Patagonia lies tucked away right at the southernmost tip of the Americas – indeed of the world’s landmass, not counting Antarctica. While the very name holds a fascination for many travellers, the reality can be harsh: the place is cursed by a persistent wind, the Escoba de Dios (God’s Broom); trees grow horizontally here, sculpted by the gales; winters are long and summers short. Geographically ill-defined, “Patagonia” usually refers to the narrow triangle of land south of a line between Puerto Montt, in Chile, and Argentina’s Península Valdés, while in Chile the term is usually reserved for Southern Patagonia, where the Andes take a last, dramatic breath before plunging into the ocean.
While much of Argentine Patagonia is flat rolling pampa, the land rises in the western sliver of land shared by both countries; it is said that people on both sides of the border think of themselves as Patagonians first, and Chileans or Argentinians second, united by a common ranching culture that has long been in decline. These days, large numbers of Chileans and non-Chilean visitors alike come to Patagonia not to farm but to hike – in the country’s most famous and stunning national park, Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, a massif crowned with otherworldly granite towers, and accessed from the superbly located gateway town of Puerto Natales. Others come to follow in the footsteps of the region’s famous travellers: navigator Ferdinand Magellan, naturalist Charles Darwin and author Bruce Chatwin; to gaze at the region’s many spectacular glaciers; or to visit the penguin colonies from the lively provincial capital of Punta Arenas – a port city sitting on the shore of the stormy Magellan Strait.
Since the whole of this region is physically cut off from the rest of Chile by two vast ice caps, the only links with territory to the north are by air, water or through Argentina.
Chilean Patagonia, the site of the some of the continent’s oldest human habitation, was originally populated by Tehuelche hunter-gatherers, who stalked roaming guanacos in the interior, and the sea-faring Kawéscar who dove naked for shellfish in the frigid waters around the southern fjords. The first European to discover the area was Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese navigator who sailed through the strait now bearing his name. Spanish colonization attempts failed catastrophically and no European tried to settle the place again for another two hundred and fifty years.
The voyages of the Beagle, from 1826 to 1834, the second one bearing young Charles Darwin, renewed interest in the area, prompting continued Chilean and Argentine attempts to colonize the area. In the 1870s the two narrowly avoided war over the territory, not for the last time. From 1849, Punta Arenas was boosted by sea traffic en-route to the California Gold Rush; while it didn’t last long, the introduction of sheep farming created sprawling estancias (ranches) and brought great wealth to their owners in the late nineteenth century.
Wool has now been replaced by oil, commercial salmon farming and tourism as the region’s main resources. The Chileans call the area the province of Magallanes, in the explorer’s honour; it has its own flag and is one of the least inhabited areas in Chile.Read More
Magellan, pioneer of global exploration
Magellan, pioneer of global exploration
Fernoã Magalhães, known to English-speakers as Ferdinand Magellan, was born in about 1480 in northern Portugal, and had an adventurous early life: in his 20s he saw service with the Portuguese fleets in their wars against the Muslims of the Indian Ocean, and by 1515 he was a veteran of the campaigns in Morocco. In 1516, after being refused a rise in his pension by the king of Portugal, Magellan took his services to the Spanish crown.
Those days were the beginning of European exploration, prompted mainly by the desire to seek out new routes to the East and its valuable Spice Islands (the Moluccas of Indonesia). Magellan believed that the answer lay to the west, under or through the newly discovered American continents, and he asked the king of Spain, Carlos I, to fund his search. Charles agreed, eager to prove that the Spice Islands lay in the half of the New World that the pope had just assigned to Spain.
Through the straits to the Pacific
On September 20, 1519, Magellan sailed west as admiral of a fleet of five ships. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and started to search the coast of South America for the elusive passage. It was a long and hard hunt, and not all Magellan’s fleet believed there was a strait: on Easter Day 1520, Magellan had to quash a mutiny by his Spanish captains. But on October 21, 1520, his flagship, the Trinidad, finally rounded Cabo Virgenes and entered the strait that now bears his name. Thirty-six days later the open seas of an ocean were sighted; they named the new ocean “the Pacific” for its calmness after the storms of the strait, and set out across it, not expecting it to be so wide.
Back to Spain
They sailed for four months without seeing land. When Magellan himself was killed in a fight with the natives of Mactán Island, the fleet didn’t turn back; petrified of attempting to go through the straits at the bottom of South America for a second time, they took the longer route round the Cape of Good Hope. Three years after they’d set out, just one of Magellan’s original five ships finally limped back to Spain. It was loaded with spices (cloves and nutmeg) and manned by only eighteen of the original crew, men wasted and half-dead. The voyage’s chronicler said he could not imagine the journey ever being repeated.