Guide to Patagonia's Monsters & Mysterious beings

I have written a book on this intriguing subject which has just been published.
In this blog I will post excerpts and other interesting texts on this fascinating subject.

Austin Whittall

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Guruvilu or Gurufilu the "Fox-Snake" water creature - Full Dossier


Today’s post is about the Guruvilu or Gurufilu (as I choose to write the name, the fox-snake, from the meaning of the Mapuche words that make up its name: “guru” = fox and “filu” = snake.

This is a distinctive creature, found in Northern Patagonia and also in Chile south of Valparaiso. I have not found any references regarding the Tehuelche people, but maybe the "water tiger" and the "iemisch" myths may be their way of describing the same creature.

The first written accounts on the fox-snake until 1880.

It was the Chilean Jesuit priest Felipe Gómez de Vidaurre who first wrote about this animal. In his book, published in 1789 (Historia geográfica, natural y civil del Reino de Chile), as quoted by Vicuña Cifuentes, he noted the following:

GURUVILU. Fox-snake, monstrous animal of some lakes in the kingdom [Chile in the colonial period was the kingdom or Reino de Chile]. The Araucanian [Mapuche] say that it swallows men. They do not agree upon its shape. Some make it long like a serpent with the head of a vixen; others nearly circular like an extended cow hide. I doubt that such an animal exists. [1][4]

Evidently Vidaurre had different sources who were talking about different animals. One of them seems to be the “Cuero” (cow hide) while the other is the Guruvilu (the slender fox headed being).

The creature was also reported by Luis de la Cruz during his 1806 trip across northern Patagonia from Antuco to Buenos Aires in Argentina. He wrote that his native guides had seen, in a lake, in northern Patagonia, “animals like cats that kill horses that are called nirribilos”.[10]

The next book to mention it was that of the Jesuit priest and naturalist, Juan Ignacio Molina (1810), he calls it a reptilian “Dragon”:

in certain Chilean lakes, an enormous fish or dragon can be found, that they name Ghyryvilu, that is, Vulpangue or fox-snake, which, they say is man-eating, and due to this they abstain from bathing in those lakes. They disagree in its appearance: some make it out to be long like a serpent with a fox head. [9]

The creature was also reported by Federico Barberá, a military commander in the Argentine war against the Puelche natives in the Pampas and close to the northern border of Patagonia. In the 1860s and 1870s, he had close contact with these “Araucanized” Tehuelche people, the Puelche. They had adopted the Mapuche language and maybe some of their myths. He wrote that their word Yhuayfilú described a “Dragon (or fabulous monster)”.[14] The filu part of the word is the Mapuche word for snake. I have not been able to find what Yhuay means.

The early 1900s reports.

A group of social scientists compiled Mapuche folklore in the early years of the XXth century. Below I transcribe their notes:

Vicuña Cifuentes.

Julio Vicuña Cifuentes wrote about the Guruvilu in two different books.
He writes the name Guirivilo or Nirivilo (though at one time he preferred Guirivilu or Nirivilu). He says it is the combination of the Mapuche words gúrú (mid sized vixen) and vilu (non venomous snake).[1]

He quotes Vicuña Mackenna, who in his 1877 book, De Valparaíso a Santiago (pp. 76), mentions a marshy lagoon at Viña del Mar (close to Santiago de Chile, well to the north of Patagonia) where “cueros […] swallow those unaware by wrapping them up in a sheet […] which the Chilean Indians call curuvilu” [1][4]

Though it is not quoted by Vicuña Cifuentes, Mackenna adds that: “curuvilu, horrible black snake that had the head of a fox and that inhabited the sea and freshwater ponds

Mackenna, like Vidaurre blends Cuero and fox-snake into one creature. But they are two distinct animals.

Black snake or fox snake?

Note that is Mapuche for black, thus curuvilu, as spelled by Mackenna, would be a black snake. This also neatly fits his description : “horrible black snake”.

It could also be a spelling mistake (a “C” instead of a “G” which transformed “Guru” into “Curu”).

For German Folklorist Bertha Kossler-Ilg, who lived most of her life in Patagonia, the Kuru-Filu, as she called it, was “a dark water animal” that is why the Mapuche word “kuru” = black was part of its name. [13]

In either case, the curuvilu despite having a different name, must be a fox-snake.

Vicuña Cifuentes also gives some local references [1][4]:

- At Coinco (34°16’S, 70°57’W):

it is a “water fox” that has a very long tail. They say that it is irritable and fierce and that sooner or later it avenges those that bother it throwing stones at it

- At Coihueco in Chillán (36°37’ S, 71°50’ W):

it is a water animal whose body is like that of a dog with a very long tail. It lives in reivers, and when it comes out of the water, which it seldom does, it shivers like if it was dying of cold

Tomás Guevara.

Folklorist Tomás Guevara’s describes the creature as follows (below is a reproduction of the text and an image of the beast) [3]:

Ngúrúvilu (fox snake), aquatic myth with surprising strength. The Mapuche imagination represents it as having a slim and small body, cat head and extremely long fox tail. It frequents the river fords and pools and with its tail it snares men and animals, dragging them to the bottom and drinks their blood. Due to its abundance it is perhaps the most dangerous denizen of the waters. [3]

Guevara includes an image and a footnote in which he states that Lehmann-Nitsche of the La Plata Museum (Argentina) believes that this creature is actually an otter Lutra felina and that this originated the Araucanian myth, also found in Argentina. [3] Below we will look into Lehmann-Nitsche’s theory.

Text and Image of Ngúrúvilu . From [3]

Guevara in his Historia (pp. 239 as cited by Vicu&ntild;a Cifuentes) says that :

The Negúruvilu is another monster similar in its appearance to a cat, armed with a very sharp claw in its tail. It lives in the deep and goes to the fords of the rivers and the shore of the great lakes to kill men and animals. To wrap them it stretches like a snake […] [1]

Guevara tells about a river in which many canoes were overturned at Melivilu, Maquehua (or is it Maquehua? Which is close to Temuco, Chile -38º41’ S, 72º25’ W) where a canoe suffered the same fate, but the man in it, who knew how to swim:

was taken by the tail of an animal, that squeezed him and pricked him. He took out a knife and cut off the animal’s tail. The tail was like two ‘varas’ [*] long: he took it: it was like a saw, it had like claws, what it took, it did not let go; it had the claws facing forward. That is why nobody escaped. Since then no other canoe was overturned.
The animal has the color of a fox, is small and its tail is very long. [6]

[*] “Vara” is an old Spanish unit of length equivalent to roughly 84 cm (33 in.). This tail was about 168 cm long [66 in].

The following map shows the places mentioned in the text and the region (colored yellow) where the Guruvilu has been sighted. Notice that its habitat and the territory of the Mapuche people coincide.

Guruvilu map
Map showing area where Guruvilu is said to live. © Copyright 2010 by Austin Whittall.


In 1901, during the period when several expeditions were sent to hunt down the Patagonian mylodon (see my post on the Mylodon Saga), Robert Lehmann-Nitsche wrote an article in which he suggested that the mysterious surviving mylodon was in fact an otter.

He mentions a meeting in which he, a colleague and English explorer Hesketh Prichard (sent to hung the mylodon) met Florentino Ameghino (1854-1911), an eminent anthropologist, zoologist and paleontologist.

told us about correspondence of his brohter Carlos according to which the Patagonian Indians had seen the tracks of an animal with natatory membranes, besides, they called a misterious aquatic animal erefilú.

He believed that erefilú was the nurufilu or fox snake, written incorrectly. He then asked his Mapuche friend, Nahuelpi about this strange being, who told him the following:

The fox-snake lives in the water. It garbs people in the water. It has a tail withi which it grabs people. But if venerated, he does nothing.
There is a lake in the cordillera. There are many fox-snakes in this lake […] He saw the fox-snake […] it was swimming in the water when we saw it. It is small, its chest and belly, white; the tail is long.[7]

The lake was the Aluminé (39°14’ S, 70°55’ W) and the incident happened when Nahuelpi was eight years old (ca. 1880s).

Lehmann-Nitsche then criticizes Siemiradski [8]:

He has heard about the “Nervelu”, as he erroneously writes it; but all of his observations are so inexact and so lacking of reliability, that we do not give importance to the following, in which he transforms the “Nurufilu” in a griffin. He says the following “An evil spirit is called “Nervelu”; the Puelches especially, respect him a lot, even those who have been baptized; it has the shape of a great bird with a beak and claws of steel […]” [7]

Perhaps Siemiradski had the right name and description and that it was really another creature, a “terror bird” myth. It may be coincidence that nervelu and Guru vilu sound alike. Read my post on Big Terror Birds in Patagonia .

Ricardo Latcham

Regarding the Chilean Mapuche, Ricardo Latcham wrote the following: [5]

Nguruvilu –fox snake- is another hybrid, half quadruped, half reptile[…] generally appears as a fox with a snake tail which ends in a claw or nail , long and curved that it uses to catch or hold its prey. Sometimes it figures with the body of a great snake and the head of a fox […]

Latcham believed that it was not a real creature but a symbol of totemic alliances between different Mapuche clans (i.e. the fox and snake clans merged into the fox-snake alliance),


More recently, and for the area of Chiloé Island, Renato Cárdenas Alvarez in his book on the Island’s mythology, wrote about this creature, which he calls Ñirivilo , as follows [2]:

piguchén [*] monster, half fox and half serpent that usually lives in marshy waters, has vast strength and is very harmful. On the south of the Island it is a dog with a fox tail.
Comment: the Mapuche assure that it is a slim and small dog with a fox tail and cat’s head. Sometimes it is mistaken for the cuchivilu and the Cuero. [2]

He adds different variations of the name: guirivilo, guruvilu, nirivilo, ñifivilu, ñivivilu

[*] In this text, picuchén is used as deformed, ill shaped, supernatural.


1. Could it be an otter?
In the late 1800s at the natives at Lake Nahuel Huapi, Argentina, told Salesian priest Lino Carbajal about the Guarifiú, he wrote about them in 1899, as follows:

Very large and terrible aquatic animals at Nahüel-Huapí […] of a colossal strength and size with fish fins, dog head and a strong and very long tail. With which it captured the Indians that swam, dragging them to the bottom where it drowned them and hid them between the roots of the plants. [11]

Detail of Carbajal’s description of the Guarifiú. From [11]

This was the animal that the Mapuche feared most and was the most difficult to hunt. Carbjal believed, that it was an otter, but the natives told him that otter were well known and common while Guarifiú was “rare and terrible”.

He managed to have one hunted, and he described the specimen as larger than the Chilean otter but otherwise normal. He concluded that the Indians always exaggerated.

Lehmann-Nitsche, after sifting through the evidence also concluded that the fox – snake is the Lutra felina, known as Chungungo or Chilean sea cat. A sea otter. [7]

Perhaps, not knowing about the Huillín neither of them ascribe the myth to it and chose the Chungungo instead.[7]

Though Carbajal comments have led scientists to believe that the fox-snake is an otter, I am not convinced because, it may be possible that the natives did not send him a Guarifiú, but an otter (easier and safer to hunt); furthermore the Mapuche knew all about otters, which they called Huillín so if they defined an animal with a distinct name (gurufilu, it must have been some other kind of creature.

Going back to Lehmann-Nitsche at Aluminé he believed that the fox-snake myth combined features of both huillín and jaguar [7] but Latcham disagreed; for him the otter did not have any part in the fox-snake myth for it had been incorporated into the Mapuches’ “ñul-ñul” and “Llun-Llun” myths.[12]

2. The real nguruvilu.

In any case, there is a real animal in Chile that goes by the name nguruvilu. and according to Latcham it belongs to the family of the tiny “monito del monte”;[12] how could have a minute and shy marsupial lend its name to the fearsome killer water fox is an unsolved mystery.

3. water tiger and snake fox. Similar creatures.

The “fox-snake” resembles the “water tiger” (see my post on this being) in many ways; both are aquatic carnivores that drag down and kill large animals and men. Perhaps their different names reflect local variations of the same species.

We should not be surprised to find two other animals that are virtually identical to the fox-snake living along Patagonia’s northern border, Maripill and the Colorado River animal.


[1] Vicuña Cifuentes, J., (1915). Mitos y Supersticiones Recogidos de la tradición oral chilena con referencias comparativas a los de otros paises latinos Impr. Universitaria. pp. 65-66.
[2] Cárdenas Alvarez, R., (1998). El Libro de la Mitologí. P. Arenas: Ed. Atelí. pp. 95
[3] Guevara, T., (1908). Psicolojía del pueblo Araucano. Impr. Cervantes. pp. 322
[4] Vicuña Cifuentes, J., (1910). Mitos y Supersticiones Recogidos de la Tradición oral Impr. Universitaria. pp. 23-24.
[5] Latcham, R., (1924). Op. Cit. pp. 573-575.
[6] Guevara, T., Op.Cit. pp. 412.
[7] Lehmann-Nitsche, R., (1902). La pretendida existencia actual del Grypotherium. Supersticiones Araucanas referentes a la Lutra y al Tigre. Revista Museo la Plata. V. X. pp 271+. Online:

[8] Siemiradski, Josef. Beiträge zur Ethnographie der südamerikanischen Indianer “Mittheilungen der Anthropologischen Gesellschaft in Wien”, XXVIII Bd., 1898, pp. 127-170, esp. p. 166.
[9] Molina, J. Op. Cit. pp. 233.
[10] De la Cruz, L. Op. Cit. pp. 110.
[11] Delvalle Carbajal, L., (1899). La Patagonia: studi generali. S. Benigno Canavese. Serie 1ª.-4, pp. 214+. Online:

[12] Latcham, R. Op. Cit. pp. 609.
[13] Koessler-Ilg, B., (2000). Op. Cit. pp. 73.
[14] Barberá,F. Op. Cit. pp.59.

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia

2010 International Year of Biodiversity
Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Lake Ranco - Lake of the Week

lake of the week

Lake Ranco. Lake of the Week

This Chilean lake (40°11’ S, 72°22’ W) is set very low (65 m – 213 ft. above sea level) and has a surface area of 442 km2 (171 sq. mi.).

lago ranco
Lake Ranco. From [4].

It is notorious for Culebrón and Cuero sightings.

For instance, at Caman inlet, at a deep pool, a fisherman caught a “very strange fish that had a crest like that of a cock with a mane down half its back” frightened, he threw it back into the lake, and this place is known as the “Culebrón Pool”.[2]

In March 2003, people living in different towns around the lake reported to the police that there was a “strange creature moving along the river, hiding in the rushes and scaring the animals that came to the shore to drink water”. They described it as a “giant snake about eight meters long [26 ft.], […] an aquatic monster”.[1] Evidently a Culebrón.

Regarding the Cuero, a compilation of contemporary Mapuche women anecdotes mentions Lake Ranco’s Cuero as follows: “cat-like nails all around it. In the past, more were seen, in the inlets […] of all colors, and also of all sizes, and there are big Cueros too and these Cueros in the water are super strong”.[3]


[1] Picasso, F. and Núñez O., L., (2004). Gigantescos Ofidios Sudamericanos.
[2] Lago Ranco Misterios, relatos, mitos y leyendas. (2007). El Pozo del Culebrón.16.05.2007.
[3] Guerra, M., et al. [Comp.], (1999). Op.Cit. pp. 49.
[4] I M Photopress Discover Chile’s Seven Lakes Destination 12.10.2009

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia

2010 International Year of Biodiversity
Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Culebron the Full dossier


The Culebrón

Though I have posted about this being before, today I am going to avoid the piecemeal approach and put the whole story down:

The name

Culebrón is not a native word, it is Spanish. It is the aumentative of Culebra, the Spanish word that means “Non venomous snake” (“víbora” is the Spanish word for poisonous snake).

It is a myth found in Chile (we will see that it is predominant in the central area of that country, beyond Patagonia). Further south, there are “snake” myths that through the influence of the Mapuche culture, crossed the Andes into Argentina, where they are found mainly in the province of Neuquén.

The Mapudungun, the language of the Mapuche, non venomous snakes are known as filu. And, the Mapuche – Spanish dictionary has an entry for “iwai filu” which is “a big serpent.

I will call these Mapuche snake myths, the filu myths.

Culebrón eating a girl. From [5].

The snake myth among the Tehuelche.

Besides the Mapuche, there were other native groups in Patagonia:

  - the Fuegian natives and the “boat people” of Southern Chile have no myths regarding snakes (there are no snakes in Tierra del Fuego or the harsh insular habitat of these natives).
  - In continental Patagonia, the Tehuelche Group have left us no myths regarding snakes.

The filu snake myths are exclusively Mapuche.

Yet, in their territory, in the Province of Santa Cruz, close to Puerto Deseado, a strange stone carved in the shape of a snake was found in 1937 by Indalecio Alvarez at a salt flat close to the estancia (ranch) “25 de Marzo”.

It was a piece of pink sandstone 32 cm (12.6 in.) long, and roughly 40 mm (1.6 in.) wide and 35 mm (1.4 in.) thick. It resembles a snake. This is on the Rio Deseado River, south of Antonio de Biedma. He believed it was a representation of a Yarará ñata (Bothrops ammodytoides) which is found in Patagonia.[13]

Check the article Online, it has some photographs of the stone snake.

Chile and its benign snakes

The first naturalist to study Chile, Juan Ignacio Molina (1810) noted that it lacked poisonous snakes and that the few that could be found were harmless. He added that “the boys, grab them by their tail and spin them around their heads to “make them drunk” […] The vipers are totally absent.” [1]

So, Chile, home of the Mapuche lacks poisonous snakes; why do they have myths involving dangerous snakes?
We can offer three explanations:

1. There were large snakes in Chile and they became extinct before science became aware of them; but Mapuche folklore retained their memory.
2. The Mapuche imported the myth from other parts of South America where snakes (big and poisonous ones) are common.
3. They mistook another animal for a snake.

Mapuche myths involving snakes (the Filu myths).

1. Cai-Cai and Ten-Ten

Chilean foklorist Latcham transcribed a version of the Mapuche myth about a Noah-like flood or deluge at the dawn of time. [2]

He believed that it may have been their way of explaining a tsunami along the coast (quite normal in earthquake prone Chile) or the sudden catastrophic breakage of an ice dam or a weak rubble closure of some Andean lake. These catastrophic outbursts have happened in the past (for instance in the Colorado River in Argentina in 1914 when a natural dam burst emptying 1.55 km3 (roughly one cubic mile) of water into the valley. In either case the natives would have sought for an explanation. The fighting snakes gave tham a plausible cause for the catastrophe.

The myth involves two gigantic “culebras, one of them good, Ten-Ten lord of the land and protector of mankind; the other evil, Cay-Cay who was lord of the waters.

Cay-Cay unleashed the flood to drown his rival and his human subjects. Ten-Ten raised the mountains higher and higher beyond the reach of the flood to protect them; he also turned some of them into fish, sea mammals and stones so that they would not drown.

The helpless humans looked on while both snakes fought a terrible battle. But finally, exhausted and with no more water to flood the world with, Cay-Cay gave up and retreated to the deep waters where he still lives and keeps on fighting with Ten. The constant earthquakes that shake Chile are due to this unending battle: Cay-Cay gets covered with rocks and to shake them off trembles causing the Earth to quake.

Humans, to remember their saviour have named several mountains named after the heroic Ten-Ten (some are spelled differently: theng-theng).[2]

Father Félix José de Augusta in his Mapuche-Spanish dictionary printed in 1916 described the evil culebrón as follows:

Kai-kai or Kai-kaifilu […] the snake kaikai, a mythological animal, half serpent, half horse, that they believe is under the sea and whose voice sounds like a horse neighing.[3]

It’s “mane is so grown that it drags it along the ground

Yet another version cited by Latcham is that of Robles Rodríguez: “an enormous lizard came out of the center of the earth and shouted Cai-cai” [2].

Tomás Guevara describes it according to his Mapuche informant Manuel Lonquitué “Caicai is an animal that has the shape of a new born horse it lives, like Llul-llul [*] in the water”[4]

[*] Llul-llul is another myth, about a long-tailed cat like creature that lives in the sea.

Based on the above, it seems that there are two kinds of Cai-Cai. The original myth making being and the “later versions”. The former is a giant, that creates earthquakes and floods the world, a supernatural force of gigantic strength and size. The latter seems to be a normal sized animal.

We should leave the titanic snake and focus on the smaller one. The animal that is an aquatic foal shaped being (Guevara) or lizard-like (Rodríguez) or half serpent, half horse that neights (Augusta) and has a mane.

There is also a humanoid snake, which lacks a Mapuche name, and is found in the Argentine province of Neuquén, among the Pehuenche people, who live by the eastern Andean foothills.

2. Snake man and snake woman.

These are not animal-snakes but human-snakes. This is a different king of snake creature which is not aquatic: in both myths, there is no clear indication that they are “lake creatures”.

Bertha Ilg-Koessler, [6] transcribed the story told to her by Chief Kurruhuinka, at San Martín de los Andes in the mid XXth century.

This tale was about a Snake man: “The Monster of the golden boot or the ‘well combed’”. This creature was:

A black man like a piece of charred wood […] the black man sitting there was half a man because the other half was the body of a very big serpent coiled up below the other [half]. [6]

This monster excreted golden nuggets which later turned into excrement. But, once he disappeared, lovely yellow floweres, boot-shaped (hence the name of the tale i.e. “golden boot”) known as kuram filu or snake eggs (Calecedonia Speculata) began to grow there.

The creature was found at Lake Nonthué (I posted on him before) but she does not call him a “Culebrón.

Koessler-Ilg also wrote down another native tale, about a snake woman: a native known as “The Serpent Killer”relentlessly destroyed all snakes that came his way “even though [his tribe] considered those reptiles as sacred”. One day a lovely maiden appeared out of the waters of Lake Meliquina [*], she was blond and human but later she altered her shape and turned into a “gigantic snake” that coiled around the man, killing him. This spot is known until this day as Arroyo Culebra (Snake Stream) and lovely kuram filu flowers grow there (notice the similarity between both stories in the flower finale).

[*] Lake Meliquina. (40°21’S, 71°18’W). Surface area 9 km2 3.5 sq. mi. Neuquén, Argentina.

Culebra Stream is a unique geographical phenomenon. Its headwaters is the Arroyo Partido (Split Stream), which splits into two separate streams, the Culebra, which flowing into lake Meliquina ends up in the Atlantic Ocean and Pil Pil Stream, which flows north, into Lake Lacar and from there into the Pacific Ocean. This is the real Continental Divide.

These humanoid snakes share human and reptilian features, like mermaids or centaurs they embody an animal and a person.

These humanoid snakes share human and reptilian features, like mermaids or centaurs they combine an animal and a person in one being.

3. Animal varieties of mysterious snakes.


Is it a Mapuche myth or a “Spanish-Native” myth?

I will quote exclusively from Vicuña Cifuentes’ excellent book on Chilean oral myths [10]

Vicuña Cifuentes on the “Culebrón". From [10].

I will copy the relevant parts of this text below:

The Culebrón according to what I was told at el Palqui, village in the interior of Ovalle, is a big and snub tailed snake, that is, whith a truncated tail. On its back it has a mane that measures up to two spans in length and that extended on both sides it uses as wings to fly. The Culebrón’s size is variable, some specimens have been seen with a length of eight spans (1,60 m) [5 ft. 2 in.]. It lives close to the pens where goats and sheep are enclosed because […] it suckles their milk […] sometimes it sucks the blood of newborn kids but only if it can’t whet its apetite with milk.

[...] At Elqui [...] it is not described as snub tailed, instead its truncated tail is replaced by another head. Nor is it given a mane, but wings with which it flies, though only at night [during the day] it moves very slowly […] it measuers up to 2 meters long [6 ft. 6 in.] which is thick as a man’s leg and its color is spotted.

[...] South of Choapa the myth […] is found only sporadically […] at Angostura de Paine […] it had the following description: - The Culebrón is a fat snake, with a head and snout at each end. Sometimes it has small heads on its sides and bristles along its back. It sucks the blood of tiny lambs. Further south this description is applied to the Piuchén [*][10]

He goes on to mention the great antiquity of the myth, but that we will look into later.

[*] Piuchen. Is another creature which in Southern Chile is described in a similar manner. Perhaps because Febrés says it is like a flying snake mistaking it for the northern Culebrón.

I have posted on it Here: The flying snake of the Mapuche "piwichen"

Note however that Elqui is about 90 km (56 mi.) east of the city of La Serena in central Chile, (29º 54’ S, 71º 20’ W) and Ovalle is about the same distance south of La Serena. Angostura de Paine is very close to Santiago. All these locations are very far from Patagonia. The myth is not a Patagonian myth.

Not Patagonian and, well beyond the Mapuche homeland. The name itself is not Mapuche but Spanish (unlike all other Mapuche myths) this is a clear indication of a “mestizo” tradition, a mixture of Spanish and native. Furthermore, the creature’s habitat in the relatively arid central valleys of Chile is very far away from the Patagonian lakes and forests. This is a terrestrial creature and it seems, more at home in the air, flying, than in a cold mountain lake.

A Spanish myth. Imported during the Conquista

I have found several references to the Culebrón myth in Spain. We must not forget that the Spanish Conquistadors brought to the New World their religion, language, traditions and, of course, their myths. These were absorbed by the growing Creole population (mixture of natives and Spainards).

Among these myths was the “Culebrón”. Below are some examples:

   -   “a Culebrón” that devastated the countryside devouring domestic animals and helpless people who tended their cattle in the fields close to the cave which was the beast’s lair. ”. Leon. By the villages of La Vid and Villasimpliz. XIIth Century. (Online)

   -   The Cuélebre was a “winged serpent […] that lives in caves and springs […] its whistling can be heard at a great distance [*] […] it attacks and devours people and animals”. It can be found in place names in Asturias “Cave of the Cuélebre” at Noriega, Mestas de Con. The “Fountain of the Cuélebre” at Cuerres, Intriago, etc. (Online)

[*] This creature whistles like the Piuchén.

   -   The “Lagarto de Jaén. Described as a “great serpent” or “serpe”. (Online)

   -   Also see: Aurelio de Llano Roza de Ampudia´s bok “Del folklore asturiano: mitos, supersticiones, costumbres (1922) and “Leyendas españolas de todos los tiempos: una memoria soñada” (vol 9, 2000) by José María Merino. Both of which mention the creature.

Any similarity between the Chilean and the Spanish Culebrón is not a coincidence.

4. Cagua-Cagua the Culebrón.

In Neuquén, at Pichi-ruca, a Pehuenche couple was in the forest, when they:

Heard some strong snorting; it seemed that someone was being hanged […] they saw a gigantic culebrón that was dangling between two trees, its tail and head dragging on the ground […] it was a very powerful Cagua-Cagua [7]

This creature also known as Putrahilu was terrible, it could eat an animal or humans in one gulp, whole. It had the ability of creating a whirlwind to drag the victim closer. Its tail was hairy. [7]

This story is interesting because it makes the reptile a hairy one (like Guevara’s snake-horse with a long mane). An incredible oddity. We have another report on this creature by Argentine military Commander Barbará who in the late 1800s mentioned, on the western Pampas a lake named “Calchí-filu” or “hairy snake”. This was the land of the Puelche people, who had acquired the language of the Mapuche and also used it to name places.

But what kind of creature can be assimilated to a gigantic hairy snake? Snakes are reptiles and as such, lack hairs. The mere existence of hairs means mammal; Culebrón , if hairy is some kind of mammal. Notice how in Cifuentes’ version, it also likes milk.

This is a Filu myth, it involves Patagonia, a Mapuche group (Pehuenches) and is located in the Andean forests. Notice however that the creature is not aquatic but arboreal.

Other myths.

Before looking into the “mammal-snake”, lets take a look at the other myths involving snakes:

Large sized serpent with an enormous head that sometimes looks like that of a horse

This creature lives in the pools of rivers and can sometimes cause floods. It kills by constriction like a boa.[9]

This monster which shares Cai-Cai’s ability to flood and is also a horse-like snake, is not Chilean, it is not even Mapuche, it is a Guaraní myth, the Mboi-Guasu.

There are other Guaraní legends involving gigantic snakes: Mboi-Tunpa, Boywazú-Tunpa, Mboi-Moné, Mboi-Tatá and the dog-headed Mboi-Yaguá. Their close relatives, the Chané or Chiriguano people, also had their monster snakes: Mboimbéu, Mboirusú and Mboi wuju. The Mocoví had Nanayk Kaló, a giant snake.

All these native Americans (Guaraní, Chané and Mocoví) lived in the tropical and subtropical area of Northern Argentina. A land with plenty of snakes of the poisonous and constricting kind. I have posted before on the possible ties between Guaraní and Mapuche people. A theory which the Mapuche people don’t favor because they fear that if they are “late arrivals” in Chile, they may loose their status as “original people”. They root for the theory that states that they originated on what is now Chilean soil, from Paleo-Indian stock.

Nevertheless, the Mapuche myths involving tropical beasts such as giant otters and jaguars as well as shared myths (water-blacks, water-tigers, lewd dwarves and elves with their feet turned around, among others) clearly point at some kind of ancient relationship between both groups.

This may support the notion of an “imported” myth, either by the Mapuche lifting camp and moving from the Amazon rainforests to the Chilean valleys and bringing their folk tales with them. Or by cultural flow, by which the Mapuche people incorporated foreign myths and made them their own.

Vicuña Cifuentes mentioned that he had seen an ancient native vase from a burial at Elqui, which depicts a Culebrón, he added that it was very similar to the “plumed snake” of the Andean natives and thought that it had been introduced into Chile trough contact with the Diaguita natives of northwestern Argentina.[10]

Regarding the Andean Natives, I have posted on the possible Inca origin of the Mapuche "snake" myths. Which explains how these "snakes" which do not exist in Chile, could have entered its mythology; furthermore, the Diaguita may have also absorbed their "snake" beliefs from the Incas.

I suggest that you read this very interesting article (in Spanish) and take a look at the images depicting the snake like inscriptions that can be found on the Aguada Culture pottery from Argentina,[14] just across the Andes from the Culebrón homeland in La Serena, Chile.

Reptile mammal or hairy snake in Patagonia.

Bio Bio “reptile”

In 1914, there was a sighting at this Chilean River by the town of Santa Bárbara (37°39’ S, 72°01’ W). The creature was described as a “reptile or similar animal”. Its lair was on an inaccessible cliff by the river. This “kind of lizard, enormously thick, three or more meters long, of a light gray color” left a track “close to a meter wide and similar to that of a snake dragging itself”.[11]

Snake at Lake Ranco
In March 2003, people living in different towns around the lake reported to the police that there was a “strange creature moving along the river, hiding in the rushes and scaring the animals that came to the shore to drink water”. They described it as a “giant snake about eight meters long [26 ft.], […] an aquatic monster”.[12]

Both creatures seem to be reptilian, snake-like and at home in the water.

In today’s post on Lake Ranco I mention that at Caman inlet, at a deep pool, a fisherman caught a “very strange fish that had a crest like that of a cock with a mane down half its back” frightened, he threw it back into the lake, and this place is known as the “Culebrón Pool”.

This could either be a perch, a native fish (Percichthys trucha) that has a spiny dorsal fin and another softer one. It could be mistaken for a “mane” or a cock-like crest. Perhaps the angler had never seen a perch. Below is an image of a perch (European, which is similar to its Patagonian relative):

Perch, notice size and shape of dorsal fins..

Comments and Discussion.

Culebron myth map
Culebrón and Filu myths. Map showing places mentioned in the text. © Copyright 2010 by Austin Whittall.

The above map shows the area where the Culebrón myth is found in Chile (red), to the east, in northern Argentina is the area where the Diaguita people lived until their culture was destroyed during the Spanish Conquest (pale blue). In blue is the region where the Mapuche snake myths Filu, Cai-Cai, cagua-cagua, myths are found. The pink area shows the region occupied by the Mapuche or "Araucanized" natives (Tehuelche, Pehuenche, Ranquel, etc.) between the mid 1600s and 1880. Here you would expect to find references to the Filu snake myths. And you do, the blue dot in the region shows the location of “Calchí-filu”. In Yellow is the homeland of the different Guaraní groups, and a possible original homeland for the Mapuche people (tropical area with plenty of snakes). In bright green is territory of the Tehulche groups, which did not have snake myths. However (blue dot) a strange snake shaped stone was found there, close to Puerto Deseado.

I will add to this post over the next few days, but it seems to me that the Culebrón myth can be summarized as follows:

- Chile lacks big and venomous snakes.
- Imported into Chile from Western Argentina and Northern Andean Cultures (such as the Inca) or introduced from Spain during the Conquest.
- The big snake that flies and has two heads is an “exotic” (i.e. non-Chilean) component of the myth. Found elsewhere.
- It is widespread in central Chile, beyond Patagonia and the home of the Mapuche people. Not a local myth.
- Not found in the other Patagonian native cultures (Fuegians and Tehuelche).
- The Mapuche people have their own “filu” (snake) myths. These may be foreign if the Mapuche are linked to other native cultures from the tropical areas of America, specifically the Amazon. In that case snake myths originated outside of Chile.
- Hairy snakes may indicate a mammal.
- Foal like appearance and neighing point at a mammal.
- Long slender body (otter? Extant South American platypus? unkown water creature? Nguruvilú the Mapuche's aquatic "fox - snake").

I tend to believe that it is a monster and not a snake; a mammal and not a reptile.


[1] Molina, J. Op. Cit. pp. 226
[2] Latcham Organizacion social 1924 pp. 403+
[3] De Augusta, F., J., (1916). Diccionario Araucano-Español, Español-Araucano. pp. 73. Online:

[4] Guevara, T. Op. Cit. pp. 324.
[5] Casas Cordero, El culebrón que se comió a la niña en las minas del Volcán.
[6] Koessler-Ilg, B., (2000). Cuentan los Araucanos: Mitos, leyendas y tradiciones. B. Aires: Del Nuevo Extremo. pp. 297 and 73.
[7] Relatos del Hombre y la Naturaleza Lo que contó la Abuela Tranamaiñ Fundación Pehuén. Endesa.
[8] Barbará F. Op. Cit. pp. 124.
[9] Colombres, A., Op. Cit. pp. 167.
[10] Vicuña Cifuentes, J., (1915). Estudios de Folklore chileno. Mitos y supersticiones recogidos de la tradicion oral chilena, con referencias comparativas a los de otros paises latinos. Santiago: Imp. Universitaria. pp. 326-327.
[11] Gröthe, S., (2008). Reptil en el Rio Bio Bio – 1914.
[12] Picasso, F. and Núñez O., L., (2004). Gigantescos Ofidios Sudamericanos.
[13] Deodat, Leoncio, S. M., (1942) Un bastón mágico herpetiforme descubierto en Patagonia austral. Relaciones de la Sociedad Argentina de Antropología, III, pp. 99-118.
[14] Debora M. Kligmann and Elena Diaz Pais. Una primera aproximación a los motivos serpentiformes de la iconografía Aguada del NOA Intersecciones en antropología versión On-line ISSN 1850-373X Intersecciones antropol. n.8 Olavarría ene./dic. 2007

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2010 International Year of Biodiversity
Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©

Monday, January 25, 2010

Cuero. Some non-sources


The following is a list of books (from my personal library) written by the first Europeans to venture into Patagonia and write about its animals, plants and people.

I named the post non-sources because not one of these explorers or chroniclers mention the Cuero.

Books, contemporary with the last Natives, that do not mention the Cuero or freshwater stingrays

1593 – 1736. De Olivares, M., (2005). Los jesuitas en la Patagonia: Las misiones en la Araucania y el Nahuelhapi 1593- 1736. B. Aires: Continente.
De Olivares’ account tells of the missions in Southern Chile and Nahuel Huapi. It has plenty of information, but none on the “Cuero”.

1767. Falkner, T., (2008). Descripción de Patagonia y de las partes adyacentes de la América meridional. B. Aires: Continente.
Falkner transcribed the native’s reports on the geography and biology (animals and plants) found in Patagonia.

1793. Fonck, F., (1896). MenéMndez, Francisco Viajes de Fray Francisco Menéndez a Nahuel Huapi. Valparaiso: Imp.Gillet, 1896-1900. v.1.
This book transcribs the expedition of Menéendez and other older ones (Mascardi, Laguna, Guglielmo, Villagrán, etc.).

1806. De la Cruz, L., (1835). Descripci0n de la naturaleza de los terrenos que se comprenden en los Andes, poseídos por los peguenches… B. Aires: Imprenta del Estado.
De la Cruz rode across the Andes from Antuco en Southern Chile, through what is now Neuquén province, across the Colorado River and from there to Buenos Aires.

1828. D’Orbigny, A., (1999). Viaje por la América meridional II. Buenos Aires: Emecé.
He visited the town of Carmen de Patagones and rode up and down the Negro River several times (upstream about 100 km).

1833. Darwin, C., (1987). The Voyage of the Beagle. Ware: Woodsworth Editions.
Darwin just rode along the northeastern coast of Patagonia, from Carmen de Patagones to the Colorado River.

1862. Cox, G., (2006). Expedición de la Patagonia Norte: un viajero en el Nahuel Huapi: 1862-1863. B. Aires: Continente-Pax.
Cox crossed the Andes into Nahuel Huapi area and rowed down the Limay River until he capsized close to Alicura. He returned to Valdivia via Lake Lacar and returned the same way to rescue his colleagues held hostages by the natives.

1865. Claraz, G., (2008). Viaje al rio Chubut: Aspectos naturalísticos y etnológicos (1865-1866). B. Aires: Continente.
He crossed what is now the provinces of Rio Negro and Northern Chubut (Argentina).

1869.Musters, G., (2007). Vida entre los Patagones: un año de excursiones desde el estrecho de Magallanes hasta el río Negro: 1869-1870. B. Aires: Continente-Pax.
He rode along the western edge of the Patagonian steppe, from Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan to what is now Alicura in Neuquén Province and then crossed Rio Negro Province reaching Carmen de Patagones.

1870s. Moreno, E., (1979). Reminiscencias de Francisco P. Moreno. B. Aires: Eudeba.
Moreno, F., (1876). Viaje a la Patagonia Septentrional. [Conference]. B. Aires, Anales de la Sociedad Científica Argentina I.
Moreno, F., (2007 a). Exploración de la Patagonia Sur II: el lago Argentino y los Andes meridionales. 1877. B. Aires: Continente.
Moreno F., (2007 b). Exploración de la Patagonia Sur I - Por las cuencas del Chubut y el Santa Cruz: 1876. B. Aires: Continente.
Moreno mentions several expeditions across Rio Negro, Northern Chubut and Neuquén provinces. He details animal and plant species as well as several native myths. No reference to “Cuero” or stingrays

1879 Zeballos, E., (1958). La Conquista de quince mil leguas. B. Aires: Hachette.
He compiles several previous expeditions (Villarino, Bejarano, Biedma, Cox, Musters) and includes many interesting references on the geography of the region.

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2010 International Year of Biodiversity
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Bears in Patagonia


I have already posted on bears at Lake Nahuel Huapi in Patagonia. But those were exotic European bears introduced by an excentric millionaire during the hectic days of Belle Epoque and the tango. Today I will write about the interesting subject of native "Patagonian bears".

The first reports.

When I posted on the Plesiosaur at Epuyen I listed each of the alleged sightings of strange beings that were given to the press in 1922 by Clemente Onelli, as proof of the Plesiosaur sighting.

Among these sightings was a strange report from Tamango River; the New York Times summarized Onelli’s press confrerence as can be seen below in a copy of their article on it:

tamango bear
Bear at Tamango River. NY Times article.From [1]

Tamango River, as it was known then, is now named Chacabuco River (47°04’ S, 72°10’ W) and is located just 10 km (6 mi.) north of Lake Pueyrredón -known as Lake Cochrane in Chile- from which it is separated by a steep range of hills; it flows into the South Pacific Ocean throuhg Baker River.

Map showing Northwestern Santa Cruz Province. Argentina.
Adapted From [4]

In the map above, the river can be seen just north of Lake Cochrane, in Chile. The New York Times article said Santa Cruz, because, in the days of the sighting, the territory was being disputed by Chile and Argentina. It ended up being Chilean.

It was here, in 1898, that a topographer of the Argentine Border Commission who was studying the area under dispute, Juan Waag, “saw the fresh footprints of a huge animal”. [1]

Mr. Waag who had spent several years in the Patagonian forests would have quickly recognized huemul, guanaco or puma prints (the largest animals that live in the region).

Evidently he must have seen the tracks of some unknown creature. As we will see below, It seems that he believed that they were the tracks of a bear.

Click to see an old black and white postcard view of Tamango River in 1903.

Patagonian bears?

The 1911 edition of the British Encyclopedia reported that the arctotherium, the largest carnivorous mammal to live in South America may still be alive in Patagonia. See my post with photographs on the arctotherium.

The entry placed this gigantic bear exactly where Waag had seen the strange prints:

It would not be surprising if this latter animal [arctotherium] were still in existence, for footprints, which may be attributed to it, have been observed on the borders of the rivers Tamango and Pista. [2]

This “prehistoric” bear was an awesome beast; it was three times bigger than the formidable Grizzly bear and it coexisted with modern man. Its bones have been found at the “Mylodon Cave” in southern Chile.

A few years earlier, in the late 1890s, Argentine scientist and explorer, Francisco Moreno had also received reports on the existence of “bear-like tracks in remote parts of the Cordillera, which he [thought] may imply that a species of Arctotherium still lives in Patagonia”.[3]

What became of these bears, if they were alive in the early 1900s is not known and despite these reports, nowadays there are no bears in the Patagonian forests and no evidence that they have lived there recently.

South American bears.

Unlike the Northern Hemisphere which is home to many bear species, South America only has one. It is the Spectacled or Andean Bear (Tremarctos ornatus).

This bear is the only surviving species of bear native to South America; it is the last of the lineage of the short-faced arctotherium cave bears and descends from the first “wave” of bears that arrived to America from Asia over 2 million years ago.

Their survival has depended mostly on their ability to climb even the highest trees of the subtropical and tropical Andean jungles which they still inhabit (from Panama to northern Argentina).

Male Spectacled Bear at San Antonio Zoo. (Seems at home in the water). From [5]

If these are the only bears in South America, then, it would be logic to assume that it was them and not the extinct giant cave bear whose tracks were seen in the Patagonian forests.

We must now answere the question of how could have any of these bears reached the Patagonian forests?

French naturalist and anthropologist George Cuvier wrote in 1825 that the Spectacled Bear was a species typical of the “Chilean Cordillera” and that he had obtained a specimen in Chile, which is well beyond its current habitat.

This has been disputed by scientists who argue that the Atacama and Puna deserts as well as the barren Andean peaks form a barrier between the lush Bolivian jungles and Chile; it is this lack of jungle that would have been an insurmountable barrier for the bears.

However, at the end of the last Ice Age, as I have mentioned in a previous post, there could have been a link between both areas that could have permitted the bears to move southwards through Argentina into Patagonia and Chile across the Arid gap.

Having reached the Southern Forests, Patagonia’s cold weather would not have been an obstacle either; Northern Hemisphere bears hibernate during winter and the Chinese Panda bears munch bamboo leaves throughout the year without hibernating despite living in a region that is subjected to snow, frost and freezing temperatures during winter.

A similar adaptation could have been possible in Patagonia where the abundant colihue canes (Chusquea culeou) a relative to the bamboo- could provide tender sprouts to feed bears if and when they ever reached the southern Andean forests.

Yet I was surprised that the natives had not mentioned bears. If there were bears, they should be mentioned as characters of their myths and legends.

Mapuche Bear myth.

Well, they did. I stumbled across this myth earlier this week it is the story of Huenchumir, the Son of the bear which Lenz compiled and published in 1895/7.

oso patagonia
Copy of the story of “the son of the bear”.From [6]

The story states that: [6]

“At that time, they say, there were all animal, there were, they say, bears [in the] unpopulated earth…

This bear was a fierce animal: it ate an old woman and married her daughter who bore him a son, Huenchumir.

Though Lenz is persuaded that it was not a native South American bear but “…the vulgar European animal, taken by wandering[bear] tamers to the towns of South America […] The fact that a special word was formed in Mapuche, proves that the animal is well known”.

The Mapuche word for bear was osse which is very similar to the Spanish word oso, this is a surprising coincidence which may be due to the following causes:

- The bears were not American but European. They were brought by itinerant shows. The natives adopted the Spanish word for this unknown animal.
- Their Mapuche and Spanish names are similar due to pure chance, thus “oso” and “osse” are similar words due to a startling coincidence.
- The Mapuche adopted the Spanish word and replaced the original (and now unkonwn) word. Thus “osse” derived from Spanish “oso” and replaced “xxxx” (a now lost word which was the original name they gave the bear).

Other Patagonian natives and bears.

The other Patagonian native groups (i.e. the Tehuelche groups of Eastern Patagonia) may have incorporated the bear into their Iemisch myth.
Since Spectacled bears are fully aquatic and are very fond of swimming and fishing in streams they do fit the Iemisch profile.

Furthermore, they can also explain Tournouer’s Hymché (which is perhaps an Iemisch under another name). He mentioned that the creature’s eyes were encircled with light yellow hair. Spectacled bears get their name from the light colored rings around their eyes, which resemble glasses. Coincidence? Perhaps.


[1] The New York Times, (1922). New York. US 08.03.1922.
[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica 11th edition. 1911.
[3] Hesketh, P. Op. Cit. pp. 335-338
[4] Map adapted from Instituto Geográfico Nacional
[5] Image Online
Credits and Copyright of image. Permission is granted to use this image under the terms of the the Creative Commons Attribution License. The attribution is to be given to The Brit_2.

[6] Lenz, R. Estudios Araucanos. Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes. 1895-1897. pp. 261.

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia

2010 International Year of Biodiversity
Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©

Friday, January 22, 2010

2009 Hottest year on record in Southern Hemisphere.


According to Nasa, last year was, on a global level, the Second Hottest Year on Record, and it marks the End of Warmest Decade ever recorded.[1]

Global land – ocean temperature Index. Notice the growing trend. From [1]. By NASA.

Earth’s surface temperatures have been increasing since 1880. During the period between 1940 and 1970 the trend levelled off, but since then the increase has been even sharper than before.

Getting hotter in the South

Climate Change is what makes Southern Hemisphere cryptids disappear.

Furthermore, 2009 was the second warmet year on record and, it has been the hottest year on record in the Southern Hemisphere.

Most of the world’s land mass is in the Northern Hemisphere where roughly the ratio of land to ocean is between 1 to 1.5. The Southern Hemisphere on the other hand is mostly ocean, with a ratio of land to oceean of 1 to 4.

Land warms very quickly and cools fast too (that is why the Northern Hemisphere has scorching Summers and freezing Winters). The opposite is true for water, which warms slower than land and cools slower (there is less variability between Summer and Winter in the Southern Hemisphere).

For this reason an increasing temperature in the Southern Hemisphere is a sure indicator that the oceans are getting warmer. The 2009 temperatures have been 0.49°C (0.9 °F) hotter than the period spanning 1951 to 1980.

The World is also warming up

The coolest year of the decade was 2008 (due to a cooling phenomenon in the Pacific Ocean the Niña – Niño), but despite this anomaly, the growing temperatures trend continued in 2009.

The warmes year ever (globally) was 2005 and the other warmest years (besides 2009) have been: 1998, 2002, 2003, 2006, 1007, 1998. The period between January 2000 and December 2009 has been the hottest decade ever recorded.

Since 1880, the global temperature has increased about 0.8°C (1.4°F).

Niña – Niño

These are due to very warm or cool sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean. After the Niña, the global temperatures drop – this led to low 2008 temperatures. This year (2010) the el Niño will have the opposite effect pushing global temperatures upwards, this may make 2010 the warmest year on record if the El Niño persists.

Greenhouse Gases warm the Earth

The real culprit however are the Greenhouse Gases (GHG). Our cars, heaters, air conditioners, light bulbs, TVs, refrigerators, PCs, just keep on consuming energy and therefore spewing out CO2 and NOx gases into the atmosphere. The cows that we feed on (sheep too) burp Methane (CH4) in vast quantities when they inefficiently transform fodder into beef and milk -being vegan is a greener option than being a carnivore.

So you can act now and reduce your Carbon Footprint see some tips on how to bee greener.

stop climate change
Stop Climate Change. Copyright © 2007 by Austin Whittall


[1] NASA. 2009: Second Warmest Year on Record; End of Warmest Decade.

Patagonian Monsters - Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia

2010 International Year of Biodiversity
Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Cuero - images


Continuing yesterday's post on the Cuero today I include some images that can be found online.

One of them depicts the ray-like version of the creature, the other the squid-like kind. Yesterday's post had a depiction of the clawed-hide kind from Latcham's book, which is exactly the way the Mapuche people said the beast looked like.

El Cuero

Cuero. From [1]

Cuero. From [2]


[1] Online
[2] Online

Copyright 2009-2010 by Austin Whittall ©

Patagonian Monsters Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

All you ever wanted to know about the "Cuero"


The Cuero

Some time ago In my post on Nahuelito I mentioned the Mapuche native's “Cuero” myth, but it was merely a short comment and I did not go into the matter in depth.

I am aware that the “Cuero” is often mentioned as an explanation for the Nahuelito phenomenon and also as proof of the great antiquity of its existence (back to pre-Hispanic times). Most web articles are quite superficial and merely copy and paste from similar websites. Furthermore, some cryptozoology sites and books have a fuzzy and unclear notion regarding this interesting cryptid.

Additionally all of the sources that mention the Cuero are written in Spanish and are unavailable in English.

For these reasons, and being perfectly fluent in Spanish, I have decided to go to the sources, translate them myself and post them here so that all can read them and each one form his or her own opinion on the matter.

Some images showing what the Cuero looks like.


The following map shows the places that I will mention in today's post. In green is Patagonia, the blue line at its northern border is the Colorado River, which runs from the Andes to the Atlantic Ocean. In Yellow is the habitat of the South American freshwater stingray. Atacama and Coquimbo in Northern Chile are the home of a similar named but totally unrelated cryptid (the Huecú). To the south inside the dull green ellipse is the Cuero's habitat.

Notice how it is restricted to what was once the land of the Mapuche people. Further south, in the land of the different Tehuelche pepople, the myth did not exist (see the following map that shows the original distribution of the Patagonian natives).
Patagonian Natives Map
Geographic location of the Cuero and other places mentioned in this post. Copyright © 2010 by Austin Whittall.

"Cuero". Sources

Oldest references.

Cuero, in Spanish means “hide” a “skin” of an animal. The Mapuche had another name for it, Trelque huecuve or Trelque lafquen or Trelque leufu the first part of the word Trelque is Mapuche for hide and “huecuve”, “laufquen” and “leufu” are “evil spirit”, “lake” and “river” respectively. So they knew it as “evil spirit hide”, “lake hide” or “river hide”.

I have not been able to find any printed report on the “Cuero” prior to 1810. The chronicles of the Jesuit and Franciscan missions (Nahuel Huapi and Rucachoroi) in the Araucanian region of Chile and in what are now the provinces of Neuquén and Rio Negro in Argentina do not mention it.

See my post on these books that don't mention the "Cuero".

Note that many missionaries lived in this area between 1670 and 1718, others explored the area in the 1750’s and 1790’s: Nicolas Mascardi, José de Zuñiga, Juan de Olivares, Felipe de la Laguna (Philliphi van den Meeren), Juan José Guillelmo, Manuel de Hoyo, Arnold Jaspers, Francisco Menéndez and Bernardo Havestadt. But not one of them mentioned the “Cuero”.

It was first mentioned by Father Juan Ignacio Molina, the first European naturalist to describe Chilean animals in his scientific book “Essay On The Natural History Of Chile” (1810). He noted that (Bold font mine):

Reproduction of page 233 of Molina’s book. From [1].

The locals assure that in certain Chilean lakes there is an enormous fish or dragon, that they name Ghyryvilu, that is, Vulpangue or fox-snake, which, they say, is man-eating and for this reason they abstain from swimming in the water of those lakes.

But they are not in agreement the appearance that they give it: now they make it long, like a serpent with a fox head and now almost circular, like an extended bovine hide. If it was so, it would come to be species of Manta of a monstrous race. [1]

From this text we can ascertain the following:

1. There is a lake creature that resembles “an extended bovine hide”, and Molina believes that if may be some kind of gigantic stingray (or Manta).
2. The other creature the Ghyryvilu or fox-snake which is “ like a serpent with a fox head” is indeed another animal, a different being. The natives had different names for it.

I have posted on this creature Here, but bear in mind that the mythical Nguruvilú (also known as Nirribilo, Ghyryvilu, etc.) derives its name from the Mapudungun words “nguru”= fox and “filu”= snake, hence “fox - snake”, which is a very close description of this beast.

We will focus on the “cow hide” creature (which in Spanish is a “Cuero”) and leave Nirribilo for a later post.

A void of nearly one century

After the missions closed due to Mapuche hostility, the area remained unexplored for another 60 years. Only one expedition reached Neuquén from the east, it was led by Spanish pilot Basilio Villarino (1782-83). He did not mention the native myths.

From the west, Chilean explorers Francisco Fonck and Fernando Hess (1856) and Guillermo Cox (1859) also explored the region but did not mention the Cuero. English traveler George Musters (1869) followed by Francisco Moreno (1870s) came again from the Atlantic coast. None saw anything. Then the Argentine forces occupied Patagonia in a series of military campaigns between 1879 and 1884. None of the official reports mention the Cuero.

I also posted on the books written by these explorers, none of which mention the "Cuero".

Nearly one hundred years after Molina published his essay, Chilean folklorists and linguists began scouring the Mapuche land gathering their myths and folk stories. Among them were professor Tomá Guevara (1863-1938), linguist and philologist Rodolfo Lenz (also born in 1863 and deceased in 1938), Francisco J. Cavada (1864-1950) and author and folklorist Julio Vicuña Cifuentes. (1865-1936). Later, ethnologist and archaeologist Ricardo E. Latcham (1903-1965) followed up on their work.

They interviewed the natives and recorded their oral traditions before they were diluted by foreign Western elements after the conquest and destruction of the Mapuche way of life when Chile occupied the region of Araucania in the late 1800’s.

An exclusively Mapuche myth

I must point out that the myth is exclsively found in the territories that formerly belonged to the Mapuche people or the "Araucanized" Tehuelche groups that absorbed their language and some of their myths. It is not found further south among the Southern Tehuelche groups (i.e. south of the Senguer, Chico, Mayo rivers in Chubut province). I base my assertion on my posts (and still unpublished entries) on "lake monsters" in Southern Patagonia: there are creatures in these lakes, but none are "Cuero".

Tomás Guevara and the Cuero.

Guevara wrote in 1908 [2] about the creature and even included an image of it (see below), that looks like a cow hide with “thorns” around its edge:

Reproduction of pages 322 and 323 of Guevara’s book. From [2].

The text says (Bold font mine):

Trelquehuecufe (hide huecuve [*]) is what the Indians call an octopus the size of a calf’s hide, armed with claws all around it. It inhabits the depths of lakes and rivers, where it takes men and animals bathe or cross those parts and it kills them by means of an irresistible contraction. Mapuche that falls into the deep sinking and does not appear on the surface because he has become tangled in submerged trees or muddy [river] beds, has been taken by the trelquehuecufe.[2]

From the text we can conclude that Guevara believed that:

1. Cuero and what he calls “Nguruvilu” are different beings as can be seen in the image above: after the Cuero he writes about the “fox-snake” myth and also depicts it differently (the cat headed long tailed being drawn to the left of the cow hide is a fox-snake) .
2. Iit is an “octopus” which is “the size of a calf’s hide, armed with claws all around it”.

Cavada and the Cuero.

Francisco J. Cavada in his book “Chiloé y los Chilotes” published in 1914, [3] calls the animal La Manta or Cuero. Below is his text and its translation:

Cuero de agua
Reproduction of page 104 of Cavada’s book. From [3].

La Manta [*]

Is the octopus named Cuero in other parts of the country. The islanders depict it as an extended hide that folds upon itself to grab and wrap up its prey.

When a person or an animal go into the water, the Manta rises and, draping it with strength, it drags it to the bottom and devours it.

It is the terror of bathing children.

This belief is widespread in the country [Chile] because it extends up to Chiloé.

You can look up about the Manta with Mr. Tomás Guevara and Doctor Rodolfo Lenz.[3]

[*] Manta in Spanish means blanket, mantle, cover. Which gives a clear idea of its body shape (flat, wide and thin).


1. Cuero and Manta are the same (the latter is the local name it gets in Chiloé).
2. Like Guevara, he believes it is an octopus. Was he basing his comment on first hand experience or merely transcribing Guevaraás prior work? I do not know.

Vicuña Cifuentes and the Cuero.

Reproduction of pages 335 to 337 of Vicuña Cifuentes' book. From [18].

He calls it Huecú and describes it as follows:

aquatic, it lives in deep and lonely lakes which now do not exist […] it is an animal “shaped like a goat skin, overo [with white spots] brown or overo-black color”. It frequents the water surface, basking in the sun or awaiting its prey, that it traps with “its breath”, wraps with its “garreos” [claws] and submerges to devour it. The cattle that drinks at lakes where there are Huecú […] are seduced by the aquatic animal and give birth to offspring so ugly that they instill fear. [18]

He mentions that it can be killed with the thorny quisco branches. That it is dangerous to kill if on the shore because it "has a lot of strenght and drags one with horse and all [into the water]”.

In northern Chile, Atacama and Coquimbo, the name Huecú is applied by the miners to another kind of spirit. This is not the Mapuche lake creature, but another kind of being which Cifuentes mentions only because it has the same name. Not because it is the same creature. [18]

Latcham and the Cuero.

In 1924, Ricardo Latcham wrote about the Relgious beliefs of the “Araucano” people (now the term Mapuche is favored), and he also mentioned the “Cuero”: [4]

Reproduction of pages 575 and 576 of Latcham’s book. From [4].

He wrote not only what he had investigated but also cited Lenz and Guevara, below is my translation of his text:

The trelque or trelquehuecuvu [*] is a myth known among the Chilean people by the name of manta or cuero. It is an amphibian animal that has the shape of a cow or sheep hide, whose border is surrounded by hooks or long nails. It lives in the water and rarely comes out to the shore. It grabs hold of men and animals that cross or bathe in the neighborhood of its lair, it wraps them up, holding them with its claws and by constriction, kills them.

Lenz gives them the name “chueiquehuecuvu – fabulous animal of the Chilean mythology, that lives in the water and harms those who pass by or bathe. It can only be hunted with a noose of lleivún (fibrous plant). These monsters are also named cueros and mantas, due to the vague shape they have.

According to Guevara, when it comes out on the shore to bask in the sun’s heat and wants to return to its usual habitat, a whirlwind is produced, that pushes it back towards the water.

In the north of the country [Chile] where they call it huecú, they say that it can be hunted, throwing into the water where it is found, auiscos (chunks of thorny cacti) , with which, when it rolls up, it pierces itself, gets tangled and dies.[4]

Explaining the Beast.

Latcham goes on and gives his point of view on what this creature actually is: [5]

el cuero
Reproduction of page 610 of Latcham’s book. From [4].

Latcham above, states that:

the myth […] must have originated from squid (Sepia tunicata, Mol. O Omastrephes gigas) of the Chilean seas. This mollusk can measure up to 1,2 meters (3.9 ft.) long without taking into account the length of its tentacles or arms, of which it hast ten, eight short and two longer ones, whose lower surface is provided with suction [pads]. Its body is wrapped in a skin seath called manto, joined on its dorsal side and free on the ventral [part]. Molina speaks about another larger species that he calls Seppia unguiculata[*], and that ‘instead of a suction pad it has its legs (tentacles) armed with two rows of claws or sharp nails similar to those of cats that it withdraws just like that animal in a kind of sheath … but is not very common in those seas’.

It is likely that he learnt about that species only by references and mistaking it for the myth of the trelque or manta, he gave it nails instead of suction cups...

[*] Latin name that means “clawed” Seppia or “giant squid” which can measure up to 2 meters (6.5 feet) in length is also known as Taningia danae.

Before we look into the squid or the stingray option, I want to transcribe another sighting:

A sighting ca. 1967 at Media Luna.

César Fernández recorded this story in 1989, it was told to him by Luciano Huenufil at Aucapán in 1987:[16]

Reproduction of page 44 of Fernandez’s book. From [16].

The Cuero appears in the pools, in the lake or in a lagoon. There still are. IT wraps one up and takes you under the water. He who knows how to defend himself takes out his knife and stabs it.
Lafquén Trilque is [its name] in the language.
It makes like a noise, like a wind storm when it passes by.
At Media Luna [*] there was a case. It happened a long time ago, more than twenty years. The woman was washing by the shore of a stream and had mad a fire where she had a pot. She felt around her a very strong wind, that began suddenly. It took everything, it went over the fire and left nothing, no sticks, no embers, nothing. It also took the clothes.
The woman managed to run away. So she said.
It was a cow hide that made wind and destroyed everything.

[*] Map online here

The “still are” part is interesting, it seems to imply that the animal is not very common maybe on the verge of extinction.

The second part of the story gives the creature supernatural powers (tornado-like); this is surely some embellishment on the original myth because the tornado is actually another Mapuche myth, the meulén or dusty whirlwind, which is caused by wizards or witches who stalk people. [17]


The shape of the Cuero wide, slender, thin and its aquatic habitat are very like those of a stingray. Molina and Latcham must be right.

Giant dead stingrays washed upon a beach would surely impress any Mapuche who stumbled upon it. That is the kind of stuff that myths are made from.

There are several varieties of sea rays in Chile: Dipturus chilensis, D. trachyderma, as well as the enormous manta rays Myliobatis chilensis
and Mobula tarapacana.

Yet these are all marine animals not freshwater creatures (which is what they would have to be in order to live in Patagonian lakes and rivers).

Freshwater rays.

South America is home to the the Potamotrygonidae freshwater rays. These are not found in Patagonia, but they are closely related to the Dasyatid rays that
often venture into freshwater in several parts of the world; one of these species can be found off the Chilean Patagonian coast.

Could some of these Dasyatids swim up the Chilean Patagonian rivers into the Andean lakes and thus have originated the Cuero myth?. Maybe. But if they did, they would not survive in such an environment because they are adapted to highly saline sea water furthermore, they live in "all temperate and tropical seas, and some species enter tropical and warm-temperature rivers and lakes" but, not cold water lakes or rivers (like those found in Patagonia).

Freshwater rays in Patagonia?

I have read an entry in Eberhart’s excellent book [6] on “Mysterious Creatures” which mentions that “giant freshwater rays were seen in 1976” at Lago Gutiérrez, Rio Negro Province.

Reproduction of pages 689 of Eberhart’s book. From [6].

This same 1976” incident is reported in detail by Sebastián Jarré[7][8] yet at a different location: Lake Moreno.

Lakes Moreno and Gutierrez are quite close to each other (8 km – 5 mi.) and both flow into Lake Nahuel Huapi, the map below shows the site of the 1976 accident (red circle) a very narrow stretch of road carved into a steep cliff that skirts the lake.

Bariloche map
Lakes Moreno and Nahuel Huapi, Gutiérrez. From Google Maps, Online. Adapted by the author.

According to Jarré:

1976, a tourist bus falls of a cliff at Lake Moreno. A team of divers is sent to the rescue. And according to their testimony, while they were probing for the vehicle ACCIDENTADO, they had seen the presence of large sized rays on the lake’s bottom […] at that time, the then chief of the Prefectura Naval [Argentine Coast Guard], Principal Prefect Walter Hormastorfer, confirmed this account, though with some tenuous geographic variations. [7] [8]

The above sighting of freshwater rays in a Patagonian lake is an amazing piece of news. Why? Because they are no known rays in Patagonia.

However no reference or source is given, I was not able to follow up on the report.

It is absolutely correct to assert that there are freshwater stingrays in the Rio Negro. But I must add that not in the Patagonian Rio Negro (map here) but in the Amazonian Rio Negro[15], which flows into the Amazon close to the Brazilian city of Manaus (map here).


There are only on family of freshwater stingrays in the whole world, these are the Potamotrygonidae and they live in South America, but the closest that they get to Patagonia is over 1.600 km (1,000 mi.) to the north in the Paraná River basin. See the following map in which Patagonia is shaded yellow and the rays’ habitat is shaded black:

freshwater stingrays
Distribution of Freshwater Stingrays and location of Patagonia. Adapted From [9].

The map clearly shows that Patagonia is not close to the freshwater stingray's habitat.

These rays live in temperate to tropical rivers and have a sharp spike on the rear of their tail which they use for self-defense. If stood on by an unaware person wading in the water, they bend their tail and strike with their sting inoculating poison; this causes a very painful wound that is slow curing and can ulcerate. They can grow quite large, up to 1 m (3.3 ft.) diameter and have an elliptical shape; however none have “claws” along their edges. Yet, interestingly, their disk-shaped body can be covered with small denticles (small to large thorns) which are tooth-like in structure and covered with a tough enamel.[9]

Could they live in the cold Patagonian lakes?

Nahuel huapi temperature
Temperature gradient at Lake Nahuel Huapi. From [10].

Lake Nahuel Huapi’s surface temperature oscillates between 7 and 10.5°C (44.5 and 51°F) and it is really cold, as anyone who has taken a dip in the lake can attest.

The deeper you go (i.e. where the rays allegedly live) the colder it gets.[10]

Finally, take a look at the 2009-2010 Continental Patagonian Fishing Regulations [11], which describe all the fish you can find in the area. No rays are mentioned.

Nevertheless, I have posted on sightings of this cryptid in the following lakes:

Paimun, though this lake's cuero is amphibian.

And it has been reported in other lakes (I haven't posted on them yet) such as Lake Ranco: this lake (40°11’ S, 72°22’ W) is set very low (65 m – 213 ft. above sea level) and has a surface area of 442 km2 (171 sq. mi.). It is notorious for Cuero sightings. A compilation of contemporary Mapuche women anecdotes mentions Lake Ranco’s Cuero as follows: “cat-like nails all around it. In the past, more were seen, in the inlets […] of all colors, and also of all sizes, and there are big Cueros too and these Cueros in the water are super strong”.[12]

Closing comments.

I said that I would provide the information (yet I ended up saying that Patagonia is too cold for rays!). To summarize the post:

- No written reports on the "Cuero" before 1810.
- Mapuche myth only. I have not found any other information beyond what was gathered in Chile in the early 1900s.
- Other Patagonian natives did not report the "Cuero" or have similar mythical beings.
- If the Mapuche migrated long ago to Chile from the Amazon basin (see my post on the possible ties between the Mapuche and Guaraní people) they may have brought traditions referring to stingrays found in their original homeland.
- Some liken it to a squid or octopus, others to a stingray.
- Squids and octupus are salt water creatures. They could not live in the Andean lakes.
- South Pacific stingrays may wash up on the shore and may swim up a river (but not live there). This may have originated the myth.
- Salt water and freshwater stingrays prefer warm habitats. Patagonian rivers and lakes in the Andean region are cold.
- Freshwater stingrays native to South America are about 1600 km (1,000 mi.)away from Patagonia. This would bar them from entering Patagonia.
- Only one unverified report on stingrays in Patagonia, no source given.
- Not one scientific paper on the subject. No rays mentioned in Patagonia in any of them.

A less skeptical point of view.

I have been over skeptical until now and you may think that I am biased against stingrays so I will look at the options:

a. Slim, flat, flexible and wide aquatic being:
- not a fish (spindle shaped, scaly, shiny, with fins and tail does not fit the description of the "Cuero").
- mammal? unlikely as no one reports legs (only claws), though described as a hide it is not described as hairy (the hide resemblance is used to indicate the shape, not the texture).
- reptilian? same objections, no known reptile is wide, slender and flexible (not a turtle or a tortoise).
- Rays do resemble this being but lack claws (only denticles as mentioned above).
- Squid too. Could the tentacles be mistaken for claws?

b. Assuming it is a freshwater ray, how did it reach Patagonia?
- As posted previously, there was a connection between the Colorado river and the River Plate / Paraná River basin. Freshwater stingrays could have swam up stream along the Colorado to the Andean region.
The Colorado basin is not linked to the basin of the Negro, Neuquén, Limay rivers (into which most of the Northern Patagonian lakes drain), so rays could not have swam between them. But at least it places them in the region.
- Could ray eggs have been transported on the feet of water fowl (i.e ducks, huala, swan?). I don't know if this is applicable to rays, but I have found an article online [13] that indicates that fish eggs can be transported in the crop of birds.
Now the bad news, stingrays don't lay eggs, their eggs develop and hatch inside the female’s body. The pups come out alive. [14]
- Maybe a bird capturing one let it drop accidentally in some stream or pond. If this happens repeatedly, then a new population could be established in another river stystem not connected to the original habitat.
- Other fish live in cold water, stingrays could have adapted to live in Patagonian lakes and rivers.
- Not seen now but seen in the past. Why? Salmonids (see my post on how they displace local fish) are aggressive predators and have endangered most local fish species. Could they have led stingrays to extinction in Patagonia?
- Only a Mapuche myth, it is not found further south. Why? Because the colder weather was an effective barrier to their dispersal into that area. The Tehuelche lived in a region where there were no stingrays so they did not have any myths regarding these animals.

Let each reach his or her own conclusions. (My apologies for the length of this article). A I gather more evidence, I will keep updating this post.



[1] Molina, J., (1986). Ensayo sobre la historia Natural de Chile. Santiago: Ediciones Maule. pp. 233
[2] Guevara, T., (1908). Psicolojia del pueblo araucano. Santiago: Imprenta Cervantes. pp. 322-323. Read it online:

[3] Cavada, F., (1914). Chiloé y los Chilotes. Santiago: Imprenta Universitaria. pp.104.
[4] Latcham, R., (1924). La organización social y las creencias religiosas de los antiguos araucanos. Santiago: Cervantes. pp. 575-576.
[5] Ibid. pp. 610.
[6] Eberhart, G., (2002). Misterious Creatures: A guide to Cryptozoology. S. Barbara: ABC Clio. pp. 689.
[7] Jarré S., (2008). Online.
[8] Jarré, S., (2004). Guarida de Monstruos. La Rosa de los Vientos. A° 1. N° 3.IV: 2+
[9] Berra, T. M., (2007). Freshwater Fish Distribution. University of Chicago Press. pp. 20+ Online.

[10] International Lake Environment Committee. Lake Nahuel Huapi
[11] 2009-2010 Continental Patagonian Fishing Regulations.
[12] Guerra, M., et al., [Comp.], (1999). Las ñañas. Santiago: LOM Ed. pp. 49.
[13] Malone, C., (1966). The Wilson Bulletin. June 1966. Vol. 78, No. 2. pp. 227
[14] Oldfield, R,G., Biology, husbandry, and reproduction of freshwater stingray
[15] Online.
[16] Fernández, C., (1995). Cuentan Los Mapuches. B. Aires: Ediciones Nuevo Siglo. pp. 44
[17] Barreto, O., (1996). Fenomenologia de la religiosidad mapuche Editorial Abya Yala. pp. 25.
[18] Vicuña Cifuentes, J., (1915). Estudios de Folklore chileno. Mitos y supersticiones recogidos de la tradicion oral chilena, con referencias comparativas a los de otros paises latinos. Santiago: Imp. Universitaria.

Further reading:

Evolution of Freshwater stingrays
Excellent maps showing ray distribution in the River Plate basin. Fundación Proteger .
On dasyatidae.

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Patagonian Monsters Cryptozoology, Myths & legends in Patagonia
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