Patagonian landscape with Mt FitzRoy
GNU Free Documentation LicensePatagonian landscape with Mt FitzRoy in the background - Credit: Annalisa Parisi

Although Chatwin occasionally takes us out to sea with the great explorers, to the Wild West of Utah, to Lima to visit Charley Milward's daughter, and into the late 19th century London office of Wide World Magazine, these are all incidental to his main location, Patagonia.

Nicholas Shakespeare claims Chatwin got the starting point wrong for this imprecise region, placing it at Río Negro, instead of Río Colorado 120 kilometres further north. 'You know you are in Patagonia' says Shakespeare, 'when you see the rosados patagonicos, the basalt pebbles left behind by glaciers, and jarilla, the low bush that is its dominant flora.'

Patagonia covers an area of approximately 900,000 square kilometres, across Argentina and Chile. It is 900,000 square kilometres of emptiness, slashed on its western flank by the cordillera of the Southern and Central Andes forming the boundary between the two nations. Chatwin visits both, and without a detailed map the reader can feel like a pinball bouncing from one town to the next before departing for the nineteenth century. 



Chubut Valley
Creative Commons AttributionChubut Valley - Credit: Latente - Flickr

The Chubut Valley stretches 820km west along Río Chubut in Northern Patagonia, from Port Madryn at Península Valdés on the Atlantic Coast to Trevelin in the cordillera of the Andes. Chatwin spends time at Gaimán, one of the first towns to be settled. He puts the number of original settlers in 1865 at 153, though some have claimed it was 163 and others 165.

Area covered by Chubut Province
GNU Free Documentation LicenseArea covered by Chubut Province - Credit: Dbenbenn

They were each given 100 hectares to irrigate, and once all suitable land had been assigned later settlers moved west along the valley. They built and decorated their houses in the style of those they had left behind. But their descendants later complained that it was men like Chatwin - meddlesome "English" - that their ancestors had come to escape. Welsh is still spoken in Gaimán and Trevelin, and Welsh tea-rooms proliferate. The area is rich in dinosaur fossils, and there is a respected Paleontology museum at Trelew in the east.

Creative Commons AttributionCholila - Credit: Gobierno del Chubut - Flickr

Cholila lies in northern Patagonia's Lake District, on the eastern flank of the Andes. Chatwin lingers here as it's the site where Butch Cassidy (Robert LeRoy Parker) camped out in his cabin with the Sundance Kid (Harry Longabaugh) and Etta Place.

A quiet town, it has magnificent views of the mountains of Tres Picos and Cerros Dos, where the gang made their escape and - according to some - met their end. The cabin can still be seen, though it's discreetly hidden from the road and is often deserted.


Google Map
Santa Cruz Province
Santa Cruz Province
GNU Free Documentation LicenseSanta Cruz Province - Credit: Dbenbenn

Santa Cruz Province covers central Patagonia, and once again Chatwin zig-zags from west to east and south to north.

In the west, at Perito Moreno, he goes in search of the unicorn and the Enchanted City of the Caesars; in the east he stops off at Puerto Deseado (Port Desire) where Darwin landed; in the south he uses the 'boring' town of Rio Gallegos as a base to explore the Anarchist Rebellion of Antonio Soto; and in the north at San Julián he tells the story of the Patagonian Giants.

Perito Moreno
GNU Free Documentation LicensePerito Moreno - Credit: Christof Berger

The town of Perito Moreno in the west is an unremarkable settlement, but to its south lies the magnificent glacier of the same name. Part of the Los Glaciares National Park, it is one of only three Patagonian glaciers that are not retreating, and one of the wildest parts of Argentina. A huge tourist attraction, much of the park has been allocated to scientific study and is out-of-bounds to the wider public. 

South-east of Perito Moreno town lies the Cueva de los Manos (Cave of the Hands) where the imprints of thousands of hands, along with petroglyphs and paintings of guanacos and hunters, were left on the rock face 8,000 years ago. 

Cuevas de las Manos
GNU Free Documentation LicenseCuevas de las Manos - Credit: Christof Berger

Puerto Deseado on the Atlantic coast is a fishing port of around 15,000 inhabitants. It was discovered by Thomas Cavendish in 1586, although Magellan had rested there 66 years earlier. It was claimed for Great Britain in 1670. But there were rival claims by the Spanish who used it for a short time as a whaling station. Its most significant visitor was Charles Darwin, who arrived in HMS Beagle on 23 December 1833. It remains an important fishing port, and attracts tourists who come for the wildlife (dolphins, sea-lions, penguins, cormorants, seals, guanacos) in its many nature reserves.

Patagonian Fur Seals
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikePatagonian Fur Seals - Credit: Mirko Thiessen

Darwin also made significant discoveries at San Julián, 220km south of Puerto Deseado, where he found bones of the Macrauchenia. In the early 20th century it was an important centre for sheep-raising and the location of a freezer plant complex.  Today it is home to approximately 6,000 inhabitants and barely rates a mention in the guidebooks.

Sheep-farming was essential to the economy and growth of Río Gallegos, another 360km further south. The Argentine government boosted its growth in the early 20th century by encouraging settlers from the Falklands and Chile, and it has a population today of around 80,000. It is an important naval base, and home to the Pioneers Museum, which tells the story of the early settlers.

Tierra del Fuego
Map of Tierra del Fuego
Public DomainMap of Tierra del Fuego - Credit: Harlock81

Tierra del Fuego: Land of Fire. The uttermost end of the earth. A graveyard for ships. 

Tierra del Fuego is an archipelago at the bottom of Patagonia, with a main island divided between Chile (29, 485 sq. km) and Argentina (18, 507 sq. km).

Many of the islands are uninhabitable and have a subantarctic climate; even the main island is subpolar, with temperatures rarely rising above 10ºC. The main towns are Rio Grande and Ushuaia (Argentina), and Punta Arenas and Porvenir (Chile). Chatwin visits them all. He also goes to Navarino Island and the Chilean naval base at Puerto Williams; Harberton on the Argentine side of the Beagle Channel; Cape Horn, the southernmost headland of Chile: Dawson Island on the Chilean side of the Strait of Magellan; and Puerto Natales, still in Chile. And he follows Charley Milward as he attempts to round the Cape and gets stranded on the South Shetland Islands (of no sovereignty).


Elephant Island
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeElephant Island - Credit: Wofratz

A brutal, sometimes terrifying place, Tierra del Fuego provokes contemplation, induces madness, and can inspire man to implausible acts of courage. Before the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 it was the only shipping route from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It attracted explorers, and they came to make their conquests. Many perished. It was 'discovered' by the white man in 1520 when Ferdinand Magellan became the first to navigate the treacherous Strait that would subsequently take his name. Tierra del Fuego had officially been 'found.' But Yaghan Indians had already been living there for 10,000 years, apparently in relative peace, and indeed it was their cooking fires seen from afar that inspired the Spanish name for the region.