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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chiloe national park

Beach at the Chiloé National Park, near Cucao, Chile
It took Darwin a full day to reach this beach, which he and another man from the Beagle’s crew visited in January 1835 to survey the coast. Darwin and his comrade arrived at the tiny coastal town of Cucao, located on the west coast of Chiloé, by horseback and by riding in a small boat that he shared with several people and a cow. Darwin, most impressed by how his companions had leveraged the cow into the boat using two oars, described the process in great detail. I made the trip to the beach in a half hour on a bus that dropped me off next to a small restaurant named the Parador Darwin. Darwin found this remote area lightly settled by Chiloé‘s indigenous people, whereas I saw an area populated by several homes with TV satellite dishes and trucks in the driveways. As I hiked the dunes along the beach, I did find my own cow — this one appeared to be auditioning for those tropical-vacation advertisements, one of the most ridiculous moments in all my travels.

bell mountain

Summit of Bell Mountain, outside Valparaiso, Chile
This is the 6,000-foot summit of Cerro La Campana, or Bell Mountain, the highest point in Chile’s Coast Range, and Darwin wrote that he “never enjoyed one more throughily.” (Darwin was an atrocious speller.) He spent the day here in August 1834, writing that it looked like a map. “Who can avoid admiring the wonderful force which has upheaved these mountains, & even more so the countless ages which it must have required to have broken through, removed & leveled whole masses of them?” After hiking to the top, I saw what he meant. All of Chile seems to unfold below, and it was clear enough to see from the ocean all the way to the 28,000-foot peak of Aconcagua [the snow-covered bump at left], the highest mountain outside the Himalayas.

amolanas hacienda

Amolanas Hacienda, Amolanas, Chile
It’s possible that Darwin slept in this crumbling adobe structure in the middle of the Chilean desert (the closest city is Copiapó, about 50 miles away), and this particular adventure inspired the title of my book. Darwin wrote about spending the night of June 15, 1835, at the Amolanas Hacienda, and when I found Amolanas on a modern gas-station map I decided, on the last day of my trip, to drive out to the desert valley and see if I could find it. After getting chased down a sickeningly winding mountain road by an unsympathetic mining truck, we landed in the village and were pointed to the oldest structure around: this ranch house with truck camper shells leaning up against it and clotheslines strung across the courtyard. So there we were, on the last day of following Darwin, wondering if, in fact, he had slept in this old hacienda. We didn’t sleep there, though — rural adobe structures present a brilliant opportunity to catch fascinating illnesses like Chagas’s disease.

Darwin never forgot these experiences, writing in his autobiography, “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career.” I know now what he meant.

    Darwin 200More From Our Darwin 200 Celebration.

Originally published February 12, 2009

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