Darwin Slept Here: Discovery, Adventure, and Swimming Iguanas in Charles Darwin's South America - Eric Simons (2009)

Part III. DISCOVERY

Chapter 17. AMOLANAS HACIENDA

Darwin Slept Here

But I have too deeply enjoyed the voyage, not to recommend any naturalist, although he must not expect to be so fortunate in his companions as I have been, to take all chances, and to start, on travels by land if possible, if otherwise on a long voyage. He may feel assured, he will meet with no difficulties or dangers (excepting in rare cases) nearly so bad as he beforehand anticipated.

—CONCLUSION TO THE VOYAGE OF THE BEAGLE

“I AM TIRED OF REPEATING the epithets barren & sterile,” Darwin wrote as he continued his trip north, riding his horse through the desert as the Beagle surveyed up toward Peru and the Pacific crossing. “These words, however, as commonly used, are comparative. I have always applied them to the plains of Patagonia, yet the vegetation there possesses spiny bushes & some dry prickly grasses, which is luxuriant to anything to be seen here.”

I read aloud to Josh as we rode the bus toward the mining town of Copiapó. “Barren and sterile,” I said, looking out the window at the baked earth, cracked waterless ravines, and sparse, stick-like bushes.

“We’ll see if we can help him and think of some new epithets,” Josh said. He deliberated for a moment.

“If a cow died out there,” he said, “it would be parrilla by evening.”

We passed a solitary farmhouse. Heat waves reflected off the metal roof, and a mule chewed on some yellow weeds at the edge of a fence. “It is getting pretty bleak and dead now,” Josh said. “If this was the U.S., they’d have a giant Smokey the Bear sign. Fire danger: extremely fucking high.”

“The whole journey is a source of anxiety to see how fast you can cross the desert,” Darwin declared. And while Josh and I anxiously suffered and sweated in seats on the sunny side of the bus, Darwin dealt with a far more serious problem: His horses had no food. At his campsites he found sticks for firewood but not fresh greenery. And some animals, it appeared, lived on the sticks. Darwin recorded with amazement that the mules used for hauling loads to and from the mines subsisted “on the stumps of the dry twigs of the bushes.” His own horses, pickier or more sensible, didn’t eat for nearly three days, until he arrived at a small hacienda called Potrero Seco in the Copiapó valley. “To all appearance however the horses were quite fresh,” he wrote apologetically. “No one could have told they had not eaten for the last 55 hours.”

The next day, cruising out of the valley in a small rental car, Josh and I passed a bridge-crossing sign at Potrero Seco, in the middle of an expansive vineyard. We pulled off the road and asked a worker in the field if there was still a hacienda around the area, but he looked at us like we were unhinged and said no, there’s just the winemaking house at Cerro Blanco, a few miles up the road. So we got back in the car and made for our original destination, Amolanas, a hacienda at the end of the Copiapó valley where Darwin met an elderly gentleman named Don Benito Cruz. “I staid there the ensuing day & found him most hospitable & kind,” Darwin wrote. “Indeed, I defy a traveler to do justice to the good nature with which strangers are received in this country.”

Darwin had visited plenty of haciendas in his time, but rarely were they labeled on maps. Amolanas was. It appeared to be located in the narrow southern part of the valley, at the end of a twenty-mile dirt-road connector off the main highway. After a familiar hassle with the rental-car company, which involved the saleswoman never having heard of Amolanas (“Where?” she asked), then calling three of her friends to find out if the road still existed (yes, they said, although they differed in their assessments of its condition), we sailed out through the valley.

The scenery looked similar to the Coquimbo valley, but even drier. The river didn’t trickle, it oozed. The mountains didn’t have cactuses, or scrub brushes, and instead started to look almost dune-like, leaving a cheerful blue sky and beautiful green cultivated valley separated by a white-hot ribbon of hostile, sandy wasteland.

At roughly the right spot near the end of the valley, a dirt road branched off to the farms and houses of the “Amolanas Packing Co.” The road wound through a few vineyards and emerged at the spillway for a massive gravel dam on the river that had created a sterile-looking lake. Heavy sediment had turned the water a still, opaque green. We wound away from the lake and into the mountains. The road turned chalky, and without air conditioning we faced the choice of breathing heavy dust or roasting ourselves.

The road got narrower and kept climbing. Soon we were hugging a cliff edge with the tires struggling for traction in the loose dirt. Dust swirled inside and outside the car. We passed the skeletal remains of a dump truck that had jumped a switchback and crashed down into the next one. Its engine had popped through the grill. A few minutes later, as we inched along next to a fairly sheer precipice, I looked at the road ahead and saw a reincarnation of the dead mining truck bearing down the hill toward us. “Hmm,” I said.

Josh, already nervous from the lack of traction and the steep drop-off, looked up. “What?” he asked.

I pointed out the red metallic glint of the truck as it wriggled along the switchbacks and blind curves above us.

Josh wiped his hands on his forehead and dropped our map. There was barely room for our small sedan to grip the road, squeezed as it was between the drop-off and the sheer bluff rising up a foot from my window. “Don’t look down,” I advised Josh.

“I’ve been looking down for some time now,” Josh said. “Do you think they have the same rule in Chile about whoever’s uphill being the one to back up?”

“Probably not when mining trucks are involved,” I suggested.

We rounded a bend and saw the truck blocking the entire road one hundred meters in front of us. It would be a long, hazardous job of negotiating switchbacks in reverse to get out of the canyon. I spied a spot where the road got wider, halfway between car and truck, and I gunned the engine, allowing us to perch jauntily on the uphill side of the road while the mining truck, its oversized tires hanging off the cliff edge, cleared us with six inches to spare. The driver gave us a dirty look. I waved back.

“I don’t think my heart could take any more of that,” Josh said, trembling. He switched to his radio voice. “As I wiped my sweaty palms, I wondered whether Eric understood the full direness of the situation.”

“I thought I saw you wiping your palms,” I said.

“I wasn’t sure at first if the map was making them wet or if I was making it wet,” he said. “But it was me.”

“I suppose the nice thing about being on the driver’s side is that I can’t really concentrate on the cliff edge.”

“I concentrated enough for both of us,” Josh said.

A nagging thought I’d been chewing on for the last few miles, à la Darwin’s horse gnawing its post, suddenly revealed itself.

“I don’t think Darwin would have come this way,” I said. “He never mentioned leaving the Copiapó valley, and we’ve clearly done that.”

We had gained maybe one thousand feet in elevation. Darwin’s description of Amolanas didn’t include anything about hiking in the scorching desert.

“I think,” I said, “I have a pretty good idea what’s actually at the end of this road.”

A few minutes of driving later, the road flattened out at the mountaintop. Three more mining trucks idled there, waiting to pick up loads of rock. I swung our car around, hopped out, and ran up to one of the trucks as the driver leaned out the window.

“Hey,” I said. “Amolanas is a mine, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” he said. He looked at me with a strange expression, as if to say, “Obviously.”

I ran back to the car. “Sorry, Josh. We didn’t need to come up here after all. And now we’re going to race back, quickly, before that mining truck gets in front of us.”

We scurried off like roaches fleeing the light and just beat the mining truck to the narrow road. Half an hour later, back on the main highway, we stopped at the lake’s edge and let all the dust out of the car. Then, brushing myself off, I walked into a roadside convenience store. “Is there an old hacienda around here, named Amolanas?” I asked as I paid for a bottle of water.

“Well,” the man said, “all of this is Amolanas. It’s all part of the hacienda now. You could ask over by the vineyard houses there.”

Back on the dirt road we found a middle-aged man standing, watching us. By this point we’d driven through the entire town three times. I figured that in exchange for getting to watch us making fools of ourselves, the towns-people owed us some answers. Besides, no one seemed to be doing anything. We had passed the same man three times already, and he hadn’t moved from the post where he lounged, shirtless and in flip-flops.

“Hi,” I said, rolling down the window. “We’re looking for the oldest part of the Amolanas hacienda. Do you know where that is?”

He rubbed his chin and thought for a moment. “Hang on,” he said. He disappeared inside a small shack for a few moments and brought out an older man and a young girl, presumably his father and daughter. Gringo-watching: Fun for the whole family.

I repeated the question. “Oh,” he said, “Yes. You need to go back to the main highway, down about 500 meters and then take a left. Ask about Pesenti Oviedo.”

Back on the highway we drove back and forth to scout out the area before deciding that the old man meant a small driveway that led off the road and into a fenced-off residential area. As we idled in front of the gate, a truck pulled up next to us.

“Can we follow you in through the gate?” I asked.

“Yes,” the driver said.

“Is the oldest part of the Amolanas hacienda here?” I asked.

“Yes,” he said. “Just go straight.”

So we did. At the end of the driveway loomed a Spanish colonial-style ranch house. Three women sat on the porch, and as we approached, the eldest woman stood up, smoothed her tan skirt, and came smiling to greet us.

“Is this the old Amolanas hacienda?” I asked.

“Yes,” she said. She said she was the caretaker for the mansion, which was once owned by an Italian rancher family, the Oviedos. Now she kept the building maintained for historical interest, as it was one of the oldest houses in the Copiapó valley.

“We’re looking for the place where Charles Darwin, the English naturalist, spent the night. Is this it?”

She waved at a mud-brick structure behind the house. “I think so,” she said. “It’s supposed he would have stayed here.” The mansion, she said, dated to the 1920s, but the low adobe structure was much older. “Go on,” she said. “Take a look inside.”

The walls of the adobe building were cracking, and some of the dried mud had chipped away to reveal straw and dried grass. Rickety wooden posts held up roof beams that looked ready to collapse. I pushed past an incongruous truck camper shell resting against the deteriorating wooden door and walked through into the dark, cool tile room. A couple of barrels rested in the corner. The adobe building certainly looked like it had been around for 170 years. “You know, with Chagas’ disease the three things they say to avoid are old houses, adobe, and rural areas,” Josh said, entering the room behind me. “Check, check, check. God should have hung a sign outside, ‘Get Chagas’ disease here.’”

Chagas disease, an illness spread by absolutely filthy South American insects called assassin bugs, had become one of Josh’s major preoccupations in the desert. My own preoccupations, perhaps incautiously, lay elsewhere. In all my South American travels, I had never seen an actual building where Darwin had spent the night. Now, near the end of my time in Chile, I was suddenly confronted with this crumbling adobe surprise. My imagination scrambled to get its bearings. What would this room have been for? Who would have been here? What would it have sounded like? Smelled like? Would it have been as cool, or as dark? Did it have the same tile floor? Was it actually the same building? I didn’t know of any books that mentioned this place. So many Darwin sites had been visited by other people. Could this be a place where Darwin spent the night, a place of immense historical interest, and yet unbeknownst to anyone except me, Josh, and the old caretaker?

Should I offer to buy the land before letting anyone else know?

Darwin slept here. The thought took a minute to register. The jungles of Brazil, the beaches of Uruguay, the plains of Argentina, the mountains of Tierra del Fuego, the forests of Chiloé all flashed through my mind, all as glorious steps on the way to this little adobe hacienda in the middle of the Chilean desert. It was a strange place to end up and yet a perfect one—a remote place, surrounded by mountains. Our day’s journey had been an entire voyage in miniature: literal ups and downs, being chased by mining trucks, led on by random strangers, braving the elements, and huddling in the car until the elements had passed. Without the frustrations and false leads and hours spent coughing up dust and looking for the right path to the summit, there’d be no satisfaction in reaching the finish line.

In the last few lines of The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin offers a summary of his journey. He wanted to encourage fledgling naturalists—a category he no longer belonged to—to strike out immediately for parts unknown. “In a moral point of view,” the effect of traveling “ought to be, to teach him good-humoured patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself, and of making the best of every thing,” Darwin wrote. “Or in other words contentment.”

It’s an exhortation just as true today as it was in 1836. A journey—of any kind, whether a daytrip to a local park or a year-long backpacking tour of the world—teaches contentment. It teaches the value of friendship, the kindness of strangers, the beauty of nature, and the exaggerated dangers of playing chicken with mining trucks on narrow roads. Traveling connects us to the world and renews our capacity to wonder.

“It’s great to actually see something like that after looking for so long,” Josh said, as we left.

“Absolutely,” I agreed, slowly emerging from the misty mental images of 1835. “Still, they ought to have another sign out front.”

“What’s that?” Josh said.

“Darwin Slept Here.”