Home  »  A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open  »  Across the Andes and Northern Patagonia

Theodore Roosevelt (1858–1919). A Book-Lover’s Holidays in the Open. 1916.


Across the Andes and Northern Patagonia

AS the great chain of the Andes stretches southward its altitude grows less, and the mountain wall is here and there broken by passes. When the time came for me to leave Chile I determined to cross the Andes by the easiest and most accessible and one of the most beautiful of these comparatively low passes. At the other end of the pass, on the Argentine or Patagonian side, we were to be met by motor-cars, sent thither by my considerate hosts, the governmental authorities of Argentina.

From Santiago we went south by rail to Puerto Varas. The railway passed through the wide, rolling agricultural country of central Chile, a country of farms and prosperous towns. As we went southward we found ourselves in a land which was new in the sense that our own West is new. Middle and southern Chile were in the hands of the Indians but a short while since. We were met by fine-looking representatives of these Araucanian Indians, all of them now peaceable farmers and stock-growers, at a town of twenty or thirty thousand people where there was not a single white man to be found a quarter of a century ago. Our party included, among others, Major Shipton, U. S. A., the military aide to our legation at Buenos Ayres, my son Kermit, and several kind Chilean friends.

We reached our destination, Puerto Varas, early in the morning. It stands on the shore of a lovely lake. There has been a considerable German settlement in middle and southern Chile, and, as everywhere, the Germans have made capital colonists. At Puerto Varas there are two villages, mainly of Germans, one Protestant and the other Catholic. We were made welcome and given breakfast in an inn which, with its signs and pictures, might have come from the Fatherland. Among the guests at the breakfast, in addition to the native Chilean Intendente, were three or four normal-school teachers, all of them Germans—and evidently uncommonly good teachers, too. There were school-children, there were citizens of every kind. Many of the Germans born abroad could speak nothing but German. The children, however, spoke Spanish, and in some cases nothing but Spanish. Here, as so often in the addresses made to me, special stress was laid upon the fact that my country represented the cause of civil and religious liberty, of the absolute equality of treatment of all men without regard to creed, and of social and industrial justice; in short, the cause of orderly liberty in body, soul, and mind, in things intellectual and spiritual no less than in things industrial and political; the liberty that guarantees to each free, bold spirit the right to search for truth without any check from political or ecclesiastical tyranny, and that also guarantees to the weak their bodily rights as against any man who would exploit or oppress them.

We left Puerto Varas by steamer on the lake to begin our four days’ trip across the Andes and through northern Patagonia, which was to end when we struck the Argentine Railway at Neuquen. This break in the Andes makes an easy road, for the pass at its summit is but three thousand feet high. The route followed leads between high mountains and across lake after lake, and the scenery is as beautiful as any in the world.

The first lake was surrounded by a rugged, forest-clad mountain wilderness, broken here and there by settlers’ clearings. Wonderful mountains rose near by; one was a snow-clad volcano with a broken cone which not many years ago was in violent eruption. Another, even more beautiful, was a lofty peak of virginal snow. At the farther end of the lake we lunched at a clean little hotel. Then we took horses and rode for a dozen miles to another lake, called Esmeralda or Los Santos. Surely there can be no more beautiful lake anywhere than this! All around it are high mountains, many of them volcanoes. One of these mountains to the north, Punti Agudo, rises in sheer cliffs to its soaring summit, so steep that snow will hardly lie on its sides. Another to the southwest, called Tronador, the Thunderer, is capped with vast fields of perpetual snow, from which the glaciers creep down to the valleys. It gains its name of thunderer from the tremendous roaring of the shattered ice masses when they fall. Out of a huge cave in one of its glaciers a river rushes, full grown at birth. At the eastern end of this lake stands a thoroughly comfortable hotel, which we reached at sunset. Behind us in the evening lights, against the sunset, under the still air, the lake was very beautiful. The peaks were golden in the dying sunlight, and over them hung the crescent moon.

Next morning, before sunrise, we were riding eastward through the valley. For two or three miles the ride suggested that through the Yosemite, because of the abruptness with which the high mountain walls rose on either hand, while the valley was flat, with glades and woods alternating on its surface. Then we got into thick forest. The trees were for the most part giant beeches, but with some conifers, including a rather small species of sequoia. Here and there, in the glades and open spaces, there were masses of many-hued wild flowers; conspicuous among them were the fuchsias.

A dozen miles on we stopped at another little inn. Here we said good-by to the kind Chilean friends who had accompanied us thus far, and were greeted by no less kind Argentine friends, including Colonel Reybaud of the Argentine army, and Doctor Moreno, the noted Argentine scientist, explorer, and educator. Then we climbed through a wooded pass between two mountains. Its summit, near which lies the boundary-line between Chile and Argentina, is somewhere in the neighborhood of three thousand feet high; and this is the extreme height over which at this point it is necessary to go in traversing what is elsewhere the mighty mountain wall of the Andes. Here we met a tame guanaco (a kind of llama) in the road; it strolled up to us, smelled the noses of the horses, which were rather afraid of it, and then walked on by us. From the summit of the pass the ground fell rapidly to a wonderfully beautiful little lake of lovely green water. This little gem is hemmed in by sheer-sided mountains, densely timbered save where the cliffs rise too boldly for even the hardiest trees to take root. As with all these lakes, there are many beautiful waterfalls. The rapid mountain brooks fling themselves over precipices which are sometimes so high that the water reaches the foot in sheets of wavering mist. Everywhere in the background rise the snow peaks.

We crossed this little lake in a steam-launch, and on the other side found the quaintest wooden railway, with a couple of rough hand-cars, each dragged by an ox. In going downhill the ox is put behind the car, which he holds back with a rope tied to his horns. We piled our baggage on one car, three or four members of the party got on the other, and the rest of us walked for the two miles or so before we reached the last lake we were to traverse—Nahuel Huapi. Here there happened one of those incidents which show how the world is shrinking. Three travellers, evidently Englishmen, were at the landing. One of them came up to me and introduced himself, saying: “You won’t remember me; when I last saw you, you were romping with little Prince Sigurd, in Buckingham Palace at the time of the King’s funeral; I was in attendance on (naming an august lady); my name is Herschel, Lord Herschel.” I recalled the incident at once. On returning from my African trip I had passed through western Europe, and had been most courteously received. In one palace the son and heir—whom I have called Sigurd, which was not his name—was a dear little fellow, very manly and also very friendly; and he reminded me so of my own children when they were small that I was unable to resist the temptation of romping with him, just as I had romped with them. A month later, when as special ambassador I was attending King Edward’s funeral, I called at Buckingham Palace to pay my respects, and was taken in to see the august lady above alluded to. The visit lasted nearly an hour, and toward the end I heard little squeaks and sounds in the hall outside, for which I could not account. Finally I was dismissed, and, on opening the door, there was little Sigurd, with his nurse, waiting for me. He had heard that I was in the palace, and had refused to go down to dinner until he had had a play with me; and he was patiently and expectantly waiting outside the door for me to appear. I seized him, tossed him up, while he shouted gleefully, caught him, and rolled him on the floor, quite forgetting that any one was looking on; and then, in the midst of the romp, happening to look up, I saw the lady on whom I had been calling, watching the play with much interest, with her equally interested two brothers, both of them sovereigns, and her lords-in-waiting; she had come out to see what the little boy’s laughter meant. I straightened up, whereupon the little boy’s face fell, and he anxiously inquired: “But you’re not going to stop the play, are you?” Of all this my new-found friend reminded me. If was a far cry in space and in surroundings, from where he and I had first met to the Andes that border Patagonia. He was a man of knowledge and experience, and the half-hour I spent with him was most pleasant.

At Nahuel Huapi we were met by a little lake steamer, on which we spent the next four hours. The lake is of bold and irregular outline, with many deep bays, and with mountain walls standing as promontories between the bays. For a couple of hours the scenery was as beautiful as it had been during any part of the two days, especially when we looked back at the mass of snow-shrouded peaks. Then the lake opened, the shores became clear of woods, the mountains lower, and near the eastern end, where there were only low rolling hills, we came to the little village of Bariloche.

Bariloche is a real frontier village. Forty years previously Doctor Moreno had been captured by Indians at this very spot, had escaped from them, and after days of extraordinary hardship had reached safety. He showed us a strange, giant pine-tree, of a kind different from any of our northern cone-bearers, near which the Indians had camped while he was prisoner with them. He had persuaded the settlers to have this tree preserved, and it is still protected, though slowly dying of old age. The town is nearly four hundred miles from a railway, and the people are of the vigorous, enterprising frontier type. It was like one of our frontier towns in the old-time West as regards the diversity in ethnic type and nationality among the citizens. The little houses stood well away from one another on the broad, rough, faintly marked streets. In one we might see a Spanish family, in another blond Germans or Swiss, in yet another a family of gaucho stock looking more Indian than white. All worked and lived on a footing of equality, and all showed the effect of the wide-spread educational effort of the Argentine Government; an effort as marked as in our own country, although in the Argentine it is made by the nation instead of by the several states. We visited the little public school. The two women teachers were, one of Argentine descent, the other the daughter of an English father and an Argentine mother—the girl herself spoke English only with difficulty. They told us that the Germans had a school of their own, but that the Swiss and the other immigrants sent their children to the government school with the children of the native Argentines. Afterward I visited the German school, where I was welcomed by a dozen of the German immigrants—men of the same stamp as those whom I had so often seen, and whom I so much admired and liked, in our own Western country. I was rather amused to see in this school, together with a picture of the Kaiser, a very large picture of Martin Luther, although about a third of the Germans were Catholics; their feelings as Germans seemed in this instance to have overcome any religious differences, and Martin Luther was simply accepted as one of the great Germans whose memory they wished to impress on the minds of their children. In this school there was a good little library, all the books being, of course, German; it was the only library in the town.

That night we had a very pleasant dinner. Our host was a German. Of the two ladies who did the honors of the table, one was a Belgian, the wife of the only doctor in Bariloche, and the other a Russian. In our own party, aside from the four of us from the United States, there were Colonel Reybaud, of the Argentine army, my aide, and a first-class soldier; Doctor Moreno, who was as devoted a friend as if he had been my aide; and three other Argentine gentlemen—the head of the Interior Department, the governor of Neuquen, and the head of the Indian Service. Among the other guests was a man originally from County Meath, and a tall, blond, red-bearded Venetian, a carpenter by trade. After a while we got talking of books, and it was fairly startling to see the way that polyglot assemblage brightened when the subject was introduced, and the extraordinary variety of its taste in good literature. The men began eagerly to speak about and quote from their favorite authors—Cervantes, Lope de Vega, Camoëns, Molière, Shakespeare, Virgil, and the Greek dramatists. Our host quoted from the “Nibelungenlied” and from Homer, and at least two-thirds of the men at the table seemed to have dozens of authors at their tongues’ ends. But it was the Italian carpenter who capped the climax, for when we touched on Dante he became almost inspired and repeated passage after passage, the majesty and sonorous cadence of the lines thrilling him so that his listeners were almost as much moved as he was. We sat thus for an hour—an unexpected type of Kaffee Klatsch for such an outpost of civilization.

Next morning at five we were off for our four-hundred-mile drive across the Patagonian wastes to the railway at Neuquen. We had been through a stretch of scenery as lovely as can be found anywhere in the world—a stretch that in parts suggested the Swiss lakes and mountains, and in other parts Yellowstone Park or the Yosemite or the mountains near Puget Sound. In a couple of years the Argentines will have pushed their railway system to Bariloche, and then all tourists who come to South America should make a point of visiting this wonderfully beautiful region. Doubtless in the end it will be developed for travellers much as other regions of great scenic attraction are developed. Thanks to Doctor Moreno, the Argentine end of it is already a national park; I trust the Chilean end soon will be.

We left Bariloche in three motor-cars, knowing that we had a couple of hard days ahead of us. After skirting the lake for a mile or two we struck inland over flats and through valleys. We had to cross a rapid river at a riffle where the motor-cars were just able to make it. The road consisted only of the ruts made by the passage of the great bullock carts, and often we had to go alongside it, or leave it entirely where at some crossing of a small stream the ground looked too boggy for us to venture in with the motor-cars. Three times in making such a crossing one of the cars bogged down, and we had hard work in getting out. In one case it caused us two hours’ labor in building a stone causeway under and in front of the wheels—repeating what I had helped do not many months before in Arizona, when we struck a place where a cloudburst had taken away the bridge across a stream and a good part of the road that led up to it on either side.

In another place the leading car got into heavy sand and was unable to move. A party of gauchos came loping up, and two of them tied their ropes to the car and pulled it backward onto firm ground. These gauchos were a most picturesque set. They were riding good horses, strong and hardy and wild, and the men were consummate horsemen, utterly indifferent to the sudden leaps and twists of the nervous beasts they rode. Each wore a broad, silver-studded belt, with a long knife thrust into it. Some had their trousers in boots, others wore baggy breeches gathered in at the ankle. The saddles, unlike our cow saddles, had no horns, and the rope when in use was attached to the girth ring. The stirrups were the queerest of all. Often they were heavy flat disks, the terminal part of the stirrup-leather being represented by a narrow metal, or stiff leather, bar a foot in length. A slit was cut in the heavy flat disk big enough to admit the toe of the foot, and with this type of stirrup, which to me would have been almost as unsatisfactory as no stirrup at all, they sat their bucking or jumping horses with complete indifference.

It was gaucho land through which we were travelling. Every man in it was born to the saddle. We saw tiny boys not only riding but performing all the duties of full-grown men in guiding loose herds or pack-animals. No less characteristic than these daredevil horsemen were the lines of great two-wheeled carts, each dragged by five mules, three in the lead, with two wheelers, or else perhaps drawn by four or six oxen. For the most part these carts were carrying wool or hides. Occasionally we came on great pastures surrounded by wire fences. Elsewhere the stony, desolate land lay as it had lain from time immemorial. We saw many flocks of sheep, and many herds of horses, among which piebald horses were unusually plentiful. There were a good many cattle, too, and on two or three occasions we saw flocks of goats. It was a wild, rough country, and in such a country life is hard for both man and beast. Everywhere along the trail were the skeletons and dried carcasses of cattle, and occasionally horses. Yet there were almost no carrion birds, no ravens or crows, no small vultures, although once very high up in the air we saw a great condor. Indeed, wild life was not plentiful, although we saw ostriches—the South American rhea—and there was an occasional guanaco, or wild llama. Foxes were certainly abundant, because at the squalid little country stores there were hundreds of their skins and also many skunk skins.

Now and then we passed ranch-houses. There might be two or three fairly close together, then again we might travel for twenty miles without a sign of a habitation or a human being. In one place there was a cluster of buildings and a little schoolhouse. We stopped to shake hands with the teacher. Some of the ranch-houses were cleanly built and neatly kept, shade-trees being planted round about—the only trees we saw during the entire motor journey. Other houses were slovenly huts of mud and thatch, with a brush corral near by. Around the houses of this type the bare dirt surface was filthy and unkempt, and covered with a litter of the skulls and bones of sheep and oxen, fragments of skin and hide, and odds and ends of all kinds, foul to every sense.

Every now and then along the road we came to a solitary little store. If it was very poor and squalid, it was called a pulpería; if it was large, it was called an almacén. Inside there was a rough floor of dirt or boards, and a counter ran round it. At one end of the counter was the bar, at which drinks were sold. Over the rest of the counter the business of the store proper was done. Hats, blankets, horse-gear, rude articles of clothing, and the like were on the shelves or hung from rings in the ceiling. Sometimes we saw gauchos drinking at these bars—rough, wild-looking men, some of them more than three parts Indian, others blond, hairy creatures with the northern blood showing obviously. Although they are dangerous men when angered, they are generally polite, and we, of course, had no trouble with them. Hides, fox skins, and the like are brought by them for sale or for barter.

Order is kept by the mounted territorial police, an excellent body, much like the Canadian mounted police and the Pennsylvania constabulary. These men are alert and soldierly, with fine horses, well-kept arms, and smart uniforms. Many of them were obviously mainly, and most of them were partly, of Indian blood. I think that Indian blood is on the whole a distinct addition to the race stock when the ancestral Indian tribe is of the right kind. The acting president of the Argentine during my visit, the vice-president, a very able and forceful man, wealthy, well educated, a thorough statesman and man of the world, and a delightful companion, had a strong strain of Indian blood in him.

The ordinary people we met used “Indian” and “Christian” as opposite terms, having cultural rather than theological or racial significance, this being customary in the border regions of temperate South America. In one place where we stopped four Indians came in to see us. The chief or head man looked like a thorough Indian. He might have been a Sioux or a Comanche. One of his companions was apparently a half-breed, showing strong Indian features, however. A third had a full beard, and, though he certainly did not look quite like a white man, no less certainly he did not look like an Indian. The fourth was considerably more white than Indian. He had a long beard, being dressed, as were the others, in shabby white man’s garb. He looked much more like one of the poorer class of Boers than like any Indian I have ever seen. I noticed this man talking to two of the mounted police. They were smart, well-set-up men, thoroughly identified with the rest of the population, and regarding themselves and being regarded by others as on the same level with their fellow citizens. Yet they were obviously far more Indian in blood than was the unkempt, bearded white man to whom they were talking, and whom they and their fellows spoke of as an Indian, while they spoke of themselves, and were spoken of by others, as “Christians.” “Indian” was the term reserved for the Indians who were still pagans and who still kept up a certain tribal relation. Whenever an Indian adopted Christianity in the excessively primitive form known to the gauchos, came out to live with the whites, and followed the ordinary occupations, he seemed to be promptly accepted as a white man, no different from any one else. The Indians, by the way, now have property, and are well treated. Nevertheless, the pure stock is dying out, and those that survive are being absorbed in the rest of the population.

The various accidents we met with during the forenoon delayed us, and we did not take breakfast—or, as we at home would call it, lunch—until about three o’clock in the afternoon. We had then halted at a big group of buildings which included a store and a government telegraph office. The store was a long, whitewashed, one-story house, the bedrooms in the rear, and all kinds of outbuildings round about. In some corrals near by a thousand sheep were being sheared. Breakfast had been long deferred, and we were hungry. But it was a feast when it did come, for two young sheep or big lambs were roasted whole before a fire in the open, and were then set before us; the open-air cook was evidently of almost pure Indian blood.

On we went with the cars, with no further accidents and no trouble except once in crossing a sand belt. The landscape was parched and barren. Yet its look of almost inconceivable desolation was not entirely warranted, for in the flats and valleys water could evidently be obtained a few feet below the surface, and where it was pumped up anything could be grown on the soil.

But, unless thus artificially supplied, water was too scarce to permit any luxuriance of growth. Here and there were stretches of fairly good grass, but on the whole the country was covered with dry scrub a foot or two high, rising in clumps out of the earth or gravel or sand. The hills were stony and bare, sometimes with flat, sheer-sided tops, and the herds of half-wild horses and of cattle and sheep, and the even wilder riders we met, and the squalid little ranch-houses, all combined to give the landscape a peculiar touch.

As evening drew on, the harsh, raw sunlight softened. The hills assumed a myriad tints as the sun sank. The long gloaming followed. The young moon hung overhead, well toward the west, and just on the edge of the horizon the Southern Cross stood upside down. Then clouds gathered, boding a storm. The night grew black, and on we went through the darkness, the motormen clutching the steering-wheels and peering anxiously forward as they strove to make out the ruts and faint road-marks in the shifting glare of the headlights. The play of the lightning and the rolling of the thunder came near and nearer. We were evidently in for a storm, which would probably have brought us to a complete halt, and we looked out for a house to stop at. At 10.15 we caught a glimpse of a long white building on one side of the road. It was one of the stores of which I have spoken. With some effort we roused the people, and after arranging the motor-cars we went inside. They were good people. They got us eggs and coffee, and, as we had a cold pig, we fared well. Then we lay down on the floor of the store and on the counters and slept for four hours.

At three I waked the sleepers with the cry that in bygone days on the Western cattle plains had so often roused me from the heavy slumber of the men of the round-up. It was the short November night of high southern latitudes. Dawn came early. We started as soon as the faint gray enabled us to see the road. The stars paled and vanished. The sunrise was glorious. We came out from among the hills on to vast barren plains. Hour after hour, all day long, we drove at speed over them. The sun set in red and angry splendor amid gathering clouds. When we reached the Rio Negro the light was dying from the sky, and a heavy storm was rolling toward us. The guardians of the rope ferry feared to try the river, with the storm rising through the black night; but we forced them to put off, and we reached the other shore just before the wind smote us, and the rushing rain drove in our faces.