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Over 40 years ago Bruce Chatwin’s revered book  “In Patagonia” provided the original inspiration for my interest in Patagonia.

6/5/2020

I first read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia shortly after it was released in 1977 and was instantly captivated by this unusual book and the little known region of the world it revealed. Ultimately this legendary travel story helped to change the idea of what travel writing could be.

Bruce Chatwin had never planned to be an author; he was an art expert with Sothebys and later a journalist with the Sunday Times magazine. In 1974 he left The Times to travel to Patagonia, the trip that inspired his first book In Patagonia, however it wasn’t until his book The Songlines was published in 1987 that he became a best selling author. 

Susannah Clapp, editor of In Patagonia and author of his memoir With Chatwin: Portrait of a Writer, said on the 40th anniversary of its publication that “In Patagonia was in a category of its own. It was clearly not a novel, but it flirted with fiction. A collage of histories, sketches, myths and memories, with short scenes glinting towards each other, without judgment, conclusion or, often, links.”  

Chatwin’s stories of this remote, wild and what seemed like lawless land, where the likes of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid escaped when they were on the run, were intriguing and at times fanciful but nonetheless pure pleasure. He tells the stories of the many characters he meets and circumstances he encounters in a somewhat fragmented way as he traverses Patagonia from Argentina to Chile. There is no clear narrative, nor a start, middle or end to the story, which for some readers and critics is frustrating. But for me his wanderings and nomadic existence, where he chose to not give an account of where he came from or went to, made the book alluring and evocative. Many critics accused him of distortion and embellishment in his storytelling but others hailed his works as a recalibrating of the borderline between fiction and nonfiction.

Chatwin died in January 1989 at the age of forty-eight after completing six books. He was highly regarded by many of his peers as a great travel writer and an elegant literary craftsman and storyteller.  Chatwin was an enigmatic and charismatic character and at the time when the term “Thatcherite” became a common expression in Britain so did “Chatwinesque”.

Susannah Clapp’s comment on Chatwin’s funeral is an interesting insight into the time. 
“His wife Elizabeth arranged an Orthodox service of commemoration in the Greek cathedral of Saint Sophia in Moscow Road, London. It turned out to be an occasion of drama. Two hours earlier, the fatwa on Salman Rushdie had been announced. Rushdie was at the cathedral, greeted by a horde of journalists as he came out. ‘Keep your head down, Salman, or next week we’ll be back here for you,’ advised Paul Theroux”.

The book firmly planted a seed in my imagination that stayed with me all of my adult life and although I’m not one to embrace the concept of having a bucket list of travel destinations, when the opportunity to travel to Chile and Patagonia arose, I jumped at it. It did not disappoint.

Today Patagonia is not so much about tales of the gauchos and other fabled figures of this remote land but rather pristine beauty, rugged scenery and spectacular walking combined with quintessential ecotourism. This is what has drawn me to visit Chilean Patagonia numerous times.

It is a place of raw and austere grandeur with the three towering granite peaks known as Torres del Paine, dominating the horizon at 2,500 metres. The glacial lakes, stunning fjords, rich blue icebergs and hectares of pampas running across the plains imbue a wild and distinctive landscape.

Torres del Paine National Park has always been the dominant destination in Chilean Patagonia. But more recently the opening of Chile’s La Ruta de los Parques (Route of the Parks) in late 2018 has vastly increased the possibilities open to wilderness travellers. In March 2017, Kris Tompkins, on behalf of Tompkins Conservation and her late husband Douglas Tompkins, made the largest donation of privately held land in the world, donating one million acres to the Chilean government, who matched it with an additional nine million acres of federal land. Overnight Patagonia became home to 85 percent of the country’s protected lands.

Wildlife is in abundance with pumas, llama-like guanacos, South Andean deer known as huemul, Andean condors and the ostrich-like reah, or Ñandú. There are also flamingoes, foxes, penguins and more than 100 species of birds. 

Reflections of Patagonia’s past are ever present with old estancias bordering the park and tiny cabins where the gauchos still sleep when they are working with livestock. But it is the bracing fresh air, amazing scenery and endless choice of walks that captivates me, combined with an impressive array of ecotourism developments. Add great food and wine, fantastic guided walks and brilliant young local guides, the Chilean Patagonian experience is close to my idea of nature tourism heaven.

Within the region close to the Torres del Paine National Park there is an amazing collection of stunning hotels from The Singular Patagonia in Puerto Natales, Explora within the Park itself and Tierra Patagonia on the shores of Lake Sarmiento, half an hour drive from the Park entrance. Awasi Patagonia is a new option for guests seeking a much more exclusive experience with private villas, personal guides and drivers. Personally, I enjoy the small group excursions that most of the hotels deliver and the opportunity to meet travellers from all over the world. 

Beyond Patagonia, Chile has many other magnificent destinations to explore from the Lakes region and the Chiloe Archipelago to the Atacama Desert on its Northern border with Bolivia.

I’m desperately looking forward to the time when I can return to this extraordinary part of the world with a small group journey, to reconnect with and share the stunning beauty, magnificent walks and outstanding hospitality as well as a chance to reimagine some of Chatwin’s fascinating tales. 

Jennifer Wilkinson

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Jennifer Wilkinson

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