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Region of South America
Location of Patagonia
 • Total 1,043,076 km2 (402,734 sq mi)
 • Total 1,999,540
 • Density 1.916965/km2 (4.964916/sq mi)
Demonym(s) Patagonian
 • Languages Chilean Spanish, Rioplatense Spanish, English, Mapudungun, Welsh

Patagonia is a sparsely populated region at the southern end of South America, governed by Argentina and Chile. The region comprises the southern section of the Andes Mountains, lakes, fjords, and glaciers in the west and deserts, tablelands and steppes to the east. Patagonia is bounded by the Pacific Ocean on the west, the Atlantic Ocean to the east, and many bodies of water that connect them, such as the Strait of Magellan, the Beagle Channel, and the Drake Passage to the south.

The Colorado and Barrancas rivers, which run from the Andes to the Atlantic, are commonly considered the northern limit of Argentine Patagonia. The archipelago of Tierra del Fuego is sometimes included as part of Patagonia. Most geographers and historians locate the northern limit of Chilean Patagonia at Huincul Fault, in Araucanía Region.

At the time of the Spanish arrival, Patagonia was inhabited by multiple indigenous tribes. In a small portion of northwestern Patagonia, indigenous peoples practiced agriculture, while in the remaining territory, peoples lived as hunter-gatherers, traveling by foot in eastern Patagonia or by dugout canoe and dalca in the fjords and channels. In colonial times indigenous peoples of northeastern Patagonian adopted a horseriding lifestyle. While the interest of the Spanish Empire had been chiefly to keep other European powers away from Patagonia, independent Chile and Argentina began to colonize the territory slowly over the course of the 19th and early 20th centuries. This process brought a decline of the indigenous populations, whose lives and habitats were disrupted, while at the same time thousands of Europeans, Argentines, Chilotes and mainland Chileans settled in Patagonia. Border disputes between Argentina and Chile were recurrent in the 20th century. Except for the boundary along the Southern Patagonian Ice Field, all of these disputes have been settled today.

The contemporary economy of eastern Patagonia revolves around sheep farming and oil and gas extraction, while in western Patagonia fishing, salmon aquaculture, and tourism dominate. Culturally, Patagonia has a varied heritage, including Criollo, Mestizo, Indigenous, and non-Iberian European influences.


The name Patagonia comes from the word patagón. Magellan used this term in 1520 to describe the native tribes of the region, whom his expedition thought to be giants. The people he called the Patagons are now believed to have been the Tehuelche, who tended to be taller than Europeans of the time. Argentine researcher Miguel Doura observed that the name Patagonia possibly derives from the ancient Greek region of modern Turkey called Paphlagonia, possible home of the patagon personage in the chivalric romances Primaleon printed in 1512, 10 years before Magellan arrived in these southern lands. This hypothesis was published in a 2011 New Review of Spanish Philology report.

There are various placenames in the Chiloé Archipelago with Chono etymologies despite the main indigenous language of the archipelago at the arrival of the Spanish being veliche. A theory postulated by chronicler José Pérez García explains this holding that the Cuncos (also known as Veliches) settled in Chiloé Island in Pre-Hispanic times as consequence of a push from more northern Huilliches who in turn were being displaced by Mapuches. While being outside traditional Huilliche territory the western Patagonian volcanoes Michimahuida, Hornopirén and Chaitén have Huilliche etymologies.

In Chubut Province modern toponymy has origins in indigenous peoples, Welsh settlers and placenames associated with "the project of the Argentine state".

Population and land area

Largest cities

City Population Province / Region Country
Neuquén 377,500 (Metropolitan area) Neuquén Province Argentina
Temuco 277,529 (Metropolitan area) Araucanía Region Chile
Comodoro Rivadavia 182,631 Chubut Province Argentina
Puerto Montt 169,736 (Metropolitan area) Los Lagos Region Chile
Valdivia 150,048 Los Ríos Region Chile
Osorno 147,666 Los Lagos Region Chile
Punta Arenas 123,403 Magallanes Region Chile
General Roca 120,883 Río Negro Province Argentina
Puerto Madryn 115,353 Chubut Province Argentina
San Carlos de Bariloche 112,887 Río Negro Province Argentina
Santa Rosa 103,241 La Pampa Province Argentina
Trelew 97,915 Chubut Province Argentina
Río Gallegos 95,796 Santa Cruz Province Argentina
Viedma 80,632 Río Negro Province Argentina
Ushuaia 77,819 Tierra del Fuego Province Argentina
Río Grande 67,038 Tierra del Fuego Province Argentina
Coyhaique 49,667 Aysén Region Chile
Esquel 34,900 Chubut Province Argentina

Physical geography

Sea birds and Lighthouse
Island - seabirds and Les Eclaireurs Lighthouse in foreground with mountain rising in background

Argentine Patagonia is for the most part a region of steppe-like plains, rising in a succession of 13 abrupt terraces about 100 m (330 ft) at a time, and covered with an enormous bed of shingle almost bare of vegetation. In the hollows of the plains are ponds or lakes of fresh and brackish water. Towards Chilean territory, the shingle gives way to porphyry, granite, and basalt lavas, and animal life becomes more abundant. Vegetation is more luxuriant, consisting principally of southern beech and conifers. The high rainfall against the western Andes (Wet Andes) and the low sea-surface temperatures offshore give rise to cold and humid air masses, contributing to the ice fields and glaciers, the largest ice fields in the Southern Hemisphere outside of Antarctica.

Among the depressions by which the plateau is intersected transversely, the principal ones are the Gualichu, south of the Río Negro, the Maquinchao and Valcheta (through which previously flowed the waters of Nahuel Huapi Lake, which now feed the Limay River), the Senguerr (spelled Senguer on most Argentine maps and within the corresponding region), and the Deseado River. Besides these transverse depressions (some of them marking lines of ancient interoceanic communication), others were occupied by either more or less extensive lakes, such as the Yagagtoo, Musters, and Colhue Huapi, and others situated to the south of Puerto Deseado in the center of the country.

Across much of Patagonia east of the Andes, volcanic eruptions have created formation of basaltic lava plateaus during the Cenozoic. The plateaus are of different ages with the older –of Neogene and Paleogene age– being located at higher elevations than Pleistocene and Holocene lava plateaus and outcrops.

Arroyo Chenqueniyén - panoramio
Río Negro Province

Erosion, which is caused principally by the sudden melting and retreat of ice aided by tectonic changes, has scooped out a deep longitudinal depression, best in evidence where in contact with folded Cretaceous rocks, which are lifted up by the Cenozoic granite. It generally separates the plateau from the first lofty hills, whose ridges are generally called the pre-Cordillera. To the west of these, a similar longitudinal depression extends all along the foot of the snowy Andean Cordillera. This latter depression contains the richest, most fertile land of Patagonia. Lake basins along the Cordillera were also gradually excavated by ice streams, including Lake Argentino and Lake Fagnano, as well as coastal bays such as Bahía Inútil.


The geological limit of Patagonia has been proposed to be Huincul Fault, which forms a major discontinuity. The fault truncates various structures including the Pampean orogen found further north. The ages of base rocks change abruptly across the fault. Discrepancies have been mentioned among geologists on the origin of the Patagonian landmass. Víctor Ramos has proposed that the Patagonian landmass originated as an allochthonous terrane that separated from Antarctica and docked in South America 250 to 270 Mya in the Permian period. A 2014 study by R.J. Pankhurst and coworkers rejects any idea of a far-traveled Patagonia, claiming it is likely of parautochtonous (nearby) origin.

The Mesozoic and Cenozoic deposits have revealed a most interesting vertebrate fauna. This, together with the discovery of the perfect cranium of a chelonian of the genus Niolamia, which is almost identical to Ninjemys oweni of the Pleistocene age in Queensland, forms an evident proof of the connection between the Australian and South American continents. The Patagonian Niolamia belongs to the Sarmienti Formation. Fossils of the mid-Cretaceous Argentinosaurus, which may be the largest of all dinosaurs, have been found in Patagonia, and a model of the mid-Jurassic Piatnitzkysaurus graces the concourse of the Trelew airport (the skeleton is in the Trelew paleontological museum; the museum's staff has also announced the discovery of a species of dinosaur even bigger than Argentinosaurus). Of more than paleontological interest, the middle Jurassic Los Molles Formation and the still richer late Jurassic (Tithonian) and early Cretaceous (Berriasian) Vaca Muerta formation above it in the Neuquén basin are reported to contain huge hydrocarbon reserves (mostly gas in Los Molles, both gas and oil in Vaca Muerta) partly accessible through hydraulic fracturing. Other specimens of the interesting fauna of Patagonia, belonging to the Middle Cenozoic, are the gigantic wingless birds, exceeding in size any hitherto known, and the singular mammal Pyrotherium, also of very large dimensions. In the Cenozoic marine formation, considerable numbers of cetaceans have been discovered.

During the Oligocene and early Miocene, large swathes of Patagonia were subject to a marine transgression, which might have temporarily linked the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, as inferred from the findings of marine invertebrate fossils of both Atlantic and Pacific affinity in La Cascada Formation. Connection would have occurred through narrow epicontinental seaways that formed channels in a dissected topography. The Antarctic Plate started to subduct beneath South America 14 million years ago in the Miocene, forming the Chile Triple Junction. At first, the Antarctic Plate subducted only in the southernmost tip of Patagonia, meaning that the Chile Triple Junction was located near the Strait of Magellan. As the southern part of the Nazca Plate and the Chile Rise became consumed by subduction, the more northerly regions of the Antarctic Plate began to subduct beneath Patagonia so that the Chile Triple Junction advanced to the north over time. The asthenospheric window associated to the triple junction disturbed previous patterns of mantle convection beneath Patagonia inducing an uplift of c. 1 km that reversed the Miocene transgression.

Political divisions

At a state level, Patagonia occupies an area within two countries: 10% in Chile and 90% in Argentina. Both countries have organized their Patagonian territories into nonequivalent administrative subdivisions: provinces and departments in Argentina, as well as regions, provinces, and communes in Chile. As Chile is a unitary state, its first-level administrative divisions—the regions—enjoy far less autonomy than analogous Argentine provinces. Argentine provinces have elected governors and legislatures, while Chilean regions have government-appointed intendants.

The Patagonian Provinces of Argentina are La Pampa, Neuquén, Río Negro, Chubut, Santa Cruz, and Tierra del Fuego. The southernmost part of Buenos Aires Province can also be considered part of Patagonia.

The two Chilean regions indisputedly located entirely within Patagonia are Aysén and Magallanes. Palena Province, a part of the Los Lagos Region, is also located within Patagonia. By some definitions, Chiloé Archipelago, the rest of the Los Lagos Region, and part of the Los Ríos Region are also part of Patagonia.


Punta Arenas con nieve
View of Punta Arenas, Chile, in winter

The overall climate is cool and dry. The east coast is warmer than the west, especially in summer, as a branch of the southern equatorial current reaches its shores, whereas the west coast is washed by a cold current. However, winters are colder on the inland plateaus east of the slopes and further down the coast on the southeast end of the Patagonian region. For example, at Puerto Montt, on the inlet behind Chiloé Island, the mean annual temperature is 11 °C (52 °F) and the average extremes are 25.5 and −1.5 °C (77.9 and 29.3 °F), whereas at Bahía Blanca near the Atlantic coast and just outside the northern confines of Patagonia, the annual temperature is 15 °C (59 °F) and the range much greater, as temperatures above 35 °C and below −5 °C are recorded every year. At Punta Arenas, in the extreme south, the mean temperature is 6 °C (43 °F) and the average extremes are 24.5 and −2 °C (76.1 and 28.4 °F). The prevailing winds are westerly, and the westward slope has a much heavier precipitation than the eastern in a rainshadow effect; the western islands close to Torres del Paine receive an annual precipitation of 4,000 to 7,000 mm, whilst the eastern hills are less than 800 mm and the plains may be as low as 200 mm annual precipitation.

Precipitation is highly seasonal in northwestern Patagonia. For example, Villa La Angostura in Argentina, close to the border with Chile, receives up to 434 mm of rain and snow in May, 297 mm in June, and 273 in July, compared to 80 in February and 72 in March. The total for the city is 2074 mm, making it one of the rainiest in Argentina. Further west, some areas receive up to 4,000 mm and more, especially on the Chilean side. In the northeast, the seasons for rain are reversed; most rain falls from occasional summer thunderstorms, but totals barely reach 500 mm in the northeast corner, and rapidly decrease to less than 300 mm. The Patagonian west coast, which belongs exclusively to Chile, has a cool oceanic climate, with summer maximum temperatures ranging from 14 °C in the south to 19 °C in the north (and nights between 5 and 11 °C) and very high precipitation, from 2,000 to more than 7,000 mm in local microclimates. Snow is uncommon at the coast in the north, but happens more often in the south, and frost is usually not very intense.

Immediately east from the coast are the Andes, cut by deep fjords in the south and by deep lakes in the north, and with varying temperatures according to the altitude. The tree line ranges from close to 2,000 m on the northern side (except for the Andes in northern Neuquén in Argentina, where sunnier and dryer conditions allow trees to grow up to close to 3,000 m), and diminishes southward to only 600–800 m in Tierra del Fuego. Precipitation changes dramatically from one spot to the other, and diminishes very quickly eastward. An example of this is Laguna Frías, in Argentina, receives 4,400 mm yearly. The city of Bariloche, about 40 km further east, receives about 1,000 mm, and the airport, another 15 km east, receives less than 600 mm. The easterly slopes of the Andes are home to several Argentine cities: San Martín de los Andes, Bariloche, El Bolsón, Esquel, and El Calafate. Temperatures there are milder in the summer (in the north, between 20 and 24 °C, with cold nights between 4 and 9 °C; in the south, summers are between 16 and 20 °C, at night temperatures are similar to the north) and much colder in the winter, with frequent snowfall (although snow cover rarely lasts very long). Daytime highs range from 3 to 9 °C in the north, and from 0 to 7 °C in the south, whereas nights range from −5 to 2 °C everywhere. Cold waves can bring much colder values; a temperature of -21 °C has been recorded in Bariloche, and most places can often have temperatures between −12 and −15 °C and highs staying around 0 °C for a few days.

Lago Buenos Aires Department, Santa Cruz Province, Argentina - panoramio (37)
Santa Cruz Province

Directly east of these areas, the weather becomes much harsher; precipitation drops to between 150 and 300 mm, the mountains no longer protect the cities from the wind, and temperatures become more extreme. Maquinchao is a few hundred kilometers east of Bariloche, at the same altitude on a plateau, and summer daytime temperatures are usually about 5 °C warmer, rising up to 35 °C sometimes, but winter temperatures are much more extreme: the record is −35 °C, and some nights not uncommonly reach 10 °C colder than Bariloche. The plateaus in Santa Cruz province and parts of Chubut usually have snow cover through the winter, and often experience very cold temperatures. In Chile, the city of Balmaceda is known for being situated in this region (which is otherwise almost exclusively in Argentina), and for being the coldest place in Chile, with temperatures below −20 °C every once in a while.

The northern Atlantic coast has warm summers (28 to 32 °C, but with relatively cool nights at 15 °C) and mild winters, with highs around 12 °C and lows about 2–3 °C. Occasionally, temperatures reach −10 or 40 °C, and rainfall is very scarce. The weather only gets a bit colder further south in Chubut, and the city of Comodoro Rivadavia has summer temperatures of 24 to 28 °C, nights of 12 to 16 °C, and winters with days around 10 °C and nights around 3 °C, and less than 250 mm of rain. However, a drastic drop occurs as one moves south to Santa Cruz; Rio Gallegos, in the south of the province, has summer temps of 17 to 21 °C, (nights between 6 and 10 °C) and winter temperatures of 2 to 6 °C, with nights between −5 and 0 °C, despite being right on the coast. Snowfall is common despite the dryness, and temperatures are known to fall to under −18 °C and to remain below freezing for several days in a row. Rio Gallegos is also among the windiest places on Earth, with winds reaching 100 km/h occasionally.

Tierra del Fuego is extremely wet in the west, relatively damp in the south, and dry in the north and east. Summers are cool (13 to 18 °C in the north, 12 to 16 °C in the south, with nights generally between 3 and 8 °C), cloudy in the south, and very windy. Winters are dark and cold, but without the extreme temperatures in the south and west (Ushuaia rarely reaches −10 °C, but hovers around 0 °C for several months, and snow can be heavy). In the east and north, winters are much more severe, with cold snaps bringing temperatures down to −20 °C all the way to Rio Grande on the Atlantic coast. Snow can fall even in the summer in most areas, as well.


Black-browed Albatross, Beagle Channel
Black-browed albatross, near Ushuaia

The guanaco (Lama guanicoe), cougar, the Patagonian fox (Lycalopex griseus), Patagonian hog-nosed skunk (Conepatus humboldtii), and Magellanic tuco-tuco (Ctenomys magellanicus; a subterranean rodent) are the most characteristic mammals of the Patagonian plains. The Patagonian steppe is one of the last strongholds of the guanaco and Darwin's rheas (Rhea pennata), which had been hunted for their skins by the Tehuelches, on foot using boleadoras, before the diffusion of firearms and horses; they were formerly the chief means of subsistence for the natives, who hunted them on horseback with dogs and bolas. Vizcachas (Lagidum spp.) and the Patagonian mara (Dolichotis patagonum) are also characteristic of the steppe and the pampas to the north.

Bird life is often abundant. The crested caracara (Caracara plancus) is one of the characteristic objects of a Patagonian landscape; the presence of austral parakeets (Enicognathus ferrugineus) as far south as the shores of the strait attracted the attention of the earlier navigators, and green-backed firecrowns (Sephanoides sephaniodes), a species of hummingbird, may be seen flying amid the snowfall. One of the largest birds in the world, the Andean condor (Vultur gryphus) can be seen in Patagonia. Of the many kinds of waterfowl the Chilean flamingo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), the upland goose (Chloephaga picta), and in the strait, the remarkable steamer ducks are found.

Signature marine fauna include the southern right whale, the Magellanic penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus), the killer whale, and elephant seals. The Valdés Peninsula is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, designated for its global significance as a site for the conservation of marine mammals.

The Patagonian freshwater fish fauna is relatively restricted compared to other similar Southern Hemisphere regions. The Argentine part is home to a total of 29 freshwater fish species, 18 of which are native. The introduced are several species of trout, common carp, and various species that originated in more northerly parts of South America. The natives are osmeriforms (Aplochiton and Galaxias), temperate perches (Percichthys), catfish (Diplomystes, Hatcheria and Trichomycterus), Neotropical silversides (Odontesthes) and characiforms (Astyanax, Cheirodon, Gymnocharacinus, and Oligosarcus). Other Patagonian freshwater fauna include the highly unusual aeglid crustacean.


Pre-Columbian Patagonia (10,000 BC – AD 1520)

Pueblos indígenas de la Patagonia Austral
Map of the indigenous peoples of Southern Patagonia

Human habitation of the region dates back thousands of years, with some early archaeological findings in the area dated to at least the 13th millennium BC, although later dates around the 10th millennium BC are more securely recognized. Evidence exists of human activity at Monte Verde in Llanquihue Province, Chile, dated to around 12,500 BC. The glacial-period ice fields and subsequent large meltwater streams would have made settlement difficult at that time.

The region seems to have been inhabited continuously since 10,000 BC, by various cultures and alternating waves of migration, the details of which are as yet poorly understood. Several sites have been excavated, notably caves such as Cueva del Milodon in Última Esperanza in southern Patagonia, and Tres Arroyos on Tierra del Fuego, that support this date. Hearths, stone scrapers, animal remains dated to 9400–9200 BC have been found east of the Andes.

Cueva de las Manos site in Santa Cruz, Argentina

The Cueva de las Manos is a famous site in Santa Cruz, Argentina. This cave at the foot of a cliff is covered in wall paintings, particularly the negative images of hundreds of hands, believed to date from around 8000 BC.

Based on artifacts found in the region, apparently hunting of guanaco, and to a lesser extent rhea (ñandú), were the primary food sources of tribes living on the eastern plains. Whether the megafauna of Patagonia, including the ground sloth and horse, were extinct in the area before the arrival of humans is unclear, although this is now the more widely accepted account. It is also not clear if domestic dogs were part of early human activity. Bolas are commonly found and were used to catch guanaco and rhea. A maritime tradition existed along the Pacific coast, whose latest exponents were the Yaghan (Yámana) to the south of Tierra del Fuego, the Kaweshqar between Taitao Peninsula and Tierra del Fuego, and the Chono people in the Chonos Archipelago.

The indigenous peoples of the region included the Tehuelches, whose numbers and society were reduced to near extinction not long after the first contacts with Europeans. Tehuelches included the Gununa'kena to the north, Mecharnuekenk in south central Patagonia, and the Aonikenk or Southern Tehuelche in the far south, north of the Magellan strait. On Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego, the Selk'nam (Ona) and Haush (Manek'enk) lived in the north and southeast, respectively. In the archipelagos to the south of Tierra del Fuego were Yámana, with the Kawéskar (Alakaluf) in the coastal areas and islands in western Tierra del Fuego and the south west of the mainland. In the Patagonian archipelagoes north of Taitao Peninsula lived the Chonos. These groups were encountered in the first periods of European contact with different lifestyles, body decoration and language, although it is unclear when this configuration emerged.

Towards the end of the 16th century, Mapuche-speaking agriculturalists penetrated the western Andes and from there across into the eastern plains and down to the far south. Through confrontation and technological ability, they came to dominate the other peoples of the region in a short period of time, and are the principal indigenous community today. The Mapuche model of domination through technological superiority and armed confrontation was later repeated as Europeans implemented a succeeding, but conceptually identical cycle, essentially replacing the position of the former dominators with a new, albeit predominately European class.

Early European exploration (1520–1669)

Nao Victoria, the replica of the first ship to pass through the Strait of Magellan

Navigators such as Gonçalo Coelho and Amerigo Vespucci possibly had reached the area (his own account of 1502 has it that they reached the latitude 52°S), but Vespucci's failure to accurately describe the main geographical features of the region such as the Río de la Plata casts doubts on whether they really did so.

The first or more detailed description of part of the coastline of Patagonia is possibly mentioned in a Portuguese voyage in 1511–1512, traditionally attributed to captain Diogo Ribeiro, who after his death was replaced by Estevão de Frois, and was guided by the pilot and cosmographer João de Lisboa). The explorers, after reaching Rio de la Plata (which they would explore on the return voyage, contacting the Charrúa and other peoples) eventually reached San Matias Gulf, at 42°S. The expedition reported that after going south of the 40th parallel, they found a "land" or a "point extending into the sea", and further south, a gulf. The expedition is said to have rounded the gulf for nearly 300 km (186 mi) and sighted the continent on the southern side of the gulf.

The Atlantic coast of Patagonia was first fully explored in 1520 by the Spanish expedition led by Ferdinand Magellan, who on his passage along the coast named many of its more striking features – San Matías Gulf, Cape of 11,000 Virgins (now simply Cape Virgenes), and others. Magellan's fleet spent a difficult winter at what he named Puerto San Julián before resuming its voyage further south on 21 August 1520. During this time, it encountered the local inhabitants, likely to be Tehuelche people, described by his reporter, Antonio Pigafetta, as giants called Patagons.

The territory became the Spanish colony of the Governorate of New Léon, granted in 1529 to Governor Simón de Alcazaba y Sotomayor [es], part of the Governorates of the Spanish Empire of the Americas. The territory was redefined in 1534 and consisted the southernmost part of the South American continent and the islands towards Antarctica.

Rodrigo de Isla, sent inland in 1535 from San Matías by Simón de Alcazaba y Sotomayor (on whom western Patagonia had been conferred by Charles I of Spain, is presumed to have been the first European to have traversed the great Patagonian plain. If the men under his charge had not mutinied, he might have crossed the Andes to reach the Pacific coast.

Pedro de Mendoza, on whom the country was next bestowed, founded Buenos Aires, but did not venture south. Alonso de Camargo [es] (1539), Juan Ladrilleros (1557), and Hurtado de Mendoza (1558) helped to make known the Pacific coasts, and while Sir Francis Drake's voyage in 1577 down the Atlantic coast, through the Strait of Magellan and northward along the Pacific coast was memorable, yet the descriptions of the geography of Patagonia owe much more to the Spanish explorer Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (1579–1580), who, devoting himself especially to the south-west region, made careful and accurate surveys. The settlements that he founded at Nombre de Jesús and San Felipe were neglected by the Spanish government, the latter being abandoned before Thomas Cavendish visited it in 1587 during his circumnavigation, and so desolate that he called it Port Famine. After the discovery of the route around Cape Horn, the Spanish Crown lost interest in southern Patagonia until the 18th century, when the coastal settlements Carmen de Patagones, San José, Puerto Deseado, and Nueva Colonia Floridablanca were established, although it maintained its claim of a de jure sovereignty over area.

In 1669, the district around Puerto Deseado was explored by John Davis and was claimed in 1670 by Sir John Narborough for King Charles II of England, but the English made no attempt to establish settlements or explore the interior.

Patagonian giants: early European perceptions

The first European explorers of Patagonia observed that the indigenous people in the region were taller than the average Europeans of the time, prompting some of them to believe that Patagonians were giants.

According to Antonio Pigafetta, one of the Magellan expedition's few survivors and its published chronicler, Magellan bestowed the name Patagão (or Patagón) on the inhabitants they encountered there, and the name "Patagonia" for the region. Although Pigafetta's account does not describe how this name came about, subsequent popular interpretations gave credence to a derivation meaning "land of the big feet". However, this etymology is questionable. The term is most likely derived from an actual character name, "Patagón", a savage creature confronted by Primaleón of Greece, the hero in the homonymous Spanish chivalry novel (or knight-errantry tale) by Francisco Vázquez. This book, published in 1512, was the sequel of the romance Palmerín de Oliva;it was much in vogue at the time, and a favorite reading of Magellan. Magellan's perception of the natives, dressed in skins, and eating raw meat, clearly recalled the uncivilized Patagón in Vázquez's book. Novelist and travel writer Bruce Chatwin suggests etymological roots of both Patagon and Patagonia in his book, In Patagonia, noting the similarity between "Patagon" and the Greek word παταγος, which means "a roaring" or "gnashing of teeth" (in his chronicle, Pigafetta describes the Patagonians as "roaring like bulls").

An 1840s illustration of indigenous Patagonians from near the Straits of Magellan, from Voyage au pole sud et dans l'Océanie by French explorer Jules Dumont d'Urville

The main interest in the region sparked by Pigafetta's account came from his reports of their meeting with the local inhabitants, whom they claimed to measure some 9 to 12 feet in height – "so tall that we reached only to his waist" – hence the later idea that Patagonia meant "big feet". This supposed race of Patagonian giants or Patagones entered into the common European perception of this then little-known and distant area, to be further fueled by subsequent reports of other expeditions and famous travelers such as Sir Francis Drake, which seemed to confirm these accounts. Early charts of the New World sometimes added the legend regio gigantum ("region of the giants") to the Patagonian area. By 1611, the Patagonian god Setebos (Settaboth in Pigafetta) was familiar to the hearers of The Tempest.

The concept and general belief persisted for a further 250 years, and was to be sensationally reignited in 1767 when an "official" (but anonymous) account was published of Commodore John Byron's recent voyage of global circumnavigation in HMS Dolphin. Byron and crew had spent some time along the coast, and the publication (Voyage Round the World in His Majesty's Ship the Dolphin) seemed to give proof positive of their existence; the publication became an overnight bestseller, thousands of extra copies were to be sold to a willing public, and other prior accounts of the region were hastily republished (even those in which giant-like folk were not mentioned at all).

However, the Patagonian giant frenzy died down substantially only a few years later, when some more sober and analytical accounts were published. In 1773, John Hawkesworth published on behalf of the Admiralty a compendium of noted English southern-hemisphere explorers' journals, including that of James Cook and John Byron. In this publication, drawn from their official logs, the people Byron's expedition had encountered clearly were no taller than 6-foot-6-inch (1.98 m), very tall but by no means giants. Interest soon subsided, although awareness of and belief in the concept persisted in some quarters even into the 20th century.

Spanish outposts

The Spanish failure at colonizing the Strait of Magellan made Chiloé Archipelago assume the role of protecting the area of western Patagonia from foreign intrusions. Valdivia, reestablished in 1645, and Chiloé acted as sentries, being hubs where the Spanish collected information and rumors from all over Patagonia.

As a result of the corsair and pirate menace, Spanish authorities ordered the depopulation of the Guaitecas Archipelago to deprive enemies of any eventual support from native populations. This then led to the transfer of the majority of the indigenous Chono population to the Chiloé Archipelago in the north while some Chonos moved south of Taitao Peninsula effectively depopulating the territory in the 18th century.

Scientific exploration (1764–1842)

In the second half of the 18th century, European knowledge of Patagonia was further augmented by the voyages of the previously mentioned John Byron (1764–1765), Samuel Wallis (1766, in the same HMS Dolphin which Byron had earlier sailed in) and Louis Antoine de Bougainville (1766). Thomas Falkner, a Jesuit who resided near forty years in those parts, published his Description of Patagonia (Hereford, 1774); Francisco Viedma founded El Carmen, nowadays Carmen de Patagones and Antonio settled the area of San Julian Bay, where he founded the colony of Floridablanca and advanced inland to the Andes (1782). Basilio Villarino ascended the Rio Negro (1782).

Tehuelche warriors in Patagonia

Two hydrographic surveys of the coasts were of first-rate importance; the first expedition (1826–1830) included HMS Adventure and HMS Beagle under Phillip Parker King, and the second (1832–1836) was the voyage of the Beagle under Robert FitzRoy. The latter expedition is particularly noted for the participation of Charles Darwin, who spent considerable time investigating various areas of Patagonia onshore, including long rides with gauchos in Río Negro, and who joined FitzRoy in a 200 mi (320 km) expedition taking ships' boats up the course of the Santa Cruz River.

Spanish American independence wars

During the independence wars rumours about the imminent arrival of Spanish troops to Patagonia, either from Peru or Chiloé, were common among indigenous peoples of the Pampas and northern Patagonia. In 1820 Chilean patriot leader José Miguel Carrera allied with the indigenous Ranquel people of the Pampas in order to fight the rival patriots in Buenos Aires. José Miguel Carrera ultimately planned to cross the Andes into Chile and oust his rivals in Chile.

The last royalist armed group in what is today Argentina and Chile, the Pincheira brothers, moved from the vicinities of Chillán across the Andes into northern Patagonia as patriots consolidated control of Chile. The Pincheira brothers was an outlaw gang made of Europeans Spanish, American Spanish, Mestizos and local indigenous peoples. This group was able to move to Patagonia thanks to its alliance with two indigenous tribes, the Ranqueles and the Boroanos. In the interior of Patagonia, far from the de facto territory of Chile and the United Provinces, the Pincheira brothers established permanent encampment with thousands of settlers. From their bases the Pincheiras led numerous raids into the countryside of the newly established republics.

Chilean and Argentine colonization (1843–1902)

In the early 19th century, the araucanization of the natives of northern Patagonia intensified, and many Mapuches migrated to Patagonia to live as nomads that raised cattle or pillaged the Argentine countryside. The cattle stolen in the incursions (malones) were later taken to Chile through the mountain passes and traded for goods, especially alcoholic beverages. The main trail for this trade was called Camino de los chilenos and runs a length around 1000 km from the Buenos Aires Province to the mountain passes of Neuquén Province. The lonco Calfucurá crossed the Andes from Chile to the pampas around 1830, after a call from the governor of Buenos Aires, Juan Manuel de Rosas, to fight the Boroano people. In 1859, he attacked Bahía Blanca in Argentina with 3,000 warriors. As in the case of Calfucura, many other bands of Mapuches got involved in the internal conflicts of Argentina until Conquest of the Desert. To counter the cattle raids, a trench called the Zanja de Alsina was built by Argentina in the pampas in the 1870s.

Mapa ARGENTINA frontera
Map of the advance of the Argentina frontier until the establishment of zanja de Alsina

In the mid-19th century, the newly independent nations of Argentina and Chile began an aggressive phase of expansion into the south, increasing confrontation with the Indigenous peoples of the region. In 1860, French adventurer Orelie-Antoine de Tounens proclaimed himself king of the Kingdom of Araucanía and Patagonia of the Mapuche.

Following the last instructions of Bernardo O'Higgins, the Chilean president Manuel Bulnes sent an expedition to the Strait of Magellan and founded Fuerte Bulnes in 1843. Five years later, the Chilean government moved the main settlement to the current location of Punta Arenas, the oldest permanent settlement in Southern Patagonia. The creation of Punta Arenas was instrumental in making Chile's claim of the Strait of Magellan permanent. In the 1860s, sheep from the Falkland Islands were introduced to the lands around the Straits of Magellan, and throughout the 19th century, sheepfarming grew to be the most important economic sector in southern Patagonia.

George Chaworth Musters in 1869 wandered in company with a band of Tehuelches through the whole length of the country from the strait to the Manzaneros in the northwest, and collected a great deal of information about the people and their mode of life.

Conquest of the desert and the 1881 treaty

Under General Roca, the Conquest of the Desert extended Argentine power into Patagonia

Argentine authorities worried that the strong connections araucanized tribes had with Chile would allegedly give Chile certain influence over the pampas. Argentine authorities feared that in an eventual war with Chile over Patagonia, the natives would side with the Chileans and the war would be brought to the vicinity of Buenos Aires.

The decision to plan and execute the Conquest of the Desert was probably catalyzed by the 1872 attack of Cufulcurá and his 6,000 followers on the cities of General Alvear, Veinticinco de Mayo, and Nueve de Julio, where 300 criollos were killed, and 200,000 heads of cattle taken. In the 1870s, the Conquest of the Desert was a controversial campaign by the Argentine government, executed mainly by General Julio Argentino Roca, to subdue or, some claim, to exterminate the native peoples of the south.

In 1885, a mining expeditionary party under the Romanian adventurer Julius Popper landed in southern Patagonia in search of gold, which they found after traveling southwards towards the lands of Tierra del Fuego. This led to the further opening up of the area to prospectors. European missionaries and settlers arrived throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, notably the Welsh settlement of the Chubut Valley. Numerous Croatians also settled in Patagonia.

Welsh settlement in Patagonia

During the first years of the 20th century, the border between the two nations in Patagonia was established by the mediation of the British crown. Numerous modifications have been made since then, the last conflict having been resolved in 1994 by an arbitration tribunal constituted in Rio de Janeiro. It granted Argentina sovereignty over the Southern Patagonia Icefield, Cerro Fitz Roy, and Laguna del Desierto.

Until 1902, a large proportion of Patagonia's population were natives of Chiloé Archipelago (Chilotes), who worked as peons in large livestock-farming estancias. Because they were manual laborers, their social status was below that of the gauchos and the Argentine, Chilean, and European landowners and administrators.

Before and after 1902, when the boundaries were drawn, Argentina expelled many Chilotes from their territory, as they feared that having a large Chilean population in Argentina could pose a risk to their future control. These workers founded the first inland Chilean settlement in what is now the Aysén Region; Balmaceda. Lacking good grasslands on the forest-covered Chilean side, the immigrants burned down the forest, setting fires that could last more than two years.


Ovejas afuera de un galpon de esquila SETF
Tierra del Fuego sheep ranch, 1942: The region's primary activity then, it has been eclipsed by the decline in the global wool market as much as by petroleum and gas extraction.

The area's principal economic activities have been mining, whaling, livestock (notably sheep throughout) agriculture (wheat and fruit production near the Andes towards the north), and oil after its discovery near Comodoro Rivadavia in 1907.

Energy production is also a crucial part of the local economy. Railways were planned to cover continental Argentine Patagonia to serve the oil, mining, agricultural, and energy industries, and a line was built connecting San Carlos de Bariloche to Buenos Aires. Portions of other lines were built to the south, but the only lines still in use are La Trochita in Esquel, the Train of the End of the World in Ushuaia, both heritage lines, and a short run Tren Histórico de Bariloche to Perito Moreno.

In the western forest-covered Patagonian Andes and archipelagoes, wood logging has historically been an important part of the economy; it impelled the colonization of the areas of the Nahuel Huapi and Lácar lakes in Argentina and Guaitecas Archipelago in Chile.


Mustering sheep in Patagonia
Gauchos mustering sheep in Patagonia

Sheep farming introduced in the late 19th century has been a principal economic activity. After reaching its heights during the First World War, the decline in world wool prices affected sheep farming in Argentina. Nowadays, about half of Argentina's 15 million sheep are in Patagonia, a percentage that is growing as sheep farming disappears in the pampas to the north. Chubut (mainly Merino) is the top wool producer with Santa Cruz (Corriedale and some Merino) second. Sheep farming revived in 2002 with the devaluation of the peso and firmer global demand for wool (led by China and the EU). Still, little investment occurs in new abattoirs (mainly in Comodoro Rivadavia, Trelew, and Rio Gallegos), and often phytosanitary restrictions reduce the export of sheep meat. Extensive valleys in the Cordilleran range have provided sufficient grazing lands, and the low humidity and weather of the southern region make raising Merino and Corriedale sheep common.

Livestock also includes small numbers of cattle, and in lesser numbers, pigs and horses. Sheep farming provides a small but important number of jobs for rural areas with little other employment.


Ballenas en Península Valdès
Whale watching off the Valdes Peninsula

In the second half of the 20th century, tourism became an ever more important part of Patagonia's economy. Originally a remote backpacking destination, the region has attracted increasing numbers of upmarket visitors, cruise passengers rounding Cape Horn or visiting Antarctica, and adventure and activity holiday-makers. Principal tourist attractions include the Perito Moreno glacier, the Valdés Peninsula, the Argentine Lake District and Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego (the city is also a jumping-off place for travel to Antarctica, bringing in still more visitors). Tourism has created new markets locally and for export for traditional crafts such as Mapuche handicrafts, guanaco textiles, and confectionery and preserves.

A spin-off from increased tourism has been the buying of often enormous tracts of land by foreigners, often as a prestige purchase rather than for agriculture. Buyers have included Sylvester Stallone, Ted Turner, and Christopher Lambert, and most notably Luciano Benetton, Patagonia's largest landowner. His "Compañia de Tierras Sud" has brought new techniques to the ailing sheep-rearing industry and sponsored museums and community facilities, but has been controversial particularly for its treatment of local Mapuche communities.


La Trochita on its Chubut Province route: Formerly the sole rapid transport means in the province, La Trochita is now a tourist attraction.

Due to its sparse rainfall in agricultural areas, Argentine Patagonia already has numerous dams for irrigation, some of which are also used for hydropower. The Limay River is used to generate hydroelectricity at five dams built on its course: Alicurá, Piedra del Águila, Pichi Picún Leufú, El Chocón, and Arroyito. Together with the Cerros Colorados Complex on the Neuquén River, they contribute more than one-quarter of the total hydroelectric generation in the country. Coal is mined in the Rio Turbio area and used for electricity generation. Patagonia's notorious winds have already made the area Argentina's main source of wind power, and plans have been made for major increases in wind power generation.


Argentine Patagonian cuisine is largely the same as the cuisine of Buenos Aires – grilled meats and pasta – with extensive use of local ingredients and less use of those products that have to be imported into the region. Lamb is considered the traditional Patagonian meat, grilled for several hours over an open fire. Some guide books have reported that game, especially guanaco and introduced deer and boar, are popular in restaurant cuisine. However, since the guanaco is a protected animal in both Chile and Argentina, it is unlikely to appear commonly as restaurant fare. Trout and centolla (king crab) are also common, though overfishing of centolla has made it increasingly scarce. In the area around Bariloche, a noted Alpine cuisine tradition remains, with chocolate bars and even fondue restaurants, and tea rooms are a feature of the Welsh communities in Gaiman and Trevelin, as well as in the mountains. Since the mid-1990s, some success with winemaking has occurred in Argentine Patagonia, especially in Neuquén.

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See also

Kids robot.svg In Spanish: Patagonia para niños

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