Patagonian Oasis

Even amid the wind-swept desolation of southern Argentine a haven may occasionally be found.

desolate Patagonia

Desolation: By far the major portion of Patagonia is like this.

Our next camp in the valley was even more luxurious and will still further explain my unbridled enthusiasm for the Patagonian Oasis. We stayed across the river from Gaiman on a fruit farm run by a man nominally Argentine, since he was born in that country, but in speech, appearance, and habits more American than I. His wife is American and his children technically Argentine, although his charming small daughter has been infected at the English school in Trelew with the almost virulent exaggerated Anglicism of the expatriate English. They have a modern and pleasant house, where we reveled in real luxury and could almost imagine ourselves back home. Our host had acquired some of the old run-down orchards left by the early settlers, had incorporated himself to acquire capital, and as the company “La Araucana” was engaged in reviving and renovating the place and establishing a business in fine apples and other temperate zone fruits, many of which grow very well here in the oasis. The most difficult problem, that of reaching an adequate market, is still acute, but this exemplifies the very good best that can be done in the valley with energy and initiative.

A Railroad Without Freight This part of the valley owes its importance not only to the development of its own resources but also to the fact that it is an important avenue of commerce and outlet to the sea. Through it passes the wool from the scattered sheep ranches of the barren interior and the richer zone of the distant cordillera. The railway, recently completed to near Las Plumas, about one hundred twenty miles (in a straight line) from Madryn; the port, has considerable influence in this, but less than it should have. In the endeavor to increase its scanty revenue, the freight charges have been made so high that many shippers find that it still pays to take the wool to Trelew or on to Madryn, on wagons in the time-honored way. The economic principles involved seem a little confused to a mere scientist when he sees a perfectly good railway apparently going to pieces for lack of trade, and enormous amounts of ideal freight for it hauled for days parallel to the tracks on primitive carts drawn by horses and mules.

Above Gaiman, the valley narrows and becomes less fertile and less accessible. The main wagon track to the interior and the more winding railway track climb up on to the pampa north of the valley and across the dreaded "travesía," a stretch of about seventy-five miles with no water and almost no inhabitants even now. From this more typically Patagonian desolation, the road plunges down again into the valley at Las Plumas. As if afraid to wet its feet, or in haughty scorn of the valley dwellers, the railroad stops on the heights. It is proposed some day to continue the line back to the Cordillera; and there is even a dream of linking it up with the more northern lines so that one will be able to ride on trains from Buenos Aires to Trelew. But that will be mañana.

Las Plumas is a quiet town with none of the bustle of Trelew, where I have seen as many as three automobiles in one block. Having all outdoors to build in, they have not bothered about streets and have put up the four or five buildings scattered around irregularly several hundred yards from one another. We stopped at the hotel, which tastefully combines sticks, mud, flattened tin cans, and corrugated iron in its architecture (the Chubutian Order), and as the wind howled and everything portable for several leagues to windward was rattled and banged on the tin roof, we knew that we had definitely left the oasis.

Dangers of the Road We spent one night, and then were barged across the narrow but unfordably deep stream. On the other side there are two roads. One climbs out of the valley and runs over the waterless pampa for a hundred miles, more or less, to Paso de los Indios. The other stays down in the valley and follows the river. The outer track is a little longer and is feared because a breakdown on it may mean, and has meant for some luckless souls, death by starvation or thirst, but as a road it is much better. In spite of its terrors, most of the carters, all fatalists and gamblers at heart, follow it. The track along the valley is hardly less desolate, and is so rough, rock strewn, eroded, and generally nasty as to be nearly impassable at all times and often completely so, but it is shorter and it has water.

A Land of Grandeur We were saved from any emotional conflict over this choice by the fact that fossil-bearing strata had been reported in the valley, and we had to go that way to check up on them. The report was false, and we cursed all lying geologists as we banged and groveled our way along the unspeakable wagon trail. We did not get stuck. The capriciousness of travel is one of its chief charms and, at the same time, annoyances. How many times have we started off gaily for what promised to be a gentle joy-ride, and found ourselves at midnight deep in fetid mud, or mournfully attempting to patch up some mortal wound to our fickle mechanical beast of burden! This time we had departed sadly, hiding the quaver in our voices as we bade good-bye to the prophets of our doom, determined to die for the honor of bone-digging (if it has any honor), and everything went smoothly and we arrived at our next destination in one short day.

Furthermore, the difficulty of the track was more than amply compensated by the grandest scenery I have seen in South America, with the possible exceptions of Mount Aconcagua from the air and of the harbor at Río. If this valley were in Europe, every rock would have its legend and we would have known of its renown while still in our cradles. If it were in the United States, it would be a national park and, while they were not busy eating hot-dogs, thousands of sunburned tourists in knickers too small for them would express the nearest to rapture that their measly souls can attain by saying “Sorta pretty, ain’t it?” As they are in Patagonia, naturally no one ever heard of the Valley of Martyrs (“Valle de los Mártires”), the Valley of Hums (“Valle de las Ruinas”) and the Altars (“los Altares”). Being unknown, however, has at least the advantages that there are no tourists and that we can enjoy the smug satisfaction of believing ourselves the only people in North America who have ever seen that sight, or are very likely to see it.

There are enormous cliffs, often really vertical (it would surprise the average sight-seer to know how seldom a cliff is actually vertical), and composed of pure variegated porphyry. There are caves in which a regiment could hid. There are peaks and pillars, prows of ships, Gargantuan monuments, strange statues, all carved by wind and weather from rock which sometimes here seems "living rock" indeed. There are seeming ruins in the shadow of which the greatest structures of Egypt or of Greece would be lost. There are horizontally banded, fantastic flutings of white, yellow, blue, and red. There are the "altars," each a hundred feet high and seemingly attended by frozen priests of nearly equal stature.

The Deserted Inn Not far from Paso de los Indios, the point where the river coming from the north turns eastward in its course to the sea, there is an inn. It was built in hopes that wool-carters would pass this way, and was tritely but accurately called Bella Vista (“Beautiful View”). The carters do not now pass this way, and the innkeeper has so little optimism that he does not bother to stay there very much. We found the place open but deserted, so moved in, uninvited, according to free Patagonian custom. A shepherd saw us from a distance and relayed the news of this miracle to the absent innkeeper, so that he arrived in time to try to take advantage of our custom to get enough money to move to some more prosperous point. The difference between an inn and a house is often reduced to the technical point that at an inn the owner feels free to charge (and often to overcharge) for accommodations.

After dooming this ambitious man to wait there for another miracle before he can afford to migrate, we went on the next day to Paso de los Indies (which makes one long for the cosmopolitanism of Las Plumas), and then left the river and its valley and plunged into the unmapped and wild heart of Chubut Territory, where, as the old mariners were wont to say, we passed divers grievous adventures.

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