Smithsonian Journeys Dispatches

A Tale of Two Monuments (and Three Centuries of Tourists)

A few weeks have passed since my latest visit to Argentina and Chile on the “Patagonian Explorer” journey.  I spent a further nine days in Chile following that trip, traveling with my wife and two friends from Massachusetts, who knew the country but not southern Patagonia.  Along the way, I finally finished reading the diary of Lady Florence Dixie, who traveled to what is now Torres del Paine National Park in the late 19th century with her husband and a few others.  I was especially struck by her description of the area that is now the provinces of Magallanes and Ultima Esperanza.  Lady Dixie described the Towers of Paine as “The Cleopatra Needles,” and her account even included an etching, produced from somewhere in the vicinity of Laguna Amarga.  

During the Smithsonian “Patagonian Explorer” Journey, I often show a short video of the first ascent of the central tower of Paine by a team of British climbers in the early 1960s.  While it’s great fun, and very entertaining, the video speaks to the attraction of the region to 20th century visitors, and suggests why it still holds such an attraction for those of us who arrive in the 21st.

Earlier, in early November 2014, our Smithsonian group had landed on Cape Horn aboard zodiacs from the m/v Stella Australis, and visited the steel monument to the Albatross, which most travelers only see from the decks of their large cruise ships (only Chilean ships with Chilean captains are allowed ashore).  This was my tenth time on the island (out of twelve opportunities, two of which had to be canceled because of high winds), and so I took some extra time visiting this magnificent structure.  I noticed that it had recently been painted, but considerable rust and damage suggested that more care would be necessary in the near future.

Days later, while in Chilean Patagonia, Gabriel Blacher, our Argentine tour director on this journey, received a message from one of his colleagues:  the monument had cracked under the stress of the Cape’s high-velocity winds and broken.  The below picture, from her cell-phone, shows the damage, as the upper-left-hand-side of the monument was on the ground.  While I am sure the Chileans will repair the Albatross monument in short order, it strikes me that “The Cleopatra Needles” have endured for millions of years, the impact of glaciation and – more recently – even European climbers and other tourists, and remain as magnificent as ever.  No matter what we as humans can produce, we can never outshine the forces of Nature and its creations.

THAT is why Patagonia is such a fantastic, magnificent, magical, and wondrous place, and why you have not seen the best of this world if you haven’t been to Patagonia and Torres del Paine National Park.  I am scheduled to serve as the study leader in March-April and October-November 2015, and again in early 2016.  I hope you’ll join me on one of those occasions.