Epic Dispatches

A journey through God’s country.

Sites unseen: Patagonia

2024-03-13 | Patagonia, Argentina, Allen Gardiner, South America Mission Society, Magellan

I have had several wonderful opportunities in my life to take road trips from the Mississippi River across North America’s Great Plains, over its western mountain ranges and deserts and on to the Pacific coast. It is roughly the same route that the 49ers took to the California Gold Rush and migrant farmers followed to Oregon. The crossing never fails to inspire awe for those hardy travelers of the 1800s who completed the journey in covered wagons, or on a horse or even on foot.

One of the most astonishing places a traveler might come to on this westward trek is Lake Tahoe. A wonder of nature perched 6,200 feet above sea level on the Nevada-California border, Tahoe is the next largest body of freshwater in the United States after the Great Lakes and covers an area nearly the size of Washington, D.C. Stunning snow-capped mountains and evergreen forests surround its crystalline waters, creating vistas that dazzle the eye and inspire the soul.

A trip across South America’s Patagonia offers a similar encounter with geography. Flat, featureless plains stretch westward from Atlantic beaches across Argentina to the foothills of the Andes mountains. Crossing these majestic peaks, you descend to the fertile valleys, forests and grasslands of southern Chile before reaching the Pacific Ocean.

However, in contrast to the considerable distance one must cover to cross the North American West, traveling coast to coast across Patagonia is a snap. The Atlantic to Pacific route here covers only one-third the distance between Saint Louis and San Francisco. And that is at Patagonia’s widest point. As the continent tapers southward, arid flatlands squeeze together with Andean peaks until the two fuse completely at the tip of Tierra del Fuego.

I should mention another contrast. Despite its smaller size, Patagonia contains not just one Lake Tahoe, but around three dozen. Most are surrounded by lush evergreen forests and offer stunning views of snow-capped mountains. The first one Barbara and I visited, Lake Nahuel Huapi, is about three times the size of Tahoe.
Like 99 percent of visitors to Patagonia, we did not travel east to west but north to south, which makes for a sizable trek. The round trip from our home in Bolivia covered 8,300 miles, almost equivalent to three trips across the U.S.A.

We did this in February 2022, at the tail end of the Covid 19 pandemic. International travel was just beginning to ramp up again and Argentine citizens had only recently been released from strict quarantine and social distancing rules. They made up the great majority of our fellow travelers, with just a smattering of European bikers and Asian tourists. As a result, we enjoyed light traffic on the highways, readily available accommodations and plenty of elbow room in public spaces.

We had been warned about Patagonia’s penetrating cold and harsh winds. “Be careful opening your car doors,” was one common caution. “The wind can literally tear them off the hinges.” But this particular February--the equivalent to August in the northern hemisphere--offered only bright sunshine, warm temps and an occasional light breeze. Every day was pretty much paradise.

What enhanced the experience even more was traveling with our Argentine friends, Bernardo and Monica Fischer, who planned the itinerary and advised us on logistics. They even set up overnight stays along the way with cousins, aunts and uncles, who treated Barbara and me like family. Had we not tagged along with the Fischer’s, we would have missed many of the spectacular sights of Patagonia and much of the region’s charm.

If you like to eat, like I do, you will thoroughly enjoy Argentina’s edibles. We especially like Esquel’s beef empanadas, hot and fresh and served by the dozen. (Esquel, by the way, is where you can take a day trip on a charming turn-of-the-20th-century steam-powered train.) An outdoor restaurant in Colonia Suiza serves a fabulous meal of meat and vegetables slow-cooked underground. (This village, by the way, is just a stone’s throw from Bariloche, the city that boasts the most stunning and recognizable panorama of Lake Nahuel Huapi.) And don’t pass up the fresh seafood on Comodoro Rivadavia’s seafront. You will also want to stop at some of the many churrasquerías serving up world-famous Argentine steaks. Save room for the excellent ice cream and pastry shops you come across. None will disappoint.

Among the non-edible Patagonian charms that stood out was the La Asencion Sheep Station near the town of Los Antiguos (Argentina’s cherry capital, by the way.) Built by Scottish ranchers on the shore of massive Lake Buenos Aires in the 1880s, La Asencion prospered until worldwide demand for wool declined after WW1 and many Patagonia sheep stations closed. Now a national park, La Asencion invites visitors to roam its restored barns and bunkhouses and camp on the lakeshore. Old photos in its small museum depict shipments of wool, piled to colossal heights on freight wagons with wheels taller than a man’s head, rolling over Patagonia sagebrush.

Impressive as they are, Patagonia’s man-made spectacles are dwarfed by the natural splendor that God created in this part of the world. From San Martin de los Andes and Chile’s Araucania region at its northern extremity, to Cape Horn at its southern tip, Patagonia is pure, uninterrupted beauty.

Patagonia got its name from Ferdinand Magellan, who stopped here in 1520 on his historic voyage around the world. The explorer described the Native Americans living on the Atlantic coast at the time as large people who stood a head taller than the Europeans. His Spanish sailors called them “patagones” (pot-ah-GO-nees), literally “big feet”, and labeled their land “Patagonia” on maps of the New World.

Magellan did not see any of Patagonia’s majestic mountains until he had sailed down the flat Atlantic coast and reached Tierra del Fuego. The endless expanse of dry grass and low brush that covers eastern Patagonia features little in the way of scenery, except for plentiful herds of guanaco (wild cousins to the llama) and flocks of avestruz (cousins to the ostrich). However, the featureless geography is great for building highways like Route 40, a roadway that evokes the same romance and adventure for Argentines as Route 66 does for Americans.

Our travels took us as far south as Perito Moreno Glacier, which attracts more visitors than any other glacier in South America. By the way, unlike most glaciers in the world today, Perito Moreno is not shrinking, thanks to constant inflow from the Southern Patagonian Ice Field. The world’s third largest reserve of freshwater, the Ice Field feeds 47 other glaciers in Argentina and Chile, including the Bruggen Glacier, the largest in the southern hemisphere outside Antarctica.

The most arresting scenery on the trip was Mount Fitz Roy, a jagged granite peak jutting out of the north end of the Patagonian Ice Field near the village of Chalten. First scaled in 1952, just one year before climbers reached the top of Mount Everest, Fitz Roy continues to attract world-class climbers, bolstering Chalten’s economy and keeping the tiny village on the map.

The famous peak is named for Robert Fitzroy, the British seaman who captained the HMS Beagle from 1831 to 1836 on its historic voyage to the Galapagos Islands with Charles Darwin aboard. Years later, when Darwin published his book Origin of the Species, Fitzroy publicly lamented his own part in introducing evolutionary theory to the world. A deeply religious man, Fitzroy had tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a Christian mission on the South American continent.

This feat would eventually be accomplished by another British sea captain, Allen Gardiner. Commissioned as an officer in the Royal Navy in 1823, he had little interest in Christianity until, on a voyage from Cape Town to Asia, a serious personal crisis prompted him to seek and find Jesus.

Following the death of his wife in 1834, Gardner dedicated himself exclusively to missionary work. He went to live among the Zulu of South Africa and was one of the founders of the city of Durban.

He then cast his eye upon South America, arriving in Patagonia in 1842 on a ship from the Falkland Islands. Intrigued by the native peoples in Tierra del Fuego, he returned to England and organized a team of seven to carry the gospel to them. The men included Richard Williams, a surgeon; ship’s carpenter Joseph Irwin; John Maidment, a Bible teacher, and three fishermen from Cornwall. They invested an initial donation of £700 in two 26-foot boats, stocked them with provisions, and in 1850 sailed for Patagonia aboard the Ocean Queen.

After three months at sea, the missionaries reached Tierra del Fuego and off-loaded their boats on Picton Island, a cold, windswept spot inhabited by the Yahgan people. Staunchly hostile to outsiders, the natives prevented the men from leaving the beach and sheltering inland. The men were forced to live on the provisions they had brought with them. When supplies eventually ran out, the men began to die of starvation, one by one.

Gardiner himself was the last to succumb. When a relief ship finally reached Picton Island a year later, they found him clutching his diary, in which he had written a final entry on September 6, 1851. It read, “Oh Lord, may we be your instruments in beginning this great work. But if it seems good to you to take us out of the way, or if we have to perish, I ask that you would lift up others and send them as workers to this harvest.

“Grant that this might succeed for the manifestation of your glory and grace. Nothing is too hard for thee . . .”

There, the water-stained diary ended.

When news of the sacrifice of the seven brave men reached England, donations began pouring in to mission headquarters in Brighton. Charles Darwin himself is said to have contributed to the cause. The substantial funding enabled the mission to build and outfit its own sailing ship, the schooner Allen Gardiner.

A great number of men and women presented themselves to serve as missionaries. In 1856, the late captain’s only son, Alan Gardiner Jr., sailed from England on the schooner named for his father to establish a successful mission in Lota, Chile.

Eventually, the movement became known as the South American Mission Society. Its workers planted churches and opened schools across the continent, many of which still survive and thrive. Their efforts helped prepare the soil for a much larger wave of evangelical missionaries who began arriving in South America around the turn of the twentieth century. Their numbers increased substantially following WW2, reinforced with military veterans and energized by the vigorous Pentecostal movement.

Around the middle of the last century, evangelical Christianity saw the beginning of a revival that continues to sweep the continent. According to British sociologist David Martin, 400 new believers come to Jesus in Latin America every hour.

I find it remarkable that all this began on a cold, lonely, wind-swept beach in Patagonia with seven desperate men whose plans appeared to have utterly failed.

It just goes to show that nothing is too hard for God.

Next time,
Sites unseen: The Atacama