Patagonia has become the stuff of legends, and for good reason. It’s more immense than you can possibly imagine, more empty, more windswept and more beautiful. No wonder it has attracted pioneers and runaways from the modern world. From Welsh settlers to Butch and Sundance; from Bruce Chatwin to Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara riding the Ruta 40, Patagonia invites adventure.
East of the Andes, Patagonia makes up the whole southernmost cone of the Americas: a vast expanse of treeless steppe, dotted with the occasional sheep estancia. But at its edges are extraordinary extremes: whales bask and thousands of sea lions cavort at Península Valdés, and descendants of the Welsh still hold Eisteddfods (Welsh Festival of Arts) at Gaiman. Thousands of handprints are testimony to Stone Age life at Cueva de las Manos, and there are two petrified forests of mighty fallen monkey puzzle trees.
Take the Ruta 40 south, and you’ll travel hundreds of kilometres without seeing a soul, until the magnificent granite towers of Mount Fitz Roy rise up from the flat plains: this trekking heaven is far less crowded than Torres del Paine, and on the southern ice field there are no beaten tracks whatsoever. El Calafate is the base for boat trips to the Perito Moreno Glacier: put on your crampons and walk their sculpted turquoise curves, or escape to splendidly isolated Estancia Cristina. Once you’ve seen Upsala Glacier stretching out as far as the eye can see, silent and pristine, calving below you into a milky Prussian-blue lake, you’ll be addicted.
Patagonia gets its name from early Spanish settlers’ first impressions of these native people: big feet (pata being the slang word for leg). The first European visitor to the coast of Patagonia was the Portuguese explorer Fernão Magalhães in 1519, who gave his name to the Magellan straits, by which he discovered a safer route through the southern extreme of the continent, going north of the island of Tierra del Fuego, rather than the perilous route south around Cape Horn.
For several centuries European attempts to settle along the coast were deterred by isolation, lack of food and water, and the harsh climate, as well as resistance from the indigenous peoples, but after the bloody war known as the Conquest of the Desert, when the indigenous population was almost wiped out, colonization was rapid, with Welsh, Scots and English farmers among the biggest groups of immigrants.