Photo Essay: Darwin Slept Here

Darwin 200 / by Eric Simons /

A twentysomething adventurer retraces the voyage of the Beagle, recapturing a young Darwin, and the growing pains of a continent.

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beagle channel Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina. Eric Simons at the southernmost tip of South America, where the Beagle Channel connects to the Atlantic Ocean.

Photography by Eric Simons.

In his five-year stint aboard the HMS Beagle, a gloriously happy Charles Darwin galloped with Patagonian gauchos, stormed Montevideo armed with a knife between his teeth, beat his bare chest to greet an indigenous man in Tierra del Fuego, and chased exotic birds through the jungles of Brazil. He lived the swashbuckling explorer’s life that modern travelers desire and almost never achieve, detailing it all in the book The Voyage of the Beagle.

Darwin boarded the Beagle in 1831, at the age of 22, and I — in my own fit of midtwenties wanderlust — decided to retrace Darwin’s famed voyage. I didn’t have five years or the patience to repeat his every move, so I chose places to visit based on a deeper significance: I wanted to compare modern Rio de Janeiro to the green world that inspired Darwin to write and to track the fate of the captured natives of Tierra del Fuego who rode along with the Beagle; I wanted to take in summit views to see how many of them cued up for me, as they did for Darwin, the opening choral strains of Handel’s Messiah. I also set out to compare the type of transformation that South America faced in the 1830s — floods of immigrants, the last years of colonial governments, expansion of grazing land and mining — to pressures of today such as globalization, economic woes, and environmental degradation.

I collected my adventures in a book, Darwin Slept Here. This is a brief account of my travels, which I’ve curated especially for Seed’s Darwin 200 celebration. 

tijuca peak

View from Tijuca Peak, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
The Beagle’s — and my — first stop in South America was Brazil. The ship spent five months there, including a four-month stint in Rio de Janeiro. When Darwin was here in 1832, the city was mostly jungle, ringed by a bucolic little town. Not so much anymore. This view from the top of the Tijuca Peak shows sprawling, modern Rio pressed between water and swooping jungle-clad mountains. Not many people go to this park, which was a coffee plantation in Darwin’s day, and even fewer climb up here — where I was able to look down the back of the Corcovado and the famous statue of Christ and take in the jungles. The jungles of Brazil challenged Darwin’s ideas about the organization of nature — they grew uncontrollably, came in shades of green not seen in England, and were teeming with colorful insects, birds, and lizards found nowhere else in the world. For me, Brazil, especially Rio de Janeiro, was similarly bewildering and amazing.

Summit of Cerro Tres Picos, Argentina
In 1833, as the Beagle headed south toward Argentina and the region around the huge Rio de La Plata estuary, Darwin started to take longer and more adventurous overland trips. That September he covered nearly 400 miles on horseback, leaving the Beagle in the small town of Bahia Blanca and meeting up with the ship again a month later in Montevideo, Uruguay. Darwin rode hard for much of the trip, eating nothing but red meat and drinking maté tea - a plains-cowboy lifestyle he hugely enjoyed and often referred back to. On September 9 he became the first European to explore the area around the 4,060-foot Cerro Tres Picos, the highest mountain in the modern-day Buenos Aires province. But he never made it to the peak; his guide gave him faulty information. Darwin recorded that he was “much disappointed” in the scenery, that the “plain was like the ocean without its beautiful color or defined horizon.” I had better luck. This is me, and behind me, the view from the top of Cerro Tres Picos. I’m pretty sure Darwin’s opinion of the scenery was clouded by his frustration at hiking all day without reaching the mountaintop. In any case, today’s sweeping view of hills and farms is quite pleasant.

Ocean near Port San Julian, Argentina
Darwin was almost always seasick while aboard the Beagle. “The misery,” he wrote at one point, “is excessive.” And so the southern reaches of Patagonia and the area around Tierra del Fuego, where furious winds and storms could whip the water into a froth, were especially unpleasant for him. In January 1834 the Beagle surveyed the harbor around Port San Julian, Argentina, in southern Patagonia, and the ship’s artist captured a scene of wind-chopped waves carving the ocean into a checkerboard pattern. I took this photograph from a slightly different vantage point, a few miles north of the harbor, but the conditions on the water are quite similar to those in the170-year-old drawing. A lecturer from San Julian’s university drove me out to the wind-tormented point, called Cape Curious, and we went on a long geological walk in the cliffs where Darwin explored fossils. In fact, he made one of his greatest fossil finds here — the first — recorded specimen of a giant three-toed ungulate later named macrauchenia patachonica — something like a mad scientist’s cross between a camel, llama, and elephant.

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