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The South American region of Patagonia is one of the continent's most spectacular — think craggy granite peaks, crystalline lakes, and a plethora of native wildlife. It has its fair share of surprises, too, rewarding the travelers who visit with some unusual finds alongside its breathtaking vistas.
Patagonia Spans Two Countries
Patagonia isn’t confined to a single country. It covers the southernmost part of South America, straddling the border between Chile and Argentina. It takes its name from the patagones, giants who the Spanish explorer Magellan falsely claimed inhabited the area. In reality, the people he encountered were likely to have been the Tehuelche people; although they were taller than the Europeans, they weren’t what you’d call giants.
It’s Home to a Thriving Welsh Community
In Argentinian Patagonia, a thriving Welsh community can be found in the area known as Y Wladfa (“The Colony”). Immigrants settled in the region beginning in 1865, and today, Gaiman, Trelew, and Trevelin have a distinctly Cambrian feel. There are perhaps as many as 5,000 people here who speak the Welsh language, out of a population of 50,000. Travelers will see many windmills, chapels, and even cafés whose walls are adorned with photos from their annual festival, the Patagonian Eisteddfod.
It Has One of the World’s Few Remaining Stable Glaciers
The Perito Moreno Glacier is fed by the Southern Patagonian Ice Field and is the world’s third-largest reserve of fresh water. Climate change has seen many of the world’s glaciers retreat at worrying rates, but in Argentinian Patagonia, this one is bucking the trend. Located in Los Glaciares National Park, the great tongue of ice advances in the winter months and recedes in the summer, but overall, there’s no significant change in mass from year to year.
There's a Desert Four Times the Size of the Atacama
Ask a traveler to tell you where to find the largest desert in the Americas, and chances are they’ll point you in the direction of the Atacama Desert in northern Chile. But they’d be incorrect. Though it’s known for snow-capped peaks and impressively large glaciers, Patagonia is also home to a huge area of desert, approximately four times the size of its more famous neighbor. Though cold enough for snow, it rarely experiences such precipitation; however, frosts are a common occurrence. The Andes are to blame: Located to the west of the desert, they block the flow of moisture further east. Before the mountains sprang up around 50 million years ago, the area was once covered in thick woodland, which today is evidenced by the petrified forests you’ll encounter in this arid landscape.
It Has an Indigenous (And Delicious) Berry
If you’re hoping to visit the Perito Moreno Glacier, you’re likely to at least pass through the tourist town of El Calafate. It was founded a little under a century ago and takes its name from the Berberis buxifolia. Better known as the Magellan Barberry, or in Spanish the calafate, this pretty shrub boasts yellow flowers and blue-black berries. Some locals say that if you eat the fruit while in Patagonia, you’ll be sure to come back. The calafate berry is used in many dishes in the region.
It’s Home to the Southernmost City in the World
If you’ve ever wanted to travel to the end of the world, you’ve come to the right place. In the far south of Patagonia lies the Argentinian city of Ushuaia. The capital of Tierra del Fuego province, Ushuaia is a magnet for tourists wishing to visit this remote corner of the globe and snap a selfie at the fin del mundo — the end of the world. However, Ushuaia's title has recently come under dispute: Puerto Williams in Chile is located further south, but its meager population meant it wasn't technically classified as a city. But as the population has recently grown to more nearly 3,000 people, Chilean authorities now classify it as such.
Puerto Natales, Chile, and Ulan-Ude, Russia, Are Antipodes
Imagine drilling down right to the center of the Earth and then straight out the other side. If you were to begin in one city and, after all that hard graft, end up in another, you’d have discovered a pair of antipodes. Puerto Natales, in Chilean Patagonia, and Ulan-Ude, in Russian Siberia, are two such diametrically opposed places. It’s a relatively rare phenomenon — only 16 pairs of exact antipode cities exist, though others come close. To find out what’s on exactly the other side of the world to your hometown, check out this map.
The Cowboys Are More Than Just Cowboys
Travel for any length of time across Patagonia, and at some point you’re likely to encounter cowboys — or cowgirls — on horseback, often rounding up sheep or cattle. Though similar in appearance, the Chilean bagualero has a slightly different role to the more familiar gaucho. You might see them working Patagonia’s pastures, but the main role of the bagualero is a backcountry specialist, someone who knows the region inside out. They make excellent tour guides, so if you are comfortable in the saddle, it’s a great way to explore.
Wild Horses Still Roam the Torres del Paine National Park
When the Spanish conquistadors set foot in South America, they brought with them horses. Some of the animals were released or escaped to form feral herds, and these wild horses remain in Patagonia to this day. Their population numbers only a few hundred, with the largest concentration found in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. They’re known as baguales, and local scientists believe the puma, their predator, has had an impact on their behavior patterns.
There Are Millions of Magellanic Penguins, But They're Under Threat
Named after Ferdinand Magellan, this type of penguin was first documented in the 16th century. Today, there are millions of the birds off the Patagonian coasts of Argentina and Chile, easily recognized from their black backs and white bellies. They’re tough creatures, migrating thousands of miles and able to survive out to sea for months at a time. However, despite a population of around 1.5 million breeding pairs, they are under threat from environmental degradation, mostly in the form of oil spills and torrential downpours associated with climate change. Now, numerous wildlife societies are taking important steps to preserve their populations.