Posted by: Rob Viens | November 26, 2013

The View from the Hill of Carnations

On the 23rd of November, Darwin arrived in Mercedes and saw the Rio Negro for the first time. (Just for clarification, back in August he was on the Rio Negro in Argentina.  This Rio Negro flows from just across the border in Brazil and through the middle of Uruguay.  Same name, different river.)  Darwin described his first impressions in his diary:

“Rode to the Capella Nueva; a straggling village: & saw the R. Negro; it is a fine river blue water & running stream; it is nearly as large as its namesake to the South.” (Nov 23)

Map showing the river systems that flow into the Rio de la Plata (from Wikipedia Commons). Note the Rio Negro cutting across Uruguay.

Central South America drainage system

The Rio Negro drains around 69,700 sq km (about 26,900 sq mi) (including a large part of Uruguay). But this is just a small slice of the total drainage area of the Rio Uruguay (365,000 sq km / 140,000 sq mi). Today, dams on both rivers generate a significant amount of hydropower.

Incidentally, the country is named after the river, which in turn takes its name from a local name for the river – Urugua’ý. In the Guaraní language of central South America this translates as “river of the painted birds”.

On the 24th of November, Darwin took a day trip up the river to what he calls the Sierra del Pedro Flaco and got a splendid view of the Rio Negro:

“Went with my host to the Sierra del Pedro Flaco about 20 miles up the R. Negro: the greater part of the ride was through long grass up to the horses belly. — There are few Estancias & leagues of camp without a head of cattle. The country left to nature as it now is would easily produce 5 or 6 times the number of cattle. — Yet the annual exportation of hides from M. Video is 300 thousand; & the home consumption is something considerable. The view of the R. Negro from the Sierra is decidedly the most picturesque one I have seen in this country. The river is rapid & tortuous; it is about twice as large as the Severn (when banks full) at Shrewsbury; the cliffs are precipitous and rocky; & there is a belt of wood following the course of the river; beyond which an horizon of grass plain fills up the view. — The Peons horse was quite tired; so we rode to a Rancho; the master was not at home, but as a matter of course [we] entered the house, made a fire to cook some beef, & were quite at home in a strangers house. — We rode on but did not reach home till early in the night.” (Nov 24)

Darwin is referring to the Arroyo Perico Flaco – which flows into the Rio Negro at the point marked on the Google Map below (though this location is actually more like 35 km from Mercedes). This version of the map shows terrain, but not enough detail to see the small hill that Darwin climbed.

The hill young Charlie climbed is the 60-m high mound called the Hill of Carnations (El Cerro de los Claveles) for the flowers that used to grow all over it. Even to this day, the site is still known for its great view of the river (and there is a large stone marker with Darwin’s name at the top)

Darwin’s view – Arroyo Perico Flaco from the Hill of Carnations (from descubriendouruguay.com)

Arroyo Perico Flaco

In addition, if you go back to the map above and zoom in about 5 km south of the little arrow you will see the little town labeled Villa Darwin (population about 500) – likely named for Darwin’s visit 180 years ago today. (Between these two points flows the Perico Flaco.) I love to see Darwin’s journey literally etched into modern maps through names such as this one.  Just one of the many legacies that he left behind. (RJV)

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