Patagonia is a place that by virtue of having nothing, manages to have everything. It is a region of the world that encompasses the spans the Southern American continent, spilling into both Argentina and Chile in turn. You’ll know you have arrived not because of any formal border, but rather when you step foot on rodados patagonicos, basalt pebbles that were left behind by the slow creeping of glaciers across the land. It’s plains are buffeted by brisk winds that support little more than low shrubs, gripping tight to the Earth below. Near half of all Argentina’s territory lies in Patagonia, and it occupies a sphere of existence starkly at odds with the metropoles of Buenos Aires and populous cities in the north. It is a place that makes harsh demands of its inhabitants, yet inspires the imagination and ignites a sense of freedom like a flame.
Bruce Chatwin joined a league of Patagonian explorers the likes of Charles Darwin, who are called to this land officially named Tierra del Fuego–Land of Fire. In his premier piece of writing, In Patagonia, he recounts his experiences and acquaintances he meets along his journey, each one more unique and fascinating than the last. Through his words, Patagonia captures a sense of place that is not dissimilar to the American Wild West.
To read In Patagonia and the understand life in this region leaves no room for surprise or judgement. Chatwin’s vignettes read as simply and plainly as the expanses of land that he is describing. This is a place where people from far reaches of the world have travelled to cobble a life together in an ancient land of myth.
‘O Patagonia!’ he cried. ‘You do not yield your secrets to fools. Experts come from Buenos Aires, from North America even. What do they know? One can but marvel at their incompetence. Not one paleontologist has yet unearthed the bones of the unicorn.’
‘Precisely, the unicorn.’
Beyond unicorns, Patagonia was home to Earth’s dinosaurs including ancient giant sloths, and–according to some–is the true birthplace of human evolution. To visit Patagonia is not to travel, but rather to trek through barren yet every changing landscapes.
As I fail to fathom the existence of Patagonia, I struggle to reconcile it with modern Buenos Aires. The sphere of existence in Argentina is divided between the cities and the anterior, yet Buenos Aires alone determines the future of the country. Through visiting the far reaches of a place, the parts of a community rarely celebrated, one can start to understand the struggle of a community to unite under a single banner. The metropoles of a country are easy and delightful, to be sure, but more often it is those “normal” parts of a country that are the lifeblood of the story of a place. It is the slivers of life Chatwin captures that further reveal the truth of not only Patagonia, but Argentina as well.