The Bruce Chatwin trail in Patagonia
How to explore Patagonia in the style of the feted writer
WHEN I first visited Patagonia in 1991, Bruce Chatwin’s
In Patagonia was a bible among backpackers to South America. People quoted it as if recalling their own impressions, and took its stories as historical fact despite the book’s lyricism. The author’s poor Spanish was overlooked, as was the book’s political backdrop: the dark days of state-sponsored terrorism following the death of Juan Peron. Blond boy-wonder Bruce was the only guide worth having.
Chatwin arrived in Patagonia for the first time in December 1974. The resulting book, published in 1977, launched his career and reinvigorated late 20th-century travel writing. In divulging Patagonia’s myths it placed the region on everyone’s imaginative map. But the author was also adept at self-mythologising and chose to give little account of his actual travels — the roads he used and the transport that got him around during his four-month sojourn. Chatwin simply appears in places, rather like a genie. This gives the book its brisk pace but confounds any sense of time or space, a curious effect given the vastness of Patagonia. For those planning a visit, Bruce Chatwin’s book has a period quality but remains excellent company for long bus journeys. Below, I have compressed his 97 chapters into five travel-friendly sections, highlighting some landmarks and offering tips on getting around the places where Chatwin unearthed Patagonia’s legends and found his voice.
OF WALES AND WHALES
The book: After stopovers in Buenos Aires and La Plata, Chatwin’s Patagonian narrative proper begins in the region settled by the Welsh. “Their leaders had combed the earth for a stretch of open country uncontaminated by Englishmen,” he wrote. “They chose Patagonia for its absolute remoteness and foul climate.” After standing on the beach at Puerto Madryn, where the 153 settlers made landfall in 1865, he spent Christmas Eve in Gaiman, where he enjoyed an asado (barbecue) before travelling west — just as the colonists did — to visit Trevelin and the green valleys of the Andes.
The trip: The coast is most popular these days as a point of departure for seeing southern right whales and elephant seals — the Valdes peninsula is the best spot — and a huge colony of Magellanic penguins at Punta Tombo. Inland, Trelew is named after founding father Lewis Jones. Its Museo Paleontologico Egidio Feruglio is probably the best dinosaur-themed museum in Argentina, with fossils from the Argentinosaurus (one of the biggest herbivores found), Gigantosaurus (one of the biggest carnivores) and a 2.5m-long femur found 218km west of the town in May last year. No name has been given to the new sauropod but, with an estimated weight of 77 tonnes, it is the biggest dinosaur find yet.
Gaiman, a would-be Welsh cultural capital, retains a few pioneer homes and chapels, as well as tea shops where women in frilly aprons serve fruitcake. You may even catch some Spanish-accented Cymraeg if there’s a festival. The journey west remains a perfect introduction to the Patagonian steppe, arid and harsh, and further desertified by all those Welsh sheep. Trevelin is a quaint township with an excellent museum of Welsh paraphernalia. Latin America and Antarctic specialist Chimu Adventures has a range of itineraries in Patagonia. More: 1300 211 805; chimuadventures.com.
The book: Chatwin’s favourite foreign cowboys lived in the foothills of the Andes: “[Butch Cassidy] must have felt at home here, the country round Cholila is identical to parts of his home state, Utah — a country of clean air and open spaces; of black mesas and blue mountains; a country of bones picked clean by hawks, stripped by the wind, stripping men to the raw.” From here, Chatwin travelled south, first on the Old Patagonian Express railway to Esquel (“ostriches bounded off the track as we passed”) and then by road.
The trip: As well as weekly 20km “heritage” rides from Esquel to Nahuel Pan, the steam-powered Trochita (the Old Patagonian Express) makes the occasional chartered run to Ingeniero Jacobacci, 400km away. Book through the Railway Touring Company. More: railwaytouring.net.
Butch and Sundance’s smallholding is marked by a wood cabin that looks too new to be the real thing, but the landscape has a Wild West feel. It’s a short drive or bus ride to Los Alerces National Park, where temperate rainforests of beeches and huge Patagonian cypresses border beautiful lakes. Trails include the popular Puelo Valley route to Chile, which can be done on foot or horseback. Ride World Wide has eight-day rides for small groups through the Puelo Valley. More: rideworldwide.com.
The book: Travelling south by road to Central Patagonia, Chatwin visited the dusty frontier towns of Rio Pico (“a bit like the Urals”) and Bajo Caracoles, the remarkable petrified forest near Sarmiento (“the trunks of extinct monkey-puzzles were broken clean as if in a sawmill”) and several of Patagonia’s lonelier lakes: Lago Colhue Huapi, Posadas, Ghio. Along the way, he met settlers from far and wide, including Boers, Lithuanians, Germans, Levantines, Spaniards, Salesian priests and Scottish farmers.
A story he keeps coming back to is the legend of a Patagonian El Dorado, and beside one of the tiny lakes on
Mount Fitzroy in Patagonia, top; pioneer travel writer Bruce Chatwin, above