We sail the day after to-morrow: our plans are at last limited and definite; I am delighted to say we have bid an eternal adieu to T. del Fuego. The "Beagle" will not proceed further south than C. Tres Montes; from which point we survey to the north. The Chonos Archipelago is delightfully unknown: fine deep inlets running into the Cordilleras--where we can steer by the light of a volcano. I do not know which part of the voyage now offers the most attractions. This is a shamefully untidy letter, but you must forgive me.
LETTER 6. TO J.S. HENSLOW. April 18th, 1835. Valparaiso.
I have just returned from Mendoza, having crossed the Cordilleras by two passes. This trip has added much to my knowledge of the geology of the country. Some of the facts, of the truth of which I in my own mind feel fully convinced, will appear to you quite absurd and incredible. I will give a very short sketch of the structure of these huge mountains. In the Portillo pass (the more southern one) travellers have described the Cordilleras to consist of a double chain of nearly equal altitude separated by a considerable interval. This is the case; and the same structure extends to the northward to Uspallata; the little elevation of the eastern line (here not more than 6,000-7,000 feet.) has caused it almost to be overlooked. To begin with the western and principal chain, we have, where the sections are best seen, an enormous mass of a porphyritic conglomerate resting on granite. This latter rock seems to form the nucleus of the whole mass, and is seen in the deep lateral valleys, injected amongst, upheaving, overturning in the most extraordinary manner, the overlying strata. The stratification in all the mountains is beautifully distinct and from a variety in the colour can be seen at great distances. I cannot imagine any part of the world presenting a more extraordinary scene of the breaking up of the crust of the globe than the very central parts of the Andes. The upheaval has taken place by a great number of (nearly) N. and S. lines; which in most cases have formed as many anticlinal and synclinal ravines; the strata in the highest pinnacles are almost universally inclined at an angle from 70 deg to 80 deg. I cannot tell you how I enjoyed some of these views--it is worth coming from England, once to feel such intense delight; at an elevation from 10 to 12,000 feet there is a transparency in the air, and a confusion of distances and a sort of stillness which gives the sensation of being in another world, and when to this is joined the picture so plainly drawn of the great epochs of violence, it causes in the mind a most strange assemblage of ideas.
The formation I call Porphyritic Conglomerates is the most important and most developed one in Chili: from a great number of sections I find it a true coarse conglomerate or breccia, which by every step in a slow gradation passes into a fine claystone-porphyry; the pebbles and cement becoming porphyritic till at last all is blended in one compact rock. The porphyries are excessively abundant in this chain. I feel sure at least 4/5ths of them have been thus produced from sedimentary beds in situ. There are porphyries which have been injected from below amongst strata, and others ejected, which have flowed in streams; it is remarkable, and I could show specimens of this rock produced in these three methods, which cannot be distinguished. It is a great mistake considering the Cordilleras here as composed of rocks which have flowed in streams. In this range I nowhere saw a fragment, which I believe to have thus originated, although the road passes at no great distance from the active volcanoes. The porphyries, conglomerate, sandstone and quartzose sandstone and limestones alternate and pass into each other many times, overlying (where not broken through by the granite) clay-slate. In the upper parts, the sandstone begins to alternate with gypsum, till at last we have this substance of a stupendous thickness. I really think the formation is in some places (it varies much) nearly 2,000 feet thick, it occurs often with a green (epidote?) siliceous sandstone and snow-white marble; it resembles that found in the Alps in containing large concretions of a crystalline marble of a blackish grey colour.