Posted by: Rob Viens | September 29, 2013

Up the Parana Without a Paddle

After a few seemingly quiet days in Buenos Aires, Darwin was back on the road again.  On Friday the 27th, he was heading up the Paraná River to the town of Santa Fe. The journey began without a fuss:

“At one oclock I managed to make a start. We rode for an hour in the dark & slept three leagues this side of the town of Luxan.” (Sept 27)

The Rio de la Plata drainage basin (from Wikipedia Commons):

Parana River and the Rio de la Plata drainage basin

The Paraná River is the largest and longest river in the Rio de la Plata drainage basin (and it is the second longest river in all of South America after the Amazon). It starts 3,032 mi (4,880 km) from the sea in Brazil. By the time it reaches the Rio de la Plata its average discharge is 610,600 cubic feet per second (17,290 m3/sec). YEs – that means that over 610,000 cubic feet of water flow out of the river and into the Atlantic every second (think about that over the course of a day or a year). That is about the discharge of the Mississippi River in the US (though the Rio Paraná is over 1000 km longer than the Mississippi River). In the lower part of the river (starting just upstream of San Nicolás where Darwin spends the night of the 29th), the river channel changes to a “distributary” pattern. At this point the main channel splits into several large channels that “distribute” the river water across what is effectively the Paraná River delta.

It would still be a couple of days before Darwin saw the river himself (as he was traveling overland by horseback at the moment).  So on the 28th, he mainly describes the countryside and the difficulties of the trip:

“We passed it; the town is small & pretty looking, but all the Spanish towns are built on exactly the same model. — There is a fine wooden bridge over the R. Luxan, a most unusual luxury in this country. — We passed Areco, another small town: The country appears level, but it is not so in fact; for in various places the horizon is extensive. — The Estancias are wide apart; for there is little good pasture, the plains being covered by thistles & an acrid clover. — The former was two thirds grown, reaching up to the horses back at this period; it grows in clumps & is of a brilliant green, resembling in miniature a fine forest. — In many parts where the ground was dry, the thistles had not even sprung from the surface, but all was bare & dusty like a turnpike road. — In summer, travelling is sufficiently dangerous for the thistles furnish an excellent retreat & home for numerous robbers, where they can live, rob & cut throats with perfect impunity. — There is little interest in passing over this country, few animals except the Biscatche, & fewer birds inhabit these great thistle beds. —

In the evening crossed the Arrecife, on a raft made of empty barrels lashed together. — We slept at the Post house on the further side. — I paid this day for 31 leagues, & with a burning sun, was but little fatigued. — When the days are longer, & riding a little faster, 50 leagues, as mentioned by Head, might be managed with no very great difficulty. — But then it must especially be remembered that a man, who pays for 50 leagues by the post, by no means rides 150 English miles. — the distance is so universally exaggerated. — My 31 leagues was only 76 English miles in a straight line; allowing 4 miles for curvatures in the road will give 80 miles; Heads days journey reduced by the same proportion gives 129 miles; a much more credible distance than 150 geographical ones.” (Sept 28)

I particularly like the image of Darwin crossing the river on a raft made of barrels.

Darwin’s approximate route up the Parana River (Satellite image from Google Maps):

Darwin's route up the Parana River

The next day found Darwin catching his first glance of the mighty Rio Paraná:

“Arrived in the evening at the town of St Nicholas; it is situated on one of the branches of the Parana. I here first saw this noble river.— There were some large vessels anchored at the foot of the cliff on which the town is built.” (Sept 29)

The city of San Nicolás was founded in 1748, and in the decades after Darwin’s visit, it became a site for some of the conflict between General Rosas’ Federalist party and the Unitarians. Little did he know that history was being made all around him as he explored Argentina … (RJV)

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