Encompassing the southern tip of the South American continent, Patagonia is truly an end-of-the-world place. The Chilean portion has the vast, desolate steppe found in Argentina, but in the areas west of the Andes, there are also forests of conifers and beech. Here high precipitation and cold air have combined to create the huge Northern and Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, with massive glaciers spilling into numerous fjords.
In the astonishingly scenic 600,000-acre Torres del Paine National Park, dramatic granite spires tower above pristine crystalline lakes dotted with icebergs. Wildflowers carpet the windswept steppes, and the landscape teems with bird and animal species, including black-necked swans, condors, ostrich-like rheas and herds of fluffy guanacos (cousins to the llama). This is paradise for lovers of the great outdoors, though potential visitors should bear in mind that the weather is unpredictable, the wind blows almost ceaselessly, and the climate can be severe.
The Origin of “Patagonia”
The name “Patagonia” comes from the Spanish word “patagón.” This has been translated as “big foot.” In 1520, it was used by Magellan to describe the natives, who his expedition’s members thought must be giants. It is now believed that the people he called the Patagons were in fact Tehuelches, who tended to be taller than Europeans of the time.
The Cueva del Milodón is a paleontological site, discovered in 1895 by settler Hermann Eberhard, that comprises caves that were once home to a giant prehistoric sloth called the mylodon. The caves are dramatic, but we found the surrounding countryside even more interesting, as it is rich with a fascinating range of distinctive plants and animals.
One of the most fascinating sights in Patagonia is the Perito Moreno Glacier in Los Glaciares National Park. Spanning more than 121 square miles, this 80-meter-thick block of ice is a famous cyclical monument that features a glacier arch that collapses into the lake below every two to four years. This is the only glacier in the world that is growing rather than diminishing, and the reasoning as to why is still unexplained.
A Book on Wildlife
If you wish to learn more about the wildlife you will encounter in Chilean Patagonia, you should read “A Wildlife Guide to Chile,” by Sharon Chester, which is extremely thorough and richly illustrated.