Autumn colors of Patagonia
Image credit: Justin Vidamo [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr

Several months before my wife, Morgen, turned 30 (that would be… let’s see… mumble mumble years ago), she decided that she wanted to celebrate that milestone by taking a grand trip that would be, in a sense, a sort of pilgrimage. No one has to twist my arm to talk me into going on vacation, especially if it’s to some exotic, faraway place. But I told Morgen that the decision where to go should be hers alone: my only input in the process would be smiling and nodding. “You tell me where you want to go,” I said, “and I’ll be there.” For a while she was thinking seriously about going to Spain and doing the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. Then she started talking about Rome. After that, it was Australia, and for many weeks I thought she was leaning strongly in that direction. Then one day that summer she announced that she’d reached a final, irrevocable decision. “Where are we going?” I asked. She replied, matter-of-factly, “Patagonia.” I smiled and nodded and said, “Great!” And then I thought for a moment and added, “Where’s Patagonia?”

For a great while thereafter, virtually every time I told friends or family about our two-week trip, they had the same reaction. “Patagonia? Oh yeah, the clothing brand. You mean it’s an actual place too? Where is it?” Had I myself not been entirely ignorant about Patagonia just a few months before embarking on our trip, I would be incredulous that such a huge place—and one so full of stories—could be unknown to so many otherwise intelligent, educated North Americans and Europeans. Patagonia is in fact chock-full of interesting things—people, animals, plants, customs, natural wonders, and amazing stories—and having had a small taste of it in person, I’m delighted to be able to share some bits of that here on Interesting Thing of the Day.

Where Patagonia Is

Patagonia is the southernmost portion of South America. Its exact northern boundary is somewhat vague, but it begins somewhere in the vicinity of 40° south latitude, or roughly where the Rio Colorado cuts diagonally across the continent. Patagonia extends all the way to the tip of the continent—encompassing, by most accounts, Tierra del Fuego and the many smaller islands up to and including Cape Horn. The western quarter or so of Patagonia is in Chile; the rest, to the east of the Andes mountains, is in Argentina.

Patagonia is an immense region; its area of about 400,000 square miles (1,000,000 sq. km) makes it well over twice the size of California. And trying to describe Patagonia is very much like trying to describe California—do you want to hear about the deserts, the mountains, the valleys, or the coast? The cities or the rural areas? The wildlife or the politics? With so much to describe, generalizations become difficult. One thing you can say with certainty, though, is that Patagonia is sparsely populated—it has a total of roughly 1.5 million inhabitants (compared to California’s 34 million), of which the vast majority live in large towns. Depending on whose estimates you believe, sheep outnumber humans by at least 5 to 1, and perhaps as many as 20 to 1. And one of those sheep contributed the wool for that Patagonia-brand sweater you have in your closet.

The name “Patagonia” was once thought to have been derived from a Spanish expression for “big feet”—a supposed reference to the proportions of the area’s original inhabitants, described by early European explorers as “giants.” But the generally accepted etymology is that the word Patagonia actually comes from Patagon, the name of a giant in a Spanish novel called Primaleon—apparently a favorite of Ferdinand Magellan’s.

The Stuff of Legend

Magellan, of course, lent his name to the strait that separates mainland South America from Tierra del Fuego; he discovered the long-sought passage between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific in 1520. Even three centuries later, though, when Charles Darwin set out on H.M.S. Beagle (under command of Captain FitzRoy), Europeans knew very little of Patagonia or its inhabitants; it was more of an inconvenient obstacle to sea travel than a place one might actually want to visit. The exotic descriptions Darwin brought back—especially his confirmation that the inhabitants were savage giants—reinforced in the minds of many Europeans the notion of Patagonia as being a desolate and forbidding place, far from (and perhaps unworthy of) civilization.

Partly because of its remoteness, Patagonia attracted its fair share of outlaws. Following a major heist in the United States, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid hid out in Patagonia for several years in the early 1900s. Pirates, too, found the busy shipping channels near Patagonia a lucrative source of business. (And, you remember correctly: the Dread Pirate Roberts himself was said to have retired there.)

As recently as the 1970s, English-speaking people in the northern hemisphere knew little of Patagonia. British author Bruce Chatwin almost single-handedly brought Patagonia into the popular consciousness with his best-selling 1977 book In Patagonia, a travelogue of sorts that is part autobiography, part fiction. Two years later his friend, travel writer Paul Theroux, wrote The Old Patagonian Express, detailing his attempt to travel by train from Boston all the way to the heart of Patagonia. These two books have inspired generations of travelers to discover Patagonia for themselves.

Far and Away

Today, Patagonia is a favorite destination for ecotourists and adventure travelers. Some go to see the vast expanses of steppes—desert-like plains that are constantly buffeted by strong winds and support only the hardiest plant, animal, and human life. Some are interested in the impressive glaciers descending from the Andes, or in the millions of nesting penguins along the coast. Still others are interested in the cultural anomalies, such as the Welsh colony of Gaiman, where you can always get a proper tea. And many tourists stop briefly in Patagonia on their way to Antarctica—a mere 600 miles (1,000km) or so south across the Drake Passage. But one of the biggest reasons to go to Patagonia, even for residents of northern Argentina, is its sheer remoteness: it is one of the last places on Earth that can still be called “one of the last places on Earth.”

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on January 23, 2005.