The Voyage of the Beagle – Day 113 of 164

June 3rd.—Yerba Buena to Carizal. During the first part of the day we crossed a mountainous rocky desert, and afterwards a long deep sandy plain, strewed with broken sea-shells. There was very little water, and that little saline: the whole country, from the coast to the Cordillera, is an uninhabited desert. I saw traces only of one living animal in abundance, namely, the shells of a Bulimus, which were collected together in extraordinary numbers on the driest spots. In the spring one humble little plant sends out a few leaves, and on these the snails feed. As they are seen only very early in the morning, when the ground is slightly damp with dew, the Guasos believe that they are bred from it. I have observed in other places that extremely dry and sterile districts, where the soil is calcareous, are extraordinarily favourable to land-shells. At Carizal there were a few cottages, some brackish water, and a trace of cultivation: but it was with difficulty that we purchased a little corn and straw for our horses.

4th.—Carizal to Sauce. We continued to ride over desert plains, tenanted by large herds of guanaco. We crossed also the valley of Chañeral; which, although the most fertile one between Guasco and Coquimbo, is very narrow, and produces so little pasture that we could not purchase any for our horses. At Sauce we found a very civil old gentleman, superintending a copper-smelting furnace. As an especial favour, he allowed me to purchase at a high price an armful of dirty straw, which was all the poor horses had for supper after their long day’s journey. Few smelting-furnaces are now at work in any part of Chile; it is found more profitable, on account of the extreme scarcity of firewood, and from the Chilian method of reduction being so unskilful, to ship the ore for Swansea. The next day we crossed some mountains to Freyrina, in the valley of Guasco. During each day’s ride farther northward, the vegetation became more and more scanty; even the great chandelier-like cactus was here replaced by a different and much smaller species. During the winter months, both in Northern Chile and in Peru, a uniform bank of clouds hangs, at no great height, over the Pacific. From the mountains we had a very striking view of this white and brilliant aerial-field, which sent arms up the valleys, leaving islands and promontories in the same manner as the sea does in the Chonos archipelago and in Tierra del Fuego.

We stayed two days at Freyrina. In the valley of Guasco there are four small towns. At the mouth there is the port, a spot entirely desert, and without any water in the immediate neighbourhood. Five leagues higher up stands Freyrina, a long straggling village, with decent whitewashed houses. Again, ten leagues further up Ballenar is situated, and above this Guasco Alto, a horticultural village, famous for its dried fruit. On a clear day the view up the valley is very fine; the straight opening terminates in the far-distant snowy Cordillera; on each side an infinity of crossing lines are blended together in a beautiful haze. The foreground is singular from the number of parallel and step-formed terraces; and the included strip of green valley, with its willow-bushes, is contrasted on both hands with the naked hills. That the surrounding country was most barren will be readily believed, when it is known that a shower of rain had not fallen during the last thirteen months. The inhabitants heard with the greatest envy of the rain at Coquimbo; from the appearance of the sky they had hopes of equally good fortune, which, a fortnight afterwards, were realised. I was at Copiapó at the time; and there the people, with equal envy, talked of the abundant rain at Guasco. After two or three very dry years, perhaps with not more than one shower during the whole time, a rainy year generally follows; and this does more harm than even the drought. The rivers swell, and cover with gravel and sand the narrow strips of ground which alone are fit for cultivation. The floods also injure the irrigating ditches. Great devastation had thus been caused three years ago.

June 8th.—We rode on to Ballenar, which takes its name from Ballenagh in Ireland, the birthplace of the family of O’Higgins, who, under the Spanish government, were presidents and generals in Chile. As the rocky mountains on each hand were concealed by clouds, the terrace-like plains gave to the valley an appearance like that of Santa Cruz in Patagonia. After spending one day at Ballenar I set out, on the 10th, for the upper part of the valley of Copiapó. We rode all day over an uninteresting country. I am tired of repeating the epithets barren and sterile. These words, however, as commonly used, are comparative; I have always applied them to the plains of Patagonia, which can boast of spiny bushes and some tufts of grass; and this is absolute fertility, as compared with Northern Chile. Here again, there are not many spaces of two hundred yards square, where some little bush, cactus or lichen, may not be discovered by careful examination; and in the soil seeds lie dormant ready to spring up during the first rainy winter. In Peru real deserts occur over wide tracts of country. In the evening we arrived at a valley in which the bed of the streamlet was damp: following it up, we came to tolerably good water. During the night the stream, from not being evaporated and absorbed so quickly, flows a league lower down than during the day. Sticks were plentiful for firewood, so that it was a good place of bivouac for us; but for the poor animals there was not a mouthful to eat.

June 11th.—We rode without stopping for twelve hours till we reached an old smelting-furnace, where there was water and firewood; but our horses again had nothing to eat, being shut up in an old courtyard. The line of road was hilly, and the distant views interesting from the varied colours of the bare mountains. It was almost a pity to see the sun shining constantly over so useless a country; such splendid weather ought to have brightened fields and pretty gardens. The next day we reached the valley of Copiapó. I was heartily glad of it; for the whole journey was a continued source of anxiety; it was most disagreeable to hear, whilst eating our own suppers, our horses gnawing the posts to which they were tied, and to have no means of relieving their hunger. To all appearance, however, the animals were quite fresh; and no one could have told that they had eaten nothing for the last fifty-five hours.

I had a letter of introduction to Mr. Bingley, who received me very kindly at the Hacienda of Potrero Seco. This estate is between twenty and thirty miles long, but very narrow, being generally only two fields wide, one on each side the river. In some parts the estate is of no width, that is to say, the land cannot be irrigated, and therefore is valueless, like the surrounding rocky desert. The small quantity of cultivated land in the whole line of valley does not so much depend on inequalities of level, and consequent unfitness for irrigation, as on the small supply of water. The river this year was remarkably full: here, high up the valley, it reached to the horse’s belly, and was about fifteen yards wide, and rapid; lower down it becomes smaller and smaller, and is generally quite lost, as happened during one period of thirty years, so that not a drop entered the sea. The inhabitants watch a storm over the Cordillera with great interest; as one good fall of snow provides them with water for the ensuing year. This is of infinitely more consequence than rain in the lower country. Rain, as often as it falls, which is about once in every two or three years, is a great advantage, because the cattle and mules can for some time afterwards find a little pasture in the mountains. But without snow on the Andes, desolation extends throughout the valley. It is on record that three times nearly all the inhabitants have been obliged to emigrate to the south. This year there was plenty of water, and every man irrigated his ground as much as he chose; but it has frequently been necessary to post soldiers at the sluices, to see that each estate took only its proper allowance during so many hours in the week. The valley is said to contain 12,000 souls, but its produce is sufficient only for three months in the year; the rest of the supply being drawn from Valparaiso and the south. Before the discovery of the famous silver-mines of Chanuncillo, Copiapó was in a rapid state of decay; but now it is in a very thriving condition; and the town, which was completely overthrown by an earthquake, has been rebuilt.

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