Traveling through Patagonia, I’m struck by the magnitude of the place. Yes, the towering mountains, hanging glaciers, dry pampas, and old wood forests are vast, beautiful reminders of both the power and fragility of nature. But there are other giants wherever I turn.
First, the fictional ones . . .
The myth of the Patagonian Giants was conjured up by Magellan and his crew in the 1520s and captured the European imagination for centuries. Antonio Pigafetta, one of the few survivors of the expedition, described one such encounter with the indigineaous people now believed to have been the Tehuelches:
One day (without anyone expecting it) we saw a giant, who was on the shore, quite naked, and who danced, leaped, and sang, and while he sang he threw sand and dust on his head. Our captain [Magellan] sent one of his men toward him, charging him to leap and sing like the other in order to reassure him and to show him friendship. Which he did. Immediately the man of the ship, dancing, led this giant to a small island where the captain awaited him. And when he was before us, he began to marvel and to be afraid, and he raised one finger upward, believing that we came from heaven. And he was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist.
Pigafetta referred to these ‘giants’ as Patagão (or Patagón) and the region as the Land of the Big Feet. The etymology is unclear. Either the word derives from Spanish and Portuguese pata “paw, animal foot” in reference to the natives’ guanaco-skin shoes, or from a savage character named Patagón, the hero in a Spanish chivalry novel by Francisco Vázquez.
And now for the ‘real’ giants . . .
Giant rhubarb everywhere! Gunnera tinctoria or Chilean rhubarb, is a large-leafed, flowering perennial that grows up to eight feet high. Native to Patagonia, giant rhubarb was brought to Ireland and Scotland as an ornamental plant for gardens in the 1930s but is now considered invasive as it grows unchecked, displacing native flora. The stalks are edible and the leaves used in the traditional Chilean dish curanto. Although giant rhubarb looks similar from a distance to the cultivated rhubarb (Rheum) in more northerly climes, the two plants are unrelated and belong into different orders. Good thing, as rhubarb leaves can be quite toxic: the plant plays a sinister role in my novel Double Blind: The Icelandic Manuscript Murders.
No, not the kind of muscles I need to hike the up-and-down steep trails of Fitz Roy, Torres del Paine, and Parque Patagonia, but the seafood variety. Not my favorite. But I’ll take the hake (merluza) any day. A lean white fish that is part of the cod family, hake pairs perfectly with Chilean tempranillo wine. Hmmm. More later. The sleeping giant awakes. Time for dinner.