An immense land of arid steppe, seemingly stretching into infinity, Patagonia is famed for its adventures and adventurers, for marvellous myths and fabulous facts. Its geographical immensity is paralleled only by the size of its reputation – which itself has taken on legendary proportions, thanks partly to writers such as Chatwin, Hudson and Theroux, as well as Charles Darwin. As a region of extremes, it has few equals in the world: from the biting winds that howl off the Southern Patagonian Icecap – the planet’s largest area of permanent ice away from the poles – to the hearthside warmth of old-time Patagonian hospitality; from the lowest point on the South American continent, the Gran Bajo de San Julián, to the savagely beautiful peaks of the Fitz Roy massif; from the mesmerizingly sterile plains along the coastline to the astoundingly rich marine fauna that thrives and breeds just offshore.
One of southern Argentina’s principal arteries, the RN-3 stretches from the capital all the way down to austral Río Gallegos. The highlight of this Atlantic fringe of Patagonia is the wildlife, most notably at the nature reserve of Península Valdés, famous for its whale-watching, but also at Punta Tombo, the continent’s largest penguin colony. Further south, in Santa Cruz Province, colonies of sea birds perch on spectacular porphyry cliffs at Puerto Deseado and playful Commerson’s dolphins frolic in the ría, or estuary, just outside the town. This coastal area was key in defining the Patagonian pioneering spirit: Welsh settlers landed on a beach just south of Península Valdés, at what is now the resort town of Puerto Madryn, and gradually ventured into the Lower Chubut Valley. You can explore their cultural legacy in settlements such as Gaiman and Trelew.
The second main road running through Argentine Patagonia is the famous RN-40 (Ruta 40), which starts at Cabo Vírgenes, the most southerly point of mainland Argentina, and hugs the Andean backbone most of the way all the way up to the country’s northerly tip. Some of the destinations in this western fringe are difficult to reach without your own transport (and not always that easy with it) but it is along or close by this route that you’ll find Argentine Patagonia’s hallmark features: a slew of impressive national parks brimming with wild beauty, a series of great mountain lakes, the finest spit-roast lamb asados and some unique skies. The Cañón of Río Pinturas is home to one of Argentina’s most famous archeological sites, the Cueva de las Manos Pintadas, with its striking, age-old rock art; to the west two beautiful, wind-whipped lakes, Posadas and Pueyrredón, lie in a seldom-visited area in the lee of stately San Lorenzo peak. Further north is an outstanding geological curiosity, the Bosque Petrificado Sarmiento, a beguiling collection of ancient fossilized trees, while to the south stretches the wilderness of Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, one of the most inaccessible – and, consequently, untouched – of Argentina’s national parks, with some excellent hiking trails.
The region’s climax is reached, however, with two of the country’s star attractions: the trekking and climbing paradise of the Fitz Roy sector of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, accessed from the laidback village of El Chaltén; and the patriotically blue-and-white hues of craggy Glaciar Perito Moreno, one of the world’s natural wonders, within easy reach of the tourist hotspot of El Calafate.
For over ten thousand years, before the arrival of European seafarers in the sixteenth century, Patagonia was exclusively the domain of nomadic indigenous tribes. It was Magellan who coined the name “Patagonia” on landing at Bahía San Julián. The tales related by these early mariners awed and frightened their countrymen back home, mutating into myths of a godless region where death often struck hard.
Two centuries of sporadic attempts to colonize the inhospitable coastlands only partially ameliorated Patagonia’s unwholesome aura. In 1779, the Spanish established Carmen de Patagones, which managed to survive as a trading centre on the Patagonian frontier. In doing so, it fared considerably better than other early settlements: Puerto de los Leones, near Camarones (1535); Nombre de Jesús, by the Magellan Straits (late 1580s); Floridablanca, near San Julián (1784); and San José on the Península Valdés, all failed miserably, the latter crushed by a Tehuelche attack in 1810 after braving it out for twenty years. Change was afoot, nevertheless. In 1848, Chile founded Punta Arenas on the Magellan Straits, and in 1865, fired by their visionary faith, a group of Welsh Nonconformists arrived in the Lower Chubut Valley. Rescued from starvation in the early years by Tehuelche tribespeople and Argentine government subsidies, they managed to establish a stable agricultural colony by the mid-1870s.
In the late nineteenth century, Patagonia changed forever with the introduction of sheep, originally brought across from the Islas Malvinas/Falkland Islands. The region’s image shifted from one of hostility and hardship to that of an exciting frontier, where the “white gold” of wool opened the path to fabulous fortunes for pioneer investors. The transformation was complete within a generation: the plains were fenced in and roads were run from the coast to the cordillera. Native populations were booted out of their ancestral lands, while foxes and pumas were poisoned en masse to make way for gigantic estancias. By the early 1970s, there were over sixteen million sheep grazing the fragile pastures on over a thousand of these ranches. Later, the region’s confidence and wealth blossomed further with the discovery of oil, spurring the growth of industry in towns such as Comodoro Rivadavia.
Plummeting international wool prices and desertification, though, eventually brought sheep farming to its knees, with the final blow being the eruption of Volcán Hudson in 1991, which buried immense areas of grazing land in choking ash. To make matters worse, the oil industry also went through a massive downturn and shed thousands of jobs.
The corner has since been turned, however, and today the picture is far from bleak. Although there are hundreds of abandoned estancias in Santa Cruz alone, the Patagonian economy is once again booming – wool prices have been steadily rising owing to rocketing demand in emerging economies and a worldwide interest in a return to natural fibres. Perhaps more importantly for the region’s economic future, tourist numbers are also rising sharply, as visitors come looking for a wild experience in an almost mythical land. This swelling interest has helped rekindle regional pride to the point where locals boast of being NYC – Nacido y Criado (Born and Bred) – in Patagonia.