Ins and outs

Patagonia is vast, and it's no surprise that getting around takes some organization. Strictly speaking, Patagonia is the whole southern cone of South America, combining all parts of Argentina and Chile, south of the Río Colorado, which runs from west to east, just north of Viedma. It includes the Andes, running north-south along the extreme west (marking the Chilean border) and therefore the Lake District, which has it's own area on our site.

National parks

There are many national parks in the region, of which Parque Nacional Los Glaciares is the most famous. At the northern end the main centre is El Chaltén for trekking around Mount Fitz Roy, and at the southern end are the glaciers, reached from El Calafate. Both have good tourist infrastructure, with guardaparques offices where staff speak English and other languages, hand out maps, and can advise on where to walk and camp. See www.parquesnacionales.gov.ar (in Spanish) for more information.

Parque Nacional Perito Morenois also spectacular, and well worth the considerable effort involved in reaching its remote lakes and mountains. Access is via the Ruta 40, but there is almost no infrastructure whatsoever, little information for visitors and no services. The best way to see the park is to stay at an estancia, such as La Maipúand ride horses into the park: an unforgettable experience.

Marine life abounds on the Atlantic Coast in Península Valdés, reached by organized tour or hire car from Puerto Madryn. This is a well-organized area for visits and there are also several estanciason the peninsula where you can stay in great comfort. Further south, Parque Nacional Monte Leónis reached by Route 3, you'll need your own transport: there is a comfortable hostería. There are many other colonies of penguins and other sea life reserves along the Atlantic Coast, and two other tourist sights; at Cueva de las Manos, and a petrified forest. Unless you have your own transport it's best to take an organized tour to reach these, as services are few at the sites themselves.

Best time to visit

The summer months from December to mid-April are best for trekking: though January should be avoided everywhere but the most remote places, if possible, since this is when most Argentines go on holiday, and transport and accommodation are both heavily booked. From mid-April onwards most hotels close until mid-November and many bus services don't operate. This is because temperatures in the south plummet to -20 degrees C, making it very inhospitable. For Península Valdés, the season for spotting whales is between September and November, when all services are open.

Tourist information

For information on towns and tourist services, try the site www.interpatagonia.com. For articles on specific places, see www.revistapatagonia.com.ar; for estancias, see www.lastfrontiers.com and www.estanciasdesantacruz.com; and for fly fishing, see www.pescaenlapatagonia.com.ar.

Background

Patagonia was inhabited by various groups of indigenous peoples from thousands of years ago until colonization by the Europeans. The region gets its name from early Spanish settlers' first impressions of these native people: Big Feet (patabeing the informal 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. The first to traverse Patagonia from south to north was the English sailor, Carder, who survived a shipwreck in 1578 in the Strait of Magellan, walked to the Río de la Plata and arrived in London nine years later.

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 understandable resistance from the indigenous peoples. However, they were almost wiped out in the bloody war known as the Conquest of the Desert in 1879-1883 . Before this there had been a European colony at Carmen de Patagones, which shipped salt to Buenos Aires, and the Welsh settlement in the Chubut valley from 1865. After the Conquest of the Desert, colonization was rapid. Welsh, Scots and English farmers were among the biggest groups of immigrants including sheep farmers from Las Malvinas/Falkland Islands, as well as Chilean sheep farmers from Punta Arenas moving eastwards into Santa Cruz. The discovery of large oil reserves in many areas of southern Patagonia brought wealth to Chubut and Santa Cruz provinces in the 1900s. However, when President Menem privatized the national oil company YPF in the 1990s, much of that wealth immediately diminished. One of the few people to gain from it all was former president and the husband of Argentina's current president, Christina Kirchner, who had been governor of Santa Cruz province while it was rich and influential within the country.

This is edited copy from Footprint Handbooks. For comprehensive details (incl address, tel no, directions, opening times and prices) please refer to book or individual chapter PDF
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