Patagonia is a well-known name for a little-known region at the southern ‘end of the world’ that has its own unique magic. One of the planet’s last regions to survive almost unchanged, it encompasses cities originating from the former wool boom, glaciers, and the summits of its national parks. Chile and Argentina share Patagonia. The largest unbroken ice field outside the polar region lies in the western section of Patagonia, on the Chilean side, and spreads over an area of just under 17,000 sq km / 6,564 sq mi. Countless glaciers calve into crystal clear lakes there and decorate them with sparkling icebergs. In the extreme south, is Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), which is the largest island of the South American continent. The Patagonian steppe is home to, among others, nandus, guanacos, foxes and eagles. The southern Patagonian waters, meanwhile, are inhabited by whales, penguins, sea lions and dolphins that can easily be observed.
Originally, the region of present-day Patagonia was inhabited by various Indian tribes, who were either hunters and gatherers or nomads living off fishing. The Selk´Nam and Yamana people are believed to have lived in Tierra del Fuego as long ago as 8000 BC, but they were brutally persecuted and wiped out during the course of the 19th century, when sheep farming was established there. Today, there are no more indigenous tribes on Tierra del Fuego. Central and northern Patagonia was once inhabited by the Tehuelche and Puelche tribes, who became acculturated with the Mapuche from the present-day Lake District, during the 18th century.
The climate of this region is damp and cool. The summer months have less rain. However, they can be very windy. Rain comes from the west here, from the Pacific Ocean, whereby the coastal regions get most of the precipitation, and the mountain areas get less. Patagonia is the only region in the southern hemisphere which has a temperate climate, similar to northern Europe or Canada.
Punta Arenas is the capital of the Magellan region and has a population of 150,000. Due to its strategic location on the Magellan Straight, the city is used by merchant ships to this day. For this reason, as well as the growth in sheep farming during the 19th century, Punta Arenas enjoyed great wealth in the past. The city’s origins can actually be found 60km / 37mi south of Punta Arenas, at the Fuerte Bulnes fortification. This is where the first pioneers lived for five years, before a more suitable spot was located in 1848, after which Punta Arenas was founded. The reconstructed site of this first settlement is now an open-air museum. Apart from the mansions of the sheep barons on Plaza Muñoz Gamero, Punta Arenas’ touristic appeal lies in its cemetery, in particular, whose many family tombs and chapels make it probably the most impressive cemetery in Chile. An excellent view across the entire city with its red, blue and yellow roofs, as well as of the port, can be enjoyed from the summit of the Cerro de la Cruz. Additional attractions here are the Andino ski centre on the edge of town, where visitors can ski and enjoy sea views at the same time; and also the Forestal Magallanes nature reserve. The views from here reach all the way to the Magellan Straight and Tierra del Fuego.
Approximately 250km / 156mi north of Punta Arenas, Puerto Natales is a port with around 20,000 inhabitants, which is the capital of Ultima Esperanza province. For a long time, the population lived from sheep farming and fishing. These days, tourism plays an increasingly important economic role. Puerto Natales is the setting off point for all tours to the renowned Torres del Paine National Park-
The Torres del Paine National Park is around 140km/87mi north of Puerto Natales. Its three granite peaks – the ‘Torres del Paine’ (2650-2800m / 8,695-9,187ft) – reach steeply for the sky, and undoubtedly provide Chile with one of its most famous images. The national park’s area of over 2400 sq km/927 sq mi is Patagonia’s uncontested highlight – if not even for Chile as a whole.