There’s more to its sheer magnificence than meets the eye
For those who think that the world has run out of wild, unspoiled places, there’s Patagonia. Here, massive walls of granite huddle around emerald-green valleys. Crystalline waterfalls cascade into babbling brooks and rivers. Glaciers crawl into turquoise lakes, sculpting landscapes in their path.
It’s easy to forget that a rich history has unfolded in places of such beauty, that such a stunning backdrop has been a breathtaking stage to discovery and drama. In the spirit of insight that only a Discovery Tours small group can provide, we’re delighted to share some of it with you here.
There Be Giants
Ferdinand Magellan first brought this splendid part of the world to Europe’s attention when he landed on its shores in 1520. No doubt the magnificent beauty of the land was breathtaking to him and his crew. But you might imagine that its towering rock massifs and labyrinthine waterways were a bit intimidating.
It’s believed that one of Magellan’s first human encounters was with the Tehuelches. Members of this indigenous tribe were much taller than the Europeans of Magellan’s day, and they wore oversized leather moccasins that left larger-than-life footprints on beaches and in marshes. Legend tells us that when the Spanish explorers first saw these footprints, they thought they had landed in a land of giants. They noted in their journals that they had discovered the land of patagón, or “big foot.” The name stuck, and even maps of the New World drawn up after those first voyages depicted this largely uncharted area as regio gigantum, or “region of the giants.”
Later expeditions proved that the indigenous people of this newfound land were not literal giants, though at 6-foot-6, they did tower over Europeans. Still, everything here is gargantuan and dwarfs any human, no matter their shoe size. Vast plains stretch to forever. Monolithic rock faces reach to the heavens. Glaciers advance and recede over landscapes like icy sloths. And serpentine waterways wind their way through it all, coursing past fertile shores and feeding forests of exotic lenga and coihue trees and ferns. It must have seemed a lost world to those first explorers, far removed from anything they had ever witnessed. And so it is for today’s travelers, too.
Darwin Explores and Europe Expands
Though known mostly for his Galapagos Islands exploration and subsequent theories of evolution, Charles Darwin spent his early days collecting and cataloguing rocks and local species in Patagonia. His colleague Robert FitzRoy—a scientist and vice admiral of the Royal Navy—had invited him in 1831 to accompany a voyage on the HMS Beagle to chart South America’s coast. During their time in Patagonia, the young Darwin not only gathered substantial insect and marine samples; he also became fascinated by fossils and explored inland with local gauchos to pursue his curiosities further.
While Darwin was busily collecting samples, Mapuche nomads (a collection of indigenous tribes) were migrating into Patagonia from the north. They settled throughout the region to raise cattle or—with Europeans gaining more control and more land—to steal cattle from settlers. As the decades unfolded, conflicts erupted, with concerns from Argentina that the Mapuche would ally themselves with Chile, which seemed more sympathetic to tribal causes. At one point, Argentina even dug a huge trench and erected watchtowers—a barricade known as the Zanja de Alsina—to deflect cattle raids on Buenos Aires.
By 1870, Chile had established its authority in the western half of Patagonia by founding the city of Punta Arenas. As for Argentina, tensions with the Mapuche rose to the point where they marched into the eastern regions and called them their own, a conflict known as the Conquest of the Desert. It wasn’t until the beginning of the 20th century that a firm Patagonian border was agreed to between Chile and Argentina; by then, the British had formed some Welsh settlements in search of gold. The Crown stepped in to mediate any remaining dispute.
Priceless Natural Treasures Preserved
The 20th century ushered in the modern development of Patagonia—though, truth be told, it remains one of the least developed parts of the world, thanks to both local and international preservation efforts. The Argentinean outpost town of El Calafate, once a place for wool traders to simply hang their hats for a few days, was officially founded in 1927 to bring attention to settlement opportunities in the region. To be sure, it must have been very tempting to live in such a pristine place, with Lago Argentino, the country’s largest freshwater lake, right outside your door.
Little did the locals know that just ten years later, in 1937, the Perito Moreno Glacier would attract international interest among the pre-war leisure set. As the crowds grew in number, it became clear that this unspoiled region was at risk, and so the Perito Moreno National Park was established. Its massive glacier spills into Lago Argentino and is a remarkable sight to behold: a glistening three miles wide and up to 240 feet tall, almost as high as a football field is long. It is the largest ice cap outside Antarctica and Greenland and is actually growing year to year.
Just across the border in Chile, the rock-wall massifs of Torres del Paine National Park reach to the sky like so many fingers. The world was introduced to these spectacularly jagged mountains by British travel writer Lady Florence Dixie, who in 1880 described three particular granite towers as “Cleopatra’s Needles.” She and her party could well have been the first foreign tourists to visit. You can be sure that many more followed, including curious scientists, geologists, and adventurers. Since 1978, the park’s 700 square miles have been protected as a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve.
Cleopatra’s Needles and the park’s countless other granite pillars form massive rings around the great Patagonian Steppe. Many have compared the visual effect of these natural walls to that of a mighty cathedral. One thing is certain: their transporting beauty is made more transcendent by the park’s azure lakes, emerald forests, thundering waterfalls, and ice-blue glaciers.
A History as Grand as Its Setting
History, indeed, does whisper within this spectacular setting. We invite you to peel back its layers in a Discovery Tours small group.