Following Darwin’s Beagle
A trip, or series of trips, to the locations Charles Darwin visited on the Beagle in the 1830s would take you near some famed pleasure spots, but with a different focus. You’d be looking at the rain forests, beach cliffs, and pampas that helped the curious Englishman put together a paradigm-changing view of our origins. These locations provide world-class vistas on their own, and if you visit the beaches too, no one will hold it against you.
The Odyssey Club thinks the ideal trip would be a cruise starting in Plymouth, England, where Darwin did (in December 1831), on the Beagle, if one can find a cruise line to offer it.
The first stop would be Cape Verde, southwest of the Canary Islands. They were going to stop in Tenerife, on the Canaries, but a quarantine stopped them, so they moved on to the Portugese-speaking, but culturally African, Cape Verde. There Darwin saw cuttle-fish that changed color in response to environmental cues, a sign of adaptability that must have gone into his thinking cap. He also noted strata of sea shells above the water line, which set him to thinking of the possibility that land masses are lifted and lowered over long periods of time, in line with Lyell’s already-existing theory of slow evolution and a very ancient earth. In addition to nature tours on Cape Verde, one could visit pirate forts, slave-trade remnants (slavery disgusted Darwin), and lively local markets.
On the way to Brazil, one’s vessel might pass the St. Paul Archipelago (or Sts. Peter and Paul), then just a pile of rocks, now a pile of rocks with a scientific station. No point stopping; the Beagle spent very little time there. Likewise the island of Fernando de Naronha, now a resort with justly famous beaches. The Beagle anchored there for only a couple of hours, so a wave from your deck will suffice.
The young scientist’s first rain forest was north of Salvador, Brazil, not far from the Amazonian rain forest system. Salvador itself is a UNESCO world heritage site, worth a visit in its own right, known for Portugese architecture and Afro-Brazilian culture. An eco-tourism enterprise there could take you into the same rain forest Darwin first saw, or you could wait until later for the rain forest experience.
Rio de Janiero has the “Floresta da Tijuca” park, which may not be as primitive as the more northern rain forests near Salvador, but it’s much more visitor friendly and will give magnificent forest vistas of varying types.
Rio also has the gardens of Roberto Burle Marx, a prominent landscape designer worldwide, from this base in Rio – a bit more manicured, you say, but evidence of the tremendous ecological variety that knocked the socks off young Charles Darwin. He trekked in this area as well, and stayed for several weeks in a cottage in Botafogo Bay, under Corcovado Mountain (still without its famous statue of Jesus).
Darwin was bored by Montivideo, Uruguay, but later went trekking into the pampas from nearby, smaller Maldonado, with a band of gauchos who became good chums. They seemed as fascinated with him as he was with them, and he took terrific pleasure in sampling their easygoing macho life.
It was in Punta Alta, Argentina where Darwin’s interest in fossils grew apace, and he noted more sea shell strata that were high and dry. Today one can visit the town’s Charles Darwin Municipal Natural Science Museum. From Punta Alta, Darwin made several overland treks, backtracking to Buenos Aires (also worth a visit, of course), and venturing inland. He was glad to be off the Beagle, where he fought an endless battle with seasickness, usually losing.
The Beagle stayed off the Argentinian coast into the Summer of 1834, visiting the Falklands a few times, doubling back to Buenos Aires, collecting specimens in the interior of Patagonia, and making several forays into the islands of Tierra del Fuego, where the captain wanted to establish a Christian mission.
Once they finally rounded the bend into the Pacific, they visited Chiloe Island, which now offers Chiloe National Park, abundant wildlife preserves, and a spate of eco-tourism enterprises. They also witnessed the effects of an earthquake near Valdivia, which laid waste the City of Concepcion. The aftermath of the earthquake was another geology lesson for the young English scientist – He was putting everything together.
In the Valparaiso-Santiago area, Darwin trekked inland 3 times, visiting the reknowned baths at Cachapoal, and Portillo Pass, with views of the Argentina stretching east.