Crossing the Andes in the footsteps of Charles Darwin

At the age of twenty-two, Charles Darwin (1809-1881) started on his trip around the world. The trip would last 5 years, of which most was spent on land investigating geology and making natural history collections. After the trip, he wrote “The Voyage of the Beagle” and the influential “On the Origin of Species”.

Gauchos and Arrieros walking the Andes Darwin Trail.
The Andes Darwin Trail. Photo by Sofie.

Charles Darwin’s Crossing the Andes

In 1835, when his ship was docked for repairs in Chile, Darwin hired muleteers (arrieros, gauchos) and crossed the Andes. While riding on a mule, he traveled from Santiago de Chile to Mendoza along the old trade route over the Piuquenes pass and then back along the Uspallata trail. Today, the international road “Ruta 7” has significantly transformed the landscape. The Piuquenes Pass trail, however, had remained remote. Time had stopped and the means of transportation have remained the same.

Our the Andes Trip in the footsteps of Darwin

During the past week, 185 years after Darwin, we walked the same Piuquenes Pass trail as Darwin had, but in the opposite direction, from Argentina to Chile. The trek took five days.

When Darwin traveled he took careful notes every day, and from these notes, we can read that the landscape is very much the same along this trek. The difference is that in the past years the snow and glaciers have diminished. All quotations below are from his book “The Voyage of the Beagle.”

Horses grazing in the Andes Mountains
Dreaming awake. Photo by Sofie.

The madrina (or godmother) is a most important personage: She is an old steady mare, with a little bell round her neck; and wherever she goes, the mules, like good children, follow her. The affection of these animals for their madrinas saves infinite trouble. If several large troops are turned into one field to graze, in the morning the muleteers have only to lead the madrinas a little apart, and tinkle their bells; although there may be two or three hundred together, each mule immediately knows the bell of its own madrina, and comes to her.

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”
A stunning view of the Andes peaks against a clear blue sky with horses and mules in the field.
Time stood still. The Andes. Photo by Sofie.

Breathtaking Experience

The Piuquenes Pass trail today
There are no words to describe this magnificent journey. Photo By Sofie.

 “When about half-way up we met a large party with seventy loaded mules. It was interesting to hear the wild cries of the muleteers, and to watch the long descending string of the animals; they appeared so diminutive, there being nothing but the black mountains with which they could be compared. When near the summit, the wind, as generally happens, was impetuous and extremely cold. On each side of the ridge, we had to pass over broad bands of perpetual snow, which were now soon to be covered by a fresh layer.

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”
Crossing the Piuquenes Pass trail on horseback.
The way it used to be. And still is. Photo By Sofie.

State of Wonder

Crossing a river on the Piuquenes Pass trail in the Andes Mountains
The visceral experience of life, lived in the present as our ancestors lived in the past.
Photo By Sofie.

The rivers which flow in these valleys ought rather to be called mountain-torrents. Their inclination is very great, and their water the color of mud… Amidst the din of rushing waters, the noise from the stones, as they rattled one over another, was most distinctly audible even from a distance. This rattling noise, night and day, may be heard along the whole course of the torrent. The sound spoke eloquently to the geologist; the thousands and thousands of stones, which, striking against each other, made the one dull uniform sound, were all hurrying in one direction.”

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”

Trekking Through the Andes

” Whatever the cause may be, the quantity of crumbling stone on the Cordillera is very great.”

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”
Sunset in the Andes Mountains
The Andes. Darwin Trail. Photo by Sofie.

“When we reached the crest and looked backward, a glorious view was presented.

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”
The landscape of the Andes, hiking through
The Andes. Simply magnificent. Photo by Sofie.

” When near the summit, the wind, as generally happens, was impetuous and extremely cold.”

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”
A hiker going through the crumbling rocks found on the Piuquenes Pass trail
Another day, another discovery. Photo by Sofie.

At above 14200 feet above sea level, “The pass takes its name of Portillo, from a narrow cleft or doorway on the highest ridge, through which the road passes. From this point, on a clear day, those vast plains which uninterruptedly extend to the Atlantic Ocean can be seen.”

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”

Otherworldly Beauty

A gaucho in the Andes Mountains
You live for moments like this. Photo by Sofie.

” Now commenced a heavy and long climb, similar to that of the Peuquenes. Bold conical hills of red granite rose on each hand; in the valleys there were several broad fields of perpetual snow.”

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”
A long exposure star photo of the galaxy in the Andes Mountains
The Milky Way. Often, nature is a true masterpiece. The magnificent sky with millions of starts above the Andes. Photo by Sofie.

” The increased brilliancy of the moon and stars at this elevation, owing to the perfect transparency of the atmosphere, was very remarkable.”

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”

Setting up the Camp at the Andes

Camping in the Andes
Our Camp. The Andes. Photo By Sofie.

Having crossed the Peuquenes, we descended into a mountainous country, intermediate between the two main ranges, and then took up our quarters for the night. We were now in the republic of Mendoza.”” As soon as the clouds were dispersed it froze severely; but as there was no wind, we slept very comfortably.”

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”
Arrieros and gauchos trail barbeque
Arrieros/gauchos barbequing their meat. They all carried large knives by the waist. Photo By Sofie.

” We carried a good deal of food in case we should be snowed up, as the season was rather late for passing the Portillo.”

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”
Standard trail dinner in the Andes
Earnest food after long rides tastes delicious. Photo by Sofie.

“Hence the potatoes, after remaining for some hours in the boiling water, were nearly as hard as ever. The pot was left on the fire all night, and next morning it was boiled again, but yet the potatoes were not cooked. I found out this, by overhearing my two companions discussing the cause, they had come to the simple conclusion, “that the cursed pot did not choose to boil potatoes.

– Darwin, “The Voyage of the Beagle”

Once in the Lifetime Trip

Iced tunnel - Sofie with her family
The wonder of the iced tunnel. Sofie with the family.

We are very fortunate to have experienced this inanimate remote area. At one point there was a plan to build a road from Argentina to Chile also through this old trading path. The project was stopped, leaving an iced tunnel that only goes some 100 yards into the mountain.

I would like to take the opportunity to share with you how beautifully Darwin describes the scenery:

When we reached the crest and looked backwards, a glorious view was presented.

The atmosphere resplendently clear;

the sky an intense blue;

the profound valleys;

the wild broken forms:

the heaps of ruins,

piled up during the lapse of ages;

the bright-colored rocks,

contrasted with the quiet mountains of snow,

all these together produced a scene no one could have imagined.

Neither plant nor bird,

excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles,

distracted my attention from the inanimate mass.

I felt glad that I was alone:

it was like watching a thunderstorm,

or hearing in full orchestra a chorus of the Messiah”.

”My excursion only cost me twenty-four days, and never did I more deeply enjoy an equal space of time.”

– Darwin summarizes the experience, “The Voyage of the Beagle”

About the Author

Sofie - hiking at the Andes

The text of this blog is written by Sofie, here standing at the border from Argentina to Chile at over 13200 feet above sea level. Thank you Tijana for inviting me to share this wonderful experience on your magnificent blog.

A Word from the Founder, Zest & Curiosity

With utmost pleasure, I published this journey so breathtakingly shared by Sofie. As I was talking with Sofie it only took just a few sentences, without even seeing the photos, to realize that this trip is life-changing. Sofie was very gracious to share her experience with us. I hope that you enjoy this post as much as I did. I savored every image. For a moment, I felt that I have stepped into another time. And, I could feel what Darwin had experienced going the same way through the Andes. How marvelous is that?

Sofie is a Helsinki based nature photographer with an M.Sc. degree in Forestry. For more of her photography, check her Instagram as well.

Enjoy in exploring the Andes, dear reader.

– Tijana

Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director

Zest & Curiosity

All photographs are protected by copyright. For more information about using and linking photos please Contact us.

Where is It?


  • Ilmari

    Amazing and quite a wonderful path, it must have been an adventure.

    • zestandcuriosity (author)

      Thank you for your thoughtful comment. Quite a fascinating journey 185 years apart. It makes you wonder about the transience of time and how wonderful is to be able to relive it.

  • svetislav

    my humble desire is to be a Vultur gryphus above the Andes ….

    • zestandcuriosity (author)

      That is a so poetic Svetislav! I love it. In you mind you always can. That is the beauty of inspiration and creativity and you have it in abundance. Lovely to hear from you!

    • Kata

      Ahh, I know what you mean. To fly above the mountains! To soar! It would be beautiful.

      • zestandcuriosity (author)

        There is so many ways to soar – in imagination or by taking this marvelous hikes in this otherworldly places. I am so happy it made you inspired. Those comments made my day!

  • BrianAnoma

    Thanks extremely useful. Will share site with my friends.

    • zestandcuriosity (author)

      Thank you so much Brian – I am so glad that you find it helpful. I was so amazed by the story that I had to publish it. If you need the name of the guide please let me know. I think you will have an amazing adventure. Please subscribe to a newsletter, many amazing stories coming soon. Zest & Curiosity would love to have you. 🙂

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