Paradise Found

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Rich History

After buying La Querencia, Gamarci set to learning all he could about his corner of Patagonia. He had heard the legends. Throughout its history, Patagonia has had the odd quality of pitching the mind toward the fanciful — an effect “something like the moon, but more powerful,” observed Bruce Chatwin, author of the 1977 travel classic In Patagonia. Early reports of Patagonia inspired Shakespeare (The Tempest), Swift (Gulliver’s Travels), and Coleridge (The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner). Ferdinand Magellan wrote of a race of giants he encountered there in 1520. Early maps tell of blue unicorns that romped through a red landscape, and of gargantuan birds of prey that glided over the scrub — with elephants in their claws, by at least one account. Butch Cassidy and Harry Longabaugh, a.k.a. the Sundance Kid, were often sighted in central Patagonia, running a sheep farm. And of course there was the lost city of gold, by some accounts populated by shipwrecked Europeans, that set explorers’ hearts aflutter for nearly three centuries.

Improbably, Gamarci came to learn that many Patagonian myths have a firm foundation in reality. Magellan encountered the Tehuelche Indian tribe, whose males, at six feet and more, stood roughly ten inches taller than their Spanish counterparts. (Magellan managed to capture one “giant,” who died of scurvy in the Pacific.) The blue unicorn may have been the huemul, a rare (two-horned) deer spied in profile at a time of day when Patagonian light and shadow played persuasive magic tricks. The enormous birds were likely Andean condors, whose wings can span fourteen feet. The story of Butch and Sundance is unambiguously true: They fled to Patagonia when the Pinkerton National Detective Agency flushed them out of the American West, and they raised sheep before reverting to their field of expertise.

The lost city of gold? Explorers claimed to have found the place, called “the Enchanted City of the Caesars,” as early as 1528 and wrote about it with startling specificity: The vast city sat above a beautiful lake, in the protective foothills of a volcano; one reached it via drawbridge; the roofs were made of gold and silver, and the men wore tricorner hats, blue coats and yellow capes. In 1707 an explorer named Rojas noted (in a letter to the Spanish king) the city’s “many mines of gold and silver,” as well as its orange and palm trees, which do not grow in Patagonia. Only in the 1790s did churches and governments tire of costly expeditions in search of the lost city and consign it, reluctantly, to the realm of myth.

“Obviously, I believe the Enchanted City of the Caesars was a figment of somebody’s imagination,” Gamarci says with a glimmer of amusement in his eye. “On the other hand, about two or three years ago, a Chilean professor from the town of Punta Arenas, in Tierra del Fuego, came to the conclusion that the city should have been in one of two locations. And one of those locations is where my land is.”

Perhaps the most intriguing historical point of entry to Gamarci’s Patagonia is Charles Darwin. In 1831 the young naturalist got passage aboard Captain Robert FitzRoy’s H.M.S. Beagle, which was leaving England to chart the southern waters. In the spring of 1834 the Beagle dropped anchor at the mouth of the Santa Cruz River, which bisects southern Patagonia and flows into the Atlantic. A party of twenty-five hauled three whaleboats upriver, deep into the Patagonian interior, a brutal two-week journey through storm-lashed terrain. “Completely terra incognita,” Darwin wrote of this land. By May 4 the snow-covered Andes came into view, but rations were running low and still there was no sign of the Santa Cruz’s source. FitzRoy decided to head back downriver. Before he did so, however, Darwin gave names to two smallish, toothlike mountains visible in the distance: Castle Hill and Hobbler Hill. Today they are Gamarci’s.

Had FitzRoy’s party pressed on for one or two more days, Darwin would have discovered the stunning Lago Argentino. (He thought the area immediately ahead was a vast, empty flatland, and christened it “Disappointment Plains.”) From Lago Argentino, Darwin probably would have made a truly earth-shattering find. “The river would have forced him in a northerly direction,” Gamarci says, “and he would have come across huge bones of dinosaurs — and the theory of evolution could have come much earlier.”

Modern Marvels

Millions of years ago Patagonia was forested with massive trees; but the tectonic violence that gave birth to the Andes buried the entire cone of South America in layers of volcanic ash, locking the forests and their inhabitants, the dinosaurs, in a remarkable state of preservation. It was a friend of Gamarci’s, Coleman Burke, a commercial real estate magnate and serious amateur bone hunter, who found the largest femur known to man just north of Gamarci’s place. Gamarci helped, lending trucks, horses and gauchos, as well as his own gently spirited presence to the bone diggers’ cause; he and Burke have since become close friends. “Jorge is one of those extraordinary, quiet individuals who have been able to realize dreams and keep a low profile at the same time,” Burke says. “He’s always thinking.” (Gamarci and Burke were present at the Explorers Club’s centennial celebration, at the Waldorf Astoria in 2004, when paleontologist Ken Lacovara formally presented the find. Sir Edmund Hillary and Buzz Aldrin were among those who gave it the biggest ovation of the night.)

Burke came to Lago Argentino in 1995, to retrace Darwin and FitzRoy’s journey down the Santa Cruz River. (The wild winds and swift currents make this a dangerous ride. As far as Burke knows, he and his five companions were the first to make the complete journey from lake to ocean.) Near Argentino, Burke did some scouting around and noticed “dinosaur-bearing soils” underfoot. He said, “Come on, guys, we’ve got to go find some dinosaurs.”

The sport-minded companions replied, “Burkey, we’ll go down the river with you, but no way we’re gonna look for dinosaurs.” So Burke made a quick trek, climbed a promontory, and saw cragged badlands spread out before him. “For sure there are dinosaurs here,” he told himself, knowing he would return.

The region has since become a bone hunter’s paradise. In 2001 a Burke excavation uncovered a new dinosaur species (Orkoraptor burkei), the southernmost carnivore yet discovered. The land continued to yield secrets. In January 2004, Burke found the now-famous femur, belonging to a plant-eating dinosaur about eighty feet tall, most of it neck, the better to forage in treetops. The sixteen-year-old son of a bone worker spotted the nub of the femur poking out of the ground, and then the crew started to dig — and kept digging. “The whole camp came alive,” Burke recalls. “We brought out champagne and danced around it like a bunch of school girls.” He adds, “If I can find a dinosaur, anyone can find one. So if Darwin hadn’t run out of food, surely he would have found them. That would have been something! It wasn’t until fifteen years later that Sir Richard Owen first called these things dinosaurs.”

'Burke’s home base in Patagonia is La Querencia, which, he remains convinced, is itself a rich boneyard. “Jorge would see us go off on these trips, and he would see us come back with all these bones and bone sightings,” Burke says. “And sometimes he’d come along himself. I think he really got religion.”

This is true. Gamarci has formed the Evolution Foundation, with firm plans for a fossil museum on the eastern edge of his farm. The museum will be directed by world-renowned paleontologist Fernando Novas, who discovered in Patagonia remains (including a thirteen-inch claw) of the world’s largest known raptor.

Even from the remote vantage point of La Querencia, the world has rapidly become a much smaller place. In 1993 oil interests looked covetously upon Gamarci’s land, seeking drilling rights, but Gamarci repelled them. Since 1989 the main town of the Lago Argentino region, El Calafate — on the other side of the lake — has grown from 1,600 to 30,000 inhabitants, and its expanded airport brings thousands of tourists annually to Los Glaciers National Park. (One benefit: Gamarci can eat dinner in Greenwich one day and have lunch on La Querencia the next.) But as this incredible corner of the planet loses its anonymity, it must be looked after with great care. “I have the responsibility not only to preserve a piece of land,” Gamarci says, “but also to preserve the fauna and flora of the past, the present, and the future.”    

See more breathtaking photos from this story »

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