Agates From The Land of Pumas And Craters
Conditions are horrendous but the prizes are worth it!
Story by Lance Strong - Photos by Luis De Los Santos

A Crater Agate from Patagonia, Argentina

Agates have always fascinated me; the patterns and colors are seemingly endless. When I was a kid, in the 1950s, marbles were still in vogue and most boys had a favorite "aggie" or "flint," as they were called in various neighborhoods. I had a few passed down from my father and an uncle. The rest were birthday gifts and never played with.

Why not? Because when they were hit too hard, small fractures developed. On Sundays, we'd beg our mothers to save the hot bacon grease so we could roll the playing aggies around in it to fill and hide the "moons." It wasn't a permanent fix.

Summer vacation in California was always exciting for a landlocked boy, especially so since we could stop at roadside rock shops in the Barstow and Baker areas to purchase agates and agatized fossils. I miss those shops and feel sorry for the electronic-game generations who have no interest or knowledge of gentler times or of the natural world.

Somehow, I missed out on the fine agates of northern Mexico. Perhaps high-school and college pressures kept me from paying attention and getting in on the collecting of them--something I'm still trying to rectify. When news of the discovery of a new agate called "Condor," from Patagonia in southern Argentina, came to me in 1993, the seed planted in my childhood so many years earlier was once again watered and started to grow--albeit slowly. It wasn't until 1997 that I finally saw my first Condor agate in person at the Tucson Show. I was hooked.

Rock & Gem articles had mentioned Luis de los Santos, an Argentine native, as the discoverer and importer. I called him at St. Paul Gems and Minerals in Ontario, California, and found him to be a very gracious gentleman. I became determined to meet him. Besides, one of the Rock & Gem articles alluded to yet another agate find in Patagonia.

Patagonia is the region of southern Argentina south of the Colorado River and east of the Andes Mountains. (In older publications the term Patagonia refers also to the southern parts of Chile.) In 1902, the division of Patagonia occurred between Chile and Argentina. It is about 250,000 square miles in area, and consists of desert plateaus including the eastern section of Tierra del Fuego, the archipelago located off the southern tip of South America.

The economy is geared mostly to sheep raising, although there is also commercial fishing. Wild animals include the rhea, an ostrich-like bird that is smaller and has three instead of two toes. The guanaco is common to some areas and is a relative of the llama, alpaca and vicuna. The first European to visit the area was the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan, in 1520. Europeans settled the region after 1880, although Indians had lived there for several thousand years.

Finally, in the spring of 1998, I was on my way to Los Angeles with a friend, and made arrangements in advance to visit Mr. de los Santos. At the time of my visit, I was interested in purchasing a specimen of Condor agate and comparing Argentine dinosaur bone with that from my native Utah. While busily engaged in choosing a Condor example, I heard my friend exclaim over two very different agate types.

Smiling, De Los Santos proudly stated: "These are my other agate discoveries. Puma agate, found in 1993, and Crater agate, found last spring, in 1997." As readers may know, De Los Santos made his Condor agate discoveries in Province, Patagonia, southern Argentina, in 1992.

Shown at left are three Patagonia Puma agates

Like any good rock prospector, he has been looking for new locations and finds ever since. The region has yielded three different finds to De Los Santos so far and, in some ways, reminds me of the agate fields of northern Mexico of 40-plus years ago.

In other ways, it is vastly different. The climate is usually horrendous. I've spent a large part of my life exploring the plains of Wyoming, both for fun and as an archaeologist. The standard joke is that one day when the wind doesn't blow, you walk out the door and fall down. As I understand from travelers, the worst day in Wyoming is a typical day in Patagonia.

It is, at once, windy, dry and harsh. It can also rain heavily on the parched brown landscape, and when snow falls, there are mudslides in the hills. Windy and 45 degrees F is considered "good" weather. De Los Santos told me that the high winds, boulders blocking the dirt roads (tracks), wide trenches from washed-out tracks, loose rocks (and flat tires) and a shortage of mules--or at least horses--make getting to the agates a frustrating and expensive proposition.

Then, he also has to find helpers--usually fewer than a dozen are available--and they all must put up with water- and food-borne illnesses, and with accidents resulting in everything from bruises to broken bones.

Luis de los Santos with helper in Patagonia, Argentina

Conditions such as these are sure to bring out stresses between the workers. De Los Santos spends 10 to 20 days at a time collecting the agates, which he then high-grades. The stones must be transported from the field to the nearest ranch or town, and then trucked to Buenos Aires in transport vehicles never fewer than 15 years old.

It was in April 1993 that he found the Puma agate that he says is a pseudomorph after coral. He located it at an elevation of 3,000 to 4,000 feet, formed in a sedimentary matrix. Some pieces have a green fluorescence under short-wave ultraviolet light. De Los Santos calls it Puma because of the many caves in the area with puma (cougar or mountain lion) tracks. He says that Jurassic-Age ammonites abound in the area.

De Los Santos found crater agate in 1997, and--like the Puma--he discovered it while he was prospecting near petrified-wood fields. I thought it was named for the open craters of botryoidal-looking red interiors, but De Los Santos told me it was named for the ancient volcano where he collects this material at an elevation of 6,000 to 7,000 feet, and the matrix is rhyolite. He says that the area contains Trigonia marine fossils, and he believes the agate may be of Cretaceous age.

Shown at right are three Patagonia Crater agates, one of them solid.

De Los Santos has identified five different types of "skin" on his Condor agates, and they exhibit various color combinations in their interiors. Puma agates have only one skin variety, and its colors are always red, pastel blue and sometimes yellow. This agate has blue, gray and red interiors similar to those of its Kentucky "twin brothers," and the skin is similar--just a different color. Sizes range from 2 inches to a maximum of about 7 inches.

The Crater samples range in size from that of a large walnut to a basketball weighing 30 pounds--solid, that is, not hollow. The specimens I saw were mostly about fist-sized. They exhibit three different types of skin. Nearly 90 percent are hollow with pillowy, red hematite interiors. They show a thin revetment of red jasper. The agate walls are a translucent, smoky chalcedony with inclusions of fine red hematite lines. De Los Santos says the Crater agate is strongly green-fluorescent due to uranium salts.

He calls Argentina a "complete fossil bed, with trilobites in the north, ammonites in the south and vertebrates and fossil plants found all over the country." He prospects the Patagonian provinces of Chubut, Santa Cruz and Rio Negro. This is a vast area of 200,000 to 300,000 square miles, depending on the source consulted.

In spite of all the severe conditions described earlier--perhaps because of them--De Los Santos has been flooded with requests from collectors to be permitted to join him in his prospecting and collecting.

He is in the process of trying to set up base-camp facilities with ranchers, for sleeping and cooking, in the event he takes U.S. collectors with him. With such minimal facilities, he believes he can eliminate some of the dangers for guests.

Currently, he camps on-site in rough field conditions. If there are no creeks nearby, he and his helpers are allowed only 1 gallon of water each a week for bathing. Food consists of whatever meat can be hunted in the field, pasta, potatoes and a dry bread called torta.

The meat of the day may be guanaco (a llama cousin), rhea (the New World version of an ostrich) or, occasionally, wild rabbit. Armadillo is "stinky," De Los Santos says. I've never tried it myself, though I once knew a Hill Country Texan who was actually fond of it--or so he claimed. Dessert is oranges or apples. There's coffee, of course.

"Everyone sleeps with blankets, under the sky or bushes, or in a nearby cave if they can find one."

When asked about new finds, De Los Santos told me he has located a cave with petroglyphs or pictographs of hunting scenes in the middle of Patagonia. Now that gets my archaeologist's blood pumping with the same excitement as that of an agate hunter!

Hopefully, De Los Santos' next trip will see success in the setting up of a ranch base camp. If not, maybe I can convince him of my love for rough field conditions and well-done armadillo. If not, I'll resort to begging.

A Puma Agate from Patagonia, Argentina

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