Unspoken Patagonia

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Last Updated on August 6, 2017 by Audrey Scott

There we were at the end of the trail in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. We had completed the “W” – 60 miles, fully laden – and were basking in the warmth of the Patagonian sun. In the process we had become proficient at assembling our tent in strong winds, cooking wondrous meals with packaged pasta, and securing our stuff from mice at night. We appreciated nature in full: not only the beauty of its rainbows, glaciers, condors and granite towers, but also the wrath of its hurricane-strength winds.

At the end of our journey, the feeling of camaraderie amongst our fellow trekkers was palpable. We all shared an accomplishment. In the soft grass at the trailhead kiosk, we indulged in overpriced potato chips and cracked open celebratory beers.

But something was missing.

The next day, we visited Perito Moreno Glacier. The weather was nearly perfect and the autumn foliage provided a postcard-perfect contrast to the whites and blues of the ice. Nearby El Calafate was a nice enough town with its cast of friendly, decent people.

But something about this experience felt a bit empty.

Trading on the Native Cliché

As we waited for change from a purchase at a photo equipment store in El Calafate, I flipped through a stack of plastic-wrapped sepia tone photographs of Native Americans – locals one would presume – likely taken around the turn of the century. The photos were meant to invoke the same “native” imagery found in jewelry and souvenir shops around town.

All the photos were iconic: portraits of women in long braids, shots of wizened old men, and family scenes of weathered elders and grimy-faced kids standing in front of basic homes and dressed in half-outfits made of oily, tattered fur skin. Some of the faces were reminiscent of schoolbook images of native North Americans, some recalled indigenous Andeans we’d met in Peru and Bolivia, and others hinted “Eskimo.”

Special thanks to Ben McRae for going back to the shop in El Calafate and sending us these photos

Audrey asked, “Are these photos of the indigenous people who lived in Patagonia before the Europeans?” After a quick nod “yes,” the clerk swept along with the business of our transaction.

The designs carved into knick-knacks and necklaces and splashed on the walls of trendy restaurants all traded on the same cliché. The idea: buy one, purchase this, eat here — and you too can collect or feel a bit of human history from the place where you climbed all those mountains, hiked all those trails, and took in all those rocky outcroppings.

Nothing wrong with that, but those images left me wondering: Where did all the native people go? No, I'm not talking about the people in the photographs. They are all long since dead. But what happened to their children? And their children’s children?

Are the people in those photos meaningful memories to anyone these days?

History books tell us that European traders gave locals blankets laced with smallpox and other diseases. It’s one thing to read about the decimation of indigenous people like it’s an object of distant history, but it’s something entirely different to experience it viscerally and feel the void.

A Childhood Memory

All of this reminded me of a scene from a drive across the United States with my parents when I was twelve. We were at a gas station somewhere in Arizona along historic Route 66 near the Painted Desert. As we filled the gas tank, my mom purchased two dream-catcher wall-hangings from a Native American family selling them out of the trunk of their old powder blue beater of a Studebaker at the edge of the station lot.

The weavings were terrifically colorful and featured all the inimitable trademark faults of something handmade. They were so unlike the typical ubiquitous tourist schlock peddled in gas station souvenir shops along our cross-country route.

My parents were under no illusion that their purchase would right any historic wrongs, but we all felt good about it. As we completed our transaction, however, the owner emerged from his store in a rant, screaming and cussing after the family. Heads down, mother, father and son scurried, packed up and drove off — probably to the next gas station, to the next fleeting transaction, to the next chapter in a story of feeling unwanted in a place their family once called home.

A Few Indigenous Faces

We have not seen any local indigenous people or communities as we’ve bounced back and forth between Chilean and Argentine Patagonia. We suppose there are some, but they certainly don’t feature naturally or prominently in the average Patagonian travel and trekking experience.

There are hints of mestizo culture (mixed indigenous and European), but the feel in this part of the New World is decidedly European, post-colonial. The few native-looking folks you’ll see are likely economic migrants whose families are rooted to other mountains, other lands.

Our Perito Moreno glacier guide emphasized this point as she described recent developments in her hometown, El Calafate. After the airport was built in 2001, the town grew from a shepherd trading post of 5,000 people to today’s tourism service station of 20,000. Pointing to the outskirts of town, she remarked: “Over there, that's where the Peruvian and Bolivian construction workers live. It’s very different than what you see downtown.”

Just a few weeks before at a local grocery store in Ushuaia, the very southern tip of South America, I remember seeing the first patch of dark indigenous skin I had seen in two months (keep in mind that we had been in Buenos Aires and Uruguay just before). A Bolivian family was on a Sunday shopping outing at the grocery store; the husband likely a local construction worker. I wanted to approach them and ask them their story; perhaps we had visited their hometown during our recent visit to Bolivia. But my inner censor got the better of me and I figured it better not to ask.

The Scale of History

On so many of our treks and travels we’ve met and stayed with families with ancestral roots in their current home that predate the last wave of colonization. Theirs is a story of a long-standing human connection to the land and the places where they live. Their presence provides an added cultural dimension to a trekking experience; it serves to complete a story that begins with nature.

But in Patagonia there are few, if any, who can share a creation story like those told in Guatemala, Peru or Bolivia — passed orally from generation to generation for hundreds or even thousands of years.

Some Patagonian families have lived there for generations, their European ancestors having arrived as early settlers or guests of the penal colony, while many more have appeared in the last decade to take advantage of the tourist boom.

But who came before them?

About Daniel Noll
Travel and life evangelist. Writer, speaker, storyteller and consultant. Connecting people to experiences that will change their lives. Originally from the U.S. Daniel has lived abroad since 2001 and most recently has been on the road since 2006. When he's not writing for the blog you can keep up with his adventures on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. And you can learn more about him on the About Page and on LinkedIn.

12 thoughts on “Unspoken Patagonia”

  1. So glad you wrote about this.

    It is a bit eerie to contrast countries like Chile and Argentina with Guatemala, Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru. When I describe Chile and Argentina, I find I use the word “European” A LOT—-and make a point to follow up with the fact that most of the indigenous people were slaughtered and relocated, just like what happened in the U.S. It definitely catches people off guard. (I don’t think we much like to think about those sorts of things) But, it’s important to remember.

    So much connection to the land, the history has been lost……….forever.

  2. hello Daniel and Audrey,

    My partner (Susan) and I met you on the MS Expedition and were inspired by your journeys and experiences. I wonder if you didn’t visit the tiny Museo Yamana in Ushuaia? this tiny museum tells with a quiet dignity and great pride the story of some of the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego, the Yamana and the Fuegans.

    it is a moving exp[erience to find how these cultures were lost and to learn about how they had integrated with their environment to live. The clock can’t be turned back, but its critical to remember!
    best wishes,

  3. A friend of mine and his wife recently visited a cemetery in Buenos Aires called “the Cementeriode La Recoleta, where crypts holding the remains of the city’s elite are located, including past presidents, military heroes, influential politicians and the rich and famous. Perhaps the most well-known site is Evita’s crypt where Eva Peron is buried, usually adorned with flowers from her many admirers. One is struck by the large number of tombs built for the military. In one particularly expansive stone structure, Julio Argentino Roco is interred whose main claim to historical fame was for having wiped out much of Patagonia’s indigenous population in the so-called 1879 “Conquest of the Desert”.

  4. I think you hit on it quite squarely. Patagonia is beautiful and extremely well traveled by everyone, Argentines and others alike. So it does have a very touristy feel to it.

    We spent a week in San Martin de los Andes last July, and I don’t think we met a single person from there. I met many who worked there, lived there during the winters but went to Europe for ski season when it’s summer in Patagonia.

    I’ve found that any place too well traveled loses something. The original people are tired of outsiders coming in, often disrespecting their space. People set up walls. And the colonial nature of Argentina in general is felt very strongly all over.

    As you hit farther north, it’s not quite as touristy. People are much more open, and there’s a pride in the Andean culture, history and language (I’m blanking on the name of the language, but it’s still spoken here) that I haven’t seen as strongly in other parts of Argentina.

  5. @Lori:  You are right. Most people don’t like to think about these sorts of things, particularly in the context of travel (which is supposed to be enjoyable).  We can’t help it.  In this case, we sensed something, talked it out, and then figured out what was going on.  Our intent is not to dwell on these somewhat depressing sorts of issues, but rather to draw awareness and contrast.  This is how we process it all.

    @Chris: Hi!  Great to see you here.  Yes, we remember you and Susan from the boat.  

    We had hoped to visit the museum, but left it for our last day in Ushuaia and it wasn’t open unfortunately.  Your description of it convinces me that we should have made a better effort to have seen it.   In the meantime, we’ve had to do a bit of research (even in writing this piece) and I’m hoping that a book recommendation or two might come out of the online discussion related to this post.

    It is indeed critical to remember.  We owe it — if not to the people who came before us, then at least to ourselves.

    @Dermot:  We visited Recoleta Cemetery.  We’ll probably write about it at some point in the future.  As I write this, I’m not aware of Julio Argentino Roco (I’ll have to do some research).  Regardless, it is forever interesting to note which individuals and “heroes” a country chooses to honor.  Our history is as much about what happened as it is about how we choose to view it.

    @Leigh: I’m glad to know that what we believe we are seeing is not some figment of our imagination cemented by long-term travel dementia.  The fact that it’s often difficult to meet someone from these destinations makes them feel temporal, sort of like a resort, which I suppose is the design.

    I agree generally that places that become too well traveled can lose something.  But there are discernible differences between those places where the locals have chosen to stuck around and those where they’ve either fled or have never been in the first place.  I think the tipping point is when the people originally from the place begin to exit en masse for economic reasons (either to sell their homes to property investors or to leave because everything has become too expensive).  Speaking of which, I just had a back-and-forth with a reader about another place that obviously experiences animosity between locals and relocating expats, in Ecuador:

    Anyhow, after having visited Chile and Argentina, I think we are just beginning to understand the cultural geography of South America.  And we’re expecting that as we get closer to Peru and Bolivia again (in places like Salta and Jujuy), we’ll see and feel something a bit less colonial.

    As for the languages, Aymara or Quechua maybe?  Or possible Guarani?

  6. The main indigenous group in Chile is the Mapuche, traditionally around Temuco and the south (but not so much in Patagonia, which is mostly touristy, as you noticed). They’re certainly a small percent of the overall population, and not as visible as indigenous groups in Peru and Bolivia, but there still are Mapuche communities and traditional leaders. They were called “Araucanos” by the Spanish conquistadores, and they were one of the most successful groups in fighting conquest – in fact, Chile didn’t completely ‘conquer’ the Araucania region until the 1880s.

    The Mapuche language is Mapudungun, and Chilean Spanish uses a good number of words from it, like guata (belly), pololo (boyfriend/girlfriend), … also place names ending with “che” (like Pehuenche, Bariloche in Argentina), “hue” (Manquehue, Curahue, Copahue) and “gua” (Rancagua, Colchagua). There are also a lot of words from Qechua (the Incan language) like choclo (corn) and guagua (baby).

    Hope this helps a little bit!

  7. @Kristen: Great to see you here and thanks very much for your comment — it definitely helps and adds to the discussion.  We were just talking with another traveler about Temuco.  As she tells it, there’s a reservation there that features some not-so-dignified living conditions.
    Regarding the history, it’s actually quite surprising how late into the 1800s political events and wars have shaped this part of the world.
    Although I’m aware of the influence of other indigenous languages like Quechua, I didn’t realize that the endings “che” and “gua” were rooted in the Mapuche language.

    @Chris: Excellent.  Sounds like a fascinating book.  Consider it added to our (growing) desired reading list.

  8. Hello Daniel
    theres a historical novel called This Thing of darkness written by Harry thompson and published in 2005. its main theme is the relationship between Darwin and Fitzroy when the British were mapping South america and Darwin was commencing his research. however, a major sub plot is about the three indigenous people who were taken on to the boat with Fitzroy’s ambition to ‘civilise’ them into the ways of English upper class ways. The portrayal of Jimmy Button, York Minster and Fuegia is extraordinary. the novel was commended for its accurate description of 19th century Tierra del Fuego. thompson describes the extraordinary efforts of missionaries who arrived in this alien landscape with the assumption that those who lived there were waiting to be anglised. funding came from branches of the Patagonian Missionary Society in the UK.
    Accounts about Thomas Bridges also are very interesting and his son Lucas’ publication of works about Tierra del Fuego are good. See

  9. Kristen is spot on. Also, re: Mapuche people, you will find that there is a (sometimes not so quietly) brewing resistance movement in the “near south” as I call it, near Temuco. I haven’t heard anything recently, but there are armed confrontations, barn burnings, etc with some guerilla indigenous leaders at the helm. Some people think of it as a civil war, but in Santiago it’s a blip on the TV screen, if that.

    In the norte grande there are Atacameños more visible, but certainly not at the levels that you’d see in Northwestern Argentina or nearby Bolivia and Peru. And to be honest? Most Chileans are just fine with that, which (to me) is the creepiest part of it. I just saw a sort of documentary called Las Pioneras (I beleive) which interviewed European pioneer women who arrived in and were raised in and raised families near the Carretera Austral. Mention of indigenous people was never made, though at least one of the interviewed people could probably have traced her roots without too much trouble.

    Also, I agree that in Argentina there are more glimpses into what’s missing re: museum displays. In Chile it seems even these are absent.

    We can talk about that and more, so much more when we finally make your acquaintance in Santiago. Let me/us know if there’s anything we can do to make that cozier for you re: aparthotel, etc.

  10. @eileen: We just visited the Los Quilmes ruins outside of Cafayate, Northwest Argentina. Similar feelings. Very sad story of indigenous people driven from their homes and eventually marched (many of them to their death) to Buenos Aires. So the museum-like displays are there, but it’s surprising to see how little is known about these cultures that existed only a few centuries ago. The decimation of the culture seemed rather complete. But there was a quote at the bottom of the pamphlet that was distributed: “…the Argentine State was founded on a base of genocide, refusal our existence and the expropriation of our ancestral territories.”

    Definitely looking forward to meeting you and discussing further.

  11. At the risk of being obvious, I happen to be re-rereading just such a book; published in 2006, it is titled ‘1491,’ by Mr. Charles C. Mann (really). It is perhaps more tantalizing than explicit when it comes to actual folkways, but the bibliography runs to nearly fifty pages. If you have not yet seen it, not at all a bad place to begin your query… though I won’t call this a pleasant read.

  12. @Christine: Thanks for the recommendation. And on Columbus Day, no less. I’ve heard very good things about this book, so will add it to the list. But as you suggest, I imagine it’s less than pleasant. I’ll time my acquisition of it carefully.


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