Patagonian Fauna as Art

Wayne Bernhardson

Some two decades ago, Argentina toyed with the idea of moving its capital from Buenos Aires to the city of Viedma, in its northern Patagonian province of Río Negro. In the end, Porteño politicians preferred visiting Patagonia to permanent residence there, but Buenos Aires still offers reminders of the far south – one of my own favorites in the Museo Argentino de Ciencias Naturales. The natural sciences museum occupies a huge building in the little touristed barrio of Caballito, which is readily reachable by Subte, the capital’s underground rail system.

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The museum’s collections are outstanding – perhaps not quite so diverse as the landmark Museo de La Plata about an hour outside Buenos Aires – but I especially like the building itself (dating from 1925). It’s most noteworthy for the bas-reliefs that decorate the exterior walls; depicted by a variety of artists, most of the animals are native to Patagonia itself (though some range more widely).

The most distinctive, undoubtedly, is the glyptodont sculptured by Juan Carlos Oliva Navarro (1898-1951). Travelers on a Patagonia excursion are not going to see this extinct giant armadillo, the size of a Volkswagen Beetle, but a fossil Charles Darwin found was the ancestor of a species that spread from throughout the Western Hemisphere. Its smaller descendants are a common sight throughout the region.

Traveling across the Patagonian steppe, travelers are likelier to see troops of grazing guanacos, wild relatives of the domestic llama and alpaca that graze the highlands of Argentina and other Andean countries. Occasionally raised in captivity, guanaco sometimes even appear on the menu, but they are common throughout the Argentine Pampas and even seen in Uruguay. Those depicted here are the work of (Luis Carlos Rovatti, 1895-1986).

Many people associate flamingos with the tropics, but they are abundant in shallow lakes in the Andean highlands and in the high latitudes in parts of Patagonia. This bas relief is the worth of Alfredo Bigatti, (1888-1964). Condors (as depicted by Donato Antonio Proletto, 1896-1962) are also found in the Andes and on the Patagonia steppe, where they often scavenge the remains of sheep. Pumas (as shown by Emilio Sarniguet, 1887-1943) prey on guanacos and sheep, and have even attacked humans (rarely) in Patagonia. They are not a common sight, though – in repeated trips over 30 years, I have only seen one.

Argentina has a lengthy Atlantic coastline, but the only work that acknowledges it here is the representation of southern sea lions – the bulls notable for their impressive manes – by Juan Carlos Oliva Navarro (1898-1951). They are frequently seen in coastal locations, even in Buenos Aires province, but keep your distance – they are large, quick on land, and can be aggressive.

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About the author: Wayne Bernhardson

Having spent more than 30 years living and traveling in southernmost South America, Wayne Bernhardson is the author of Moon Handbooks to Argentina, Buenos Aires, Chile and Patagonia, and the National Geographic Traveler guide to Argentina. He is also on the editorial advisory board of Patagon Journal, is the South America editor for the website Bindu Trips. Wayne has a PhD in Geography from the University of California at Berkeley, and has done research in Peru, Chile, Argentina and the Falkland Islands. He resides in Oakland, California, but spends four to five months every year in southern South America, where he owns an apartment in Buenos Aires’s Palermo neighborhood. He can be contacted through

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