(Un)prepared

Day 13 Thurs 16th Jan 2014

It’s always hard to know how much preparation to do before a trip to somewhere new.  To get acquainted with the geography, history, road network, accommodation options, social etiquette and multiple other things in a never-before-visited region obviously requires some preparation, but just how much?  Do too little and during your visit you risk not noticing many of the important things – physical features, street names, commemorative landmarks – that knit together the environmental and social to make a sense of place.  Do too much and you risk spoiling many of the little surprises that otherwise are awaiting around the next corner; seeing too many pictures of things beforehand can sometimes leave you a bit underwhelmed when confronted with reality.  Sometimes it’s better to visit a place with just the minimum level of preparedness, have your interest piqued by something unexpected, and then do additional reading afterwards.

On a tour around the southern end of Cwm Hyfryd (a feature also rather confusingly known as Vallee 16 de Octubre, and which hosts both Esquel and Trefelin), my interest is piqued.  This tour had been kindly laid on for us by an interviewee with Welsh ancestry, and also takes in the dam and hydroelectric power station on the Río Futaleufú (a feature also rather confusingly known as the Río Grande) in the southern end of Los Alerces National Park.  I had been assuming – rather naïvely as it turns out – that the Andean border between Argentina and Chile had been set by drawing a line on a map to connect the highest points on the numerous jagged peaks and simultaneously divide the broken rims of adjoining river catchments.  Doing so might have created a hydrographically-neat division between eastward (Atlantic) flowing rivers belonging to Argentina, and westward (Pacific) flowing rivers belonging to Chile.  But as is clear from the Futaleufú – a river that starts in Argentina and initially flows southeastwards before abruptly turning westwards to follow a Pacific-bound course through Chile – a complex, poorly understood history of glacial erosion and river drainage diversion has put paid to any hopes of anything less than a highly tortuous border if this division were to be followed.  Furthermore, had this division been followed, then both Esquel and Trefelin would have been incorporated within Chile, for the surface waters of Cwm Hyfryd drain to the Futaleufú and therefore ultimately end up in the Pacific (assuming – perhaps again rather naïvely – that they are not extracted for industrial or domestic consumption en route).

View westwards across Cwm Hyfryd. The border with Chile lies somewhere in the distant mountains

View westwards across Cwm Hyfryd as evening starts to fall. The border with Chile lies somewhere in the distant mountains

It turns out this realisation had led to a border dispute Argentina and Chile near the end of the 19th century.  The United Kingdom acted as arbitrator, and the Welsh settlers in Cwm Hyfryd were canvassed on their choice of country.  Rather than aligning themselves with a neat hydrographic arrangement, in 1902 they voted to remain part of the complex social geography of Argentina.

This information fundamentally changes one of those many preconceptions that I had before coming to Patagonia.  Now that I have this new impression, gained from a semi-prepared visit to the region, further reading about this local border dispute will seem more relevant, and add to my growing understanding of what creates a sense of place in this Welsh-influenced part of Argentine Patagonia.

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