Two books to read in Patagonia

In a tiny little shop in the middle of route 40 in Argentinian Patagonia, I saw a book that catalogued the entire archaeological record of the area. I really wanted to buy it, except I had no cash. Stupidly, I didn’t write down the name because I assumed they’d sell it in all the tourist shops once we reached El Calafate. They didn’t.

But I did find another book instead: “The Captive in Patagonia, or Life Among the Giants” by Benjamin Franklin Bourne (free ebook available here). Published in 1853, it’s the true story of an American who was captured by a group of indigenous people in southern Patagonia. The memoir details his capture, life amongst the Tehuelche people, and finally his escape.


Now, I said it’s a true story, but it definitely needs to be taken with a pinch of salt. Let’s have a look at his description of the people:

“The average height, I should think, is nearly six and a half feet and there were specimens that could have been little less than seven feet high…They exhibit enormous strength, whenever they are sufficiently aroused to shake off their constitutional laziness and exert it.”
(Page 54-55)

Even in a simple physical description, Bourne can’t help adding in a moral judgement. And this is really nothing compared to what else he claims in the book. He tells the story through a very biased lens, but what makes it interesting, and amusing, is that he turns this lens on everyone, not just his captors. Here’s his description of one of the sailors on his ship:

“Our mate, who was a sensible young man, of good education, had two foibles; he was a decided grumbler, and, in his conviviality, he was a little too far from total abstinence.”
(Page 211)

Whilst the accuracy could be called into question, the book gives a glimpse of life (both the Tehuelche’s and Bourne’s) that is fascinating and entertaining. It was the perfect book to read whilst I sailed on the Navimag Ferry through the endless islands of southern Chile.


It wasn’t until I got to Bolivia that I found the perfect companion book. “Tierra del Fuego” by Sylvia Iparraguirre, is based on real historical events that took place in the 19th century. It’s almost the exact opposite of Bourne’s story as here Iparraguirre chronicles the kidnapping of a Yámana boy, Jemmy Button, by Europeans and the ultimate consequences of this action.

Although narrated by a fictitious historical character, it’s written with a very modern sensibility and provides a wonderful counterpoint to the cultural superiority and colonialist attitudes exhibited by Bourne.

“Two years later in England, when Button was..speaking English fluently, I learned..that the impression I had made on him during those first weeks had been rather unflattering…It would have amused his people to see how someone so proud of what he knew..would turn into a know-nothing as soon as they left him on land…I was offended, but Button was right.”
(Page 66-67)


The narrative doesn’t always flow well, but knowing the eventual outcome of when Button was returned to his native land, made me keep reading to see how all the events led up to this. It also sent me to Wikipedia afterwards to learn more – something that a good historical novel should do, in my opinion.

The two books together give a great introduction to this period of history in Patagonia. I was fascinated with the artifacts and black and white photos in the museum in Bariloche, but with only Spanish labeling it was hard to understand everything. These two books gave me a different kind of understanding of these people and their way of life.

Perito Moreno Glacier

20120325-221043.jpgUnlike most of the world’s glaciers, Perito Moreno is stable, advancing at the same rate it’s receding. And it recedes in dramatic fashion. The glacier is so hypnotic that you can stare at it for minutes without noticing the passing of time. Then a deep, thunderous crack resounds, and you scan the tremendous length of the ice shelf. If you’re lucky you see the cascading of chunks larger than pianos smashing against the tranquil blue water, leaving scattered white blocks like spilled Legos.

A postcard from Cueva de las Manos

The driver fiddled with the radio dial in the early morning drive before finally settling on silence. This was the best choice for traveling through the dreamy, pre-dawn Patagonian steppe. I felt unexpectedly anxious as we got closer and closer to Cueva de las Manos, an outcrop of painted rock art going back some 13,000 years. I had only been introduced to its existence a few days earlier by a postcard in a kiosk in Bariloche, and was struck by the outlines of hands, boldly proclaiming “WE WERE HERE.” Though the original inhabitants of the site were long dead, and I don’t believe in ghosts, I felt as if I were about to invade someone’s home.

The hand stencils were created by blowing paint (pulverized minerals) through bone onto the hands. Nearly all of the 800 or so handprints are of the left hand, which suggests the people who created them were right-handed as they would have used their right hand to hold the bone. There is one six-fingered hand, a result of low genetic diversity. There are even “false hands” created by pranksters much more recently, the reason for the current fence in front of the rock face.

Other than the hands, the most frequent image is that of the guanaco, a crucial part of these nomadic people’s diet. The cueva is really more like a cliff with small recesses overlooking a large valley and faraway mountains, from which these hunter-gatherers could spot the migrations of their favorite prey. Due to their tremendous importance, the guanacos are larger and more elegantly realized than the cruder images of people, amardillos, pumas and mythical demon-like creatures.

After climbing down the cliff, we strolled through the bucolic valley, a ranch of some 600 cows. Rosie turned to me and said, “This is the best thing on the trip so far, even better than Iguazu!” Though she had studied archaeology, I was still surprised that she would put this ahead of mighty Iguazu. But I was more surprised that I agreed with her.

Cueva de las Manos

Hotel Belgrano offers tours from Perito Moreno. Tours can also be organized through Chaltén Travel.

Route 40, Bariloche to Perito Moreno

Things I see while riding the bus for 12 hours:

Tussocks of grass, soft and round and pointed and prickly grow in clumps in the grey-brown gravel and sand. Stones with splashes of white or black tar-like patches sit amongst a landscape of green, grey and a dozen shades of brown and yellow. Faraway slate-violet hills rest under dark clouds that hang so low I feel I could reach up and touch them.

Picket fences are the only things of human scale in the landscape. Dirty grey sheep watch the bus go past. Sandy coloured guanacos and a few blonde horses trot by. A dead thing is caught over a barbed wire fence, its faded golden fleece hanging loose. Rocks mimic crouching cats, birds of prey and dead bodies.

A small grey fox runs along the roadside. Long-legged, long-necked choique with stringy grey feathers gallop away like mini dinosaurs. A large brown hare, black spots on the back of its ears, leaps under a fence. Buzzards perch on posts and a pair of condors circle above.

Roadside shrines are wrapped in red cloth. The burnt-out shell of an over-turned van lies in the black remains of its inferno. Empty bottles shine in the gravel and plastic bags flap, caught on spiky twigs. A yellow digger sends up dust clouds and a large pit smoulders in the grey earth.

As the world begins to darken, square shapes appear. A two way road is lined by single storey buildings. A small frontier town appears out of the dust as a grid pattern of streets emerges. Perito Moreno, we’ve arrived.