Hunting Dinosaurs: An Essay Review of “In Patagonia”, By Bruce Chatwin.

By: Will Stiefel


Patagonia has always drawn interest when it comes to its history, isolation, and general mystery. Located at the farthest point accessible by foot in South America, Patagonia is shared by both Chile and Argentina. Though the region lies in both countries, it may as well be its own entity; stretching through vast, untamed landscape considered to many as the most impressive on earth.

Travelling this extremely remote, mysterious region, Bruce Chatwin examines what it is that drives humans to roam. Simultaneously, he details his accounts of Patagonia riddled with history, humanity, and geography. The novel may not read like a typical adventure story, but its assorted anecdote, history, and experience give the reader a deeper look into what draws people to Patagonia and all other far reaches of earth.

To those who have never traveled there, Patagonia might as well be a different planet. Century old legends described the region as the home of modern giants; there are even thought to be extinct dinosaurs still roaming its grass plains and dramatically carved ridges. However, with numerous expeditions funded to prove these rumors, they have almost all been proved false.

This is where we find Bruce Chatwin in his defining text, In Patagonia, setting out into the remote stretches of the territory to decipher the history behind an old piece of dinosaur skin. Originally hailing from Great Britain, young Chatwin admired a piece of skin his grandmother claimed to be from a brontosaurus. Her cousin, Charles Milward, had reportedly found it “preserved by the cold, dryness and salt, in a cave on Lost Hope Sound in Chilean Patagonia” (Chatwin 2). Differing opinions on the validity of the skins origin and acquisition sparked Chatwin’s curiosity with Patagonia. With the threat of the cold war reaching England, and a newfound interest in geography, Chatwin eventually found himself setting foot into the faraway region. Overtime, Chatwin learned that the skin was not that of the brontosaurus, but rather from a mylodon or giant sloth. This, however, does not stop him from presenting an account of his travels through Patagonia that help answer many questions those uninformed have had about the region.

The population diversity of Patagonia, and how it came to be, intrigues Chatwin. To begin exploring Patagonia’s people, he must start with those who originated in the region—primarily, the Araucanian Indians. These Indians once considered “fierce and brave…scared the Spaniards out of their wits” (Chatwin14). However, reading through

Chatwin’s encounters with these Indians, one begins to realize that they suffered a fate very similar to those of the North American tribes. Now, many are migrant workers, usually alcoholics, and most with strong tempers. Chatwin experiences these qualities on a few different occasions, which leads the reader to make some assumptions about the native’s current condition. With the colonization of a European power almost always comes the displacement and ignorance of those native to the land. Those native to Patagonia suffered no different a fate.

On a similar basis, Chatwin spends much of his time describing the role of the South American gaucho. These cattle herding, nomadic people originally roamed the otherwise empty grasslands of the Patagonian desert similar to cowboys of the North American frontier. They were also alike in their pride for horsemanship. Chatwin observes that, “once you get a drunk gaucho in the saddle, he won’t fall off and his horse will get him home” (Chatwin 37). Sentences and observations like this made Chatwin’s writing both interesting and entertaining. He places gauchos in a seemingly gallant, epic light. In comparison to the grandiose stories of old western cowboys, the gauchos do not fall short. For many guachos, In Patagonia is a very respected and loved account of their existence. Their role in preserving the nationalistic sense of the region, especially in the face of European invasion, makes them a very significant Patagonian archetype. Several episodes of the novel find Chatwin joining a gaucho for traditional matétea or an asado of fire roasted mutton (24). The region seems desperate to hold onto its identity in the face of the people’s turbulent history.

Reading through the novel, one cannot help but feel a sense of exile residing somewhere within the soul of Patagonia. Almost everyone Chatwin meets comes from some faraway country, hardly any within South America. Many Welsh and Russian immigrants—used to cold, dark, wet conditions—make their way to Patagonia. Forced to run from the law, the legendary Butch Cassidy and his Sundance Kid even choose Patagonia to start a new life. The common thread being that they all seek what once was. The times change everywhere. Populations grow, frontiers diminish, and people are displaced. Yet, Patagonia remains Patagonia, seemingly frozen in time. Chatwin presents a place unconquerable by civilization, where people can migrate only to live off the land. There, in the unforgiving conditions, exiles can make a new start with success depending on nature not infringing society.

The ideas presented within In Patagonia are not what I expected from this highly acclaimed piece of travel writing. My idea of Patagonia, as one unfamiliar with it, was of pure adventure and isolation. Although Chatwin does experience some of this, his interaction with what population there is to find in Patagonia proves the most useful to answer any questions about this mysterious place.  I had only heard about Patagonia through a documentary that followed a mountain climber to the region. Its remoteness seemed unimaginable, yet the film alone did not give me much of a feel for the history of the region or why it had remained so mysterious. Within a mere 200 pages, Chatwin presented me with a narrative that incorporated every aspect of travel to comprehensively describe Patagonia. His vignettes, compiled into 97 chapters, help him demonstrate his research method of encountering many different people, places, and situations when travelling. These chapters, whether short or long, all equally contribute to present a well-rounded sense of Patagonian identity.

The reviews of Chatwin’s book—especially one done years ago by The New York Times—consistently draw on Chatwin’s exploration of why humans feel the need to roam, wander, and explore. Humans hardly remain content with one place for too long and, like animals, seem physically programmed to crave travel. This is what helps define Chatwin’s novel as the epitome of travel writing. He examines not only the geography, culture, and history of Patagonia, but also the philosophical draw of it. Those drawn to Patagonia, along with those drawn to the moon, prove to be prime examples of why humans crave travel. These desolate, unpopulated, wild places give wanderers a sense of “primeval calmness…which is perhaps the same as the Peace of God” (Chatwin 15). Chatwin’s exploration of this instinctual pleasure opens readers’ eyes to what draws us to drift throughout the world, and sheds light on what makes Patagonia the ideal location to do so. As Hilton Kramer points out in his review of the novel, In Patagonia does not provide an escape from the modern world but a deeper sense of it.



Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. New York: Summit, 1977. Print.