Chatwin’s Punta Arenas, at the bottom end of Chile, is a sad place: a sort of British enclave in decline meets Spanish city recovering from Marxist dictatorship. Today it is booming from tourism and a bonanza in natural resources. Locals in suits rush around the plaza for lunch meetings while bemused tourists seem dressed for the South Pole (it’s not that cold). The British sheep farming magnates of the 1890s – already an echo in Chatwin’s book – are long gone.
When Chatwin arrived the local dignitaries were commemorating José Menéndez, sheep-farm millionaire, with a memorial in Plaza de Armas: his bronze head is still there, and still “as bald as a bomb”. Chatwin describes the palazzos around the plaza as “mostly officers' clubs”, though there is now only one club, and most have become banks, hotels or restaurants. The hotel where he stayed – the Residencial Ritz – is now abandoned near the docks, a shabby building up for sale.
Chatwin seems to find the Salesian Fathers museum even more depressing, but this, too, has been completely transformed. The glass showcase of an Italian priest and otter skin is no more, and I couldn’t locate the two “sad copy-books” he mentions. Today the Museo Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello is far more politically correct and an enlightening introduction to the region and its native inhabitants.
Yet there is still a tiny British presence here. The British Club and one time consul closed in 1981 – it’s now all part of the Bank of Chile and off limits, but St James Church and the British School next door are still very much in business. And Charley Millward’s Neo-Gothic fantasy house is around the corner, just as Chatwin describes it: “iron gate painted green, with crossed Ms twined about with Pre-Raphaelite lilies”. It’s now the offices of the local newspaper, Diario El Pingüino.
When Chatwin arrived in Puerto Natales, 240km north of Punta Arenas, the “roofs of the houses were scabby with rust and clattered in the wind. Rowan trees grew in the gardens…most were choked with docks and cow parsley”. Still an outwardly shabby place, the neglected, end-of-the-world feel has disappeared entirely; hostels overflow with backpackers on every corner. You can order a decent latte, cheeseburgers, bottles of quality Chilean red and cheap mojitos. Polish and Korean tour groups shuffle up and down the streets.
The main reason Chatwin visits Natales is for the Mylodon Cave, a short drive north of town. Chatwin’s fascination with Patagonia – and indeed the hinge on which the whole book pivots – had its roots in a scrap of mylodon (giant sloth) skin that Milward, his grandmother’s cousin, had sent back to England.
Of all the places in the book, this was the one I was most eager to see. Chatwin describes a raw, untouched cavern with a simple shrine to the Virgin at its mouth. Inside he sees the remains of petrified “sloth turds”. After rooting around in an old dynamite hole he actually finds another piece of ancient skin, preserved by the dryness. True or not (and Chatwin often made things up), I was intrigued.
When I visited there was a bit of a traffic jam. Several tour buses had arrived at the same time, mostly Germans and Koreans along with a pack of American hikers and a convoy of Chilean and Argentine families in dusty SUVs. The cave is accessed by clearly marked trails from a small visitor centre – there’s even a gift shop and decent restaurant across the road. The gaping cave mouth itself hasn’t changed in millennia, but now a life-size model of a mylodon on its hind legs graces the entrance. Informative displays tell the story of the now extinct giant. The small shrine, turds and any traces of skin have long gone, along with any romance the place once had.
But the buses soon moved on. As I strolled outside the cave I looked back across the icy plains towards the vast snow-capped massif of the Torres del Paine. Chatwin’s half real, half fantasy book was never meant to be a travel guide in any case. And even though Patagonia has changed, of course, its landscapes remain – vast, desolate and witheringly beautiful.
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