Back In The Andes

I longed exceedingly to go back to the foothills of the Andes. There one found magnificent scenery, with snowcapped mountains, forested slopes, hills waving in luxuriant grass, deep, clear lakes and springs and many little streams. The climate is better .too back there, men say, but in winter there is danger of deep snow, and some men who have ventured to stock camps too high have lost every sheep in the winter. If one locates just right, not too near the mountains, not too remote, they say that he has fine grass and less violent wind. The difficulty is in getting down either wool or fat sheep from the rich pastures; the way is long and hard and there is no feed along it. I could not go back; there was not time. In truth, the trail of my pilgrimage was haunted with unsatisfied desires; there was never time to go into a thing so thoroughly as I wished.

One day we were suddenly all excitement at Gallegos ; the steamer Sarmiento was coming down from the North. She might bring mail ; she was a large ship ; she would carry us away. She looked exceedingly good out in the harbor, usually so bare of ships. We were to go aboard in the evening and sail early in next morning. I paid my bill; I wish I knew just what the señora said as she bade me “adios.” I know that she sent with me wishes for a safe journey and her regards to my señora and all of my folk of whom she had heard. She was a good little hard-working woman of old Spain, a mother of twelve and a grandmother of many.

The steamer Sarmiento lay out a good way from the shore. We went down to the beach and waited in the darkness and chill until near midnight; then the crew appeared, whence I know not, took us on their backs, carried us to the boats and we rowed out to the ship. I was assuredly delighted to dislodge the cockroaches and stretch myself in my berth. Next morning we were yet in the harbor; more wool was coming out to us. At one o’clock we sailed, 24 hours later than we had expected. I simply mention this as a sample of Patagonian coastwise travel; one goes aboard and has patience, if one has to borrow it.


The Sarmiento proceeded northward, stopped at nearly every port to take on wool or to discharge cargo. Our first port was Santa Cruz. I quote from my journal: “What a blow! I have never seen a worse one, coming from off shore, and the air is full of dust. The wind blew so hard that it pulled the whistle cord and blew the whistle continuously until a sailor clambered up and made it fast. I learned from an observatory on shore that the wind blew at the rate of 90 kilometers an hour. We sounded the lead as we came in on high tide and approached till we had only six fathoms under us. As the tide falls here at least nine fathoms, it was interesting to know that where we were surrounded by huge waves would presently be a shingle bed only. It was interesting to see the landing. We have a steam launch about twenty feet long, built of steel and covered over much like a turtle. It is a powerful little launch. As we near port the negro engineer gets up a head of steam, then as the anchor falls the launch is lifted up and swung over the rail, and lowered to the water, when she darts away, climbing splendidly over the great waves, plunging fearlessly down into the trough of the sea and climbing out again. I admire very much the plucky negro engineer and the steersman who stands with legs well braced and a tiller in hand, guiding his brave little craft. A big barge is let down from the forward deck; the launch takes it in tow; passengers are let down, with their baggage and what-ever freight there may be, and the launch goes puffing away for the land. It looks perilous and, in-deed, three of these steel launches have been swamped by heavy seas and sank like lead during the past few months. The danger is if a big wave strikes the launch aft, where it is not decked over, one good wave breaking over her here and she sinks like an iron kettle. I saw a deed of daring, just now; the launch brought out a barge laden with wool bales and the wind and waves were too much for her; she could not hold it. After a hard struggle she got under the lee of the ship and lines were made fast to the barge. The sailors worked like heroes, drenched with the icy water, flattened by the furious wind. One bale went adrift, a loss of more than $100, and all the bales were soaked.

“Santa Cruz is a small village of iron houses with red roofs. It also has a church. It is lucky that these furious winds usually blow from off shore. It is d curious thought that there is not in all lower Patagonia one village away from the sea coast, and I question whether there will be for many years to come.


“March 9: One of our passengers is a young Argentine of Spanish blood, perhaps tinged with Indian. He has exceedingly black hair and a black mustache that is beautifully curled, a handsome, eager face and the finest dark, flashing eyes that I have ever seen. Mentally I have dubbed him “the revolutionist”; he is fiery; his gestures are animated and even daring. He is to be chief of police somewhere along this coast, and is with us. Together we struggle with language ; he tries to read English and I Spanish. I flatter myself that I read Spanish better than he reads English. Last night he invited me to “tome mate” or take native Paraguayan tea with him in his room, which I did, in company with other men. Taking mate is an important function in Argentina; in truth, in all of South America. You have a small, flat gourd, which you fill half full of the dried mate leaves (it is pronounced ma-ta) and then pour in hot water. Through a silver tube you suck the tea, then hand it to a neighbor, who sucks more, and so on around the circle, filling the gourd with hot water from time to time. The mate does not seem to lose its strength with the dilution. All Argentines are enthusiastic over the healthful qualities of mate. To me it seemed only a kind of tea of unusual strength; it made me dream astonishing dreams, so I did not persist in its use. One day we landed our elegant, fiery young Spanish man at his village, a most forlorn assemblage of iron huts and none too many of them. He looked a bit aghast, but tried to smile and be brave about it. I do not think that he has ever before been far from the cafes and the señoritas. No doubt he was sent down here to pay some political debt; a new administration has come in.”

It is astonishing, almost incredible, how much mate is used in South America. One sees great bullock carts going into the interior laden with sup-plies for the estancias. Far more than half the provisions would be of mate, in great cylindrical packages of bull hide, with the hair on. The peons (laborers) are nearly carnivorous in their diet; mutton, mate and a few hard biscuits form their daily food. I have seen peons on an estancia sit and drink mate for two hours in the cool of the morning. It seems not to harm them, although it is a decided stimulant—more than is tea. Some have complained to me that they felt the worse for drinking over-much mate ; travelers, however, in remote parts who can not get bread or vegetables and must live chiefly on meat, report that mate is under such conditions beneficial in its effect.


The lower Patagonian coast is alive with sea birds, which are curious and interesting to see. At Santa Cruz came aboard my young friend, Señor Behr, who had made a journey to his father’s estancia and was returning. He had found things in good condition ; it is a new estancia and they are fencing and building. On his way out, a journey of some ninety miles, he one morning missed his horses, and got a late start. Night overtook him far out on the plain; he lay down on the earth and covered himself with his poncho, or cloak. Fortunately he had also a guanaco skin robe or quilt ; else he might have perished of cold. It was a very long night, said Señor Behr, with the wind tugging at his covering and his teeth chattering with cold. This was only the 10th of March, equivalent to our Sept. 10.

One day we lay at anchor all day long, waiting for the tide to be right to let us in to the port of San Julian. After discharging passengers there we bore away for Deseado, the Port Desire of Darwin. As we proceeded northward the coast rose into higher plateaus, all of the same bare, desolate nature—a “damned and desolate coast,” as Charles Darwin termed it. Indeed, the country for hundreds of miles here would be of no use were it not that sheep thrive on its dry but moderately grassy plains. There are wild ostriches and guanacos in plenty. Darwin should have foreseen that where they thrive sheep could follow. Steadily, as we proceeded northward, the desert character of the country increased, there was less rain and snow, more desert shrubs, less grass and no danger of sheep dying from being overcome with snow in the winter.


Eagerly we looked forward to reaching Deseado. Many years ago there had been planted by its fine harbor a Spanish colony. The remains of the solidly built stone buildings yet were there. The desert nature of the back country and the Indians drove away the colonists. They left behind them, so rumor said, a tree. That tree yet existed and could be seen. From my journal:

“The harbor of Deseado is rock-bound like the harbors of the Island of Jersey. The water is clear and lovely; above the low cliffs perched a village of galvanized iron houses, very picturesque. A rocky cañon came down here and a foot-path led up it; I walked far until I found the tree. It is a lombardy poplar, fresh and green, but not very old, There were sweet cherry trees here, too, sheltered from the wind. They seemed to be quite wild and growing naturally—the only trees within some hundreds of miles, but it is evident that they would grow here, with moisture and wind protection. This is the terminus of the state railway line, a new project now under construction. The work thus far seems substantially done. How good it seemed to see a railway, with cars, locomotives and all that. The village is interesting and developing rapidly. Englishmen are opening up sheep-farms along the new line. One English estanciero, Digby Grist, told me that he had lived in Australia and considered this a safer country for sheep, as there are here no continued drouths. He says that the climate at his estancia, not far above Deseado, is sometimes almost tropical and that in the desert shrubs grow in the spring many very lovely wild flowers. Sheep here eat .the bush more than they do grass, for grass is rather in scant supply.”

The scheme of the government was to build this railway clear into the back country by the Andes, and then northward to connect with the other rail-way systems of Argentina. One may doubt the line’s paying well, as there is so little agriculture possible. There are only a few streams and no agriculture is possible without irrigation. How-ever through the aid of the railway the government is selling land rapidly. We took on quite a number of passengers at Deseado, many of them capitalists of the north country who had come to look at land.

They were not so much caring to embark in stock-raising as they were hoping to share in the enormous increase in land values that have made many men rich in the North. Here, alas, I fear they are fore-doomed to disappointment. The lands of the North need no irrigation ; they are exceedingly rich, and need only the tickling of the plow and seed to throw out bounteous harvests. Can this cold southern desert repeat the performance of the northern fertile plain? Deseado is in the latitude of Seattle and Duluth and has a reputed climate like that of Santa Fe, New Mexico. I imagine it has sometimes pretty cold winters, however, and there is no month in the year when it may not freeze if a wind blows persistently from the south.

Wind is the bane of Patagonia. It blows nearly every day from the land to the sea and often with terrific force. In riding horseback across the plains my horse and I had to lean at a considerable angle against the wind and sand, and small pebbles would strike my face and nearly blind me. Without its wind, it would have a magnificent climate ; as it is I suppose’ it is the most healthful climate in the world. It is too dry and too sunny for germs. The dead horses in the streets of Gallegos simply lie there, flattened by the wheels of the bullock carts, until they are worn out and were not offensive to the Galleganos.

Always, I think, will Patagonia be a land of dry plains, brushy or grassy, as one chances to find it, with sheep and, in sheltered valleys where there is chance for irrigation, alfalfa. That marvelous clover is now growing luxuriantly on Rio Chico near the port of Santa Cruz. It was interesting to note that as we proceeded northward from the straits we found first the Romney sheep kept because they produced such good wool and with it fine mutton; then as we came on and the rainfall became less and the pastures more scanty we found men using admixtures of Merino and Romney blood. Now at Deseado Merinos are chiefly in use.

Rio Santa Cruz is a great river, coming down from the Andes. Darwin with the ship’s boats tried unsuccessfully to explore it to its source, turning back when he was in sight of the Cordilleras. Had he gone a little higher he would have come to a pastoral paradise, with grass, trees, hills and valleys and a marvelously beautiful lake, Lago Argentino. The river is navigable but the current is swift and there are jagged rocks in its bed. While I was in the country navigation was begun by means of a powerful gasoline boat. With navigation a marvelous and beautiful country will be opened and further streams of beef, mutton and wool will flow to Europe and perhaps to North Am-erica. This seems ultimately inevitable.