed to the establishment of the Park. President Jimmy Carter in 1980 signed into law legislation that enlarged the Park from two million acres to six million, with the official name Denali National Park and Preserve. Larger than the State of New Hampshire, the Park’s new boundaries encompass entire watersheds and the home ranges of wildlife populations.

There is only one road through the Park. Its first 15 miles is paved and you can drive it in your car. The rest is unpaved. The Park runs a bus service that goes for the rest of the 92 mile road. This is the key to conserving the park’s wilderness character, as the Park rangers reminded us Each bus takes the place of dozens of personal vehicles, saves on fuel and emissions, and allows you to watch and enjoy the scenery and wild animals. Nearly 100,000 visitors a year travel this way on the road, most in the summer –the Park road is closed in winter beyond Mile 3.4. We took the bus tour that most visitors take which went to Eielson Visitor Center at Mile 66, and back. It took us roughly 4 hours each way with the stops.

The driver narrated. He said we should say stop to indicate when we spotted an animal and mention its location as the “hour” on the clock. The mountains we saw on the west were called Inner Range and the ones on the east were Outer Range. We made a couple of stops for restrooms at designated spots. We came out of the bus for viewing the Polychrome Overlook where there were mountain peak at 5790 feet and a glacier, both by that name, Polychrome. Further on we saw the Divide Mountain which divided the biggest river of the area, the Toklat.  At some of these stops we saw flower boxes with wildflowers: pink fireweed and blue monk’s hood . At Eielson Visitor Center, there was an apt quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Earth smiles in flowers” .” We were not allowed to get out of the bus otherwise. In fact, we could but only at our own risk and we were advised to observe the rules of precaution.  We saw a few people walking down on the trails on the side of the road.  They hopped on our bus which stopped for them. Some were staying in the campsites in the Park.  There are also ranger- led hikes in the Park.

We were told that for safety one should keep away from the bears at least 300 yards and 25 yards from other four wild big animals of the Park. “If a moose charges you,” our bus driver said, “run away, he can’t catch you. But don’t run away from a bear as he can run 30 miles per hour.” He also said “Never get between a sow and her cubs. In fact, if you see a bear do not go near it, say, to take a photo.” He had just finished saying this when we say two Japanese tourists doing exactly that on the side of the road. Our driver shouted at them not to get close:   “don’t run, slowly retreat.”

On our bus, we followed the driver’s instructions and the trip became an experience. The bus went quiet, cameras softly clicking, when animals were spotted only 50 feet away. Later, everybody talked with new animation, recalling stories of their other encounters with wild animals.  We were told that there was a 25% chance of seeing Denali but 95% of spotting a grizzly bear in the Park.  Its large size and special ecosystem allow wildlife to wander, unafraid of humans: “There aren’t more animals here than elsewhere; just a combination of open country and the animals not being pursued.”  There are an estimated 2,500 moose in the Park’s taiga level spruce forest, 300 grizzly bears, 2,200 caribou and 50 wolves all [21] in the alpine tundra[22]; and 2,200 dall sheep in the rocky, steep cliffs of the Park [23]. The grizzly bears that could weigh as much as 6,000 pounds are the dominant predators in the Park. There are also some black bears here, but they are far less common.

The man sitting on my left spotted specs of white high on the mountain on his side which he said were dall sheep as he showed me the picture he took of them in his high-powered camera.  We saw our first caribous[24] in a group of three, in the bushes near the bus on our way into the park. We saw more on the way back. One caribou sauntered right in front of our bus[25] which stopped as the animal, ignoring us, decided to remain there for a while[26]. Not long afterward, we saw another caribou on the road with its back to us. Presently, he opened his hind legs and began peeing in front of us[27]. Soon we had seen so many caribous that we were not interested in them anymore: “Oh, it is just a caribou,” became the inside joke among us.

We saw our first bears on the way back, on both sides of the bus in the shrubberies. We saw bears three times. The most dramatic was when a blonde mother grizzly and her two cubs, one black and the other cinnamon color [28], were spotted just 40 feet away in the bushes to our left[29]. As our bus stopped, the bears slowly came to the road and crossed it  [30] to the bushes on the other side[31]. We stayed a bit longer taking pictures of them.  By now two other buses had joined us from the other side. The last bear we saw started moving toward the wide Teklanika River which we could see from the stop station we came to presently. He was walking on the gravel bar in the vast bed of the river [32]. We noted a few squirrels rushing across the road.  Some in our bus also said that they saw a bald eagle.

Our bus driver said that in the Denali National Preserve part of the Park hunting was allowed. The Park Road extended to Wonder Lake at Mile 85 and beyond to Kantishna at Mile 92. The map showed that there was an airstrip there. It also showed a campground in Wonder Lake and five more within the first 45 miles of the road.  Ansell Adam immortalized Wonder Lake which mirrors the McKinley peaks in reflection with his pictures, the best place to look for those peaks in the Denali Park.

In the Eielson Visitor Center, the window facing the McKinley and nearby mountains had etchings of them, along with markers on the floor for people of different heights. This was to create a focus to enable you to verify that you were indeed seeing the McKinley and not another mountain of the Alaska Range. With the help of the map [33] I could determine that the highest mountain I could see at the time was Mount Carpe at 12,550. This was because the sky was clear only up to 13,000 feet and covered by clouds above that. The map indicated that the two peaks of Mount McKinley were to my right, the North at 19, 470 feet, and left, the South at 20, 3201 feet. In between them was the Harper Glacier.  This system demonstrated that depending at what angle you stood you could mistake any of several other high mountains nearby for Mount McKinley, unless it was in the clear, out of the clouds, when either of the peaks would truly tower over the other mountains.

Denali Park has much more than the McKinley peaks to offer. The scenery was at times simply breathtaking. There were pristine verdant tundra [34], fast [35] and wide [36] rivers and colorfully painted mountains [37]. Far from obscuring this landscape, the clouds often added to its charm. Even when threatening they created drama [38].

Denali Park’s face is as alive as its nature is dynamic. The polychrome peaks were hardened lava from a period of mountain building millions of years ago, but this area experiences continued seismic activity. “Earthquake tremors are frequent,” we learned: “As the crustal plates along the Denali Fault keep grinding together, mountains of the Alaska Range may still be rising  [39].”  As we saw glaciers behind and between those peaks, we also noticed signs of massive glaciations in the valleys fronting the mountains. There were gouged-out ponds, stranded boulders and gravel outwash plains. Indeed, Denali’s wandering meltwater rivers, cloudy with glacial silt and rock fragments are evidence of still active, ongoing glaciation and mountain carving.






Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: Bariloche has the reputation of being a tourist Mecca. Tourists are everywhere and act as if Bariloche is theirs. This paradise, however, has many other claimants. First is Nature that made it and periodically reminds us that it could easily destroy it. Argentina is next in line, claiming the area as a National Park. The Park, however, excludes pockets of private property owned by settlers who were there before its establishment. The more numerous permanent residents of Bariloche consider it simply their hometown. Finally, the Mapuche, recognized by Argentina as the Original People of the region, reject all others’ titles, asserting their own on the basis of their traditional belief that they are an inseparable part of Nature itself.  Embellished by them all, the object of their attention Bariloche shines as a wonder to behold.


Tourists and Residents

When I arrived, in January 2013, the town of San Carlos de Bariloche was crowded with tourists. We had been told that it was the second most-visited destination in Argentina, after the much bigger Buenos Aires. We found a sprawling community that stretched for miles along the narrow bank of a lake. Its compact urban part centered around a plaza which took shape some 70 years ago. On one side of the Plaza was the Civic Center building, completed in 1940, and on the other corner was the Museum of Patagonia which also opened in 1940.

The CivicCenter is one of the oldest buildings of the whole town. Both in architecture and in the use of stone and wood it reminded me of Swiss Alpine structures. The influence of the Swiss and other recent immigrants – German, Austrian and English- was also noticeable in several buildings of the downtown. In the midst of these were one-story high old structures with colonnaded sidewalks typical of any small Argentine town and multi-story modern buildings. Contemporary restaurants which catered to tourists  stood next to central-European style chocolaterias . This was a town still in the process of taking a coherent shape.

The public discourse of Bariloche’s local residents took place in the CivicCenterPlaza . Its rectangular ground in the middle was marked with signs of demands for accountability regarding those who were “disappeared” by Argentine’s past military rulers in their “Dirty War” of 1976-1983 against political opponents. As in Buenos Aires, here too bandanas were drawn in paint, emblematic reminders of what the mothers of the “disappeared” wore in their frequent protests. Written next to the bandanas were the names of local disappeared, such as Alejandro Sackamann .

Later in the afternoon, four women appeared in the Plaza, formed a small circle and began beating drums which were hung from their shoulders. Their message was displayed on a sign: “Return all that you stole! (Quienes roban – Devuelves todo)”. A supporter soon held up a more explicit sign: “No cyanide! (no cianuro)”. The reference was to the mining nearby that used cyanide which polluted the water. As new arrivals expanded the group of the protesters in the Plaza, they spread a huge blue sheet on the ground covered with their protest pronouncements.

Bariloche has “a hectic nightlife” in the tourist season, we were warned. “Dancing places open at 2 in the morning and do not close before 6.” I ran into the young customers of those establishments later when I rode the bus out to see the sights that attracted the tourists here in the first place. Just outside the urban area is the magnificent 40-mile long Lake Nahuel Huapi. Its blue water was inviting, but our tour guide had said it was too cold for swimming. This did not deter the young backpackers, like those on my bus, from jumping in.


We took a chairlift to the top of Campanario Hill for a better view of the lake. From the lookout there I saw, in fact, three lakes in the dramatic panorama before me. In addition to Lake Nahuel Huapi, there were the smaller LakeMoreno and CloverLake . Their azure water reflected the AndesMountains standing high to the west. On this summer day I could only see a bare line of snow on the peaks. The Mountains were, however, the sources of the glaciers which ages ago moved into the valley of Nahuel Huapi to make those lakes. We were told that there is now only one glacier left nearby, melting and adding water to the lakes.

That water of the lakes drains on the east end into LimayRiver. After a 30 minute drive from downtown Bariloche we boarded a boat for a raft trip on the Limay. This is an important river in the region. The captain of our boat said that many other rivers later join it before it pours into the Atlantic Ocean. On Limay’s long length many dams have been constructed which together produce 25% of the electricity used in Argentina. Its water is also used for agriculture. The stretch we covered was gentle and the floating allowed me to observe up-close the impact of the glaciers of its provenance. The rapids we ran were only “Class 2,” the captain said.

In the language of the original (“indigenous”) people who lived here Limay means “clear water reflection”. The water was so clear and pure that one could drink it. This river was also home to an abundance of large rainbow and brown trout making it a famous popular site for fly-fishing. We saw sports fishermen standing on the edges of the river. Limay was no deeper than 15 meters; its deepest points were the places where “the glaciers went forward for the last time,” our captain said. He pointed out an imperial (blue-eyed) cormorant that was on a log. “He is drying his feathers because they are not water proof.” These cormorants are among the few birds that can dive. It is not common to see them in rivers because they are usually found in marine coastal waters, we were told..

In addition to the glaciers, the LimayRiver has been affected by volcanic activities in the Andes. In fact the river was surrounded by volcanic rock formations. Close to its banks we could see tops of hills which were cut off the volcanic mountains long ago. There were tufa rocks, basalt rocks and rocks with green patches indicating copper content. Condors and eagles had made their nests in holes in some of the rocks. Our guide pointed out the result of the interaction between volcanoes and glaciers in the rocks laid on top of each other horizontally. “That is because of the rapid cooling of the volcanic lava hitting the ice of the glacier,” he said.

Toward the end of our tour we came to the edges of the northern Patagonian steppe which the moisture from the Andes did not reach. The landscape was dry. We saw some silver poplar trees. More distinctive was the occasional maiten tree. It was native and valuable as it shows where the water channel is “because its roots go way down,” the captain said. “Also its wood burns long.”

Coming out of the river, we drove through ashes left from the 2011 volcanic eruption. Such eruptions are not unusual in this region. The prior ones were in 1921, 1950. The mountain that blew off on June 4 two years ago was across the border in Chile. The wind here is west to east, however, and the ashes came to Argentina. Our guide described the impact: “Trout in the river died because of the pumice in their stomach. Villages closer to the volcano, across the lake from Bariloche were covered with ashes for days. In some of them roofs of houses collapsed under the heavy weight of the ashes. The Bariloche airport was closed for months. In Bariloche we had no electricity for a few days. Everything was blanketed with ash for a year. People wore colorful clothes to change the monotony.” We passed areas still covered with ashes, and saw ash that had gotten thick and solidified as stone.

National Park

Bariloche is located in a National Park. It was originally called the NahuelHuapiNational Park in 1934, but has since been renamed after the person who is called as the father of the National Parks of Argentina, Francisco P. Moreno. The Bariloche Museum of Patagonia, which is also named after Dr. Marino (1852-1919), describes him with no fewer than 8 expertises: “Explorer, Anthropologist, Paleontologist, Geologist, Geographer, Educator, Historian, Legislator.” Moreno’s accomplishments in this region were also manifold. The demarcation of the current border between Argentina and Chile is largely the result of his work.

The 1881 Boundary Treaty between the two countries which followed the Andes mountain range left room for dispute over whether the Patagonia drainage basins or the highest Andes peaks would be the frontier. Chile favored the former. Moreno, appointed as Pertito (technical expert) in 1902, disproved the Chilean claim, which was based on the continental divide, by showing that many Patagonian lakes draining to the Pacific Ocean were in fact part of Argentina’s Atlantic Ocean basin. War was avoided only with the mediation of the British King who established the current border in the region, by roughly dividing the many disputed lakes of the region. Those lakes still have different names on each side.

No love is lost between Argentina and Chile. As we were about to cross the border into Chile, our Argentine guide said: “Chile is not very friendly toward people from Argentina.” The conflicts between the two countries flare periodically. The last time was as late as 1992. “In 1978 we were almost at war,” our guide said. Indeed, the frontier between them at 1321 meters above the sea in the AndesMountains here is named: International Pass of Cardinal Antonio Samore, after the man from the Vatican who mediated their 1978 conflict over the BeagleIslands. The landscape of the “no man’s land” that separates the borders of the two countries was dominated by burned trees resulting from the hot ashes of the 2011 eruption of the Puyehue Volcano which we could now see.

In recognition of Francisco Moreno’s services for settling the frontier problems with Chile, the Argentine government granted him 7500 hectares of land in the Bariloche area. In 1903, Moreno gave that land to the nation as the nucleus for the creation of the NahuelHuapiNational Park.



Like Moreno, the crew he brought with him were compensated for their services in land grants by Argentina. Unlike Moreno, many did not return their lands. They have been allowed to keep them as private property even though they are now located in the expanded National Park. We went to visit one such family in their estate which, like many others, now mainly caters to the tourist industry of Bariloche.

We drove east from the CivicCenter for some 10 miles. The road became increasingly dusty as we soon entered the dry steppe of Patagonia.  The ranch that was our destination was special in this area because it had a marsh with valuable water. At its gate, we were greeted warmly by Chango, the head of the family and a full line-up of his wife, son, daughter and grandson. Inside their house we sat in a vast room with windows all around which served as both the living and dining areas. They served us yerba mate in the highly stylized, ritualistic process that this herbal tea, the national drink of Argentina, is taken.

One of the women assumed the role of the preparer-server (cebador). She poured hot water into three small pots which had been set on a table. Inside each pot was a fistful of mate. She said “This mate comes from a bush which is tall, almost like a tree, in the Dagussa Falls region.” She inserted a straw (bombilla), partly made from silver, into one of the pots and sucked the tea water, making a loud noise. She said “That noise is not considered bad manner in our culture.” Then she refilled the pot with hot water and passed it to the person on her right. After he finished, he gave it back and she filled up the pot again for the next person on the right. This was repeated until everyone in the circle around her had their full sipping, all using the same straw. Indeed, “that sharing is what makes the mate a social event,” our local guide said. “We do this all the time and we never worry about passing our germs.” The guide added, this service by the cebador, always to her right in the round, would continue until the mate in the pot is “washed out,” except to the person who would say thank you (gracias),” indicating that he wanted no more when he passed the straw back to the cebador.

We were told that the Guarani, another Original People of South America, were probably the first to grow mate. The Jesuit missionaries who came with the Spaniards later learned about the mate from them. Mate literally means “cup herb;” and the traditional cup from which it is drunk is a dried gourd. With the mate, our hosts offered us torta freta (fried bread), which is usually fried in fat, but we were assured that “these were fried in oil.”

After the mate, Chango led us to the corral where he kept several horses. His son, Pancho, said “my father has a passion for horses.” Another man was saddling them up for us to ride. We mounted the horses and put on a helmet to follow Chango in a single file for a slow walk. Chango did not wear a helmet. Instead, he had on a traditional Basque hat. This had been made by her daughter in cotton, he told us, “but the real Basque version would use horse hair.” We rode through a large grassy field. Chango said the yellowing grass was native to the area. We saw bushes with white flowers which were also native. There were many Calafate bushes, typical of the Patagonian steppe. They had red berries on them which are edible. The Southern Cyprus trees we went through were indigenous but the pine trees in the distant forest had been planted some 25 years ago by Chango.  We heard the noise made by small frogs which were native in the wet areas of the ranch’s marsh. Chango’s dog that came with us chased rabbits. At one point the dog caught one and brought it back to his master. Chango came down from his horse and picked up the rabbit and tied it to his saddle. He said he would make a meal with it later.

When we returned to the ranch house, Pancho had already started the asado, barbecuing lamb. He had lined an open pit in the ground with rocks and bricks and had made a fire using chacay bushes and some pine cones. Big pieces of lamb were attached to a grill which stood vertically around the fire. The meat was “stretched up” so that the fire would cook all of it. It came from the lamb “one-year old with two teeth, or two-year old with four teeth.” We were told that Patagonians would bring their own knife to the asado. Our guide said that like others, she had several knives, her favorites being the one that had once belonged to her grandfather and another that was given to her on her 50th birthday.

We sat down to eat at a long wooden table set by Chango’s wife and their daughter who had also made salads. Pancho stood up and told us about the history of the family and the ranch. Pictures of his clan were behind him on the wall [46]. In 1875 Pancho’s forefathers came from Germany to Argentina. The coat of arms in the house identified them as the Hanecks. When yellow fever hit Buenos Aires, they moved to Patagonia. Chango’s grandfather went to work with Moreno at the age of 14. He became a cook in his household. In return for his service he eventually received a grant of 1,250 hectares of land. He marked the boundaries of his property by planting poplar trees. When he died, several of his children sold their shares of the property. Chango’s father kept his. Chango and his brother also followed his example. The Hanecks’ property is now only 150 hectares, but it has become very valuable. The family continues to live on the ranch. As Pancho was telling us this history of several generations, Chango sat smiling with his grandson on his knees, each wearing one of those cotton Basque hats.

Original People

On the road between the Hanecks’ estate and Bariloche we noticed several ramshackle structures built in no particular order in the dry steppe with some bushes as their only shrubbery. “They were put up by the Mapuche as their homes,” our local guide said. “The land belongs to the Bariloche municipality. These Mapuche have no permit to build. They are squatters. They just raise a national flag next to those shacks and move in.” She said “They cannot do this elsewhere.” In the last five years, she continued, “there has been no eviction of them because many people in Bariloche are Mapuche.” Our guide had arranged a meeting for us with a Mapuche representative.

Christina was the “Speaker to the Outside” in her Mapuche community and she told us her story of the Mapuche in detail. She was one of the four officials in each community; the others being Speaker of the Community to the Inside, President and Vice President. The offices were all hereditary. There were about 60 persons in each Mapuche community, and about 120 such communities in this province of Rio Negro alone, according to Christina, but Mapuche were “distributed all over Patagonia.” The Mapuche people did not come from anywhere else, such as the Barring Strait or Polynesia; they “originated here.” Christina pointed out that “the Argentine Constitution recognizes the Mapuche as the ‘Original People’ of Argentina.

That was not always the Argentine government’s position. In 1872 Argentine authorities began expeditions to the areas occupied by the Indians, as various Original Peoples were then called, in a program aimed at taking possession of the whole of the national territory. By 1989 the government’s strategy in areas where Bariloche is located, evolved into the “Conquest of the Desert,” which meant that the Indians “were to be pushed away from the land,” Christina said. This policy was followed relentlessly even if it meant “killing the Mapuche.”

The Mapuche claim that all that land historically “belonged to them.” They did not “own” the land in the Western sense,” because they considered themselves “part of nature,” and for that reason assert that the land is “theirs.”  This problem of ownership of land has been treated differently by the recent Argentine governments. Christina said: “During President Peron’s Administration in the 1940s, the Mapuche were recognized as owners of all their land.” Under President Nestor Kirchner, 2003-2007, the Mapuche were declared the “legal owners” of their land. Christina said: “However, that is the Federal Law, and Argentine Provinces each are free to accept it or not. Two months ago Rio Negro adopted that law. Despite that, land is continued to be sold by people other than Mapuche who are on it. In the disputes that arise the Mapuche are too weak in asserting their rights in the legal process.” The result is that “Most Mapuche are now living in higher hills in what is really a reservation. They pay the National Park for the grass their animals use in the park.” They had to sign an agreement obligating them to pay these fees. They were illiterate and signed by thumb print, not knowing what terms they were committing to.

We would later see a copy of one of those agreements with the thumb signature. In Bariloche’s Moreno Museum I learned that before the Mapuche came to this area in the second half of the 17th century, it was inhabited by other Original Peoples, especially the Pehuenche but they were soon “absorbed by the stronger, more evolved one, the Araucano Indians from Chile.”  Those Araucano Indians were the Mapuche. The Mapuche were an agricultural people, while the Pehuenche had been nomadic and hunters. Today even the name Pehuenche is what the Mapuche called them in the Mapuche language (Mapudungun), meaning “people from the aracarian forest.” Similarly the name Bariloche is from the Mapuche language, pronounced Vuriloche, meaning “people from behind the mountain,” as is Nahuel Huapi which means “puma island.”

The Mapuche came here because the Spaniards pushed them out of their land in present day Chile. They used canoes to cross the lakes we had seen at Bariloche. The Museum had an example of those early canoes on display. Today ships have replaced them to connect the two countries by waterways. Christina said that the Argentine Mapuche in Argentina are in contact with the Mapuche left in Chile “who call themselves the Pacific Mapuche, but they don’t agree with their activities.” She said “Those Mapuche are violent because their historical reality was different.” According to her, there were 24 groups of Original People in Argentina today, and they have formed a forum for cooperation. The democratic governments which have succeeded the military rule in Argentina after 1983 have been more responsive to the demands of the Original Peoples.  Their agendas, however, are not all the same. Christina told us her personal story of activism to protect the culture of her Mapuche community as an example.

Her grandfather had been murdered in a land dispute. Only 12 years ago the Mapuche won the right to have their Mapuche names on the national Identification card. Even today, although 65% of the population of Bariloche is Mapuche, most do not recognize or acknowledge themselves as such, believing that disclosing their ethnicity is not advantageous. Christina’s own father does not agree with her activism.

She became a physical education teacher, after finishing university. A few years ago, the Mapuche were allowed to have their own school but the government said because only 19 students attended it was too small and closed it down. Christina helped lead a sit-down demonstration with support from her grandmother. Failing to get results, Christina hitchhiked to Buenos Aires to obtain redress. While there she made friends with “the lady who cleaned the house of a of T.V. journalist who through that lady learned and became interested in” Christina’s cause and “became a supporter.” Especially to cover Christina’s “protesting grandmother,” now several members of the media came to Bariloche.” Their coverage of the news led the Argentine government to send officials from the Minister of Education. Finally, the authorities decided to re-open the MapucheSchool. At Christina’s insistence, the government agreed to make that a bi-cultural school.

Christina said that later there was a huge demonstration for the rights of the Mapuche children in Bariloche, “but the police intervened and in trying to stop it killed several people.” Two of them were Christina’s students. Since then her commitment has became deeper and her own husband and 3 children have joined her to help. They created an NGO (Non-governmental organization) to teach children, and thereby to take them off the street. They are taught, among other things, “how to repair computers.” Her NGO has made an agreement with Cuba to send Mapuche students to study medicine in Cuba. “Five of those students have finished and are back practicing in the community.” Three others have completed law school. Her NGO is supported by five Argentine labor unions. They help the students to attend university. Her NGO is the only such community organization for the Mapuche in Rio Negro, and probably in all of Patagonia.

Christina said she and her family speak the Mapuche language at home. Ten years ago she started a brochure telling the history of the Mapuche. The city of Bariloche provides support for this project. She was now preparing a book on the same subject in Spanish which would be the first of its kind. The Mapuche have kept an oral tradition. They do not have a “God.” Instead, they consider land to be the “mother.” Natural forces are elements of the land. They have two main sacred ceremonies, each lasting 4 days. Those are held in rural communities and in open air in a place thought to be where the rainbow took place.

One of those first ceremonies is held in February when there is full moon. At this ceremony the Mapuche dance, dressed up as the ostrich-like native rhea “because the rhea taught the Mapuche how to live in a community.” The dancers are all boys. They dance the way the rhea moves. She showed us a picture of the dancers. On this occasion the Mapuche introduce the new babies to the community and name them “according to the mother’s dream.” They also introduce the soon- to- be married.  Marriage is always across Mapuche communities and not within the same community.

The second major ceremony is on the occasion of the New Year which is their winter solstice, July 21. This ceremony is significant for teenagers.  Girls are given their first earrings and the first medallion which shows their lineage. Boys are given their first ponchos which used to be woven with guanaco hair, but now it is made with sheep hair. On the right of the poncho is the boy’s lineage from the father and on left from the mother. The boys are also given their first musical instrument which is wind at this ceremony. Finally, they are taught medical procedures.

In those ceremonies the Mapuche wear their distinctive hat, traditional colorful clothes, and silver jewelry. Silversmithing is their long-standing signature art. Christina was a fine silversmith. After her talk we went to a table where she had spread her silver art-pieces on display. Tourists stopped by and bought them as souvenirs -small consolation for compromising the pristine patrimony that Nature bequeathed her ancestors, Christina would think.



Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract:  Calafate is a bush that bears berries and provides shade in the dry rain-shadow of the AndesMountains which is the Patagonian Steppe. It is also the name of a small Argentine town with shallow roots, barely older than a century, which emerged as a welcome oasis for the traders of wool produced by the millions of sheep grazing in that steppe. As the wool industry declined, El Calafate found its future in the glamour of the giant glaciers produced by the Patagonian ice fields of the Andes. It still manifests its dual character: if you look south from El Calafate you see the landscape of its past, if you look north you see the water wonders that attract so many tourists from afar. As a unique place and time in transition, El Calafate is a concept that engages imagination.



Outpost in Argentina

In her official portrait, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner sitting in an oversized chair looked more like a casual housewife than the president of a country. Even her title was folksy: President of Argentinians (los Argentinos). I was in the Jorge Laguizamon Immigration and Customs Office, named after a simple uniformed officer, 215 kilometers south of the town of El Calafate. It looked like a small office in a bureaucracy of any third world country. The picture of Sofia Yasmin Herrerra on a wall competed for my attention with that of the President. Sofia’s image was a part of a public notice asking for help in finding her and others like her who had been lost in Argentina due to human trafficking.  The notice also had the picture of suspected offenders and offers of up to 100,000 US dollars as rewards. Our tour guide said: “Those girls were kidnapped probably for prostitution. That is a big problem in our country. We have thousands of  these cases. Some girls were as young as three years old. Because of the work of the organization that sponsors that notice, over 200 of the girls have been found.”  A banner with an image of the Andean Condor, a national symbol of Argentina, hovered over the counter designated for Customs. The customs official was not at his desk. When he returned from the back room, he put down the book he was reading on the counter between us. It was a novel by the lawyer-writer John Grisham in English.  The Customs officer’s question to me was not about contrabands: “Are all lawyers rich in America?”

Patagonian Steppe

Two motorcyclists, a man and a woman, fully dressed and equipped for a long journey, pulled out of the Custom and Immigration station’s parking lot just ahead of us. They were virtually the only persons we saw in the next several hours as we drove toward El Calafate. This province in Argentina was barely inhabited; it had fewer than two residents per square kilometers. Its population of 280,000 people was spread in an area the same size as the Province of Buenos Aires which had 2,000,000 people. That contrast was dramatized in the map we had seen in the Immigration office which showed the great density of the network of roads around Argentina’s Capital city compared to this part of its Patagonia.

Our driver was taking no chances even on these mostly deserted roads. He had hung over his seat an image of Gaucho Gill with his signature small red flag as a protector against road accidents.  To that end, furthermore, just a few minutes after we started our the trip, he stopped at a roadside shrine to Gaucho Gill and poured beer out of a can on the pile of items that had accumulated from the offerings others had made at the shrine.

The landscape around us was devoid of trees and animals until we came upon a pond where we saw Pink Chilean Flamingos . “They come here in the summer,” our local guide said. She also pointed out an Ibis on the other side of the road.  We were in the Patagonian steppe. The steppe is the part that is very dry, but like the rest of Patagonia it is also windy. The guide said “It snows once a week or so in the winter here, but it gets very cold and the snow freezes, so the landscape is white but that is ice. Then in September, the wind blows away everything.”  As they tell you in Patagonia’s museums, wind defines the environment of this vast region. Patagonian winds originate in the South Pacific, saturated with water. When they reach the Andes they release their moisture in the form of snow on the peaks or rain on the lower slopes. After passing the mountains the winds come down nearly dry and gain speed as they go east. The result is an uneven distribution of the water which shapes the different environments found within Patagonia. Where we were now was Patagonia’s “central zone,” consisting of plains and plateaus with few rivers or bodies of water.

Wind, rain, temperature, and altitude determined what could grow in the steppes. The grass that we saw grew close to the ground.  The guide said much of it was Patagonian Fescue grass. There were also bushes in this scrubland. The largest bushes were calafate. They were thorny and very branchy. “They grow everywhere here,” the guide said. “They have berries which are picked for jam, juice, etc.” Calafate berries are so ubiquitous that they have a legend of their own: “The locals have a saying: If you taste them you will come back because they are unique.”

The grass was once only the food of Guanacos, the camelid natives of Patagonia. We saw a few guanacos in a group on the right side of our bus. It is hard to spot them because the steppes are so vast, our guide said: “The steppe is 673,000 square kilometers.” The guanacos’ food source here has been diminished in recent years as the vegetation has been seriously modified by the sheep. The grass and shrub steppes have been grazed by domestic livestock for over a century now. The numbers of sheep peaked in early 1950s, at over 21 million head. “They have fallen to fewer than half that,” our guide said. One reason is the shortage of water. “You must know how many sheep you can feed with the grass in your land.”  Underground water exists. Green grass we now passed by was a sign: “That grass is in the wetland, an indication that underground water is near here. But sometimes it is very deep. A windmill must be erected to bring the water up.”

Our guide said “the best lamb comes from here.” She said: “They are called corridos. They are low fat because the sheep needs to walk a lot to eat enough as there is not that much grass around. You cook them slowly with nothing added but just salt.” We saw fences marking large properties. They were estancias (ranches), extending east up to the mountains. “Some of these ranches are over 70,000 hectares,” our guide said. We saw only a few sheep. This being summer time, they had been taken to the “upper fields, higher elevation, where there is better grass now.” In winter they are brought down here to the “lower fields.” We could see a mountain on the west of us, called “the white horse” by the locals.


“Trees do not grow naturally here,” the guide said. “We must plant them in the steppes. So when you see trees, as we do now, people live there.” We could also see a large body of water in the distance. We were approaching Lake Argentino, the biggest fresh water lake in the country.


On the eastern edge of the Lake was a marshland that has been protected as a Nature Reserve by the students of Argentina’s National University. This Nimez Lagoon was where I saw the largest collection of plants and birds belonging to the steppes. The “always green” calafate bushes provided nourishment and shelter to “several species of small birds: grey-hooded Sierra-Finches, Rufous-collard sparrows, house wrens, Patagonian mockingbirds and Baringed Cinclodes.” In those bushes they find protection against other birds that prey on them: “the Chimango Caracara and American Kestrel.” The calafate which had yellow flowers in October bore its berries which fed birds and rodents in the summer. Another bushy plant with yellow flowers was Senecio which had small hairy grayish leaves. Elsewhere in this area were reeds where several species sought shelter, including coots and the loud Ibis. In the corner which faced the west wind, the soil was barren and there were only such plants as could adapt to the extreme weather conditions. These were “Paramela with tiny leaves, Neneo with thorny spine leaves and Coiron with rigid yellow leaves and thick roots.

On the edges of the bridge over the creek that emptied into the lagoon, “Austral Thrush and Patagonian Mockingbirds had left their white traces .” In the grassy islands in the middle of the lagoon Black-necked Swans nested, while in its irregular shores a variety  of  ducks  and coots found shelter and protection. I saw the famous Chilean Flamingos of the Patagonian steppe in a group as they strained water through their specialized beak, “filtering small crustaceous and macroscopic algae,” to quote the Reserve’s brochure.

Old El Calafate

El Calafate began as a sheltering place for wool traders. “They spent the night here on their way to the Atlantic Ocean,” our local guide said. In addition to the water of the lake, they found in the surrounding hills a natural barrier against the Patagonian wind. We saw poplar, pine, and willow trees in the old part of town which had been planted nearly 100 years ago, protected by those hills. Some of the estancias from that era still exist. I stayed in one of them, now turned into a hotel.  Our rooms were in what used to be the workers quarters, since then renamed Kau Yatun which means “the house of stone” in Tehuelche, the language of the original people of this area. The backyard still evoked a ranch scene .

The government of Argentina founded the Town of El Calafate in 1927 to encourage settlement by the European immigrants. When it created the nearby PeritoMorenoNational Park a decade later El Calafate began to grow. The 1970s were an especially important decade in that growth. As a paved road connected El Calafate to the  populous towns of Rio Gallegos and La Esperanza some 160 kilometers away on the Atlantic, a few hotels  such as ours were established here.   “A few tourists” who then began coming here “to visit the Moreno glacier in those days,” as the records in our hotel said, “went back raving about the adventures.” Calafate is the only town close to the Moreno Glacier, 48 miles northwest, which has since become one of the most important tourist attractions in Argentine Patagonia. The Glacier became world-famous especially after its last rupture in 1988 when its images “spread around the world. ”The Glacier produces these periodical ruptures when the pressure from the weight of its ice spectacularly breaks through the dam holding it back in its lake.

El Calafate now calls itself the “National Capital of the Glaciers.” The population of the little settlement reached 5,000 by 1991. In the next ten years it increased by 20% and by 2005 it was 8,000. The expansion was due directly to the increase in tourist traffic made possible by the opening of an airport in Calafate. Buenos Aires is 1750 miles north of here, and air travel was the only practical way for a large number of tourists to reach the Glaciers. In the tourist season “We have 14 flights a day here!,” our tour guide exclaimed.


Living in El Calafate

Many of the new residents of El Calafate are employed in the tourist industry. That includes construction workers, restaurant employees, shop clerks, hotels staff, and tour guides. My tour guide provided a profile.

Maxima (not her real name) was just 31 years old and originally from Buenos Aires. “I love Buenos Aires; it is a city that never sleeps. But I don’t like to live there now.” Her tour company sent her to El Calafate in September of 2003. That was a month before the tourist season began and she was “shocked because there was nothing here.”  Now, however, “it is different.” This was after she went back to Buenos Aires first and found out that she really wanted to return to El Calafate. She made it her home this time. Her boyfriend is in El Calafate now. June to August are quite time. “El Calafate is not a place for skiing. Tour guides take those months off as holiday. I stay here and I like the winter time.” Last year, she worked with her friend who taught online classes, and did secretarial work in the evenings. “We have a social life, parties, etc, which we could not do in summer time because we are too busy with tourists. Calafate has grown and now has cultural activities, including musical events.”

She said “El Calafate is the only place in Argentina where there is no unemployment, because of its tourist industry.” She said: “Tour guides have an association to fix the rates for our services. Some labor unions in this country are political, especially in Buenos Aires. El Calafate is not like that; it is not a political town.” Indeed, on the pavements of El Calafate I saw no white scarves with the names of those who were “disappeared” by the military governments in the recent past, signs of protest so emblematic on the grounds of the main plazas of Buenos Aires and Bariloche at this time. This ingenue town did not have a historical memory of political conflicts still fresh elsewhere in the country. Characteristically, Maxima considered herself “in the middle” politically. She liked “some things the President is doing” and did not like “some other things.” She continued: “But the government does not want something in between: it says ‘you are either with us or against us’.”

Maxima said, somewhat wistfully: “We can have agriculture here but we don’t because it requires big investments of money in irrigation and for protecting against the wind and the ice.”

The nearest big city is a four hour drive from here, “so it is cheaper to bring food than to grow it here,” she said. “In the last 2 or 3 years, however, young people have started composting and growing vegetables in their backyards.” The guide believed that El Calafate now had more than 10,000 permanent residents.

The sparse farm-like entrance to the town from the south reminds the visitor of just how provincial El Calafate still is. In the old square of town I noticed the busts of two persons memorialized as they were, in different ways, prominent in the life of El Calafate.  One was, not surprisingly, Francisco Pascasio Moreno , the Argentinean explorer who in 1877, as he navigated the Santa CruzRiver, discovered the lake he named Argentino and after whom, in turn, the Perito (Expert) Moreno Glacier has been named. The other bust was that of Don (John) Bosco, a 19th century Italian Roman Catholic priest. El Calafate is the headquarters of the Don Bosco Missionary Group whose mission is “to assist those most in need, especially the children of farm workers in the surrounding Patagonian estancias.”

The modern shops catering to tourists are on Avenida del Libertador, the town’s main street. We crossed over into the neighborhood where the local old-timers ate.  El Cucharon (The Bucket) was a barbecue place with a red-hot charcoal fire grill inside which served you three huge pieces of lamb on a simple plate as you sat at plain tables around a salad bar. Then the waiters moved the whole salad bar out to make room for a couple to stage a tango dance for customers as they ate. My Argentine guide was explaining the intricacies of the dancers’ moves when my cell phone lit up. It was an email message from a friend who was bringing a group of dignitaries to El Calafate next October when they were promised a meeting with the President. She wanted to know if the five-star hotel they would be staying was owned by the President as rumored. I showed the email to my local guide. She raised her eyebrows and lowered the corners of her lips: “Yes, and she owns almost everything else in town.”  The guide added: “October and November are when big corporations have their conventions here. We get many visitors from Europe and South and Central America, but North America is a difficult market for us.”


We were at the gate to The Glaciers National Park and Reserve a few minutes before 9 in the morning. We had woken up early for the longer than an hour drive from El Calafate so that our visit would not be crowded by too many other tourists.  Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1981, this Park has 48 large glaciers covering nearly one-third of its 600,000 hectare area. One of those glaciers, the Perito Moreno is among the most visited in the world in part because it is one of the most easily accessible. In the parking lot where we stopped to buy entrance tickets to the Park there were already five other tour buses . The occupants seemed to be from Europe, Asia, and Latin America. I heard no North American accent.

The glaciers of the Park are fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, the world’s third largest reserve of fresh water, located in the AndesMountains. We were now climbing out of the steppes in the rain-shadow of those mountains. Greater precipitation in the Park had produced areas of Southern Beech forest. As the Park brochure informed us the trees we were seeing were of three types of such beech or Nothofagus: the tall deciduous Lenga, the small deciduous Nire, and the evergreen Guindo. We looked for the “hard-to-see wild cats and huemul (Andean deer)” and “easier to see red foxes and pumas” and black-faced ibis. We saw none of these. “Magellanic woodpeckers with the double rap sound” were the only native animal we found in this Park. Even this sighting was so uncommon that our driver joined us to take pictures of them. There was a male woodpecker, red-headed, on one tree and a female on another tree with yellow eyes and black head.

A glacier (Latin for ice) is a river of ice, formed from compacted layers of snow, slowly moving in response to gravity. All but three of the glaciers in Patagonia are retreating. The Perito Moreno Glacier is one of those that advance. It moves forward in the Argentino Lake periodically creating a dam which splits the lake. In the Park’s Magellan peninsula where we now stood we could see on our right the southern arm (Brazo Rico) of the lake which the glacier’s dammed water would lift as high as 90 feet above the rest of the lake. The force of such mass of water eventually destroys the ice barrier causing an outpouring of water over into the main body of LakeArgentino.

The Glacier itself essentially ends up remaining in place. Although it advances at a speed of up to 6 feet per day, it loses mass at about the same rate. As we compared a picture of the Moreno Glacier taken in 1946  with what we saw today we noticed no change except for small variations. It has been the same in the last 90 years, we were told.  We were walking on a metal bridge built for the better viewing of the Glacier. “In return for constructing this bridge and the roads in the Park, a private company has received an exclusive concession to have shops and restaurants here,” our tour guide said. To our right was LakeArgentino with an elevation of 614 feet. Facing us was the Perito Moreno Glacier which had an average height of 240 feet above the surface of the water of its Lake. The Glacier’s front wall we were seeing here was three miles long, but only a part of its 18.6 mile length.

This great mass of ice moved at velocity that was faster at the center than the corners, as we felt we could notice . The friction with the sides of the mountain made noise which was the sound of cracking. We also heard sounds from the ice hitting each other in the narrow channels. We saw black spots which were sediments on the sides and the top of the

Glacier. “The Glacier is moving from the bottom to the top too,” our guide said. “That is why you see mixed ice in the front. The youngest ice is 10 years old and the oldest can be 500 years old.” She said “cloudy days like today are the best to see the Glacier because there is less glare and distraction from the sun, so you can see all shades of colors.”

The movement of the Perito Moreno Glacier often forces it to “calve,” give birth to smaller chunks of ice separating from it. This breaking off is sometimes thunderous. The four calving we saw made only modest noise. We did see many icebergs in the lake which resulted from such calving in the past. This was from the deck of a boat we took to go closer to the Glacier. Another boat that was standing nearer to the Glacier gave us a comparative basis for comprehending the immense size of the Glacier. Yet it was dwarfed by the much taller dark mountains we saw in the background.

As we sailed back, we noted that a few more curious souls were trekking on the Perito Moreno Glacier to our right. We ourselves focused now on the Glacier’s work as the sculptor of the landscape. The ridges of lateral moraines on the sides of Argentino we were seeing had been deposited by the Glacier as it was receding from its past intrusions. The Glacier had also carved out large steep-sided valleys. At its snouts before its retreat to those dark mountains it had left the eroded material which it had carried as terminal moraine. Those valleys were then filled with Lake Argentino’s glacial-melt waters. Their milky turquoise color came from the powdered particles which were held in suspension, as the Park brochure explained.

What Perito Moreno Glacier has wrought is due to a process that would continue for the foreseeable time. Nature held the future as it controlled the past. This was true, especially with regards to the destiny of El Calafate in transition.


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: Most people have never heard of Chiloe Island. It has been inhabited for 10,000 years and was discovered and colonized by Europeans in the 16th century. Even Charles Darwin lived here for two years in the 1830s. He famously complained bitterly about Chiloe’s rainy weather. That might have deterred further immigration, but the isolation has helped protect rare natural habitats such as colonies of both Humboldt and Magellanic penguins and has encouraged intermarriage among disparate peoples residing on the Island.  The culture that has emerged from such human hybridization in Chiloe is distinct, remarkable further as it has also allowed for the continuation of identifiable component parts, especially the Christian and Mapuche systems of belief. The latter, that of the original people of Chiloe, has survived by oral tradition in the absence of written recording, thus becoming embellished with myths and legends. These are closely related to the geology of the island, its ocean and hills. Insular living of a relatively small number of residents made the Chilotes dependent on community help. That is reflected in the local cooperative attitude crystallized in the singular institution of minga, gathering to help neighbors. Chiloe is close enough to mainland Chile that the government has recently started planning to build a bridge between the two. For now,  tourists take the ferries, usually for a day trip. That is not long enough for a good look at all the riches that Chiloe has to offer. Here is an attempt at a longer focus.


We were on the ferry which we had boarded in Puerto Montt, Chile, crossing the Chacao Channel toward ChiloeIsland. The Channel looked calm all around us. I tried to imagine the turbulence here when Chiloe as a part of a mountain range sank in the Pacific Ocean waves following the last glacial period. That was more than 12,500 years ago. Such an event in the deep time might be the subject of conjecture, but the results were concrete: over 5,000 islands stretching south to Tierra del Fuego at the bottom of the American continent. Next to the Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego at that end, the Greater Island of Chiloe is the largest at this end. It is 118 miles long and 34 to 40 miles wide. I was now looking at it from the deck of the ferry.

After disembarking we began driving on a highway named Routa de las Iglesia Patrimoniales, immediately reminding us of the architectural significance of the wooden churches of Chiloe which are considered a National Heritage by Chile. There are sixteen such churches, built from the 1700s to the 1900s in a distinct architectural scheme.

The first church we visited in Chiloe was not among them, but it had its own charm. The wooden church in the small village of San Antonio de Chacao, which had been built in 1710, was elegant in its simplicity. As we stepped in a service was still on, fully attended on this Sunday. Our local guide said: “The worshipers are here not just because they are baptized but because they are believers.” The priest was at the altar. Presently, on the corner to his left, a man started playing the guitar and singing. I was surprised to recognize the tune; it was Bob Dylan’s “Blowing in the Wind.”

The Chacao church was at the tidy main square of the village lined with monkey puzzle trees. These Chilean pine trees (pehuén) are so ancient that they are described as a living fossil. They were cultivated in Chiloe as long as 10,000 years ago. The ground pine kernel was an important food source for the original people of Chiloe. Soon, I was introduced to another native tree which has also played an important role in the life of the people of Chiloe. Alerce is an evergreen that is the largest native tree in South America. Its wood has been used by the

Chilotes to develop an exceptional craftsmanship applied not just in the Patrimonial churches but in many areas of everyday life. I saw examples in the Artesanias shop a few doors from Chacao’s church. I talked to the three women who were selling the handicraft made in this village. They showed me a modernist looking small sculpture of the local penguin crafted from Alerce wood. They told me that the tree normally reaches a height of 200 feet in full growth.


Seaweed is another natural product that is still significant in Chiloe’s family economy. The locals collect them for food and cosmetics at shores such as the one we next visited, the Caulin Bird Sanctuary. As the name indicated this was also a beach on the Chacao Channel, ideal for bird watching with its exceptional tide which retreated hundreds of meters every six hours.

Indeed, Chiloe means the “Land of Seagulls” in the language of the Mapuche, the original people of Chiloe. The oysters from Caulin bay are equally famous, befitting the name for Chacao, “Water with Shell fish,” in the same language.

As we took a long walk on the Caulin beach, my local guide detailed her erudite version of the origin of the people of Chiloe. That evening I transcribed my notes as follows.

Until 1976 it was believed that humans first came to the American continent by way of the Bering Strait some 13,500 years ago. This was based on the 1920s and 1930s findings at the archaeological site in Clovis, New Mexico, U. S.A. In 1975, however, in Monte Verde which is only 30 miles north of Chiloe on the mainland coast, peasants brought to the attention of a visiting veterinary student tusks of a huge animal which was later proved to be a mastodon. This led to the excavation of the site by archeologists who have now established that human settlement existed in Monte Verde 14,800 years ago. This is based on the radiocarbon dating of bones and charcoal found at the site. As our guide put it: “Among other evidence, the archeologists found burns on boards which could only have been due to a human-made fire, as there was nothing like a natural fire around that area. What is more, at the end of the board were knots which were from ropes made of local reeds tied to the poles those humans used to put up their tents.”

After the reports from a revisit by a group of respected archaeologists to the Monte Verde site in 1997, it has been generally accepted that the human settlements in this area far predated any other found elsewhere in America. It is likely that humans came down along the western coasts of North and South America. That theory is supported by the wide variety of  seaweed and marine algae found around their hearths. Many of those are the local seaweed varieties used by today’s native inhabitants of Chiloe. Therefore, according to the Monte Verde discoveries, Chiloé Archipelago may have been populated from some 14,000 years ago.  The earliest known inhabitants were a seafaring people called the Chonos. Around the 15th century, a branch of the Mapuche, called the Huilliche migrated from the mainland and settled in the eastern shore, engaged in fishing and agriculture.

My guide now cautioned: “The claim that Monte Verde settlers were the earliest humans found in the continent has been challenged based on the discovery of the 11,500 year-old skeleton of a woman found in Lapa Vermelha, Brazil, in 1975, now called Luzia.”  Her facial features are dissimilar to most Native Americans and their Siberian forebears. They resemble those of indigenous Australians and Africans. Accordingly, some Brazilian anthropologists have argued that Luzia’s ancestors lived in South East Asia and came to the New World as early as 15,000 years ago. This is not accepted by other anthropologists, some of whom have maintained that Luzia’s feature variability could simply be due to genetic drift.

There have also been various claims about the Polynesian origin of the inhabitants of the Chiloe area, the guide continued.  Certain common cultural traits suggest contact between Polynesians and the Mapuche of south-central Chile.  Strong westerlies and El Niño winds blow from Polynesia to the Mapuche region north of Chiloe. A few years ago a report suggested that chicken bones found in El Arenal, in mainland Chile not far from Chiloe, were from the 14th century and thus predated the arrival of the Spaniards. But later studies of the same specimens concluded that it provided “no support for a Polynesian” origin.

Pacific side

In 1553 Captain Francisco de Ulloa reached the Chacao Channel following the orders of Spain’s recently established government of Chile and proceeded to explore the ChiloeIsland. He is thus considered the first “discoverer” of Chiloe, although the Island had been “sighted” some 13 years earlier by another Spanish explorer, Alonso de Camargo, as he was traveling to Peru. Then as now the residents of the Island lived mostly on the eastern central part of the coastal range where the temperature is milder and it rains only 75 inches a year, and not on the far harsher environment of the Pacific side. Charles Darwin who spent two years, 1834-1835, in Chiloe later complained about a winter storm in its northwest:  “Such weather utterly destroys for every good end  the precious time  during which it lasts.”

We took advantage of our luck on a sunnier day to visit the Pacific coast.  The rolling hills drew a pleasing landscape. We were never far from the water with its scenic bays. The land seemed fertile.  We saw chickens and pigs in the small yards of the houses on the sides of the road. Bigger properties were fenced off . Economic activity here consisted of “small production of vegetables and dairy products, and extraction of shellfish and seaweed,” our guide said. This was not a rich or developed region. Closer to the Pacific, it took us 45 minutes to go 10 kilometers on the narrow dirt road which was used for two-way traffic. Cars passed us kicking up dust  as our bus struggled up some hills. We shared the road on occasions with riders on horseback which was still their common means of transportation.

Our destination was the Punihuil Islands, just off the shore of the Pacific.  This group of three islets near the village of Punihuil constitutes a NaturalMonument which is a wildlife sanctuary. That designation did not deter the café on the beach from offering several catches of the day on its menu for our lunch: salmon, conger (congrio), corvina, and hake (merluza). A poster at the Ecoturismo Office next to the cafe showed the pictures of the two types of penguins, the Humboldt and the Magellanic, and the penguin’s reproduction cycle, as well as the variety of other birds and mammals which could be found on the Punihuil Islands.

The main attractions were the penguins, about which we now learned the following from our guide.  The Penguin is a fish except that it nests as birds. Only ten percent of all penguins in the world are of the Humboldt type; ninety percent are of the Magellanic type. The fewer than 12,000 Humboldt penguins are classified as “vulnerable.” Punihuil is unique because “in all of Patagonia” Humboldt penguins only breed here and, furthermore, this is the world’s only shared breeding site for Humboldt and Magellanic penguins. The difference between the two types of penguins is “around their neck.” The Humboldt has one black pectoral band while the Magellanic has two. Penguins are always in couples or small groups. They make caves where they put their nests. In their colony on the Punihuil Islands Penguins are without predators but they have competitors for food which are the sea-lions who have their own colonies. The PunihuilIslands are the penguins’ home from October to March when they go back into the Ocean after breeding, and migrate north toward the Pacific coast.

We now boarded a small boat on the beach that took us closer to the PunihuilIslands. The penguins we saw were all the Magellanic type; we did not spot any Humboldt. The babies were without hair and looked grey. The nests were holes in the ground. We also saw some of the penguins’ neighbors here: red-legged cormorant   and kelp gull – for both of which Punihuil is the breeding ground – marine otter , black vulture , steamer duck, oystercatcher, and South American sea-lion.


Tourists come to Chiloe only on day trips, our guide said. That is a pity because the Island’s isolation over centuries has nurtured a unique blend of the cultures of its original people and the European immigrants. How can you observe a culture unless you stay a few days? We lodged ourselves in one of the few overnight accommodations available on the island, Hosteria Ancud .

We were greeted at the door by a legend who had preceded us almost exactly 457 years ago. Alonso de Ercilla was the namesake of the vessel that brought us over the Chacao Channel from mainland Chile; he himself had arrived around here on February 28, 1558 sailing on a more primitive boat with ten European companions and some local “Indian” boatmen. He carved that memorable occasion on a tree, and subsequently memorialized it in his La Araucana (The Araucaniad). That work, Published in 1589, is now considered to be one of the greatest historical poems in Spanish. It consists of 37 cantos (songs) and at the entrance to our hotel in Ancud, this part of Canto XXXVI (Stanza XXIX) was carved on a wooden plank , as a replica of Ercilla’s original (the English translation here losing the tight rhyme scheme of the “octava real” stanza form):

Here came, where another has not arrived,

Don Alonso de Ercilla, the first

in a small boat load shedding,

with the drain alone spent ten

year fifty-eight entered

about fifteen hundred, for Hebrero,

at two in the afternoon, the last day,

returning to the company left.

Alonso de Ercilla was a soldier in the expeditionary forces led by the Spanish governor of Chile, García Hurtado de Mendoza, on the move to subdue the original people of the land, the Araucanians.  This expedition was then followed in 1567 by a campaign led by Captain Martín Ruiz de Gamboa, to conquer ChiloéIsland and pacify its inhabitants. The Chiloé archipelago was claimed for the Spanish crown and the city of Castro was established as its administrative center in that year.

Those original local inhabitants consisted of three groups, my guide said. She had been trained as a social linguist and relished expounding on her knowledge of the evolution of Chiloe culture. The three groups were the Chonos, Cuncos, and Huilliche peoples. The first was a nomadic people that became extinct toward the end of the 19th century. The Cuncos were a sedentary people, belonging to the southern group of Mapuche peoples and speaking the language common to all Mapuche peoples, the Mapudungun. The Huilliche people were also a Mapuche living in the western region of the Mapuche’s traditional homeland in present day central Chile, although their language is also called Veliche.

In the Spaniards’ reporting of the time, the pacification was said to be aimed at the Cuncos.

Regardless, the need for such an effort is not easy to comprehend.  A few years earlier,  Alonso de Ercilla, as he reported in his Canto XXXVI, had encountered some friendly natives coming in a “gondola” in these waters to offer food and welcome. Tellingly, the poet worried that such goodwill will not “withstand Spanish indolence and corruption.”

Most of the Spaniards who followed Ruiz de Gamboa to Chiloe in 1567 were from Galicia, my guide said. “They had their own language and culture and were Celtic, related to the Scots and Welsh.” They were men who came without women “and married the local Mapuche, so what evolved here was a race of mestizos.” Because of that fact “We don’t have racism in Chiloe.” Our guide was married to a Mapuche herself.  “Mestizos have light skin and their hair does not go grey. So you can’t tell how old they are.” She added, “But we have class distinction which is related mostly to education and profession, and legitimacy of birth.” She returned to what the contemporary residents of Chiloe have in common. “They speak a distinct dialect of Spanish. The Chilote is different from the Spanish spoken in Chile, in pronunciation, grammar and vocabulary. It has been influenced by the Huilliche language. That is one reason for the Chilote culture being distinct. This process of using the Mapuche (Huilliche) language in Spanish began as early as the 17th century.”

I wanted to ask about the problem of illegitimacy which the guide had mentioned, but she did not have time now. She said Chile was playing a big soccer match with Uruguay and she had to go and watch it on Television. “For us futbol, which you call soccer, is like a religion.”


In 1594 Castro had 8,000 inhabitants. That was the bulk of Chiloe’s total population. Today Chiloe has about 155,000. One-half of these are thinly spread among many farms and small towns, while some 40,000 live in Castro and an equal number in Ancud. I decided to take a walk around Ancud to get a glimpse of how its one-fourth of all Chilotes lived. I started from the top of the hill where the San Antonio Fort had been located. It was built in 1770, with a clear view of the approach from the sea  to protect the port of Ancud that was then important for the traffic from Cape Horn. Two years earlier Ancud had replaced Castro as the administrative center of Chiloe. Ancud’s new status was pursuant to the Spanish Crown’s decision to transfer Chiloe from its General Captaincy of Chile to its “Viceroyalty of Peru. Independent Chile defeated Spain to take Chiloe back in 1826, and I could see a stone wall left where the Spanish flag had last flown in the island that year. Ancud continued as the capital of Chiloe until 1982 when Castro again resumed that position.

The streets up in this hill of Ancud were quiet. The first group of people I came across were five women, one a young black woman helping an elderly woman in the crosswalk . She was unique, an exception that proved the rule. Unlike many other places in America, here one could not find descendants of Africans.  As our guide had explained, the Spaniards needed slaves as labor for their mines in Chile but could not easily bring Africans around Cape Horn. Instead, “they called the Mapuche cannibals so as to be able to enslave them.” That slavery, however, did not extend to Chiloe, she said.

A block away, the Parish of Good Shepherd St. Pius X (Parroquia buen pastor Pio X) was in a modest building with even a more modest sign, just a typewritten name on a piece of paper . It was named after a big man, the early 20th century bishop who was the first Pope to be canonized since 5 centuries before. Across the street from the parish, The Hostal Chiloe, catering to backpackers, offered ‘WIFE’ (no doubt meaning WiFi). This was at the square with the National Police (Carabineros) station. Facing the station were the busts of Ramon Freir Serrano, President of Chile, 1823-1826, with a plaque under it noting that he incorporated the territory of Chiloe, which had been in the Spanish royalists’ hands, into Chile in 1826. There was also another bust,  that of Hernan Merino Correa [43], heralded in the sign under it [44], as a “Hero of the 20th Century.” In fact, he was just a lieutenant of the Carabineros, who died in 1936 during a confrontation with a contingent of the National Gendarmerie Argentina.

I crossed O’Higgins Street, named after the President of Chile who was removed from office by the junta that put Freir Serrano in his place. At the bottom of the hill was the shopping area which had souvenir stores with redundant sheep wool clothing items and wooden artifacts, but without customers. The main square of town, a few blocks away, was where the action was. The youth of Ancud had filled the place. Some had just gotten off their bicycles, some were playing soccer , some couples were cuddling, some were making dreadlocks on others’ hair, and in the raised gazebo that was in the middle a DJ was tuning up his electrical sound system [48]. The main fixture in the place was a sculpture of “The Pincoya.” The sign under it described this mythological figure of the original people of Chiloe as follows: “The Pincoya is the extraordinary beautiful goddess of the sea, appearing on the beach, dressed in seaweed and phosphorescent plankton together with her husband, the “Tincoy”, who attracts her with his melodious voice, inviting her to dance. If she returns to the sea at the end of the dance, it assures a period of abundance, and if she looks towards the beach there will be a time of scarcity. The victims of shipwrecks also receive her aid.”


When my guide returned a few hours later, she was in a foul mood. Chile had lost the soccer match. “There is a street in Ancud named O’Higgins,” she began our conversation. “He was a bastard.” She meant it literally. O’Higgins story is the proverbial example of discrimination due to illegitimate birth in Chilean culture which the guide had talked about. “Ambrose O’Higgins was an Irish-born nobleman who served the Spanish King as the military governor of Chile in the late 18th century. He had a woman in Chile from a prominent family called Isabella. She gave birth to a child whom she named Bernardo. She kept him and said he was an orphan. They lived in central Chile not far from Chiloe. Bernardo’s father did not acknowledge him and the two never met.” Only after Ambrose’s death, could Bernardo change his last name to O’Higgins; until then he used the name of the man his mother married. “Bernardo did not inherit from his father as the law did not allow it, although to Ambrose’s credit he paid for the son’s education. Eventually, Bernardo became involved in the Chilean movement for independence from Spain and with the help of the Argentinian leader San Martin, he became the first President of Chile.” However, our guide punctuated, “Bernardo O’Higgins was never really accepted by high society in Chile because he was born out of wedlock.”

Even today, she said, “the slang word here for an illegitimate person is ‘lonely.’” Although “Bernardo O’Higgins was our George Washington,” she continued, “he is only memorialized on a one Peso coin.” She took out one and showed us: “See the red head and blue eyes of his father’s ancestry!”  Then she walked us to the portal of the hotel where there were several stone sculptures of mythical figures from the original people’s legends. She pointed to one who looked like a deformed and ugly dwarf. She said that was Trauco. “He is the father named in the official Identification Card of illegitimate children.”  In the traditional Mapuche mythology of Chiloé, Trauco is a supernatural being that lives in the forest and has an irresistible attraction for women -although he is married to the ugly Fiura. When a single woman becomes pregnant by a person whose name is concealed, folks assume that it was Trauco. The stigma of illegitimacy in more modern times has its roots in Chiloe’s catholic religion. The way its culture deals with it is, thus, by resorting to its other source of metaphysically-based morality.

Castro Main Square

The juxtaposition of Chiloe’s two spiritual worlds was more prominently on display in the central square of the island’s capital city, Castro. A graceful statue of Pincoya stood in the fountain of blue water that was in the middle of the Plaza de Armas, looking invitingly toward Iglesia de San Francisco (The Church of San Francisco) on the edge of the square. Soil liquefaction caused by earthquakes had tilted the towers of the church but one overlooked that imperfection in the dazzle of the bright yellow paint in which the exterior of the church was bathed. This church has become a primary tourist attraction in Chiloe since in 1992 when UNESCO recognized it as a fine example of the wooden churches of the Island. It is not an old church, having been built in 1912, and unlike the older ones it was designed by a professional architect. The execution of the elaborate architectural detail by craftsmen of Chiloe, however, has produced an exceptional traditional monument. The church’s shape as an inverted ship was inspired by the naval heritage of the place. It looks toward the sea.

The Church of San Francisco serves a community that is seventy percent Catholic. When it was originally constructed it was meant to house Franciscan monks. Its vast interior now is resplendent in Rauli Beech and olivillo wood. Three major figures of Chile’s Franciscan Christianity dominate the statuary.  Facing the altar, on the right is the Virgin Mary dressed in a brown gown and a crown, holding a brown scapular as well as the Niño, also crowned . The sign of the pedestal on which Mary stood identified her as Our Lady of Mount Carmel (Nuestra Señora del Carmen”) who is the patroness of Chile. Next to Mary in the church was a full size statue of Padre Pio of Pietrelcina, the 20th century Italian whose stigmata of wounds, in locations on his body corresponding to Jesus’ crucifixion wounds, never became infected and never could be explained. Having that in common with Christ and the first stigmatic, St. Francis of Assisi, Padre Pio is believed to have helped heal the faithful in Chiloe for the last 20 years. This church had its own chapter of the “Faithful Association of St. Pio of Pietrelcina.” Opposite Padre Pio, on the other side of the church was a sculpture of Archangel Michael standing victorious over Satan. It is this St. Michael to whom the Franciscan order directs one of its “Prayers in times of Trial.”

The Franciscans did not arrive in Chiloe until 1771, when the Spanish government expelled the Jesuit missionaries. The latter had come in the early 1600s, charged with evangelizing the local population and, to that end, built 79 wooden churches of the traditional style which are on the UNESCO World Heritage log. The power the Jesuits accumulated had threatened the control of the Crown and Spain replaced them with the Franciscans.

The goal of the Franciscan missions was to spread the Christian faith to the “uncivilized” native people. Education was a vital part of their program for converting the Chilotes. The youth were taken into the mission schools and there taught until they were judged secure enough in the faith to be returned to their communities as Christian teachers. “As a result of 500 years of missionary education,” our guide said, “today, Chiloe has one of the highest literary rates in the world.” We were now approaching a bookseller’s stand at the other corner of Plaza de Armas in Castro.

Spread on a long table was an eclectic collection of works by authors decidedly not Catholic, such as the Communist Pablo Neruda and the atheist Sigmund Freud, as well as books of topical interest like a history of Chile’s transition from President Augusto Pinochet to his successor.  These were in English. There was a volume of Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle in a bilingual edition. In Spanish, two of the books here caught my attention. One was a Mapuche Dictionary and the other a volume on Myths and Legends (Mitos y Leyenda) in Chiloe.

The bookseller told me that he sold about 100 books a day which was a remarkable sign of readership in this small community. I referred to Darwin’s book in which he had first broached his still developing theory of evolution by natural selection and told the bookseller that I was intrigued by the other book on Chiloe’s Myths and Legends. “What is the origin of creation in those myths?,” I asked the bookseller. This was not a busy time and he could be generously hospitable with his answer. “The myths tell us that for a long time Chiloe was a part of the continental land. Then the mythical reptile CAI-CAI made the waters to rise, inundating the land in Chiloe and burying its inhabitants in the waves. Now, the protector mythical reptile TEN-TEN appeared against his enemy CAI-CAI and lifted the land out of the sea. He helped people reach high ground. He gave some men the power to fight and turned others into birds. As water receded people who had drowned became fishes and animals became rocks, valleys became channels and hills became islands.”

This was closer to Christianity than to Darwin. Catholicism and the Mapuche system of beliefs succeeded in co-existing in Chiloe. That was unlike the Europeans’ conflict with the Incas who had a tradition of blood offerings. “People are Catholic in Chiloe but very open minded,” my tour guide said. In fact, “in Chiloe witchcraft survives.”  In addition to using many jungle plants in traditional medical procedures, she said, “witches and wizards are followed.”

Medicine Woman

We went to see a Mapuche medicine woman. The sign at the door of the simple one-story building said: The Jose Antonio Huento Rain Natives Association. The woman who greeted us inside explained that this was an “association of the Mapuche for education and preservation of the original culture.” On the wall, there was a chart with the Spanish translation of the alphabet of the Mapuche language. There was a kultrun drum on a stove to the side, and a poster above it showing the design on its surface, with this title: “The Mapuche World in Kultrun”. The design was the image of “The Land of the Four Places” , representing the earth and the four cardinal points which were, counter-clock-wise, east, north, sea, and south. As our guide informed us: “The drum kultrun is a very important musical instrument among the Mapuche. It is used by the healer, and by the shaman (machi) in religious and cultural ceremonies.”

We were in the presence of Berta, a gentle grand-motherly healer . This was her clinic for traditional medicine. Standing in the middle of the room as we gathered around her, she gave us this description of her work, as our guide translated:  “Patients come here. There is no sign outside for the clinic, but we have a weekly radio program which reaches people. Our concept of health and the lack of health may sound a bit different to you. We see human beings as a whole. We say balance the mind and the body follows. For example, ‘stress or hatred’ will result in physical illness. So you treat the mind first, and then the body if needed. We do our diagnosis by conversation. Elders in other cultures came to the same conclusion. So that means that it must be O.K.  We also treat ‘cultural diseases’ such as ‘the evil eye.’”

The medicine woman continued: “What we do is now covered by the national health service. This means a person can come here, using national health vouchers, or go to the hospital.  People go back and forth between this type and western medicine. Sometimes patients come here saying Western medicine did not work for them, but they could not say it there. The difference between us is that we do not have machines here. Ours is medicine from the heart. We produce medicine everyday in this place based on the many herbs you see here [65], for pretty much everything. There is cream for burns. We also do massages.”

Berta was 60 years old. She had “inherited” her position as a medicine woman from her “family.”  She was “the only one” in Castro.  Healers in Chiloe are generally women, but there are some medicine men too. Before we left, Berta proposed to perform a ceremony to wish us a safe trip. We gathered around a brazier in her room. Berta spoke out a few words and put some fragrant herbs in the brazier’s fire . An assistant accompanied her by beating the kultrun . Then we held hands and Berta said “now let’s all yell loud” which we did after her two times and, again, one more time.


When we looked up, on the wall facing us in Berta’s clinic was the image of George W. Bush as Uncle Sam. He was gazing at us in defense of “machines.” This was in a poster which juxtaposed a scene jammed with cars against this caption in Spanish on the top:  “Food for the machines and hunger for the people.” An American in our groups grumbled: “Blame everything on Bush!” That was not far from the position of the newly radicalized youth in Chile who blamed the CIA for the 1973 overthrow of their hero, President Salvador Allende, and were currently demonstrating in support of the more assertive among the Mapuche. Our local guide in Castro gave us this retro-radical perspective on the historical background of the Mapuche political situation: “There are over a million Mapuche in Chile and two to three times more with mixed blood. It is impossible to know how many of the Chilotes are Mapuche because many do not consider themselves Mapuche or do not say so to avoid discrimination. As a group, the Mapuche are the most deprived sector of the Chilean society today. Diseases brought by the Europeans and the long wars with them killed many of the Mapuche people and eradicated much of their culture. The word Mapuche is the combination of map (land) and che (people) in their language and these people fiercely resisted the Europeans occupation of their land from the very beginning.”

She continued: “Hierarchical organization was what the Europeans called a civilization and the Incas were that way and were easy to defeat, simply by getting rid of their headmen. Mapuche did not reach that level of organization. Mapuche had seven tribes who would get together in wars and make common decision. They were decentralized and would engage in guerilla war, like Hydra with many heads. So the Spaniards could not defeat them; they lost more soldiers and resources in wars with Mapuche than in conflict with all other people they conquered in the Americas, combined.”

Spain did not win, but its successor, the government of Chile at the end of the 19th century succeeded in a campaign called the Pacification of Araucania to seize most of the Mapuche territories. Araucania was the name of a Kingdom the Mapuche established in 1860. Their king was a French lawyer, Orelie Antoine de Tounens who had come here in 1858, attracted by the tales of the Mapuche’s past resistance. A year later, the Chilean government defeated the Kingdom, arrested King Orelie Antoine, declared him insane and expelled him from the country. His heir, Prince Philippe now lives in Paris, France, and calls himself Royal Highness to the Crown of Araucania and Patagonia in exile.

“Chile has never recognized the Mapuche as a nation,” our guide said.  “By an agreement in 1980 the government gave them about 5% of the territories the Mapuche had claimed, but even that is now gone because the ‘Corporations’ took them. So the Mapuche have set fire to the Corporations’ machinery. The conflict recently got bloody. A Mapuche was shot in the back by the police. Two weeks ago was the 4th anniversary of that event and there was a big demonstration in Santiago attended also by many leftist students.”

The poster we saw in the medicine woman’s clinic was protesting against the corporations and their machines, under the rubric “Agrocombustibles.”  Translated as “agrofuels,” that term has been referred to as the “catalyst of global capitalism” by critics who see in it the grabbing of the land by the big agribusinesses to grow plants for biofuels.


Our guide said “Chileans did not have an appreciation of Chiloe’s culture and traditional products, but the young are now becoming more interested.” She was taking us to see an example of the local cottage industry.  This was a shop that produced small clothing items from wool. It had two owners who made the goods and ran the business by themselves; they had no employees.  One of them, Marcela , told me “our forefathers were attached to ‘wool-working.’”  On the wall here was a poster showing the drawing of a woman with the names of her body parts in the Mapuche language. The store made clothes only for women. Marcela explained: “even men buy for women, as are not good customers for themselves because they would always complain that the clothes scratch, etc.” She and her partner dyed their own yarns of many colors, using local trees, shrubs, flint, and sawdust.

The colors that the artisans of Castro are more famous for were on their palafitos. These are houses which were built on pillars of wood acting as stilts. The stilts served to lift them above the high tide of the marshes in which the houses were located near the waterfront. The commercial marine traffic of the 19th century encouraged housing in the area. Palafitos (pile dwellings) have existed since the pre-Columbian days in many parts of Latin America. The local style developed in Castro is distinguished by balconies and window forms, as well as their colors. Palafitos, however, were not the only structures painted in vibrant colors in this town; the blue chosen for other houses perfectly matched the color of Castro’s sky on this half-sunny day.


In contrast, the streets of Castro’s business district were drab and ordinary, betraying it as a provincial town.  The residents went elsewhere to shop for food products. That big, busy covered market was overflowing with local produce , fish , and flowers , mixed with handicraft , cosmetics and even an occasional used watch . The kelp and seaweed were specialties. “Kelp has to be dehydrated to eat,” we were told.  A salesgirl who was wearing a “Delaware” hoody sweatshirt chucked a mussel and offered it to me. I asked if she knew where or what Delaware was. “She says she has no clue,” our guide translated her answer. I am not sure if many in Delaware had a clue where Castro was. The magic of some manufacturing factory, probably in China or Bangladesh, connected the two.

In the market, of course, there were potatoes, a few varieties. “Potatoes originated here in Chiloe,” our guide reminded us, “there is genetic proof for that, and the ones in this market are close to the original potatoes.” It is believed that potatoes are indigenous to the Chiloé Archipelago and that they were cultivated as early as 10,000 years ago. They were introduced to Europe, and the rest of the world, only in 1536. On the other hand, Europeans introduced almud to Chiloe. This is a wooden box, with a capacity of 6 to 8 liters, used for measuring. Almud “takes about 2 pounds of potatoes.” As a yardstick of capacity, it was the most common measurement system in the colonial times in many parts of South America, used not just for potatoes but also for carrots, peas, wheat, oats, and even seafood. “This was for those who could not count potatoes,” our guide said.  As the original word “al-mudd” indicates, it was an Arabic term brought to Islamic Iberia. Today, however, Chiloe may a rare place where Almud is still used. “The only other place you can find it is museums in Spain,” our guide maintained. Indeed, when I asked Google to translate almud into Arabic I got bushel (al-bushel), as in English.


Chilotes produce nearly all the food they need, our guide said. “They like to eat well: having several dishes at lunch is common.” We were about to find this out for ourselves as we headed to a minga. A cherished tradition among the Chilotes is the gathering of friends to help in a neighbor’s construction or agricultural projects. The minga is this “collective work done for the community.” Such work is rewarded usually by supplying food and drinks to the friends. “Curanto is how you pay back to the community,” we were told by our hostess, Maria Luisa. Curanto is a traditional Chilote food. Although we were not among those who helped her husband build their “house and the furniture in it,” some time ago, we were going to be served a curanto, similar to the one they had been fed.

We witnessed the making of the curanto step by step. In the front yard of the house, when we arrived, we saw two men who had built a fire from charcoal in a hole they had dug and surrounded with leaves. They now spread a big number of mussels on the stones in the smoking charcoal. Next, potatoes were laid on top of the mussels, pieces of chicken on top of the potatoes, and sausages on top of the chickens. These were now covered with big green leaves before Maria Luisa brought out a plate with potato bread from the house and placed it upon the pile which was again covered with another layer of leaves.  Now many more leaves of a different kind were added and a black tarp and plastics were used as the final coverings, secured with several pieces of peat turf . This heap was left to be cooked and steamed for an hour, as our hostess informed us while she led us inside the house. “The curanto will be ready when the shellfish release their water. We put the mussels at the bottom to allow their steaming juice to cook and flavor the above layers of food.”

On the stove in her kitchen, Marie Luis showed us how the popular local snack milcao, fried potato pancakes, was made. She mixed egg yoke with potatoes and fried them in a pan with vegetable oil. She steamed honey to be added to the milcao which we were then served.

Afterward, we came back to the yard to see the men uncover the hole and take out the steaming food. A table had been set with plates and glasses for wine and water in the dinning room. The bountiful feast was put on plates. Our hosts sat with us. They said they had two children who were away but eventually would come home and stay here. They had been producing milk here and now they wanted to produce cheese. In the backyard we could see their grazing pasture. We also noticed a wooden tub which sometimes functioned as the hot tub in this property that introduced itself as a “Turismo Rural” establishment. Amidst their diplomas on the walls of the dining room there was the picture of one guest in place of honor: Isabel Allende. Marie Luis took it down for us to see. Chiloe is the setting the Chilean-American Allende used in her 2011 novel Mayas Notebook. She rendered it as a beautiful place where her heroine, a troubled young woman could begin to heal after a harrowing life of abandonment, drugs, and violence in the United States.

There was a lot left over from the curanto meal. The custom is, Marie Luis said to our group of guests from America, “you take a doggy bag for the road.


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.


abstract: It was The Old Patagonian Express that first focused my attention on Patagonia. What the author of the 1979 travel book, the accomplished novelist Paul Theroux, wrote was literature. But the mere word in the title was enough to entice me. Patagonia was evocative; it conjured up images of vast spaces, tall pampas grass, and gauchos. When I finally arrived there this year, I found those but much more. In Magallanes which is south Patagonia, rare fauna – native guanacos, condors, and rheas- roamed a landscape of distinct beech trees surrounded by glacial lakes against a skyline of snow-capped Andes high mountains skirted with the ice field of the world’s biggest non-polar glacier. Equally extraordinary was the history of this land’s people. This was the last place on Earth to which humans migrated; it was here that Ferdinand Magellan first connected the whole world by his voyage of circumnavigation; and this was where a race literally exterminated another barely a hundred years ago. Southern Patagonians are now split between two nations, Chile and Argentina, but they also manifest a conflicting allegiance to their common regional identity. I have brought back these stories from a place as intriguing as the one imagined by the medieval romance writer who created its name sake, the big-foot Patagon.

Southernmost City

Having logged some 7,000 miles from my hometown of San Francisco, California, I felt a unique sense of accomplishment when we landed in Punta Arenas which claims to be “the southernmost city in the world.” The feeling did not last long. As I looked up, while waiting for my luggage to arrive on the carousel in the airport, a “Welcome to Punta Arenas” sign on the wall, dared me with the next line:  “Tomorrow Welcome to Antarctica.”  There is no rest for the intrepid travelers. So it was that my local guide immediately whisked me, instead, to the Strait of Magellan which was just around the corner from the airport.

Now, as it turned out from our conversation on the bus, Punta Arenas’ famous claim is only technically correct. That is so if you define “city” to exclude smaller communities than Punta Arenas with its population of about 125,000 as mere “towns”  – like Ushuaia, Argentina with some 57,000 people, further south across the Strait, or even further south, Port Williams, Chile with about 5,000 residents. In that reductive rate, indeed, we could forget Puerto Toro, Chile which is the globe’s southernmost permanently inhabited community, with some 40 persons. “At any rate,” my guide concluded with some satisfaction, Punta Arenas remains the southernmost community on mainlandAmerica, as all those other places are on islands.

Strait of Magellan

I stood on the deck of the Carrack Victoria and gazed  at the Strait of Magellan . The ship was a replica, dry-docked in an open air museum, but the channel was the real thing. Its water, which connected the Atlantic and the PacificOceans, looked calm. The Victoria was the first ship to complete the circumnavigation of the globe. It was the only one in the fleet of five ships that Ferdinand Magellan took with him on September 20, 1519 — when he sailed from Sanlucar de Barrameda on the Atlantic coast of Spain– to return there.

An experienced Portuguese sailor recently spurned in his home country, Magellan was on an expedition sponsored by the King of Spain to discover a waterway to the territories of the East Indies where, it was believed, the Maluku Islands were located. Those were the islands with cloves, coveted for incense by the Church and the faithful, unhappy with the excessive price exacted by the Venetians who controlled the land routes to the spices of the East.

The journey took three years. Magellan lost his life in the Philippines and many more of his original crew of 260 also perished. Only 17 finished the expedition on the Victoria on September 8, 1522. Among them was a Venetian, Antonio Pigafetta. It is his diary we rely on for the account of the whole voyage.

The replica of Victoria I was visiting was constructed in the original’s shape and structure and with the same hardware used to maneuver the boat. It contained life-size dolls of the crew and period weapons, food, and utensils. The Victoria was a good ship for the Mediterranean Sea but not safe for the long distances of the Atlantic and Pacific. Carpenters were constantly caulking the leaks, and two men had to pump the water down from the deck, we were told. Like Columbus’ flag ship Santa Maria, the Victoria was a Nao (Spanish for Carrack). It had an open bow. It was square in front and triangular in the back, so it could go fast. A winch in the center of the square was a major technological innovation as it made it possible to have only two instead of ten sailors, so as to save space for supplies.

Naming of Patagonia

The Victoria was the scout ship in Magellan’s fleet, best able to deal with the natives of the lands he would visit. It had goods on board to be offered as presents to them. Most prized, it was thought, would be scissors and bells. As it happened, Magellan did not need the goods at his first encounter with the natives in America. That meeting took place at a point “49 and one-half degrees toward the Antarctic Pole,” according to Pigafetta,  as Magellan sailed south down the coast of South America following maps drawn some 30 years before by an earlier explorer, John Cabot. There, which is today Puerto San Julian in Argentina, Magellan’s “ships entered a safe port to winter” on March 31, 1520.

Pigafetta chronicled that momentous time:

“We passed two months in that place without seeing anyone. One day we suddenly saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the port, dancing, singing, and throwing dust on his head. The captain general sent one of our men to the giant so that he might perform the same actions as a sign of peace. Having done that, the man led the giant to an islet into the presence of the captain general….He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned. His face was large and painted red all over, while about his eyes he was painted yellow; and he had two hearts painted on the middle of his cheeks. His scanty hair was painted white. He was dressed in the skins of animals skillfully sewn together. That animal has a head and ears as large as those of a mule, a neck and body like those of a camel…. His feet were shod with the same kind of skins which covered his feet in the manner of shoes….The captain general called those people Patagoni.”

Pigafetta does not explain the reason for Magellan’s choice of the name, but it has been generally believed that it was the Spanish equivalent of “big feet.” Some Latin American scholars have contested this, a Patagonian who was with us reminded us. They point out that the suffix “gon” does not mean anything in Spanish. They prefer to connect the name used by Magellan to the creature Patagon, a savage imagined in a 1512 Spanish romance called Primaleón of Greece, popular throughout Europe at the time of Magellan’s expedition. In the story, Primaleón, an explorer, discovers a “cruell and barbarous” people who are “cloathed in wilde beasts skinnes,” among whom lives Patagon who has “the face of a Dogge, great ears, which hang down upon his shoulders, his teeth sharpe and big, standing out of his mouth very much: his feete are like a Harts.”

The existence of humans in Patagonia did not need to be imagined. Paintings and engravings are evidence of primitive cultures in the extreme south of the American continent and Tierra del Fuego dating back to before 10,000 B.C. Here lived, specifically, a people of a tall and robust stature now called the Tehuelches (Fierce People) – in the language of the Mapuche, another original people. They survived by hunting the camelid guanaco and sheltered in huts made from guanaco hides. Their territory included the area between the Strait of Magellan and the Santa CruzRiver where Puerto San Julian is located today. At 6 feet height on average, the Tehuelches have been recognized as one of the tallest ethnic groups in the world.

Magellan’s encounter was with these Tehuelches. It ended with “capturing” two of them which he took along as he sailed through the Strait. One of those became the first man to be baptized in Patagonia. More extensive imports than Christianity were the diseases that the Europeans brought with them. Against these, the natives did not have the right defensive immune system. The result was the devastation of the original people of southern Patagonia.

Chile’s Patagonia

The replica of another ship, the Ancud , stood just a few yard from the Victoria in that dry- dock, Nao Museumby the Strait of Magellan . Some 322 years separated the visits of those two ships to the Strait. During that long period the most memorable event in this area was the visit by the British hydrographic survey ship HMS Beagle in 1832-1834 which had a young naturalist on board named Charles Darwin. With the wildlife and fossils that Darwin collected on this trip, which included a five week call on four of the Galapagos Islands, he began his detailed investigations that led to his theory of natural selection published in The Voyage of the Beagle in 1839. At the time the only settlement around the Strait was Port Famine. It had been under British control since 1587, when they landed in the near ruins of a prior settlement that had been the Spaniards’ attempt to colonize the shores of the Strait. That settlement, Rey Don Felipe, was Spain’s effort to prevent the repeat of Sir Francis Drakes’ 1578 entry into the Pacific through the Magellan Strait. The new name the British gave the settlement was a description of the starvation its remaining residents had faced due to the harsh conditions and scarcity of local vegetation.

The voyage of the Schooner Ancud in 1843 represented the attempt to claim and colonize this area by Chile’s newly independent government. Spain had not left established borders here between its successors, Chile and Argentina, and Argentina was especially interested in extending its sovereignty over the Magellanic land and water. What was more, France also had manifested similar ambitions at this time for establishing a base on the shores of the MagellanStrait. On September 21, 1843, the Ancud anchored near Port Famine (Puerto Hambre) and its captain declared the Strait of Magellan and the surrounding territory  a part of the Republic of Chile.    The crew of the ship quickly built a small fort at the top of a hill, calling it Bulnes, after Chile’s president. The colony began with twenty immigrants. After surveying the area, in 1848, it was decided to locate the settlement in a more sheltered area to the north of the fort. It was named Punta Arenas after the nearby “sandy point.”

Small city with a big port

As I walked down from the top of the hill in Punta Arenas toward the main square, the panoramic view  correctly defined it as a small city with a very big asset, a port which is the only, and thus the best, option for ships in hundreds of miles. The houses were modest, many with small gardens of flowers , several painted by left-over paints used in the maintenance of ships. It was around noon and many shops were closed. “People go home and have a nap and then come back and work. They close the stores even if a cruise ship comes,” our guide said. Punta Arenas attracts many tourist ocean-liners, but also Antarctic research vessels, and fishing fleets. “Tourism is only 4th in economic importance,” our guide said.

Punta Arenas’ early economy was based on products of wild animals, especially sealskins and guanaco hides, and minerals such as coal, and timber, until the place became a must stop for the ships of the mid 19th century traffic to the gold rush in California.  Many from Europe on those ships stayed. “Among them were Croatians on a ship which was to take them next to Valparaiso,” our guide said. “I know the descendants of one of those families.” Chile encouraged them to settle. “The government gave them the use of some land for five years, after which they could buy that land.” This was the continuation of the Chile’s colonization policy. The border dispute with Argentina was not settled until the 1881 agreement. In 1867, Chile declared Punta Arenas a “free port” to promote its policy for foreign immigrants. By 1875, the population of Punta Arenas reached 1,144.

Then something far more dramatic happened. In 1877 the region’s governor, Don Diego Dublé Almeyda, authorized by the central government, traveled to the Falkland Islands, acquired 300 purebred sheep which were then sold in Punta Arenas. These white sheep became the core of what later would be called the white gold of Magallanes, its main source of riches. Within a few years two million sheep were grazing the pastures around the MagellanStrait. The cattle ranches attracted people from Europe and from the Chileans island of Chiloe. The population of Punta Arenas increased more than three folds in twenty years. The waives of immigration did not stop afterward. A considerable number of Croatians, for example, came after World War One when economic conditions in the old world became intolerable. Indeed, It is estimated that now fifty percent of the population of Punta Arenas are descendants of Croats, “with names ending in Cic,” our guide said. This town also has a noticeably higher proportion of descendants of other non-Spanish Europeans than the rest of Chile: Scots, Greeks, Germans, Dutch, Scandinavians, Russians and Portuguese.


I stopped in front of a landmark in the main square of town built with the fortune that one of those Portuguese made after arriving here in 1870s. José Nogueira was a sailor who became an enterprising businessman: a pioneer in raising sheep.  In 1890, he obtained a grant of lands from the government of Chile in this area, now called Magallanes, eventually totaling one million hectares. He died in 1893, leaving his fortune to a young widow, Sara Braun. She was the one who had built the landmark mansion I was looking at. It was in a Parisian style with a mansard roof , dramatically different from the utilitarian architecture that had been common in town. Further befitting the new wealth, I noticed, the ornate Palace which was finished in 1895 came with a winter garden. “This house had central heating, radiator type,” my guide said. “It was one of the first houses with electric lights, Punta Arenas being the first to have electricity in Chile.” I recalled that comment at dusk when Punta Arenas appeared wearing a necklace of lights .

Sara Braun was herself a new immigrant. Her Jewish Latvian family had escaped the Tsarists pogroms and, en route to Canada for refuge, landed in Punta Arenas in 1874 when Sara fell sick. Settling here, Sara was married to José Nogueira in 1887, who at the time was being served by her brother Mauricio as a manager. The two siblings are credited with saving the project to occupy land in Tierra del Fuego which was floundering after Nogueira’s death. In 1893 they formed The Operating Society of Tierra del Fuego(Sociedad Explotadora de Tierra del Fuego) which soon became Patagonia’s most important livestock company, owning a total of about three million hectares in Chile and Argentina.

The Society had several other sheep barons among its original shareholders, including Jose Menendez who took 15% of the stocks. He had come yet from a third country, Spain, arriving in Punta Arenas on the same year as the Brauns. His daughter, Josephine, was married to Mauricio Braun in 1893. All this did not prevent competition between him and the son-in-law until 1903 when Jose Menendez fully joined forces with the Society, thus completing both the business and personal union of those three wealthiest and most influential families of the region, all new immigrants.

Because Josephine was Jose Menendez’ heir, since his death the great fortunes of the families have been concentrated in the descendants of the Braun family. But it is Jose Menendez who gets mentioned most in Punta Arenas. His bust is prominent at the center of the town’s main square, erected on the hundredth anniversary of his arrival here. The square, Plaza Muñoz Gamero, named after a provincial governor, became the center of the town after Menendez and his fellow wool barons arrived. Its main feature is a 1910 monument which Menendez had commissioned to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Magellan’s voyage. The explorer looks up heroically above a mermaid with two tails, “one for the Atlantic Ocean and the other for the Pacific,” my guide pointed out. At Magellan’s feet are a freeze of a Tehuelche who symbolizes Patagonia, and on the other side, of an Ona, from another original people, who represents Tierra del Fuego. Tourists are told that “Patagonians believe that if you touch the toe of the Ona you will come back here. That is why it is so shiny!”


Magellan may not have seen an Ona, but it was probably the smoke from the Onas’ bonfires that led him to call their habitat the “land of fire” (Tierra del Fuego).  Tierra del Fuego is believed to be the last place on Earth to which humans migrated.  “That was seven thousand years ago,” according to a knowledgeable friend I made in Punta Arenas. Marcelo (not his real name)   divided those “original peoples” into two main groups: “the Canoers, and the Pedestrians.” The Canoers lived “in the channels of the Strait.” These coastal people, also called the Yamanas,  “were always naked because if they wore clothes, they would get wet and could not row the canoes easily .”  Also by evolution “they had gained fat, kept their skin covered with a layer of grease to help retain heat, and had fires burning nearby all the time, even in their canoes.” When the Europeans came they hunted for the seal fur and the skins of other sea animals. Thus “the Canoers went out of their source of food.”

Marcelo continued: “The Catholic Church established a mission to feed and shelter the Canoers. It transported them to an island right in front of Punta Arenas. Many Canoers went there voluntarily. But they got scurvy from eating blue mussels and all of the 1500 of them died.” Today, Marcelo concluded, “the biggest number of Canoers is a group of 12 living in a reservation in Tierra del Fuego. “The Pedestrians,” whom Marcelo identified as the Onas, lived a semi-nomadic life inland in Tierra del Fuego. “The Church and the government had a program for them too. But in the reservations they also got sick as their immune system could not deal with the diseases that the Europeans brought with them. Those who got away from the reservations gave the diseases to the ones outside and those too died.”  The last of the Onas to die, in 1974, was a woman, Angela Loij.

I saw Loij’s picture from her younger days, with sensuous cheekbones,  on postcards sold in  tourists stops outside of Punta Arenas. On display there also were drawings depicting an Ona man, and an Ona hunter, as well as reproductions of masks that the Onas wore in their different ceremonies. Among them, especially striking was the mask made from the bark of lenga tree, which they wore at the hain ceremony, a rite conducted to admit adolescent youth into the circle of men.

As the land granted to the new immigrants for their sheep expanded, the Onas were increasingly forced to the southern corners of Tierra del Fuego, restricting not only their habitat but also the hunting places for guanacos, their main staple. The sources of food for these animals were, at the same time, diminished due to grazing by the rams. The sheep farmers began shooting the competing guanacos, while the Onas themselves soon found that hunting the slower sheep as “white guanacos” was easier. The cattle ranchers now determined to take strong measures against the Onas, seen as thieves, which eventually led to a campaign of extermination.  Larger companies paid one pound sterling for every dead Ona, confirmed “by showing a pair of ears for an adult; and one-half that amount for a child’s,” Marcelo said. In a futile attempt “the Onas would cut off their own ears not be killed.”

All this took place with full knowledge of the authorities. The “genocide” is now acknowledged to have been the usual practice, although the Romanian immigrant Julius Popper, a hired hand, is often mentioned as the most effective executor. The brutal behavior is, sometimes, explained away as the mentality of the time that “did not contemplate the inclusion of the indigenous world to a paradigm based on the criteria of progress and civilization.” Marcelo simply said: “In the rest of Chile they had slavery and eventually released the slaves. Here it is the story of our grandparents. So we talk about genocide. We talk about those who don’t live here or who don’t have descendants. We don’t have a history or archives.

Magallanos identity

Marcelo’s comments seemed to me not exactly coherent as an explanation but revealing a sense of identifying with a distinct community. In that respect, his differentiating reference to the history of slavery of the original people in the rest of Chile was noteworthy as it was topical -and this complicated Marcelo’s sense of identity. The descendants of those original people, the Mapuche, were very much alive and currently in active dispute with the government in Santiago. Their treatment was a pressing contemporary political issue, not merely a historical subject. Marcelo did not hesitate to express himself on that issue: “The Mapuches are not discriminated, in my opinion. They get favors, free education and paycheck, etc., by merely showing that they have a little Mapuche blood. But the Mapuches do not consider themselves Chileans; they want to be independent.” Marcelo’s views here were in line with the hardliners in Chile

In certain other ways also Punta Arenas seemed to side with the Chilean establishment. The Sara Braun mansion now housed the local branch of the Club de la Union, the quintessential club of the country’s privileged elite.  The Jose Menendez house served the pillar of the power of that elite, as the local military’s Officers Club. On the other side of the Plaza, stood the Punta Arena’s Cathedral, Iglesia Matriz . The Church has been a potent ally of the right in Chile. “Sixty-nine percent of Chileans call themselves Catholic,” Marcelo said, “and the Church opposes changes, such as in abortion, by saying we represent that high percentage of the population.”

Punta Arenas, however, “has long been a left leaning city,” Marcelo said, further exposing the nuanced complexity of its political culture. “Workers’ rights movement began here.”  People here were against President Augusto Pinochet, the General who ruled Chile for 15 years after overthrowing President Salvador Allende “who had  started working with the Communists and made friends with Cuba.”  Marcelo said that in Allende’s time, “Fidel Castro came to Tierra del Fuego and spent three months here.” Now he shared a personal anecdote: “Castro met my grandfather and asked my father who was then 8 or 9, ‘Can I borrow your bike?’”  Marcelo followed up:  “When President Pinochet first visited here he was met with protesters. The army had to intervene to protect him. So every time thereafter, the General came at night and left in the morning. Punta Arenas was disfavored during Pinochet’s time.”

Punta Arenas joined the majority in Chile to vote “no” in the 1988 referendum Pinochet held “asking people if they wanted him to stay, and lost.” But after helping elect five center-left presidents since then, Punta Arenas’ voters went for the current president who is from center-right. Marcelo said “we did so because we thought 20 years of center-left was enough.” Now, however, “ I don’t like the current president.” Marcelo said he would vote for the center-left candidate in the October 2013 Presidential election. In that he thought he was with the majority in Chile.

Next to the Cathedral is the building of the “Representative of the President’s Office.” It has been recently renovated. On the day of our visit, it was blotched with paints thrown by student protesters. On a pole in the middle of the Plaza, there is a Chilean flag- raising ceremony every Sunday, Marcelo said. “That is an attempt to create a nationalistic city out of Punta Arenas. This is the only city in the country where this is done. But it is not working: they raise the flag but people don’t come.” Here and also at the Cathedral we saw the regional flag of Magallanes. Marcelo pointed out: “This is the only regional flag in Chile, created in 1996.” He described its elements with relish: “Yellow is the pampas; white is the Patagonian Andes; dark blue is water; and the 5 stars are the southern stars.”

The identity as “Magallanos” is “very important to us,” Marcelo said. He elaborated the elements of that distinct identity as we had dinner in an upstairs alcove at La Marmita. Above us on the walls were posters of the heroes of Chile’s left. In one, the poet Pablo Neruda was standing with Salvador Allende; another was of Victor Jara with a guitar in his hand. He was, among other things, a singer-songwriter Communist political activist who was arrested and shot to death by the Pinochet government. Chile’s woman noble prize winner, the poet Gabriela Mistral, was also present, in yet another poster, indicating that the venue was more broadly intellectual. Even the waitress stopped to join our conversation at one point.  “My generation is more liberal than my parents who grew up in dictatorship,” Marcelo began. “We are a more tolerant people in Punta Arenas than the rest of Chile. We are more likely to accept gays and even atheists. Seventy percent of our youth approve of gay marriage. The president before the current one who called herself agnostic is still loved as a mother figure.

Punta Arenas is also a more prosperous town. Minimum wage in Chile is $420 a month. Here, Marcelo said, “the average wage is $1,300.” That prosperity is sustained by inexpensive energy in the form of natural gas. As Marcelo put it “Natural gas is most significant and works everywhere: heat and public transportation. It is nationalized. But it is used for the Magallanos. We don’t send it to the rest of Chile.” In fact, natural gas has recently played a notable role in enhancing local solidarity. “A year and a half ago this President’s government wanted to raise the tax on natural gas and that would have increased the cost of everything,” Marcelo told me.  “So we had a huge strike in Punta Arenas, closed every road. Argentinean people next door also joined. The strike was peaceful and organized. Three thousand soldiers were sent here but they could not land because the airport was closed, and we would have turned schools to shelters if there was a violent encounter. The Government yielded. It decided to raise the tax only for some companies that use the natural gas. Because of that episode, the current president could never come here; he is really hated in Punta Arenas.”

Marcelo’s tale was affirming the adage that all politics is local – and, we might add, economics. His reference to the cooperation of the neighboring Argentinean people also caught my attention. I became interested in the extent of a cross-border Magallanos identity. Not only is Magallanes an official administrative division in Chile, there is also a distinct administrative department by that name, nearby, in Argentina’s Patagonia. I probed. Marcelo said: “In Chile, the rest of the country is running out of natural gas. Chile proposed an agreement to get natural gas from Argentina, but Argentina said we don’t have enough to send to you. Now Bolivia sells natural gas to Argentina on the condition that it does not sell to Chile because Bolivia does not have good relations with Chile. So the rest of Chile brings natural gas all the way from South Africa.”  We were thus led to discussing Chile’s foreign policy more generally.

On relations with Bolivia, Marcelo shared a view that he said was that of the majority in Chile. It was nationalistic rather than, differently, Magallanos.  As he related, the conflict with Bolivia stemmed from Chile’s refusal to give back territory which it took in a late 19th century war caused by Bolivia’s failure to sell its nitrate to Chile at the agreed discounted price. “Some Chileans say the President should agree with Bolivia, but I think he was good in resisting Bolivia’s demand.” He conceded that “Chile may not be the best neighbor. Chile has boundary problems with Peru, relating to fishing in the Pacific Ocean, which is now before the court at The Hague.” He even went on to say that “I question Chile’s intention and trust Peru more.”

Three-Island War

It was Marcelo’s position regarding relations with Argentina which showed dramatic divergence with Santiago’s policies. “Santiagons may be heard to say that Argentina stole Patagonia from us, especially those over 40 who grew up under the dictatorship and so have a ‘Santiago feeling’.” Marcelo noted that all South American countries supported Argentina in the “Malvinas” (Falklands) War, except Chile which supported England, “as Argentineans remind visiting Chileans.” But, Marcelo continued, “the Magallanos in Chile have a little different feeling toward Argentina because of both closeness and dependence.” He pointed out that Chileans have to drive on roads in Argentina to get to Chile’s Magallanes and other points in the south of Patagonia as Chile’s mountainous terrain excludes accessible roads.

We were driving on a rare road that could be built in the eastern foothills of Chile’s mountains,  just north of Punta Arenas. Only a narrow strip of land here belonged to Chile. Beyond it on the right, as Marcelo gestured, was Argentina. Between us there was a military base. “Chile spends a lot on the military by South American standards, more than even Brazil, more than on health and education,” Marcelo said. Soon we came to an area marked with a sign that warned “Danger Mine Field. “The War of 1978 between Chile and Argentina was to take place here,” Marcelo showed us on a map. “Tierra del Fuego had been completely land-mined too. The mines were for both people and tanks. Most have been cleared, but not all because mines move due to snow, rain, and wind.” The dispute that caused the threat of that war had to do with the claim to three islands in the Beagle Channel in the Strait of Magellan. As Marcelo reminded me, both Chile and Argentina had recently become military dictatorships. The generals in Argentina laid a claim to these three islands which had been under Chile’s control, saying that they were on the east of the Strait and hence a part of the Atlantic coast that was Argentina’s share.

“The islands were worth nothing, except in regards to the pride of the generals on the two sides,” Marcelo said. “But luckily both countries’ dictators were Catholic and the Catholic Church stepped in and Pope John Paul II said to them if you go to war you will be excommunicated. He sent a cardinal to end the dispute.” The two sides eventually agreed that the islands belonged to Chile. Marcelo said, “in those days, my grandfather was working just across the border in Argentina while living in Puerto Natales, Chile. The war situation made it complicated: how could you go to war with co-workers?” He answered: “Nobody from this area was called to join the mobilized forces because the Patagonians on both sides were related. The ‘war’ was between Santiago and Buenos Aires and not between the two sides of Patagonia. Santiago and Buenos Aires can fight, we won’t.”

The Strait of Magellan that connected the Atlantic and Pacific oceans also united the residents on its two sides. They may be citizens of two different countries but they also have a sense of common identity as Magallanos.

On the road

To protect its borders, Chile has established national parks near them. The one we were now going to see, Torres del Paine, is in one of its most remote areas. It also happens to be in one of the most beautiful places in the world. The government wishes more Chileans to come visit, and to that end it even “subsidizes one-half of the cost of the trip made by its senior citizens,” our tour guide said. Patagonia, however, remains an expensive distant destination for most who live in Chile’s Capital and other population centers in the north. They find it “cheaper to fly from Santiago to places like The Dominican Republic,” the guide said. We took a long bus ride from Punta Arenas to the Torres del Paine Park.

The two-lane road was good, straight with a few bends, the grade was gentle. Our guide said: “There are police here. They control to see if the drivers have all the required papers, if the car was stolen, and if it has someone who escaped from prison.”  We drove through vast expanses of land with no buildings except for a few little shrines to those who had died in accidents and a couple of bus stops . The Chilean Province of Magallanes is sparsely populated: nearly 80% of its population of 150,000 live in Punta Arenas, leaving about 8 persons per mile for the rest of the province.

We were in the flat grassland which does not get much rain and is used for raising sheep. The guide introduced that industry:  “There are three kinds of sheep here, one for meat, one for wool which is Merinos, and one kind for both. Roughly 35% of the sheep end up as meat before they are one year old (called lamb), and the rest are kept for wool. The longer and more curly the wool the better. The biggest market for our wool is China. The wool is cleaned in Puente Arenas and is ready to use. The skin is sold to Uruguay as well as China. The biggest markets for meat are the European Union and Israel.”  We saw only a few sheep. “There are usually many, but in summer they are mostly taken north where there is better grass.”

A little over an hour later we came to a tiny village . The guide said: “Worker in Estancia -hacienda or a big farm- live in those villages but the owner of lands live in the cities. Kids live with their parents until the age of six, then they go to school, which is mandatory, either to Puente Arenas or Puente Natales which is north of here.” We spotted two nandus, rheas which are ostrich-like. “They can run 60 miles an hour but cannot fly. This kind of rheas  is native and a protected species here. They are polygamous in both sexes. The male is in charge of raising the babies.”  A few miles down the road we saw a black-chested buzzard eagle on a road-side pole. “He is waiting for a hare (rabbit) to be killed by cars. He also eats lamb, first takes out the eyes and then eats the meat,” our guide said.

El Morro del Tehuelche

As we approached a promontory  formed by the remains of a volcanic hill, fourcondors were circling over it. The condors were “cautious,” our guide said, “having found their prey, they are looking to make sure there are no pumas around.” This was because, these biggest of birds – native to the area and a protected species- “eat a lot when they feed on their caught prey and become too heavy to fly and thus easy target for their predators, the pumas.”

The premonitory was called El Morro (Headland) del Tehuelche after the original people who had lived in this area. Rheas and Guanacos were their preys. The Tehuelches adopted horses for hunting after the arrival of the Europeans. Horses also enabled them to travel long distances to exchange goods with the Europeans. In the 19th century their dependence on such contacts increased. The result was that “no Tehuelche has been left in Chile,” according to our guide: “They became extinct for many reasons, mostly because of alcohol.”

The cafeteria in the shadow of the premonitory where we entered now was also called Morro del Tehuelche. Its ranch style was exemplified by a bell on the porch which would call the hungry to the meal when ready.  Inside, two children of the owners were watching television, paying no attention to us; next to them were a Bar-B-Que and a music player. A framed map of the area on the wall indicating how close we were to the boundaries with Argentina showed the Regional Flag (bandera) and the Coat of Arms (escudo) of Patagonia.

Back on the road the landscape changed quickly. There were trees, faked beech (nothofagus), native but not looking healthy because of a parasite and also lichen; some just burned in past fires.  As the bus climbed the gentle grade, mountains with snow on the top appeared in the distance to our west. The guide pointed to a prominent one: DorotheaMountain. Clouds got darker but further out there were still patches of blue. We drove by a small hamlet of some 10 structures. Horses were grazing between the hamlet and the road.


Our attention was soon turned onto a pile of plastic bottles on a side of the road . We came down from our bus to examine the spectacle, and the guide told us the story behind it. “This is like a shrine to a woman called Difunta Correa who lived in the 1800s. She is a ‘popular’ Saint, not a real, ‘religious’ saint. Correa’s husband was captured by a group rival to his in those times of political turmoil. So she started walking to find and rescue him. She got lost in the mountains. She was carrying a baby. Her body was later found dead but the baby had survived by drinking her milk. Her death was from thirst, which was caused by feeding milk to the baby. So people put bottles of water at this shrine for her and make a wish.” We noticed that many of the bottles were full. There were several piles of bottles with little doll houses. In one pile, there was also a doll replica of a dead young woman .

Further down the highway we came to another roadside shrine -this one to Gauchito Gil.  Instead of bottles of water, Gauchito (Little Gaucho) had received a lot of cigarettes, “as that is the best present you can give a gaucho,” the guide told us. There were also many small red flags at this shrine. “Red flags and white flags were banners of opposing armed groups in Gauchito Gil’s time, the 1870s, in the neighboring Argentina, and his group’s flag was red.” The guide now told us the history of this shrine. Gil was captured in a skirmish and was ordered killed. The commander who was about to carry out the order asked him if he had a last wish. Gil replied that he had none but added that “your son is ill and I am going to cure him.” Ignoring this non-responsive answer, the commander ordered the execution. However, when he traveled home after a couple of months, “the commander was told by his wife that their son had been seriously ill but eventually cured.” Because of this the commander became a believer and built the first shrine to Gauchito Gil.  Gil’s story then became a legend and setting up shrines to him on the roads has become a tradition both in Argentina and Chile. “People make offerings to him, asking for favors.

Not far from here there were still several more small shrine-like structures. Some had a cross outside and burning candles inside. In one white shrine there was a hand-written note on a cardboard, dated 2013, and signed by a person from “Pto. Montt” – some 800 miles away in Chile’s Lake District, thanking “Padre Pio” for helping her “Yasmin” . As our guide explained, Padre Pio is the 20th century Italian with “stigmata in the form of wounds,” revered by the devout Catholics in Chile. “At his shrine they ask for healing favors.”


Past the shrines to religious and popular legends, we saw two real life gauchos galloping with six horses ahead of them. Our guide flagged them and tried to talk them into pausing so that we might visit with them. He reported back that they could not because they needed “to run after those horses .” Soon we were lucky, however, to run into another set of two gauchos on horses . They had several sheep dogs with them . They stopped to talk to us. They were going to move some sheep from a cooperative in Castillo, several miles ahead. I shook hands with the older gaucho, as he sat on his horse and asked if I could snap his picture. After we had our picture together taken, I offered to show it him. He took the camera and pretended to put it in his pocket, before he laughed and gave it back. I said to him “we will show your picture to Hollywood and they will call you!” I asked the guide if in Magallanes kids say that they would want to become gauchos. He said “here, like the US, kids want to be firemen. But firemen here don’t get paid.

Lake Sarmiento

We approached the Torres del Pine Park  from the Sarmiento entrance , named after a nearby lake. The lake itself is named after two Sarmientos. It was originally christened in honor of Domingo Faustino Sarmiento who was a mid-19th century president of Argentina. “President Pinochet, however, did not like that; so he changed the name sake: in Chile it now honors Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, a mid-16th century Spanish explorer who made detailed maps of many parts of the Strait of Magellan.”

To geologists this lake is better known for its distinct “microbialitesdeposits . The microbial activity had formed a white line of limestone (calcium carbonate) on the rim of the lake. “This phenomenon is rare: the most famous other example is found in Mono Lake, California,” the guide said, reminding me of the lake I had waded into some years ago. As I stood before the Sarmiento, I was reminded of its other distinction, a rare lake in the dry orographic rain shadow formed by the Andes Range which loomed in the landscape.  Bushes were planted on the banks of the lake to prevent further soil erosion. Presently, above me, was yet another uncommon sight, a condor in flight.

Torres del Paine National Park which was created in 1959 covers an area of 561 kilometer acres of diverse micro-climates, but it had no paved road. The explanation was not ecological: “according to statistics there will be more car accidents if we pave over its many dirt roads.” we were told. While one needs to drive the Park’s slow dirt roads to get to its many attractions which are widespread, the best way to appreciate them is by hiking. The Park brochure tells you that “Several native species such as pumas, guanacos, huemules, foxes, condors, flamingoes, swans and nandu, can be seen.” Chances are, however, that an ordinary visitor will see virtually none, with the exception of guanacos. Before the European came there were an estimated 500 million guanacos in Patagonia; now there are only about 500,000.  Torres del Paine National Park has a good share of them. There is indeed a whole valley in the Park named after them. We took our first hike in Guanaco Valley.

Guanaco Valley

“Paine” meant blue in the language of the Tehuelches;  and appropriately we saw water from the glaciers in the lakes and rivers all around us . The GuanacoValley had been carved by the glaciers through basalt volcanic rocks which at places still lined our path. In the two hours that we traversed four miles, the famously changing weather of this Park played a delightful show of lights  and shadows for us.

In much of the valley we were surrounded by guanacos. They were social animals, shy but not afraid of us. Called “the camel of Patagonia” , guanaco is the smaller cousin of the camel. The ones we saw were about 3 ½ feet tall, on the average, with coarse hair that was dark cinnamon or light brown. They had big brown eyes set in a grey face which was framed by small straight ears. We saw some young ones (chulengos) who had been born just a month before, looking to us not unlike Walt Disney’s Bambi. They were mostly in groups, but I spotted one guanaco on the top of a ridge, looking regal in silhouette against the white clouds arising from the mountains.

The guanacos’ defensive mechanism is to spit, as we observe. Their strength against their main predator, the puma, is in their sight and speed. As the Park brochure said, they need to live in open field with no trees obstructing their vision where they can run away at up to 35 miles per hour. In those fields, they fed on grass.

Torres of the Blue Range

In Guanaco Valley, we had our best opportunity to see the TorresMountains. They were in the midst of a spectacular group of peaks called Cordillera del Paine . The highest summit among these, Cerro Paine Grande, stood at 2,884 meters. There were three Torres del Paine which are towers of granite monoliths: the SouthTower at 2,500 meters, the CentralTower at 2,460 meters and the NorthTower at 2,260 meters . Beyond all of these peaks we could discern other snow-topped mountains from another park in Chile, the Bernardo O’Higgins National Park. Our guide said that hiking the Torres themselves was not difficult. This was, however, the closest I got to the famous peaks. Signs in the Park reminded us that the Paine range of mountains (also called the Blue Massif) were an eastern spur of the Andes, but independent of it. While the Andes date back to 65 million years ago, the age of the mountains in this Park is no more than 12 million. The Paine peaks were formed by a combination of sedimentary and molten rocks thrust into the air and molded by glaciers.

Grey Glacier

Those glaciers have not rested, as we could see later that afternoon. On the deck fronting our hotel’s lounge, I had within my sight huge chunks of ice calved from the Grey Glacier, floating in a lake which was also its creation. The ice pieces were light blue and at first glance appeared like bundles of styrofoam. The wind reaching 40 miles an hour prevented us from taking a boat to go to the edge of the glacier. Instead, we walked toward a lookout

We crossed the wide Rio River, flowing from the lake, on a long swinging footbridge  that would only take 6 persons at a time. We reached a sand bar, about 60 feet wide and one-half mile long, formed by the glacier in the vast lake. In that forbidding environment we saw life in the form of a single yellow flower, which was senecio, arising from the sand bar. The pier where we would have boarded the boat was unattended; we spotted the small boat, Zodiac further out in the lake.

When we got closer to the glacier at the lookout we could see the source of the water of the lake from the glacier, an opening between rocks . From here the floating ice chunks in the lake looked several times a man’s size. The bushes in the rocky premonitory had red flowers ; they were the small evergreen Chilean firebush.The water of the lake was milky, almost gray in color, hence giving it its name Lago Grey. As we found out, the Park had lakes and lagoons with waters which were dark blue or green. The different colors are due to the fine-grained particles of rock generated by glacial erosion which are suspended in the waters.

The Hosteria and Navegacion Hotel at Lago Grey was cozy. Our rooms were cabins. When it snowed over night, horses appeared roaming in front of my cabin in the morning. We had an austral parakeet too. In the evening the National Park service showed a movie about pumas.  They were “the biggest feline in Chil ,” we learned. “Inside the park, chances of being attacked by puma is minimal. However this can happen.” Most of the guests were foreign tourists, as the signs and restaurant’s menu in English attested. Our guide said that the origin of this Park had roots in the interest of Italians who came to climb the Torres. “They donated twelve acres of the land they had acquired to the Chilean government which then began buying other private properties that existed here to create the Park.” One family, however, wished to create a tourist business and the government could not remove them. “So only one property in the middle of the Park is private.” It belongs to the Kusanovic family, originally from Croatia. They own and run a hotel in their land. There were six other hotels in the Park. All of those are concessions. The most luxurious, and expensive, was said to be Explora Hotel. “You have a view of the Torres from every window, including your bathroom,” our guide said.

Foreign tourists’ interest in Torres del Paine has been the source of unintended great peril.  A fire began by a Japanese tourist in 1985 burned about 150 square kilometers of the Park; another fire in 2005 from the cooking stove of a Czech back- packer destroyed 155 square kilometers; and the biggest fire, in December 2011 to February 2012, caused by an Israeli camper, burned about 10% of the forest in the Park. That camper “had just burned his toilet tissue after using it, which is good, but the wind of 80 miles an hour carried that one piece of burning tissue to the rest of the forest.” This tourist was detained, but released after paying a penalty of $200. “That law was 20 years old,” our guide lamented. “Laws are made in Santiago and they don’t have a national park there, so they don’t care.” The brochure of the Park warns “The use of fire is prohibited in any circumstance.” In another paragraph, however, it exempts fire “in designated areas.” There are now videos “in Hebrew as well as English, French, and Spanish,” our guide said, to warn tourists abut the danger of making fires. “But still people are caught making bonfires.”

Our guide said “Because lightening or electrical storms are rare here, we don’t have fires started by them damaging the trees. The burned trees here are not naturally replaced. The seeds have to come from elsewhere.” Reforestation is taking place little by little. “The Israeli government is helping.” The trees in the Park are deciduous beech (Nothofagus Antarctica) which  grow well here but not tall or fast. “It will take some 200 years to recover all the areas of those burned tree.”

The hike 

In Punta Arenas, there was a sculpture of four shepherds walking with their back bent . Pointing it out to us, our guide had said:  “Chilean people are obsessed with this sculpture of bent men as it shows the strong force of the wind of Patagonia.” He said this with a combination of pride for the Magallanos and corresponding condescension for the other, soft, Chilenos. Today, Enrique was our guide in the hike facing the famous wind of the Torres del Paine National Park.  This was his job in summer time, and he liked hiking by himself “a lot” in other seasons too. He had done many hikes in this Park and had gone on four day backpacking trips here. As he was telling us this, Enrique stopped our bus to pick up a friend who was on his way to a trail-head where he was to start a solitary hike “for a few days.” Enrique said “this is common for the Magallanos.”

We did not climb the Torres but we took the flight of folly in following such a hiker almost a third our age. We began toward a waterfall, Salto Grande, which is set between two lakes in the Park, Penhoe and Nordernskjold. The sign at the waterfall warned us: “Caution: Strong Wind Zone”. I stood for a picture and felt as if the wind was pushing me against the fence into the waterfall’s rushing water. I asked Enrique: “how strong?” He brushed me off: “35 to 45″ miles per hour. Just then, the man who had taken my picture was felled on his back by the gusting wind. “This is a pretty strong wind day,” Enrique was forced to concede. We settled for 72 miles per hour: “agreed,” we shook hands. However, Enrique was not giving up on the main argument: “This is still ‘a typical Patagonia day,’ and on such days you still have to walk to school and work in Magallanes.”

Some in our small group gave up and went back to our bus. The rest continued the hike to the original destination, Los Cuernos (Horns) Lookout, “about an hour gentle walk,” we were told. When we had to bend in an especially big gust and wait for it to go away, Enrique turned to me and said “OK, 74!” That is the hurricane strength wind. Now it also started drizzling. The scenery made it impossible, however, to think about quitting. We were in fields of green and pink grass full of burned naked, knurled bodies of trees; a majestic snow-topped mountain with a hint of a glacier at its skirt provided the background.

When we arrived at our destination, there was just enough light in the sky to show the blue of the lake, but the Horns (peaks) were in dreamy shadow. Enrique joined me in celebration which did not last long since we could not withstand the wind; we had to hold onto each other just to stay up . We could hardly sit on the bench of the lookout at this lake, named after the Swedish explorer Nordernskjold, and take in the magnificent view.

When we started to return, some went ahead fast and some more slowly. Our distances were enough in the spacious land so that I was alone in the middle. I had an intense sense of the vastness of the place, with no person or animal around. I was a bit concerned about the pumas but knew that it was too early in the day for the nocturnal  animals. Birds were absent because of the strong wind. There was no sign of huemul, the only deer species in this area. There were denuded trunks and branches of the trees of the forest that had been in the fire. They looked like sculpted driftwood, erected in the soil, twisted by the wind. There were also incomparable mountains and glaciers and the smooth water of Lago Nordernskjold.

I was taking pictures continuously but at the same time I blamed myself for not simply looking enough. The drizzle persisted, sometimes turning into rain. Bubbles covered the screen on my camera. It occurred to me that in the idleness of this wilderness, pictures provided purpose but also limited you, when you took numerous sequential pictures to cover the panorama around. I also worried that letting the water get into the camera might ruin either or both the camera and the disk of the picture already taken. I was not in control, however, especially now that suddenly a double rainbow appeared in front of me, as the drops of rain streaked on the screen of my clicking camera.

Next day, I saw fresh snow on the mountain which had come at night. Enrique reported that the wind at our hike had been recorded at 60 knots, and the gust at 85 knots which a retired pilot among us calculated to be 97 miles per hour. Enrique now said “That wind was not normal because it was like a windstorm.” A few ducks were swimming in the lake we were now passing by. A biologist in our group said that on our hike he had spotted a buzzard eagle and a red fox with reddish brown fur which can turn into grey, making it a silver fox.

The lure of adventure

We left the Torres del Paine Park through its Serrano gate. As we drove north toward the border with Argentina the scenery changed, the land became flat and the landscape rocky. The border was at a point only about 800 feet above sea level, and about 4 miles from Cerro Castillo, the last hamlet in Chile’s Magallanes. In a cafeteria named Ovejero (Shepherd)  we sat down to a typical shepherds’ meal of cassoeula , a soupy stew of chicken and vegetables. We did as were told the locals do: “drink the soup and eat the stew,” and we washed it down with a glass of “Chilean lemonade (Pisco sour).”

Then we walked the few yards to a simple building which was Chile’s customs and immigration outpost, named after the nearby Don Guillermo River. As the uniformed officer stamped my passport, I saw the official portrait of Chile’s President on the otherwise bare wall behind him. It occurred to me that this was the only time during my stay in Chile that I had noticed his picture.

When we crossed the boarder, on the other side of the barrier that was lifted for our bus to pass, two persons with backpacks were standing on the road, waiting to hitchhike –lonely images in the vast Patagonian land that conjured up the lure of adventures.

Puerto Vallarta: How it has come about


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2012. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise distributed without the prior written authorization ofKeyvan Tabari.


abstract: A man I know just returned from Puerto Vallarta. He had gone there on a week-long trip arranged by his country club. They golfed for three days on courses planned by world famous designers. The rest of the time they stayed in the resort which like the golf courses is on the outskirts of Puerto Vallarta. He said most of these Americans avoided going to town for fear of getting sick from the water as well as other, new plights of a Mexican environment. Paradoxically, it is an American who gets credit for putting Puerto Vallarta “on the map” as a tourist destination that now gets well over three million visitors a year. Before Motion Picture Director John Huston chose it as the location for his 1964 movie The Night of the Iguana, Puerto Vallarta was a small fishing village of no significance to the rest of the world. I went to find about that village so quickly lost and what has become of it since.


At Pipis their signature guacamole, prepared with some fanfare at our table, was free. The high price of the margarita more than made up for the difference but it was one of the best and put you in the right mood forPuerto Vallarta. This restaurant is a tourist favorite. It proudly tells you that it was “The Original,” and established in 1986. ByPuerto Vallartastandards that makes it old enough to be an institution. The kitsch about it included colorful piñatas and paper banners stretched across the street outside. The establishment’s motto, “Don’t drink the water, drink the margaritas,” was painted on its wall, right above a papier-mâché piñata.

The people ofPuerto Vallartaclaimed that they were still as friendly as ever. Our waiter, Alfonso, became momentarily my new best friend. After serving our fajita, he took down a framed picture hanging on Pipis’ wall and brought it to show me. It was a black and white photograph. It was datedApril 27, 1960. The scene was “the street right in front of this restaurant,” Alfonso said. The street in the picture was empty except for a stray dog in the forefront and a few men further back. Alfonso pointed to the man in the middle. “That is my father, Jose Manuel.”  He said: “At that time, he was the sole police officer ofPuerto Vallarta.”

Puerto Vallartahas come a long way. It now even maintains a special bi-lingual Tourist Police force. Just before I arrived, however, the president ofMexico’s Business Coordination Council, a major industrial association, declared thatMexicoranked “133 out of 142 countries in trustworthiness in police services.” This announcement was made at the meeting of the World Economic Forum onLatin Americaheld atPuerto Vallarta’s brand newInternationalConvention Center. To protect the attending heads of states, ministers and businessmen from over seventy countries, the Forum imported its own police force fromSwitzerland. Of course, their efforts were “coordinated with the Department of Public Safety, the Army and the (Mexico) President’s General Staff.” This was obviously a big operation. The event was important enough to bring the candidates of both major parties in the forthcoming Mexican Presidential election to town.

ForPuerto Vallarta, the important result was that despite all the talk of drug wars, safety was successfully assured. That is the message thatPuerto Vallartawas eager to send to all prospective visitors. It hopes to attract as many as four million of them this year. To that end, it has built an impressive infrastructure. It now boasts 20,748 hotel rooms, 10,700 of which are in 4 or 5 star properties. It has expanded its airport’s capacity to receive three million passengers a year; its port is able to simultaneously accommodate three full-size cruise ships. The airport now has a dedicated satellite terminal catering exclusively to flights from theU.S.andCanada. There are direct flights to many cities in those key markets.Puerto Vallartahas built nine world-class golf courses all within short distances of the airport and its luxury hotels.  All those hotels have their own water purification equipment and most restaurants use purified water. In fact, to combat the fear of “Montezuma’s revenge,”Puerto Vallartapublicizes the fact that even its city water has been awarded a certification of purity for the twentieth year in a row.

All of the above is critical because over half ofPuerto Vallarta’s workforce now earn their livelihood from employment in the tourist industry; and the next biggest employed group is in construction. Agriculture has become by far the smaller source of employment. The main products are tropical fruit such as mango, papaya, watermelon, pineapple, cantaloupe and banana. I found a good sampling of them on the back of the fruit truck parked in the middle of the town next to Malecon. “That order of the sources of employment is, in a way, a metaphor for wherePuerto Vallartais at,” an expat (expatriate) who was standing nearby told me. He had been living inPuerto Vallartafor forty years.Puerto Vallartahad changed. More change was inevitable. The challenge was how to keep the old charm of this place: “its pueblito spirit,” as the expat put it.

Puerto Vallartahas prided itself in being different from the “Planned Tourist Resorts”, such asCancun, Los Cabos and Xtapa. It has spent large sums of money to ensure that its original Mexican “small town” flavor is not lost in itsOldTownand the South Side. The north is a different story. “All those luxury hotels and international conferences have been creating traffic, delays and blockades. There the pueblito feeling has faded quite a bit.” Like that truck that helped bring the farmers’ products to the market, the expat said, development has helped, but “Puerto Vallartamust carefully balance the benefits of its new status with the drawbacks.”


Malecon is the bay-front boulevard wherePuerto Vallartastages its carnival of street hawkers pushing cheap local souvenirs (shawls, blankets, hats, and earrings), mariachi bands plucking guitars and violins, mimes, an open air art gallery of painters, and food prepared on the sandy beach. The fiesta ambiance at the Mexican Riviera, which is this shore of the forty-two mile longBanderasBay, is made possible by the balmy weather.Puerto Vallartahas 300 sunny days per year, and an average temperature of 82 degrees. TheBanderasBaycoast which here fronts the green tall Sierra Madre is dramatically picturesque. The mountains protect it from the hurricanes of thePacific Ocean. The palm trees of the Malecon, however, need protection against the dearth of sufficient rain. I heard the locals complain that they were drying because the city did not always water them adequately.

The watering holes on the other side of the Malecon did a brisk business. The old classic Senior Frog bar and restaurant had now branched out to other parts of town. When I crossed Malecon’s new pedestrian bridge over theCualeRiver, I began to see more funky bars and restaurants, especially at theMuertosBeachwhich catered to local families.

On the opposite side, I had seen the shiny high rises of the new hotels lining up the Banderas shore. There on the Malecon were painted boats  commemorating it as a “point of embarkation”  to various destinations on the Bay. These were temporary exhibits. So were the ephemeral sand sculptures on the beach. I talked to Josse who had sculpted what he called Movemiento (Movement) . He pointed to another of his huge work a few steps away. “That is Taj Mahal,” he said. It had a vaguely “oriental” architecture.

Main Plaza

The Malecon sculpture that is widely associated with Puerto Vallarta, as its “calling card,” is the bronze Caballero del Mar (Boy on a Seahorse). By Rafel Zamarripa, it was the first to be erected on this beach, in 1976. A more iconic symbol of Puerto Vallarta is the crown that sits on the top of its Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe -ironically modeled after the crown worn by Carlota, the mistress of the 1860s Emperor Maximilian. First installed in 1963, it has not been durable. The earthquake of 1995 destroyed it completely. The current crown is a temporary replacement made of fiberglass.

The Church dominates the MainPlazawhich is the heart of downtown. The design of the Plaza follows the traditional Spanish plan for all of Latin Americabased on the Leyes de Indias (The Laws of the Indies) by King Phillip II’s proclamation in 1573 which established “the rule to locate the symbols of political and religious powers facing a central square.”  ThePuerto VallartaPlaza, however, deviated from this rule in one major respect: there is no municipal palace facing the church. The felicitous result is that this Plaza is one of the few main squares inMexico with a full ocean view.

The reason for the deviation was explained by a sign inPuerto Vallarta’sMainPlazaas the “commercial character of the village” that becamePuerto Vallarta. This land was owned by the Camarena brothers who were also the owners of the Union en Cuale mining company. In 1851 they commissioned Jose Guadalupe Sanchez Torres to distribute properties to new inhabitants, who mostly worked for the company, to build their homes. For accomplishing this task Sanchez has been called the founder ofPuerto Vallarta.

The name Sanchez gave to this village was Las Peñas de Santa Maria de Guadalupe. By 1918 it evolved into a town, and received a new name:Puerto Vallarta, to honor  Lic. Ignacio Luis Vallarta, who had been the governor of the state (Jalisco) and later, concurrently served as Mexico’s Foreign Minister and President of its Supreme Court (1877-1882). It was his statue that now stood in the Main Plaza.

The Plaza is a pleasant place with small plots of flowers around a band stand which is in the middle and benches for residents and tourists alike. On this day the Plaza was quiet. A shoe shine man sat in one corner hoping for customers. Three middle-aged American women visiting from theMidwestrested on a bench at the other corner of the Plaza. I visited the tourist office nearby. “You should have been here last week which was Easter,” a friendly clerk told me.

In Mexico Easter holidays are a combination of Semana Santa (Holy Week: Palm Sunday to Easter Saturday) and Semana de Pascua (Easter Week: Resurrection Sunday through the following Saturday). “InPuerto Vallarta we celebrate Easter in an elaborate way, especially in this Plaza,” the clerk said.  “There is a passion play depicting all the events from the Last Supper to the Resurrection. In the procession toward the Crucifixion, the Christ is beaten by the ‘Priests,’ as he carries the heavy cross, helped by another person.”

When I stepped out of the tourist office, I crossed paths with a Mexican woman and her young daughter. They crossed themselves as we faced the big Church of Our Lady of Guadalupe on the hill.


According to the 2011 census,Puerto Vallartahad a population of 255,725. Although the Spaniard Pedro de Alvarado discovered this area in 1521, it was then “forgotten” for over 300 years . Sanchez was the first to establish a settlement here in 1851. He came with a boat as a tradesman selling salt to the Camarenas’ mining company for use in the smelting process of silver and gold mined in theSierraMadreMountains. First putting up a shed of logs and palm roof as shelter in what is now Playa Los Muertos, Sanchez soon brought his family to a more solid housing at the mouth of theCualeRiver. This location was approximately under the bridge on the Malecon where I was now standing, at the tip of what has since become Cuale Island. In the next fifty four years other families settled close-by, together making up the village of Las Penas de Santa Maria de Guadalupe. The name La Penas was after the huge crags near the sea limit in this part of theBanderasBay.

Before the Spaniards the people who lived closest to this region were the “coca tribes (Cuyutecos).” When Francisco Cortes de San Buenaventura in 1520 “confronted” them in a valley, these local tribes came armed with “arches, truncheons and spears,” each man bearing “a color feather flag in hand.” Thus the Bay received its name, after the Valley of the Flags (Valle de Banderas).

I learned these historical details in the NavalHistoryMuseum (museo historico naval) in Malecon on the other side of the bridge over the CualeI sland. The Museum, in a building that used to be a naval hospital, is run by the Mexican Navy which maintains a base inPuerto Vallarta. The Museum’s few artifacts and pictures are described in Spanish signs, but the Navy officer in charge gave me a book in English which translated the descriptions. Accordingly, it was Captain Nuno Beltran de Guzman who conquered this area which was then named New Galicia by the Queen of Spain in 1531. “With the conquests the long lasting cultures of this area disappeared almost in their entirety either by death of the individuals who sustained them or by Spanish prohibition of observing certain customs,” the book said.  “But yet many manifestations of these continue to survive.”

Archaeological Museum

Almost opposite of the Naval History Museum, at the entrance to Cuale Island there was the Archaeological Museum to provide a glimpse into those pre-Columbian cultures of the Puerto Vallarta area. In this Museo del Cuale also had only a few artifacts. The visitors were instead, instructed by big written posters with maps and pictures. Furthermore, the Museum was not so much aboutPuerto Vallartaas about the much bigger area calledWest Mexico, which in a map was defined as covering the territory between the states ofSonorain the north and Guerrero in the south and going inland from the ocean quite far in some places. The first people who lived here (from 5000 to 2000 B.C.) were nomadic. They were hunter-gatherers as indicated by what they have left behind: “projectile points, scrapers, percussion tools and grounding stones.”  Sedentary life existed at least from 2400 to 2000 B.C., as suggested by vestiges of pottery. There are also signs of tombs carved from bedrock which were family crypts.

The ceramics found with red, cream and black geometric motifs applied in strict symmetry are from the Chupicuaro people, who lived in 400 B.C. to 200 A.D.  They had a farming economy with ample fishing and hunting opportunities.

The shaft-tombs that have been discovered in West Mexico date to 300-600. They indicate highly developed funerary rituals attesting to a major cult honoring the ancestors in that period. The Archaeological Museum displayed some artifacts from the offerings for the benefit of the deceased found in the chambers of these tombs. There were masks of fantastic beings, two-headed human and animals, and aspects of fertility cult in women figurines with accentuated sexual features. There were representations of shamans but not deities. The abundance of musical instruments meant they were used in religious rituals and in dances.  The culture that gave us the shaft tombs developed in the highlands and middle ranges.

Metal was probably used in West Mexico as early as 650 A.D.  Its use became widespread during the Azatatlan tradition (800-1200). They used mostly gold, silver and copper. A later culture that was prominent for its use of metal was the Purepechas (1300-1521).  They used it both for personal adornments and for practical purposes. In some places they made ‘axe money” which were too thin for practical use; instead they were currency in trade.

The Azatatlan culture was especially significant in areas near Puerto Vallarta. It is characterized by its polychrome ceramics with many symbolic motifs: “hearts, feather tassels, semi-precious stones usually green, solar rays, and sacrificial knifes. There were also presentations of animals, deities and human beings. ”

Abundant petroglyphs in West Mexico dating from 900 to 1500 have been the source of our understanding of the cultures of that period.  These are rock art on boulders or cliffs made by “percussion tools, flaking off the rock surface to leave designs in relief.” The motifs in them are mostly “the spiral and other geometric shapes; animal and human beings were less common.”  Some of these motifs “have been interpreted as elements of water and fertility cult; others mark sacred spots in local mythologies; some were used as solstice and equinox markers or as part of ancient computing system.”

In the pre-Columbian times, the most common garment for women was a wrap-around and for men a small loincloth or pubic cover. Ornaments were more common among men than women. “More than just decorative, they were markers of status or ethnic identity or marital status.” These included necklaces, anklets, bracelets, nose ornaments. Materials used were shells, bones, ceramics, obsidian, and jade. Men also used “body paints and tattoos and ornamental scaring.”

The Archeological Museum divided he history of Puerto Vallarta into the following periods: “600-1529  Precolumbian age; 1528-1800  Colonial Age; 1801-1917  Miner Age; 1918-1960 Agricultural Age; 1961-Today: Touristic Age.”  As an example of “the main products of Puerto Vallarta in its agricultural age,” a Museum sign singled out tobacco. “Indigenous people used it for medicinal and religious ceremonies purposes.”


That evening I looked for traces of the pre-Columbian culture in the art galleries of Puerto Vallarta. Every Wednesday there is a self-guided Art Walk in Puerto Vallarta with many of the galleries hosting special exhibits. Puerto Vallarta’s first art gallery, Uno, was founded in 1971. Since then the number of galleries and art houses in this town has grown greatly. There are two main gallery districts, one in the area around the Main Plaza, and the other south of the Cuale Island in the Romantic Zone (so called because of its cobbled streets and red brick rooftops which are partly covered with bougainvilleas of many colors). I looked into several galleries in this area. They represented painters, sculptors, photographers and potters, some of whom were local and some international. I saw traditional Mexican silverware, glasswork, and pottery works.

I was especially interested in Mexican folk art. In one gallery, an artist told me that some 3,000 years ago, the Olmec culture crafted distinctive pottery and stone carving in Mexico. Other major civilizations such as Maya and Aztec produced artifacts from clay which have influenced the folk artists of today.

In another art house on Badillo Street I found a collection of Wixarika handicrafts. The owner explained that these were made by the Huichol people, who were the direct descendants of the Aztecs, and still lived in isolated villages nestled in the Sierra Madre near Puerto Vallarta. These handicrafts were colorful yarn paintings and beaded designs. They depicted fantastic images based on such local animals as deer, snakes, wolves, scorpions, iguanas, and frogs. “These images are supernatural; they are reflections of visions the artists experienced during religious ceremonies,” the gallery owner said.

In still another gallery I was attracted to a reproduction of the Colima Dancing Dogs. As the knowledgeable gallery owner, Alex, explained to me, showing catalogues and pictures, these hollow ceramic joined-dogs are the oldest canine figures found in North America. They were made in the period from the time before Christ until several centuries later. The dog ceramics were put in the shaft tombs next to the deceased so as to guide his soul into the journey through the Underworld to the Upper World. “You see, our dogs performed the function that cats were to provide for the Egyptian Pharaohs in their tombs,” Alex said. I bought the replica of one of these Colima joined-dogs ceramics for myself – for future use.

Viejo Vallarta

Alex told me that the Colima dogs, also known as the “Mexican hairless,” had a dual function: they were also eaten as food by the ancient people of this area. That practice having been abandoned, the stray dogs of Puerto Vallarta are now in demand for adoption by the tourists, according to the town’s English language publication. On the other hand, in another page of the same publication, Julian Gonzales Cruz, “a passionate chef specialized in Mexican Food,” lamented the loss of many flavor and scents that had made the Mexican cuisine unique. Among the important lost ingredients, he complained, were “escamoles (ant eggs compared to caviar with a sweeter flavor), chitacanas (water ants), grasshoppers, and maguey worm.” Instead, he wrote “we have Mexican dishes that are more out of comic strip than our traditional kitchen.”

The chef’s main readers, the expats of Puerto Vallarta, were in part to blame for this.  Basilio Badillo, the main street of their district, has been nicknamed “Coffee Shop Street,” because of its unusual number of such eateries. To be sure, one can still find not only vendors of diced fruit on the sidewalks of the district (Old Town or Viejo Vallarta) but also taco stands serving street-food. Those old food counters, however, are increasingly being prettied up as modern cafes. To the long list of restaurants serving international cuisines (French, Italian, Japanese, Austrian, Thai, Argentine, and Brazilian), when I visited Puerto Vallarta an Israeli Deli had just added the Mediterranean cuisine with its falafel and hummus.

There were other services offered to foreigners in Puerto Vallarta.  North Americans have been coming here to buy cheaper medicine and the Farmacia posted a list of its best selling medicine at the entrance; a new item, Latisse, was just added in long-hand to the printed list. In the Spanish Experience Center, you could take cooking classes as well as learn Spanish. The Rivera Molino Plaza displayed the signs for the Fit Club, a.k.a. Gym and Wellness Center, and Timothy, which was a prominent real estate broker company in Puerto Vallarta. Another single sign on a wall elsewhere in the Old Town advertised both “Alexpa Massage Clinic” and “Real Estate Info” together. Right next to yet another Massage parlor was the Laundry Mat.

Old Town was in the midst of transition. Torn alleys and narrow streets were under reconstruction with commensurately small equipment and local labor, promising a revival. This hope was marked by proud display of colorful Viejo Vallarta banners on the lamp poles as well as new color-coded maps of the district at its gates. Old-style housing with dark rooms flush with the street level still existed, but across the street one could see refurbished apartments on the upper floors with for sale and for rent signs.

The foreign crowd attracted to the Old Town were North Americans, as many from Canada as from the U.S., evidenced by the easy acceptance of the currencies from both those countries and by the intended readership of the district’s English language publications. The prices at the modest Yasmin Hotel on Basilio Badillo ($50 a night) spoke to the modest budget of the guests frequenting the Old Town. The sign at the P&P Boutique displaying the rainbow flag publicized the tolerance for diverse groups. A customer coming out of this store guided us to a bakery next door that had the “most addictive” profiteroles, he said. I also talked to a man working on his laptop at a street level store that served as the make-shift library for the expats here. He guided me to a folder that had the printout of book reviews the members of the library had written for the benefit of the other readers in “the community,” as he put it.


One expat has been credited with setting in motion the process that transformed Puerto Vallarta from an obscure community of a few thousand to a major international resort.  John Huston did this by selecting the beach of a fishing village, Mismaloya, south of Puerto Vallarta as the location for a film he was going to direct, The Night of the Iguana. This pivotal role by that movie prompted me to I watch it again now, as I wrote this report on the changes of Puerto Vallarta. My “archeology of the art” proved fruitful.  The Night of the Iguana was an agent of change that, in fact, had now become also a means to appreciate the change in Puerto Vallarta: as it recorded the past it allowed comparison with the present.

Huston had been approached to direct the movie by its producer, Ray Stark who believed  that the Tennessee Williams play as performed on the stage had lacked the drama of an appropriate location. “It would make a wonderful picture, especially in Mexico,” Stark thought. He went to Huston as he considered him “of course, the guru of Mexico.”  John Huston had been famous for directing The Treasure of the Sierra Madre in 1948, one of the first Hollywood movies to be filmed almost entirely on location outside the United States. He had chosen as the location for many scenes of that movie the state of Durango with its range of Sierra Madre Occidental.

Huston had first come to Puerto Vallarta as early as 1950 when it was “a fishing village of some two thousand souls,” as he later said. So it was not unusual for him to choose Puerto Vallarta as the location for The Night of the Iguana. Tennessee Williams “had set his play in Acapulco,” according to the movie’s star Ava Gardner, but when the playwright arrived in Puerto Vallarta, he exclaimed approvingly: “This is precisely what I meant. This is Acapulco 20 years ago.”

The Night of the Iguana is a “melodramatic play about an odd group of beleaguered individuals struggling with their frailties at an isolated, second-rate hotel on the tropical coast.” Huston chose his actors for their “kinship to the role.”  For this movie he could not have chosen leading actors better suited for their parts.  He “decided on Richard Burton, a man whose own tormented life and exaggerated living paralleled that of Shannon’s (Tennessee Williams’ main character): the virile but sensitive male stereotype, destroying himself through the indulgence of liquor and women.” Ava Gardner agreed to play the role of Maxine,  of the bawdy widowed innkeeper, because she said, she  could not resist Huston’s “line of talk that could charm cows in from the pasture or ducks off the pond.”  For Charlotte, the teenage “sexpot whose relentless pursuit of Shannon precipitates his night of undoing,” Huston picked Sue Lyons, the 17 year-old fresh from playing the title role in the movie, Lolita. Finally as the spinster-artist Hanna with a sense of kindness that aggravates an already jealous Maxine, Huston tapped the refined Debra Kerr.

Location was crucial for a picture, Huston has explained, because it “envelops it in an atmosphere.”  In the case of The Night of the Iguana, what was enveloped during its filming in 1963 in the remote Puerto Vallarta was a combustible mix of four high-powered superstars to which was added the mega-celebrity of Elizabeth Taylor. She was here in pursuit of a sensational relationship with Burton, scandalous not simply because each was still married to another espouse.  She was a hypochondriac, he was an alcoholic, and they boozed, loved, and battled. No wonder then that hundreds of media and paparazzi from around the world suddenly descended on the obscure Puerto Vallarta.  As Houston later said, “The press gathered down there expecting something to happen with all these volatile personalities being there. They felt the lid would blow off and there would be fireworks.” However, the production of the film went “smooth as silk,” Huston continued. “When there weren’t any (fireworks), they were reduced to writing about Puerto Vallarta. And, I’m afraid, that was the beginning of its popularity, which was a mixed blessing.”

John Huston eventually moved to Puerto Vallarta permanently. In a letter from 1980, he wrote: “For the better part of the last five years I have been living in Puerto Vallarta….. I am now living in Las Caletas…. Las Caletas is my third home.”  Now as then Las Caletas is accessible only by boat. A tour company takes visitors on a catamaran to Las Caletas for dinner and concert presentation.

Gringo Gulch

Puerto Vallarta commemorates John Huston in what is called Plaza John Huston on the Cuale Island. It is a small circle at the far end of the Island away from the beach. Not many tourists visit it. On the day I was there none other was there. In the middle of this Plaza is a bronze statue of Huston, sitting in his director’s chair. The inscription under the statue is odd in that it simply quotes from Huston’s eulogy for Humphrey Bogart, concluding with: “There will never be another like him.” Bogart was, of course, an actor Huston cast in many of his famed movies, the only vaguely relevant to this location being The Treasures of Sierra Madre. The inscription was provided by Le Bistro, a Hollywood-style restaurant around the corner from the Plaza.

There is another plaque nearby, commemorating the 25th anniversary of The Night of the Iguana. This features Huston and three of the stars from the movie, curiously omitting Sue Lyon. Instead, it covers the producer Ray Stark’s contributions, not just to The Night of the Iguana, but also to another movie he produced, the 1989 Revenge -now almost forgotten. The plaque, however, quotes a notable testimony from Stark to John Huston’s contribution to the “discovery” of Puerto Vallarta in our age:  “There was a feeling here – soulful, innocent, romantic – that time and the outside world doesn’t seem to diminish. John Huston sensed it instinctively.”

More tourists are taken to see “Elizabeth Taylor’s House,” in this area that used to be called the Gringo Gulch. This was Casa Kimberley which Richard Burton bought for Taylor in 1963. It became the stage for their amorous liaison, connected to Burton’s own residence by a bridge which the tour companies now call the “bridge o’ love” . After divorcing Burton in 1976, Elizabeth Taylor never returned to Puerto Vallarta. Her house is now owned by an American family that rents the rooms as a bed and breakfast hotel. Burton, however, did return to Puerto Vallarta later, with his third wife, Susan Hunt, and gave her another villa, Casa Bursus. This is now part of Hacienda San Angel, one of the four top, Especial, hotels in Puerto Vallarta.


Like Richard Burton, the rest of the cast and John Huston stayed in Puerto Vallarta during the filming of The Night of the Iguana. The main setting for the movie, however, was south of the town near the beach in Mismaloya, a village some 12 kilometers away by road. That was a narrow and winding dirt road, as the movies shows, which the characters on the bus took to the cheap “Costa Verde Hotel” in Mismaloya. In fact, however, the cast traveled by boat from Puerto Vallarta to Mismaloya every day, with Elizabeth Taylor often accompanying them.

I decided to go to Mismaloya by bus. The road was now paved but still narrow and winding and no less dangerous in the fog of this morning fifty years later. Our bus driver evidently found the foggy scenery so interesting that he took pictures on every curve as he drove, using his cell phone. This product of the new technology has made the Mexican telecommunication tycoon, Carlos Slim Helu, the richest man in the world. In the movies, the Mexicans one saw from the bus are the poor boys selling iguanas on the side of the road to be consumed as food, and the women washing their clothes in the river under the bridge where the Richard Burton character, himself conflicted and complex,  pauses to comment on their contrasting simple, “innocent” way of life.

My bus was a local commuting one where I saw the back of Mexican women passengers, with their hair immaculately combed, and their babies well-clothed. The destination was marked by paint on the window of the bus, as was a request in Spanish to “please put the trash in the waste basket.” When we got close to Mismaloya two young women on the bus who were on their way to jobs in the restaurants of its new resorts began changing their shoes and putting on additional makeup.

The resort that now occupied the Mismaloya beach and the cove was Barcelo La Jolla de Mismaloya, built by the Spanish international chain of 180 luxury hotels, the Barcelo Group. Earlier the resort had maintained The Night of the Iguana’s old sets as tourist attractions. The site of the Costa Verde Hotel was on the hill at one end of the cove. I took the path on the edge of the water toward that hill. I found that the property was now fenced up with a sign featuring the menacing face of a dog and a warning in English: “Danger Do Not Enter.” I was alone here except for a sad and angry looking man who was laying in a crevice of the hill on the side of the path. Neither of us said a word. I continued and through overgrown bushes and trees I now saw the shell of the abandoned old structure that had once been the Costa Verde Hotel. At the end of the path where steps led up the hill was yet another sign on the fence, this one in Spanish, saying “No Trespass, Private Property.”  On the other side of the path a pole had been erected that displayed the sculpture of an iguana tied with a rope at its very tip.

In the movies the Mexican beach boys bring an iguana which they had caught in these woods into the hotel and tie it to a rope. That night the character played by Richard Burton, a man of the cloth who had long struggled against the temptations of flesh and alcohol, finally has a nervous breakdown. He was at the end of his rope, like that iguana that kept pulling on his rope but could not cut loose. Burton, however, comes down and jumps into the water from this very point where I was now standing, carrying out his suicidal threat to “swim to China.” The beach boys save him and tie him with ropes in a hammock.

From this point, the view of that water looking towardPuerto Vallartawas as mesmerizing as I saw in the movie, the only difference was that now you could see the outlines of the new high-rises ofPuerto Vallartathrough the landmark Rocks (Los Arcos) where tourists go to see the fish. The contrast in the views of nearby of Mismaloya beach and cove, now and then, was much more dramatic. Where there was nothing at the time the movie was made, now were the huge Barcelo resort and the condos and houses which filled up the landscape of the surrounding hills. Even the few huts which made up the little community of the local Mexicans at the time of the film had now been replaced by new two and three story buildings, albeit poorly constructed and jammed together. There were also many more thatched cafes run by the locals on the beach serving local guests.

In the movie The Night of the Iguana Mexicans provide only the background; they are drawn as though by broad strokes in the tropical haze.  The American characters’ loquaciousness is dramatically juxtaposed with the near muteness of the Mexican characters in that film. Only a few Mexican figures are articulated with some specificity. There are two “cabana” boys who are sex- servants of Maxine: always half- naked, playing the maracas and dancing. Once the movie gives one of them a line to utter. It is in Spanish and when translated by his master comes across as mocking the Burton character. In another scene the contemptuous treatment of the Gringos is more blatant. The bartender at the beach refuses to serve one more drink to the already drunk teenage character played by Sue Lyon. Her sexual cavorting with the cabana boys had intrigued, then shocked, and finally embarrassed the Mexican customers in the bar. The outraged bartender tells her, in English: “Go home. Take your dollars with you. I don’t want your dollars!” That is the only other time a Mexican speaks in The Night of the Iguana

On my last day at Mismaloya, I laid on the beach at the cordoned-off area reserved for Barcelo’s guests. The beach vendors offered their usual fares from behind a blue rope. Occasionally, however, one vendor breached this boundary. When this was repeated several times, a guest protested that his peace and quiet was not respected. He told the vendor “Go behind that line!” The reaction by the vendor was vehement: “Why Amigo? This is my country! It is not yours.” Indeed! Most of the other guests at the Barcelo I saw this time were not foreigners but affluent Mexicans on their Easter vacation.