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.