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Welsh Ways In Patagonia

Tracing the influence of Welsh settlers and culture in Argentina's Patagonia region.

It's a long way from Wales--but Trevelin, the "village of the mill", is as Welsh as any village within a day's wander of Cardiff.

The big difference is that Trevelin lies in a broad, fertile valley backed by the snowy Andean mountains of Argentine Patagonia -- where Welsh migrants settled late last century.

They introduced their Welsh ways to the still sparsely populated, peaceful Chubut Province and today, visitors can see prosperous sheep farms and cattle in sunny, sheltered fields lined by poplars. Willows mark meandering trout streams.

This region, though, is essentially unknown to foreign tourists. Travellers who do venture off the beaten track are mainly professional wanderers, backpackers, hikers and trout fishermen.

We stayed in the town of Esquel, 24 kilometers south of Trevelin, and took a bus to spend the day exploring the village. Trevelin's broad, tree-lined main street leads to a central Plaza Coronel Fontana, which has eight streets radiating outwards.

The plaza has an imposing statue of General Fontana Roca on horseback. A bronze plaque commemorates his Conquista del Dessierto -- Conquest of the Desert -- in which his forces ruthlessly exterminated the indigenous people and took over their land during the 1870's.

In contrast, the Welsh came as peaceful settlers, with bibles not guns, and began trading with the Indians.

The first Welsh settlement in Argentina, in 1863, was on the Atlantic coastline at Madryn, a semi-fertile, cold and windswept spot.

In March 1883 four men, led by John Evans, set out on horseback to explore the hinterland. While gold prospecting in the hills near Las Palmas, three of the group were killed by Indians. Evans escaped on his horse, Malacara, by leaping down a four metre embankment. When he got back to Madryn, he told of the more fertile land nearer the mountains which led to the settlement of Trevelin.

Malacara - the name, meaning "ugly face", comes from a disfiguring blaze on the horse's head - became a legend. He died in 1909, aged 31 years, and his tomb and bronze plaque are in a tree-shaded garden setting in the village.

Nearby is a replica of Evans' house with original furniture and items. The main room has a black, wood-burning stove from England and antique kitchenware decorates the walls. By the open fireplace are mementos of Malacara -- a plaque with his hoof, and some teeth.

Outside the cabin is a large dome-shaped oven for baking bread. Bread was traded with the Indians for meat. A picket fence surrounds a beautiful garden commemorating the spot where John Evans' grandfather died.

The Regional Museum is in a four-story replica of an old flour mill. A stream once flowed under the mill, powering a waterwheel that drove the mill used to grind grain. The excellent display includes old farm equipment, antique furniture and pioneer clothes.

Those Welsh nationalists left home for Patagonia so they could exercise their own religion, language and way of life. Welsh surnames are common in Trevelin, as are the tea-houses and chapels, but Spanish is now the language.

Nearby, we found the recommended Casa de Té, called Nain Maggie. It was midday but the tea-house was closed.

"No, we don't normally open until three o'clock," explained the lady.

We expressed disappointment, then chatted awhile and learnt that tea-house was named after Senora Maggie Freeman de Jones who died aged 103 years. She was born in 1878, at Trelew on the Patagonian coast and came to Trevelen in 1891. Our interest led to an invitation for tea where, for 10 pesos each, we had a large pot of tea, hot scones, butter, cheese, white bread, jam and five types of cake.

The Wales of Patagonia still has a touch of the old country, as a pause for tea at Nain Maggie or one of the many other Welsh tea-houses, or dining at Te Cymreig Yng Nghwm Hyfryd soon shows.

Allan Taylor is travel writer based in Adelaide, South Australia.   Originally from New Zealand, he qualified as a geochemist and gemmologist.  He is a Fellow of the Gemmological Association of Great Britain and Fellow of the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy.  Now he likes to travel 4 months or more each year, mainly in Central & South America and Southern Africa, and write about the varied cultures, mining activities, gemstones and trout fishing.


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