Posts Tagged ‘Lost Tribes’

San Carlos de Bariloche is a small city in Río Negro, Argentina. Most people seem to call it Bariloche, and for some reason I call it El Bariloche. It’s surrounded by the foothills of the Andes and it sits on the shores of Lake Nahuel Huapi. It’s a regional tourist centre for mountaineering, hiking, and skiing. I don’t remember ever making the decision to come here, it just seemed like a natural progression on my journey from Mendoza to Tierra del Fuego. I had intended to travel down the coast of Chile and return through Argentine Patagonia. The cost of Argentina at the time I visited was considerably less than Chile, so I think this was a strong motivation. I dodged the hotel hustlers at the bus station and decided to walk into the town; I was pursued by several stray dogs as is often the case on my travels in South America. The outskirts seemed unremarkable and didn’t leave much impression. However, after checking into a local hostel I immediately set out to have a look at the town centre and the view across the lake. I was very impressed.

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Julio Roca statue

My experience of both Chile and Argentina was always tainted by watching football. My image of the people from this part of the World was always dark haired swarthy characters who either outclassed or out cheated my long suffering England team. This image is of the exotic Latin types transplanted from the back streets of Napoli or Madrid into the vast regions of the Americas. I was aware that there was an influence, especially this far south, from Germans and British. Although I knew this I never really expected to land in what seemed like mini Switzerland. The style of the centre could have been plucked from William Tell. It’s a beautiful if embarrassingly twee town. Most of the people seem overwhelmingly European, or should I say Northern European. The comparison with Santiago de Chile and Mendoza was quite striking. I felt like an outsider with my scraggily dark hair and unshaven black face.

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Centro Civico

This part of the World was settled by some Germans, the name of the town may actually come from Carlos Wiederhold who established a shop here. There were subsequent migrations of people from all the Alpine areas of Europe. Slovenians, Austrians, Swiss, and Northern Italians. The aesthetics are specifically Alpine with log cabins and those large boulder type walls, the sort you may find in Aspen, Colorado. I always wonder about ski type places whether things are built like this because they have to be or because they just feel that they should be. Is it the abundance of ‘ski lodge’ materials that lead to the ski lodge aesthetic or do people just think, well, it’s a ski lodge kinda place so let’s make it look that way. Either way, I’m not complaining. I love the place! There are many nice little cafes and chocolate shops. You can wander round looking at the semi ethnic souvenirs with an icy breeze rolling in from the lake.

It’s so far from most places, including Buenos Aires which feels another world away. It makes me wonder if it could be the perfect hiding place for Germanic types hiding from prosecution or trying to evade War Crime charges. If Hitler ever did escape before the Red Army rolled in I image this place would be a great choice. There are a couple of publications who used this area as the backdrop to their various conspiracies. To lend weight to the argument the local German School was apparently run by former SS Hauptsturmführer Erich Priebke. Anyway, that war is over and Bariloche stands as a testament to solid and tasteful Architecture with streets of old world charm. I actually returned here on the way back from Tierra del Fuego, I wish I had stayed longer!

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If I recall the last e-mail I sent, or at least the last on… e-mail was from Mendoza. Since then I have calmed down a bit and settled into life in Latin America. If anybody cares about geography I left the dusty Mendoza for the freshly alpine El Bariloche in the Lake District. I spent a couple of days going up large mountains and eating Panchos (hot dogs)…more about that later. I must admit I was quite wasted after Mendoza, both physically and mentally, so I spent about 6 days not talking to a soul. This antisocial quest was made easier by the fact that most people in Barliloche seem to be of the Levantine persuasion, Israelis. A couple of them tried to make conversation with me in Hebrew but this is a language I have no knowledge of, after realising I was from another land they quickly lost interest in me and went off to talk amongst themselves. I think I have been mis-identified as an Israeli more than any other nationality, it’s usually a matter of context. There is a kind of trail of Solomon in Argentina, many hostels are Israeli owned or mostly frequented by Israelis. As I travel alone there is no easy way to identify me as an Englishman, travelling in  a group allows people to hear you talking and figure out where you are from. People rarely think I am from England for a confusing set of reasons. I have heard justifications like:

‘Oh, you had a bandana on so I didn’t think you were English.’

‘You didn’t speak for like 10 minutes so I presumed you were Chilean.’

‘You had a Brazilian Football shirt on so I thought you were Brazilian.’

Like I said, it’s a matter of context more than physical resemblance. However, since I developed a suntan from orchard work and my hair has become increasingly long and wild, I suppose I look more non- English than at any other time.

Back to the travelling thing. El Barliloche is perched on the North of Patagonia but the scenery is classically Alpine, parts of the town look very Swiss with a mixture of logs and rustic grey stone. There are also many German immigrants in this part of Argentina, so things seem distinctly European compared to other areas.

From El Bariloche I travelled into the real Patagonia, luckily the most boring part of the journey was during the dark. I think it took about 20 hours bus travel but the buses are suprisingly comfortable and they put films on for us. I find the films are a good way to learn a bit of Spanish as they have <English language but subtitles in Spanish. My next port of call was Puerto Madryn in the Welsh area of Patagonia. This was a pleasant and orderly city with a nice seafront and a few streets of shops and cafes behind the promenade. It has the sleepy feel of a provincial resort that has had it’s heyday but has still continued to shuffle along into the 21st Century. Most people visit this place to see wildlife on the nearby peninsula Valdes. This was the main reason I went but after realising that I have already seen most of the maritime wildlife elsewhere I decided to visit some strange Welsh towns instead. This mini adventure was a genuine surprise and has really affected my worldview. I don’t really know what I was expecting but I found the experience odd and otherworldly.

Before I go on I want to do a brief summary of who the Welsh are.

Thousands of years ago skilled pottery makers and builders of earthwork fortifications arrived in Britain from various places on the Iberian Peninsula. These people are generally reffered to as Celtic, a term also applied to people from Central Europe who also migrated to the British Isles in about the 5th century before Christ. The term Celtic is hugely contentious and is probably based on Herodotus misplacing the source of the Danube in the Pyrenees. I’m of the same opinion as Julius Ceaser who identified the Iberians as Keltoi and those further north as Gallic.  Anyway, the earlier wave of settlers quickly spread through the British Isles and became skilled farmers and Tin Miners in the South West. This influx probably supplanted the previous inhabitants of the isles who arrived 6000 to 12,000 years ago from the European Ice Bridge. Their skills in the extraction of tin warranted the attention of the biggest merchants and traders of the time, the Phonecians. Are you still with me? Good. Fast forward a few hundred years to the advent of the Roman Empire and the Celtic people reffered to as the Britons were still going about their business of farming and wiping out each other’s tribes with their ferocious War Chariots. The men were tough and the women were tougher. They had bizarre rules about what fish and fowl were not for consumption and they often had shaven heads but left a very long moustache. The Romans being a literate and curious people discovered about this lost but slightly prosperous corner of Europe from Greek literature, and as any self respecting Imperialist would do…they invaded. According to some of the Romans the Gallic tribes on the continent received help and arms from their cousins from Albion.

After a couple of failed attempts the Romans finally managed a successful invasion in about 43 AD. One of only two successful invasions of Britain in recorded history. There were a few skirmishes as can be expected, especially from the Britons in the North (Brigantes) and also those wild tribes of Picts and Scots who we now refer to as…Jocks. After this brief period of restlessness Britain was governed quite successfully by the Romans. They introduced the modern city, sanitation, transport, communication and many other interesting things. Despite being in Britian for around 400 years the Romans left almost no Genetic legacy on the people of the Isles, this is because the Britons were ‘Romanized’ and took care of their own business. The only Ethnic trace left on the Isles came from the Roman Mercenary soldiers, usually from North Africa, Macedonia and Sarmatia. Due to troubles in the Empire the legions who had protected Britain so well had to withdraw before they finally got wasted by the Huns and the Visigoths and Ostrogoths. Thus, Britain and Britons were left defenseless against the invading Picts from beyond Hadrians wall. Some bright sparks in Kent and near London decided to invite an even more Savage bunch accross, Saxons, to expel the invading people from the North. This confusing time is known as the Dark Ages when history turns to Mystery and Mystery turns into dead ends and hearsay. What we can say is that the whole geopolitical structure and ethnic distribution completely changed during this time.  There is some debate about whether these Germanic peoples displaced the aboriginal Britons by conquest, migration or genocide. What we can say is that this period laid the foundations for many of the boundaries and place names we now use. Things changed so much that parts of the Island of Great Britain became known as Angland from the Angles of present day Denmark and  North Germany. To distinguish the Saxons from Saxony, people referred to the new settlers as Anglo Saxons. It’s difficult to be precise but the Anglo Saxons were the taller fairer race who inhabited the more easterly regions of the Island. Over a period of 200 years or more the original Britons, a ´darker race of smaller stature speaking an Ancient tongue, were gradually pushed further and further West. The marginalization of these ancient Island dwellers may not have been as clear cut as people believe. Ethnically, it’s difficult to prove that all the Celtic types were pushed West. The new peoples from Europe may have been a small ruling elite. . Culturally, it’s fair to say that the language, habits and legends of these people rested with those we now called  the Welsh.

Eventually the original Celtic types were confined to Cornwall, present day Wales and Rheged (the land between North Lancashire and Strathclyde. These people who had lived on the British Isles for millennia were in effect a lower status race in their own home, they were supplanted in  power and possibly in number (at least in the Eastern parts) by the peoples of Northern Europe. In fact they were regarded with such disdain that they were called …’The Welsh’, meaning slave or foreigner. I find the history of the Welsh difficult to come to terms with. I am quite convinced that within the mysterious and baffling language, in the songs and secrets from the valleys, is about the purest most authentic form of where we are all from and who we are, or were, or should be. This may also be true in the wilder and more remote parts of Scotland and Ireland. So here lies the confusion. I consider myself to be from the Isles, not just the artificial boundries of England but from the Isles as a whole. I would like to think that if I were to trace my bloodline it would trickle back to these ancient peoples who were pushed to the West. I don’t think I have any kinship with bearded Norse or Germanic types, even though I speak a variety of their language. Despite all this romantic pondering I am English and both Wales and the Welsh seem foreign to me. The Welsh are now confined to Wales where many still speak the original tongue of their ancestors, along with Basque it is the oldest language in Europe. Being part of the entity of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, many Welsh have contributed to the civilization and culture of the modern World…Tom Jones, Shirley Bassey, Catherine Zeta Jones and of course Hurricane Higgins. However, not content with singing in the Northern hemisphere many emigrated to Patagonia to raise sheep and make wool products. It was these Southern Hemisphere Welsh that interested me.

I made a journey into the back of beyond to see life in the Welsh settlements. I went to Gaiman, one of the strangest places I have ever seen. To get there I took a couple of local buses, on one bus a little Indigenous girl fell in love with my knee or maybe my trouser leg, she pulled it for about 50 minutes. Luckily I was reading the book ‘Are you Dave Gorman?´ so I was totally ok with her pulling the knee of my jeans. The scenery around Gaiman is flat and devoid of anything interesting, I did see a field full of torn plastic bags though. I suppose they blow in the wind then get caught on the thorny scrub, I think the guy from American Beauty would have had some kind of a breakdown with all those plastic bags not blowing about. The colour of the scrub can only be described as a shade of Nuclear Winter. This is a mixture of grey, beige and pale green. It’s the colour of Eastern European council estates, the colour of rubble after an explosion and also the colour of people´s complexions in an AA meeting somehwhere in Glasgow. Anyway, it was dull and flat. The Town itself was mostly one street, when you looked up the side streets they ended in small steep escarpments. There is something very Sergio Leone about the whole place, especially the silence. I went for a wander up a side street and was beckoned into a Welsh Tearoom by a blond kid on a bike (yes it is that weird). Inside a lady asked me what I wanted…………………er……………..tea?? The cafe or tearoom looked like it had recently been used by a large coach party, all the other tables were strewn with crumbs and barricades of crockery. The sight of previous activity only served to highlight how empty and quiet it was for my brief stay. I was the only one in there and they served me a HUGE pot of tea with about ten cakes. The tea was strong and good, exactly like tea at home. The cakes were ok in a slightly stodgy way. I can only describe the decor as late seventies institutional with a veneer of floral decoration and small tasteless trinkets. The girl who served me had mousy blond hair, wide blue eyes and freckles. Freckles?? I’ve only been in S America about 10 days but I had forgotten what they looked like. The people here were clearly not Southern European or Andean but obviously they spoke in Spanish as a first language. After growing up admiring or villifying South American football players, I found it hard to shake off the image of South Americans being swarthy, dark and exotic. Here in this small corner of Patagonia the inhabitants could have been serving you beer in your local or giving you cashback in a mundane supermarket. I since discovered the myriad of different races in Argentina.  After my tea I wandered about a bit more but did’nt really find anything, just run down factories and a few other tearooms. It was definitely more for the experience than the sites. I can add this place to my list of people in unexpected places, like the Mongolian construction worker in Perth or the Portuguese/ Brazilians in Malaysia. I have a real curiosity about lost tribes and South America is full of lost tribes. There are so many different groups to be found in unexpected places. In the spitit of my Welsh excursion here are a few other lost tribes in the Latin mix, the people who make me do a double take may be the descendants of the following:

Scottish farmers in Patagonia

English Railway Engineers in the Chilean lakes and Valparaiso

Germans in the Chilean lake region

German Mennonites in the Paraguayan Chaco region

Japanese in Sao Paulo and Manaus

Wealthy Palestinians in Chile

Nazi war criminals in Paraguay and Brazil (they usually run petrol stations)

Jewish immigrants from WWII in Buenos Aires and Santiago.

Neapolitans in Buenos Aires.

Thats just a few but I’ll find some more.



La Santisima Trinidad de Paraná is a Jesuit ‘reduccione’ or mission in Paraguay. A reduction is like a small city-state used for missionary work, usually ‘helping’ the indigenous people convert to Christianity. The Jesuits allowed the local populations to continue their native lifestyle but under the watchful eyes of the Mother Church. Many of the local tribes would be able to recite hymns in Latin and they often received a classical education. The Society of Jesus was extremely powerful in the 18th Century and the Spanish Empire was laissez-faire in their attitude. Paraguay was as near as you could get to having an almost Jesuit Republic. However, their influence eventually waned and the reducciones fell into disrepair.



La Santisima Trinidad de Paraná is  accessible from the city of Encarnacion, I took a short bus trip there and simply wandered around the spectacular ruins. Trinidad was built in 1706, there is a central piazza, church, meetinghouse, school, various workshops, a museum and housing for the locals. It must have been overwhelming moving from the simple native dwellings into the large-scale European buildings of the reductions. The architecture is austere in places but beautiful in its pious simplicity. The huge walls still tower over the nearby rickety houses and the modern world beyond the fences seems completely at odds with this open air museum. I found peace and tranquillity in this place, especially after coming from the tattered chaos and clutter of the nearby Encarnacion and Posadas in Argentina. Trinidad is totally deserving of its UNESCO World Heritage status.








“Paraguay is nowhere and famous for nothing,” P. J. O’ Rourke

Paraguay is one of the most obscure places imaginable, it’s the Timbuktu of Latin America. It doesn’t make much sense as a country. I think even Paraguayans wonder why they are there. The population is about 90% Mestizo, the result of restless Spanish sailors having killed most of the native Guaraní men and taken around 15 concubines each from the local Guaraní women. The Guaraní tribe overlaps into Brazil and Argentina but it is in Paraguay that they find their voice and identity. The language, people, and currency are all Guaraní. Even the Spanish spoken here is heavily influenced by Guaraní. Unlike the neighbouring indigenous people with their red cheeks and mountain lungs, the Guaraní seem more like the Jungle dwellers you are likely to see on the Discovery channel. They have the jet black bowl cut hairstyles and painted red faces. However, as I mentioned earlier the population is so mixed that you are likely to see any number of features, especially in the bigger cities. The Chaco region even has Mennonites and Anabaptists from Germany, U.S.A, and Australia.

I view a large insect on the ceiling.

I view a large insect on the ceiling.


As a nation-state it seems as if they missed several memos, or got the blueprints back to front. The history is littered with disastrous military campaigns,comedic coups, and  failed colonial experiments. It has been an island of exile for extremely dangerous dictators and war criminals. Apparently Josef Mengele lived in Paraguay after fleeing Europe. If the Angel of Death can live there freely then so can anybody. It seems like the neighbours just forgot about the place, until they need a cheap TV, did I mention that Paraguay’s main industry is smuggling, especially electronics. When I crossed over to Brazil I saw people in the river on dinghies transporting cheap electrical goods. I read many stories about the dangerous state sponsored crimes and complete lawlessness. During my stay I didn’t really feel in any danger, and the people I met were mostly warm and hospitable.


Why go to Paraguay? That’s a question which I have never been able to answer, neither could the other two tourists who I met there, in a week. In case you cannot read between the lines, I saw two humans from foreign countries during my week in Paraguay. The other two tourists I met were both from England, one had a cocaine encrusted credit card which prevented him from being able to use a bank ATM. He was a good guy though, we played pool in Asunción for several hours and witnessed the slow sun-baked madness of this strangest of countries. The question circled around our conversation for a while. The resulting answers were unconvincing. He fancied ‘something a bit different’, I came because I ‘read a book’. As we played pool insects sometimes fell from the ceiling and there was a fat man drinking too much on his work break. I spoke to a young guy wearing a Celtic F.C shirt. He had visited London and was perplexed as to why someone from England would visit Paraguay. The other tourist I met was visiting the beautiful Reducciones (Jesuit Missions), he was very straight-laced and seemed the least likely person to find in the rural areas of Paraguay. He was from one of those places in middle England where people try to save the post offices and all the pubs have the word ‘Gastro’ written in front of them. He was a little out of his depth in Paraguay. After visiting the second of the Redduciones we realised there was no way to get back to the main road, the small local bus had retired for a smoke and a siesta. With little hope of getting back I negotiated with a man to give us a life for some token amount of money. He did, but the tourist boy (let’s call him Tarquin) didn’t like it one bit. He asked me what we should do if he tries to kidnap us, I reminded him that we were two and our would be assailant was one. He was also driving one of the worst cars I’d ever seen so if things went south it was possible to just open the door and get out. Tarquin’s reason for being in Paraguay was simply to tick off some sites from his South American list.

Palacio de los López

Palacio de los López


It’s very difficult to describe Paraguay, it’s not like the other South American places. Bolivia and Peru are well documented, they retain the Inca thing, panpipes, ponchos, and overpriced Gringo tours. Argentina is the sophistication of Buenos Aires and the desolation of the Pampas and Patagonia. Columbia is plantations and palm trees with the occasional drug lord. Brazil is football and beaches overlooked by a gaping wealth gap. Paraguay is…?  I think the best image, the one which sums up the place is in the centre of Asunción, the capital. Directly opposite the Parliament building is a small field in the shade of some trees, in the middle of this field is a net to play volleyball. When I was there I saw a feral pig sniffing under the net. This net was between the offices of high government and some corrugated metal dwellings that tumble-down to the river. Suffice it to say that I didn’t take too many pictures in Paraguay. Despite my lack of photojournalism, I do love the place, not because of what it is, but because of what it isn’t

Opposite the Parliament

Opposite the Parliament


Juan De Salazar Y Espinoza (founder of Ascuncion)

Juan De Salazar Y Espinoza (founder of Ascuncion)

My unofficial tourist taxi

My unofficial tourist taxi