Patagonia: South American Splendor

by Shelli Stein

When people know you’re “well traveled” they make assumptions. Rather than ask you, “Have you been to a particular destination” they’ll ask, “How did you like a place?” Lately, that’s been happening with visiting Patagonia. People assumed I’d been there because I have family in Chile. Yet when I visit Chile we never seem to include a visit to Patagonia.

My family in Chile is bribing me to travel soon with promises of visiting Patagonia.  A return visit to Chile was in the planning stages when the pandemic began. Obviously, I put the visit on hold. However, my trip planning was done and my interest in history and culture never stops!

As I learn, I share, so thought it would be fun to write about some of the fascinating things I learned about Patagonia and lead you on this armchair tour of this extraordinary destination. You might just want to add visiting Patagonia to your post-pandemic bucket list of places to visit.

Pack your warmest clothes, sturdiest walking shoes, and of course your camera. Patagonia is an amazing destination. Her rough and rugged terrain covers more than 260,000 square miles (about the size of Texas).

Read on to prepare for your Patagonia journey!

Patagonia Introduction and History

Patagonia has been described as barren yet beautiful, with dramatic and varied landscape. It is one of the most picturesque, remote, and impressive natural settings on earth.

Patagonia spans a range of terrains: the eastern side is comprised of windswept pampas, glacial valleys, desert, and grassland.

The majestic snow-capped Andes Mountains create the western border, and the Strait of Magellan lies to the south. Tierra del Fuego is the region that divides Argentina and Chile.

World Atlas tells us that Patagonia has the unique distinction of being one of the few places on Earth surrounded by three oceans (the Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern).

Patagonia was a volcanic area in pre-historic times. Thirteen plains (called steppes) make up much of the landmass. These steppes are still rugged and bare today. Erosion (created by changes in the earth’s surface and melting of ice mass) has carved out plains and hills throughout Patagonia, forming lakes and ponds.

The Chilean side of Patagonia is more lush and green, since it receives greater rainfall. Ocean conditions off the coast created ice fields and glaciers. In fact, this is the largest ice field in the Southern Hemisphere (excluding Antarctica)

Dinosaurs roamed Patagonia! Millions of years ago, Argentinosaurus huinculensis, a huge herbivore, was one of the largest animals on earth.

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The Animals of Patagonia

Visiting Patagonia means experiencing the raw beauty and sweeping views of the country. Part of this experience is viewing the wide variety of animals and plants that inhabit Patagonia’s vast land mass.

Many species of birds can be found, including herons, eagles, the ñandú (now almost extinct) and the Magellanic penguin.

In the mammal category, Patagonia is home to several species of bats, as well as armadillos, pumas, foxes, ferrets, and many rodents.

In the creepy-and-crawly category there are poisonous snakes, as well as spiders, lizards, and tortoises.

The waters off the Patagonian coast are home to several types of whales, sea lions, and elephant whales.

The penguins of Patagonia deserve a special mention. There are five main species of penguins that migrate through the area, depending on the season:

  • Magellanic penguin (most plentiful—1.7 million pairs per year, which is almost equal to the number of humans in Patagonia)
  • King penguin
  • Humboldt penguin
  • Gentoo penguin
  • Southern Rockhopper penguin

Every spring the Magellanic penguins travel to Patagonia from Brazil. They return every year to nest, which is burrowed by the males. Females find their males by following his unique call.

Magellanic penguins give birth in November each year. The chicks don’t look much like penguins at first, since they have smooth grey feathers before their black and white markings grow in. Penguins are very social and are accustomed to the sight of humans.

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Breath-taking Patagonia

The Humans of Patagonia

The first inhabitants of Patagonia were the Tehelche Indians. Archeological remains and excavations show that they were rather tall. They appeared to be giants to the first European explorers. The name patagones means “big feet” in Spanish.

Another theory is that Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Megellan (the first European to visit the area) coined the name. When Megellan encountered the Tehuelche, he was reminded of “Patagon,” a dog-headed creature from a Spanish drama of the 14th century.

In any case, the Tehuelche people were nomads who lived off the land, finding ways to use the grass and plants growing in the dry soil. They used stone weapons to hunt ñandú (a type of large, flightless bird) and guanacos, which looked like llamas. Some natives of the area were skilled horseman.

In addition to the Tehelche, many tribes survived in the area—some practicing agriculture, and others living as hunter-gatherers.

In the late 1500s the Spaniards arrived in what is now South America and tried to colonize Patagonia, but it was a hard place to tame. The Spaniards also spent considerable effort to prevent other countries (like England) from claiming any part of Patagonia.

But gradually, as other countries like Chile and Argentina got their independence from Spain in the mid-1800s, they began to colonize Patagonia. They displaced the indigenous populations. The border struggles between Chile and Argentina continued for several hundred years.

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Did You Know the Welsh Settled in Patagonia?

Yes, that’s right—one (of many) interesting stories about early Patagonia involves the 8,000 mile immigration journey of a group of Welsh separatists who dreamed of establishing an autonomous Welsh community in South America.

This little-known chapter of history was the result of the Industrial Revolution, which was growing in steam (pun intended) in the 1800s. Wales was losing its agricultural land and rural communities. England encroached on tiny Wales and exploited its rich reserves of steel, iron, and coal.

Many Welsh people preferred to leave rather than remain. They established colonies abroad in places like Utica, New York, and Scranton, Pennsylvania. But in these sites they were pressured into learning and speaking English—as well as to pressured to assimilate into the host culture.

One particular group of Welsh people who wanted to leave Wales—and preserve their own language and culture– met in 1861 to discuss their options. They decided on Patagonia (Vancouver Island was their other choice). Apparently one of their leaders had been in touch with the Argentinian government, which granted them a large tract of land. It was a rather convenient arrangement for Argentina, who otherwise would have had a dispute with Chile over the land.

About 150 people came over on the first voyage. They were a wee bit disappointed upon first impression; Patagonia didn’t look anything like the fertile lands of Wales. In fact, they had to dig their first homes out of clay in the cliffs overlooking the bay of Puerto Madryn.

The settlers struggled to survive for many years. They found their way to the Chabut Valley, along the Camwy River, and called their settlement Rawson. One saving grace was when the settlers found a way to control the seasonal flooding of the Camwy River. This allowed them to develop arable land and farms.

The Welsh settlers kept coming to Patagonia. By 1915 there were more than 20,000 Welsh in the Chabut Valley. That was the peak of Welsh immigration. As the 20th century progressed, increasing Argentinian control brought an end to the Welsh utopian dream.

However, there is still Welsh culture apparent in Patagonia! Although Spanish is the national language, people of Welsh heritage still celebrate their culture and remember their history.

Patagonians Today

Patagonia “belongs” to two countries. The vast majority of the region, 90%, is located in Argentina. Chile claims 10% of the region.

Both countries have divided their Patagonian slice of the pie into regions, provinces, and communes.

About 2 million people live in Patagonia (combined Argentinian and Chilean populations). Spanish is the official language, but because of their mixed blood and unique heritage, many Patagonians consider themselves Latinos. The currency is the Argentinean Peso and the Chilean Peso.

Given its uniqueness, you might be wondering about the economy of Patagonia and how its inhabitants survive in modern times.

Today there are three main aspects to Patagonia’s economy.

First, while Patagonia has the reputation for being barren (but beautiful), it is also a place of rich natural resources. This fact adds to disputes about which country (Argentina or Chile) can claim these resources.

Argentina has laid claim to most of the resources, such as the oil and natural gas reserves around the Comodoro Rivadavia and near Neuguėn. Patagonia also has many rich mineral deposits. The list is long: iron ore, manganese, tungsten, lead, copper, goal, gypsum, and uranium are just a few.

The second source of the region’s income is related to harnessing all those rushing rivers throughout the country. The Neuquėn and Limay rivers have been dammed in order to generate hydro-electrical power.

The dams have also made agricultural development accessible in the Negro River area. Farmers now raise fruit crops, vegetables, and even hops.

It’s also noteworthy that gauchos have been able to raise cattle and sheep along the pampas. Argentinian wool is prized throughout the world.

Tourism is the third income source. National parks and wildlife reserves have sprung up since the end of World War II. There has also been an increasing interest in learning about the wildlife and scientific study of the area.

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More on Patagonian Communities

From north to south, the population centers of Patagonia are spread out. Neuquén is the biggest city in Argentinian Patagonia, with a population of 377,000 (to the west, mid-coast).

The second biggest city is Chile’s Temuco (200,529) (also on the west coast, mid-region).

The main landmarks of interest when visiting Patagonia are:

  • The Lake Districts (Chile and Argentina)—these are in the north
  • Peninsula Valdes (Argentina)
  • Welsh Patagonia
  • El Chaltén and El Calafate (glaciers)
  • Torres del Paine (national park)
  • Punta Arenas
  • The Chilean Fjords
  • Tierra Del Fuego and Cape Horn (Argentina)
  • Usuaia (Argentina)

In arid Argentinian Patagonia, the Limay River was dammed to generate power for much of the country. This is also the area of oil production for both Argentina and Chile.

Gas and oil production have also led to development in southern Patagonia, which includes Comodoro Rivadavia, Punta Arenas (in the southern tip of Chilean Patagonia) and Rio Grande. Comodoro Rivadavia is an important Argentinian city that connects to Buenos Aires by a road that runs more than 1800 miles through the Patagonian coastal region.

A couple of railways cross the region from east to west. Two reach the foothills of the Andes and connect to Buenos Aires. The main ports in Patagonia are Rawson, Desaeado, Río Gallegos, San Antonio Oeste, and Puerto Madryn.

When visiting Patagonia there is air service throughout the region, though it provides access mainly to coastal towns.

Popular Sites in Patagonia

There are many!

Most notable are Perito Moreno glacier, the Valdés Peninsula, and the Argentine Lake District.

Whale watching is a major event when you visit Península Valdés. This is a protected area in northeastern Argentina, where, in June, southern right whales come to breed in the cold water. The peninsula is also home to 180 species of seabirds as well as seals and sea lions. The central town nearby is Puerto Madryn.

Another noteworthy site is visiting Punta Tombo, the largest Magellanic colony in South America! Birdwatchers can also view giant petrals, black oystercatchers, and kelp gulls, to name a few.

Torres del Paine is the main national park in Patagonia, and it is where backpackers and hikers often start their trips. The park encompasses glaciers, forests, lagoons, and rivers. Trips begin in the Puerto Natales area with a connection to Punta Arenas.

A few additional natural “must-sees” are El Chaltén and Perito Moreno Glacier. El Chaltén is the trekking capital of Patagonia.

Finally, if you make it to Patagonia, be sure to visit Ushuaia, the southernmost city in Argentina! It is a launching port for tourists to Antarctica.

Here are two especially good travel websites for more about visiting Patagonia:


Final Thoughts on Visiting Patagonia

Next time you hear the term “at the end of earth” you might picture that remote, wild region of Patagonia. This vast area still retains the feel of being one of the least-developed and most beautiful places on the globe. Are you planning on visiting Patagonia?

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Patagonia: South American Splendor – Travel Blogs March 26, 2022 - 1:45 pm

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LUANNE March 29, 2022 - 8:57 am

Shelli,Nice article.I had booked a trip to Patagonia before the pandemic and of course had to cancel.Patagonia has been on my go to list for years.Will be rebooking soon.
I would like to suggest a book I’m currently enjoying, A Wild Idea by author Jonathan Franklin. The true story of Doug Tompkins one of the primary founders of conservation and land protection in Patagonia.

Shelli March 29, 2022 - 9:33 am

Thanks so much for adding your good read to the conversation, Luanne. If you haven’t had a chance to watch the videos in the article, they really are wonderful and inspiring, as well. Enjoy your waht I’m sure will be awesome travels to Patagonia, and thanks for reading!


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