Archive for the ‘ Patagonia ’ Category


Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2013. All Rights Reserved.

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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.