The word Patagonia originated in the accounts, up to the nineteenth century, of seamen circling Cape Horn to reach the Pacific. The origin of the name came from the description of the Indians by the first voyagers, telling that they were extremely tall and with big feet, so they called them "patagones." which was the Spanish word for people with those characteristics. To them the territory beyond the coasts of the Cape region seemed mysterious. Therefore, the region became a land of myth, sighted but unknown.
Patagonia is the southern portion of South America, divided between Argentina and Chile. Its northern border in Argentina is marked by the Colorado River, at about latitude 38° south. In Chile it is the area situated south of Chiloé Island, at latitude 43° south The Andes mountain range lies along the western border, with its low mountains, deeply eroded by glaciers, creating spectacular landscapes. The climate is cold and humid to the west and dry to the east. The mountains are covered with large trees such as araucaria (Araucaria araucana) and alerce (Fitzroya cupressoides). The eastern portion is an arid, windy plateau, covered by steppelike shrubs. The coastline on the Atlantic side is open, with few natural ports; on the Pacific side the terrain is rugged, with islands, islets, and coves. The hydrography differs with each environment. In the west, the many mountain lakes are a great tourist attraction. Rivers, such as the Negro, flow from them, crossing the plateau and forming deep valleys to empty into the Atlantic. Until the late nineteenth century, Patagonia was inhabited by hunters and gatherers who lived by hunting guanaco (Llama guanicoe) and in the south by boat-making groups.
In 1880 Argentina and Chile reached a border agreement and occupied Patagonia after first displacing the indigenous population. The first activity to be taken up was sheep ranching, which extended over the whole plateau, around Punta Arenas, and on the island of Tierra del Fuego. Farmers came as colonists to Argentine Patagonia, first the Welsh at the mouth of the Chubut River in 1865 and years later in the upper Negro River valley to grow apples and pears. When oil was discovered in 1917 the drilling industry spread over the entire plateau, including northern Tierra del Fuego. Tourism came in modern times to take advantage of the natural landscapes. Elite tourism began with the arrival of the railroad around 1920, but it became more popular around 1970, with the completion of a paved road linking Bariloche with Buenos Aires. In Argentina, Patagonia includes the provinces of Río Negro, Neuquén, Chubut, Santa Cruz, and Tierra del Fuego, and in Chile, the eleventh and twelfth regions. The total population numbers around 2 million and is mainly located in Argentina. The larger cities are Neuquén, San Carlos de Bariloche, and Comodoro Rivadavia in Argentina and Punta Arenas in Chile.
Bandieri, Susana. Historia de la Patagonia. Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2005.
Chebez, Juan C. Patagonia Norte: Guía de las Reservas Naturales de la Argentina. Buenos Aires: Editorial Albatros, 2005.
Vapñarsky, César. Pueblos del norte de la Patagonia, 1779–1957. General Roca, Argentina: Editorial de la Patagonia, 1983.
Williams, Glyn. The Desert and the Dream: A Study of Welsh Colonization in Chubut, 1865–1915. Cardiff, U.K.: University of Wales Press, 1975.
Patagonia (pätägō´nyä), region, c.300,000 sq mi (777,000 sq km), primarily in S Argentina, S of the Río Colorado and E of the Andes, but including extreme SE Chile and N Tierra del Fuego. Patagonia, except for the far southern plains, the sub-Andean region, and the Andes, is a vast, wind-swept semiarid plateau, sloping gently toward the east and terminating in cliffs along the Atlantic Ocean. Crossing from the Andes to the Atlantic are transverse valleys, some cradling rivers. Although most of the water courses are intermittently dry, some rivers (the Río Negro, the Chubut, the Santa Cruz, and the Gallegos) are perennial. The sub-Andean region in the west contains numerous lakes (Nahuel Huapí, Buenos Aires, Viedma, and Argentino) fed by glaciers; it also has some deep, fertile valleys. Subantarctic conditions prevail in the far south. The region is at times affected by the eruption of Andean volcanoes; in 1991 an eruption of the Hudson Volcano in Chile caused great ecological damage in Patagonia.
Until recently sheep raising (mainly for wool) was the major industry of Patagonia, but oil production, particularly around Neuquen, Río Gallegos, and Comodoro Rivadavia (the region's largest city), has become very important. There are coal deposits in the upper Río Gallegos valley, and iron-ore deposits at Sierra Grande. Tourist resorts in the lake region are very popular. Cattle are raised, and agriculture is practiced in irrigated oases along the Río Negro and the Chubut. A rich field for the paleontologist, Patagonia has been visited by many scientific expeditions since the days of Charles Darwin. Of the original inhabitants, the Tehuelches (the "Patagonian giants" ) are the most important. Among the native animals are the guanaco, the rhea, the puma, and the deer.
Probably first visited (1501) by Amerigo Vespucci, the Patagonian coast was explored (1520) by Ferdinand Magellan. Settlements were attempted in the 16th and 17th cent., but the inhospitable country and natives discouraged colonization. It was not until after Julio A. Roca, an Argentine general, campaigned against the native people that Argentine ranchers began entering the territory in the late 19th cent. Chileans had been coming in for some time, and despite efforts to exclude them during and after the Argentine-Chilean boundary dispute in the early 20th cent., many continued to immigrate. Many Europeans, including many British, took up ranches, and immigration has made the population ethnically the most European in all Argentina.
Making up more than a third of Argentine territory and still sparsely populated, Patagonia is a vast natural reserve, and settlement has steadily increased. The region became fashionable with wealthy foreigners in the 1990s and many celebrities bought homes there, fueling a boom in property sales. Studies have revealed the presence of vast untapped mineral wealth. By the 1990s, environmental damage caused by the depletion of the ozone layer in the Antarctic region had become noticeable.
See W. H. Hudson, Idle Days in Patagonia (new ed. 1985).