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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river santa cruz

The River Santa Cruz, near El Calafate, Argentina
In April 1834, Darwin and the Beagle crew spent three weeks struggling up the previously unexplored River Santa Cruz; sediment rich and mint green, it slices powerfully through the Patagonian plains. The current was so strong that the crew often couldn’t row, and instead had to drag the boats upriver by tying long ropes from the boat to yokes they wore from the river’s edge. In addition to complaining about the manual labor, Darwin wrote in his journal that “the country remains the same, & terribly uninteresting.” After three weeks the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, ordered the crew to turn back somewhere very near this spot, about 10 miles short of the river’s source. I retraced Darwin’s two-week journey up the River Santa Cruz via a rutted gravel road along the river in a rental car. I found this spot by following a narrow, unmarked dirt track for a mile or so down to the river, where not a person or settlement could be seen in any direction. A freezing wind was blowing off the eastern foothills of the Andes, just visible on the horizon. The plains were lined with dried-out bones, from guanacos, rheas, and small rodents. And the river pressed on, winding around the brown cliffs in huge, graceful bends, almost exactly as Darwin had described it 175 years ago.

Patagonian plains

Guanacos on the Patagonian plains, near Port Santa Cruz, Argentina
Perhaps the least changed part of all of South America is the Patagonian plains in central and southern Argentina. Darwin wrote in his diary in 1834 that “the guanaco is in his proper district, the country swarms with them,” and that line still rang true. I found endless expanses of dry shrubs, tormented by a ceaselessly howling wind, and guanacos, wild relatives of the llama and alpaca, who dallied in herds so thick that at times I had to stop the car and wait for them to clear the road, which they did only reluctantly and with much honking. Darwin reported that if you were hunting guanacos, you could take advantage of their curiosity and draw them nearer to you by falling on your back and waving your arms and legs in the air. It’s true.

tierra del fuego

Ushuaia and the Beagle Channel, Tierra del Fuego, Argentina
About two and a half years into its journey, the Beagle visited Tierra del Fuego for the last time. Roughly halfway through my own trip, I returned here as well, to the place where I’d first read The Voyage of the Beagle. In Darwin’s day, the area was populated by indigenous people, whom Darwin called “savages” and whom FitzRoy introduced to a Christian missionary (an experiment that failed after about two weeks. The missionary had most of his stuff stolen). Today the capital city, Ushuaia, is a cruise-ship town, its main streets lined with jewelry stores and trinket shops and fine-chocolate emporiums. Its Darwin connections are preserved in the form of The Adventure of the Beagle, the Musical, a production that takes place in a small theater just behind the spot where I took this picture. It is, to say the least, a fascinating show, with a cameo appearance by a 20-foot giant fossilized sloth, but it’s a little fuzzy on the history.

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