6 Terrifying Campfire Tales from Patagonia
Inexplicable mysteries linger at the southern tip of the world.
For as long as us humans have wandered through dark woods and looming mountains, we’ve been sharing spooky stories ‘round a campfire at night. It comes as no surprise that, in a place known for its imposing cliffs, foreboding glaciers, and thick, lichen-draped forests, the local fisherman and gaucho cowboys have gathered some chilling tales.
Yes, Chile and Argentina have a mystical beauty, hikes with once-in-a-lifetime views, and cozy towns to welcome you back from your wilderness treks. But within the vastness of all that gorgeous, lonely land, inexplicable mysteries linger.
Don’t blame us if, the next time you find yourself camping in Patagonia, one of these local legends keeps you from drifting off to sleep. Do realize, though, that in a place with a population density of only about two people per square mile, the likelihood is pretty slim that someone will hear your screams if (when?) you cross paths with something sinister.
The Basilisco Chilote
Rainy, remote, and hauntingly beautiful, the Chilean island of Chiloe lies at the entrance to Patagonia, which stretches to Chile's arctic tip. If you're breakfasting here, you may want to pick cereal over an omelet. Any egg in Chiloe could hatch a creature called the Basilisco Chilote, who has the body of a snake and the head of a chicken.
The Basilisco myth evolved from the lingering superstitions of European colonizers and the local lore of the Mapuche tribe indigenous to Southern Chile. The Basilisco burrows under homes, where it waits until everyone falls asleep. During the night, it slithers into people’s beds and sucks their phlegm. The victim falls inexplicably ill until they eventually dry up and shrivel into a corpse. Each household member dies off one by one. Unfortunately, there’s no easy way out if your victim to the Basilisco—burning your entire house down is the only way to destroy it.
As if the whipping winds and frosty winters up in the Andes mountains aren’t harsh enough, the Aónikenk people of Patagonia have a legend of an evil spirit of the cold named 'Kélenken'. It shows up as a 10-foot-tall, jet-black bird of prey that often arrives during childbirth to quench its thirst with the tears of the mothers and bewitch their babies with a supernatural cackling.
Meanwhile, many local cowboys have anxiously muttered about “giant terror birds” with 20-inch beaks that serve up bone-shattering blows, though they’re often dismissed as drunk tales. Scientists say the creature matches up to a prehistoric dinosaur bird that existed over 15 million years ago. But a reputable map from 1641 that depicted local animals such as llamas and rheas to scale also included an impossibly ginormous, raptor-like bird, creepily gazing out over the steppe, as though searching for its next kill.
La Luz Mala
One of the most famous myths in Argentina and Chile is “La luz mala,” which literally means: “the evil light.” It’s a mysterious, dancing light that floats vividly in the barren plains. Some have seen the light hovering motionless, while others claim it starts to follow anyone who notices it. They’re believed to be the souls of people who didn’t receive a proper burial. Which is eerily close to the scientific explanation that the lights are produced by decomposing organic matter—a real phenomenon of phosphorescence called ignis fatuus. As with many stories that involve a brilliant light, venturing towards it comes with lethal consequences.
Legend has it that men who haven’t been true to their significant others should be especially careful in the Northwestern part of Argentina. A widow with skinless hands and a black veil over her naked skull lurks on these roads, waiting to climb onto the backs of horse riders and give them a deadly hug. Some say she is the sorrowful soul of a betrayed woman, or that she was killed by a jealous lover. Either way, now she travels aimlessly through the mountains, waiting to take revenge. Others swear that her spirit remains obsessed with reuniting with her murderous lover, so she looks for him whenever a man passes her. When she realizes her mistake, she kills him in despair.
Over the otherwise tranquil town of El Bolson, Argentina, looms a massive peak called Cerro Piltriquitron. Years ago, a young girl hiking in the mountains heard a scream for help. She raced through the forest towards the scream, but as she got closer, her nose began to bleed, and she collapsed from the pain of intense shrieking between her ears. In her agony, she was able to look up in time to see a bloody person disappear.
After she raced home for help, no one believed what she saw. She wanted answers, so she set out to retrace her steps. This time, as she neared, she discovered that she was the girl who was screaming, and she was also the girl who could not reach her other self. The shrieking in her ears is said to be “time parasites” that feed on the host to keep some sort of sick time loop in place. No matter how hard she tries to escape, she is trapped, forced to relive the experience over and over again.
Local legend has it that, no matter how lovely a mid-afternoon siesta along the river sounds, it’s never, ever worth the risk for what might crawl out of the water. The indigenous Mapuche tribe in Chile have long told of El Cuero, a chilling cross between a manta ray and an octopus—but fused together from discarded cow parts. Some say it looks like a skinned cow hide when floating on the water. It has two blood-red eyes and a large, fangy mouth by its belly. It likes to prey on unsuspecting nappers, especially near the glacial Lake Lacar, stealthily crawling up to the shore with tentacles that have something sort of like freaky, barbed fish hooks on the end, so as to snare their victims and drag them into the water. They can be killed by tossing quisco cactus into the water, so hope your plant identification skills are sharp.
Charis McGowan is a contributor for Thrillist.
Valentín Muro is a contributor for Thrillist.