Explorations in Patagonia
Patagonia is an extraordinary region in the southern end of South America. Here, the Andes Mountain Range ends and its mountains sink into the southern sea. A trip to Patagonia is an adventure that has attracted the attention of explorers from all times and places, some in search of discoveries and others in search of fortune.
The explorers who visited Patagonia had amazing experiences. In 1520, Ferdinand Magellan discovered the strait that bears his name. In 1578, Sir Francis Drake named Cape Horn for its tempestuous waters. Charles Darwin visited it in 1832, on the trip based on which he wrote “The Origin of Species.”
The Myth of César
Many European explorers traveled to Patagonia. They sought riches and treasures, encouraged by the myth of César, created by the Spanish captain Francisco César, in 1529. The myth held that the Incas had hidden huge amounts of gold, silver and precious stones in a secret city south of the Andes.
According to Enrique de Gandía, Argentinean historian and writer of dozens of books, among them “Historia crítica de los mitas de la conquista americana”, the enchanted City of the Caesars is the last legend that died in America and the first that has cast a spell on Patagonia’s eternal solitude. During a 300 years period, this myth drove warriors and friars crazy, dragging them from one end to the other in the region.
A New Way from One Ocean to Another
Fernando de Magallanes was a Portuguese sea captain and explorer who, under the Spanish flag, discovered the strait that bears his name in 1520. At that time, Magellan was trying to avoid Cape Horn and its hostile weather to cross the Pacific Ocean. His ship completed the first circumnavigation of the Earth.
He died in the Philippines and it was his Basque crew member, Juan Sebastián Elcano, who completed the trip, returning to Spain in 1522 with only 18 surviving crew members. It was an extraordinary trip for the time that took a stop in Patagonia.
The Jesuit priests introduced the first sheep to Patagonia in 1703. Years later, the sheep wool weaving industry would make the Patagonia region known worldwide. Father Thomas Falkner, an English missionary in Patagonia, wrote an entire book devoted to his explorations so the whole world would know of this fascinating region.
He was an English meteorologist, sailor and geologist with an adventurous spirit. During his life, he visited many remote and previously unexplored places. In 1818, at 12 years of age, he enrolled in the Royal Navy and made his first trip to Patagonia when he was 14 years old. He traveled again in 1828 on the famous ship Beagle. On that trip, he brought natives from Patagonia to England for the first time and presented them to King William IV and Queen Adelaide, in 1831.
In 1832, FitzRoy shared a crew with Charles Darwin on a voyage on the Beagle. He took an exploratory expedition to Patagonia, central Chile, the Andes, Galapagos and other memorable regions in South America. Upon returning from his trip in 1836, he was awarded the Gold Medal by the Royal Geographic Society for the publication of his diaries:
“Is it not extraordinary, that sea-worn, rolled, shingle-stones, and alluvial accumulations, compose the greater portion of these plains? How vast, and of what immense duration, must have been the actions of these waters which smoothed the shingle-stones now buried in the deserts of Patagonia!”, 1837.
Mount FitzRoy was named in his honor by explorer Francisco Moreno in 1877, due to his contributions to the exploration of remote and fascinating areas such as Patagonia.
The King of the Patagonia
The French citizen Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, who knew the region, established ties with the original inhabitants. In 1860, he declared himself King of the Araucania and Patagonia, proclaiming the region independent of Chile and Argentina. Apparently, he had the support of an assembly of 3000 indigenous representatives who created a constitutional monarchy.
Tounens traveled to Valparaiso to introduce the constitution of the hypothetical new state, but was ignored by both the Chilean and the French governments, which considered Tounens insane. Finally, in 1862, he was arrested by the Chilean army and deported to France.
The Torres del Paine and Lady Florence Dixie
The first written account of the extraordinary Paine Massif was made by Lady Florence Dixie in 1880. In a geological description of the area, she refers to them as “The Needles of Cleopatra”. Florence Dixie was a Scottish writer, traveler, war correspondent and feminist. In 1878, she began her trip to Patagonia, the result of which was the book “Traveling across Patagonia.”
Her explorations were so deep that they allowed her to disagree with Charles Darwin about the Tuco-tuco. Darwin thought that the Patagonian rodent was a nocturnal creature, but Dixie had observed them during the day, so she sent him a copy of her book which remains in the rare books section of the University of Cambridge library to this day.
Other Remarkable Explorers and their Trips to Patagonia
The Swedish-Finnish geologist Otto Nordenskjöld explored what today is the Torres del Paine National Park and other areas in Patagonia and Antarctica, in 1890. In his honor, the lake that lies on the slopes of the Paine Massif was named Lake Nordenskjöld.
The Swedish botanist Carl Johan Fredrik Skottsberg took part in the Swedish Antarctic Expedition of 1902. He was the leader of the Swedish Magellan Expedition to Patagonia, in 1907. He explored the region of Torres del Paine and other fascinating remote places of the world.
The Italian missionary Alberto Maria de Agostini made countless explorations to Patagonia. The beauty of Patagonian nature made him a mountaineer, geographer, ethnographer, explorer, photographer and filmmaker. In January 1931, he was the first to cross the southern ice fields from Lake Viedma in Argentina to the Chilean fjords in the Pacific Ocean.
De Agostini published 22 books on Patagonia full of descriptions and photographs taken by him, as well as a documentary called Terre Magellaniche, in 1933. Today, there is a park in Tierra del Fuego with his name.
There were many more explorers who were fascinated with their trip to Patagonia, an extraordinary land in many respects. Today, it continues to amaze its visitors with its extreme beauty and uniqueness. A trip to Patagonia gives the traveler the pleasure of adventure and the will to explore.