Sacred Earth Travel - Sustainable Nature and Adventure Travel

In Darwin's footsteps - travels around South America

Charles DarwinThis year marks Darwin's 200th birthday as well as the 150th anniversary of the publication of his (r)evolutionary theory, which he first conceived of during his epic voyage on the Beagle that took him not only to South America, but all around the world.

However, his explorations in Patagonia and the Galapagos Islands are among his best known stations. In an age of unabashed ethnocentricity Darwin quite innocently went about his task of collecting specimen of plants animals and rocks wherever he landed. It must have been heaven for a naturalist of his times. Today, we mostly remember him for his famous finches and the Galapagos turtles, and, of course, for his revolutionary theory, which was published many years after he had returned to England. Yet, if we trace his food steps around the South American continent we come across innumerable traces of that epic journey. We can't help but notice them since they are present in the very names of just about anything one might encounter: The most impressive pinnacles of the southern Patagonia were named after the ship's captain, Robert Fitz Roy, the narrow channel that passes through the islands of Tierra del Fuego was named after the Beagle, the legendary ship that carried Darwin on this exploratory journey all around South America, not to forget that Tierra del Fuego mountain range and its highest peak which FitzRoy named after Darwin himself (Cordillera Darwin and Mount Darwin). During this 5 year journey Darwin spent most of his time on shore, and thus, for us, 175 years later, it is still quite possible to follow in his footsteps and explore the same places that he first surveyed so many years ago.

Voyage of the Beagle

Voyage of the Beagle

Some of the stops along the passage of his epic journey are better known than others:

Falklands Wildlife

Nobody is quite sure who exactly first discovered this smattering of windswept islands 500 miles northeast of the end of the world at Cape Hoorn. The Spanish claim that it was first sighted in 1540 by the crew of the Spanish vessel 'Incognito', but the British claim that the distinction falls on the pirate John Davis who might have passed it in 1592. However, records are quite scant and navigational charts and maps were almost non-existent at the time, so whether it were really the Falklands and not some other group of Islands that these early accounts are referring to, is anybody's guess. In any event, these early explorers mostly ignored them and it took another couple of hundred years before the first westerner set foot on their shore: It was the British captain John Strong claimed them for the Crown and named them 'Falklands'. Darwin explored them in the early months of 1834, before the Beagle headed down to the Patagonian wilderness, which has become one of the most memorable parts of his journey.

Discover the FalklandsSince then, they largely fell back into the sea-mists of obscurity and would probably be largely forgotten, if it had not been for the Argentinean attempt to claim sovereignty over the islands in 1982. In an heroic effort the iron lady (Lady T) rose to the challenge of defending about 600 000 sheep and 3000 people against the invading forces of Argentina. The war lasted just over 2 months, just long enough to put those little islands back on the map and to implant them in the consciousness of our present age and time.

Since then the islands have become a secret wildlife Mecca for dedicated naturalists. It is one of the few places where so many species can be observed so easily in their natural habitat: Sea-lions and King penguins, elephant seals, Orcas and dozens of species of marine birds by far outnumber the human population of the islands.

Although this outpost of civilization has few culturally important sights that deserve distinction, it is an icon of a bygone age, a vignette that allows a glimpse into the colonial past on the edge of the known world.

The Falklands are a great destination for naturalists and wildlife photographers and those in search of solitude in an untamed natural environment.

Tierra del Fuego

Beagle in Tierra del FuegoTierra del Fuego, the southernmost region of the South-American continent is a maze of islands, the largest of which is Isla Grande. A stark, lonesome land, the region is full of tragic remnants that remind us of the times when Spanish and British adventurers first ventured into these parts.

Today the most ubiquitous inhabitants of the region are sheep, of which there are many thousands. It must be said, that although the area was never particularly fertile (it is one of the most inhospitable and desolate regions on earth) the large sheep population has managed to further degrade the landscape. Nevertheless, there is a fascination in the stark, windswept plains, sheer rocks, snow covered mountains, permanent glaciers, and secret bays that offer respite, inundated wooded moorlands, and mysteriously enchanted cool temperate rain forest, draped in lichens and mosses. The primordial landscape makes it easy to visualize the prehistoric habitants or otherworldly creatures that may still dwell in the caves and canyons or sheltered coves.

Ushuaia, Tierra del Fuego, ArgentinaThe gateway to this otherworldly region is Ushuaia, a bustling town on the southern coast of the Argentinean side of Isla Grande, facing the Beagle channel and Isla Navarinho across the water. Ushuaia, picturesquely framed by the ragged mountains, is a jumping off point for adventurers headed for the natural wonders of the region. However, it is still difficult to get around independently, as services and transport outside of Ushuaia are minimal. A rental car or an organized tour provide the best opportunities for discovering the hidden aspects of this landscape. In the center of the island, close to the Chilean border, lies the Tierra del Fuego National Park, which offers fascinating glimpses into life's determination to prevail, even in the most desolate landscapes, where the hardiest species of fauna and flora are pitted in a continuous struggle against the elements. However, marine wildlife along the shore does not seem to mind as much and is found to be quite plentiful.

One of the best ways to take in the most interesting sites and varied landscapes is on a sea journey. There is a 4 day and a 5 day cruise that regularly makes the journey between Ushuaia and Punta Arenas. En route there are many opportunities for trips to the shore, where, weather permitting, you can explore some of the otherwise inaccessible parts of the region.


Isla Navarino

Puerto Williams, Navarino Island, Tierra del Fuego, ChileThis island is even less populated, yet its wilderness has more appeal. Dominated by the dramatic mountain range of Cordon Dientes del Perro (Dog's Teeth Chain), adventurers can explore a 70 km hiking trail circuit known as the 'Dientes Circuit'. This is a trail for the truly intrepid, as there are few comforts along the way. Near the start of the trail head for the Dientes circuit is also the entrance to an experimental ethnobotanical trail, Parque Etnobotanico Omora'. . This trail leads through a fascinating landscape characterized by moorland as well as deciduous and evergreen Magellan forest, consisting mostly of southern species of Beech, Lengas, Coigües, Canelos, and ferns. The island's natural wonders can be explored from the very comfortable base of Lakutaia Hotel, the southernmost nature lodge of South-America.


Cape Horn, Tierra del Fuego and Navarino Island are almost as inaccessible as they ever were. It still presents a challenge to adventurers, but it is also possible to visit it in style and comfort.


Chiloe Boat JourneyLocated in the administrative region of Puerto Montt in northern Patagonia, Chiloe is the second largest island of Chile. The island, having developed largely independently from mainland Chile maintains unique traditions, mostly based on indigenous mythologies and religions. Yet, the island is famous for its great number of unusual wooden churches of Jesuit origin, for which it was declared a Unesco world heritage site. When Darwin visited this archipelago he was impressed by the exuberant vegetation. Today, nature lovers can explore the fascinating Valdivian temperate rainforest (Chiloe National Park). Chiloe is said to have one of the wettest climates on earth. Yet, those who are not put off by the weather will find not just some truly rich cultural peculiarities, but also a uniquely lush flora and fauna.

A nice way to explore the main island as well as some of the other islands and fjords of the archipelago is to take a short boat trip. These are run on converted fishing vessels and offer a highly individual way to explore this little visited region of Chile. This is not a luxury cruise, but rather a rustic experience to the secret bays and coves of this magnificent fjordland.


Darwin also went ashore in the central region of mainland Chile, at Valparaiso, which today is also rated a Unesco World Heritage Site. He made several excursions into the Central Andes and took time to explore Valdivia and Concepcion. It was his experience of a major earthquake in this region that confirmed his tentative theories regarding the development of mountains. A revolutionary theory for his era, he proposed that the towering mountains we see today were formerly seabeds that over the courseof millenia are gradually being pushed up from the ocean. When on one of his excursions he found fossilized sea shells at 12000 ft above sea level, and realized that after the earthquake, rocks had been lifted out of the ocean where formerly there were none, he become convinced of the truth of his theories.

Galapagos Islands


From here the beagle went up north to Lima, but upon arrival they found the country in the throes of political unrest, which prevented Darwin from detailed exploration. The Beagle set sail once more and headed for the Galapagos Isles. This part of the journey is the best documented and most significant section of his journey. Yet, some of Darwin's discoveries here were almost accidental. Only once they set sail again did Darwin realize the most shocking revelation - the fact that the same species had developed adaptations to help them survive in their specific local environmens and thus differed significantly from one island to the next. Darwin was surprised to find such high degree of endemism within such a geographically small, yet divided area and it set his mind wondering about the possibilities of change by natural selection.

Of all the stations of his journey, the Galapagos, with its great diversity of wildlife had the most profound impact on Darwin's young, searching mind, and in due course (almost 50 years after his first musings), shook the entire cosmological framework of his era - the repercussions of which are felt even today. On a visit to the Galapagos you will hear much about Darwin and his discoveries and will be able to walk in his footsteps across these wildly differing and endlessly fascinating islands.


From here the Beagle headed for the South Pacific, making a few more stops along the way, in Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia and from there on ever west through the Indian Ocean, stopping at Keeling Islands, Mauritius and at Cape Town before finally heading back to Britain. His journey was monumental, not only in terms of mileage covered, both by sea and on foot, but more importantly, for the thought processes his physical journey had set into motion, and which were so radically to change the scientific concepts of his time.

There is no teacher like travel for those who go into the unknown with an open mind.

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