PRACTICALLY AN UNINHABITED AREA
Since time immemorial, numerous ships arrived believing that they had reached the gates of the unknown Terra Australis, a legendary continent that maps situated at the extreme southern end of the globe. Today, just as it was 500 years ago, Patagonia remains largely unknown and wild, maintaining its place as the end of the world.
Patagonia is a practically uninhabited area. The closest cities to the Torres del Paine National Park are Puerto Natales and Punta Arenas, 147 and 393 km away respectively.
Founded in 1848 as a penal colony, Punta Arenas is the largest Chilean city in the area. During the height of traffic through the Magellan Strait, it became an active and cosmopolitan port.
Far from the city and in contrast to the movement of Punta Arenas, the area’s large livestock ranches subsisted in isolation and solitude. Forced into a life of self-sufficiency, they have remained practically untouched by the development of urban centers.
The gaucho, a typical figure of Patagonia, is responsible for the tasks on the ranch. A free and solitary personality (although very hospitable), he rises before sunrise to drive the livestock over the plains and occupies himself with the activities of the farm. An expert rider, he is also skilled in the use of the boleadoras, a weapon composed of rocks joined by lines of leather used by the ancient tehuelches.
Of the four ethnic groups that originally inhabited this territory, only a few dozen descendants still survive. The first European to arrive in Patagonia was Magellan, who discovered the strait in the extreme south of America that today bears his name. His chronicles tell of meeting men of great stature and describes, with surprise, the large human footprints he saw along the Patagonian coast.
The authors of these footprints received the name of “patagones.” According to some, this would come from the word “pata,” which is a colloquial word for foot, in Spanish. And soon, the “land of the patagones” came to be called “Patagonia.”
Patagonia was occupied more or less definitively 8000 years ago, when bands of semi-nomadic hunter-gatherers began to move through the area’s land and sea.
The Kawésqar or Alakalufes, the Aónikenk or Patagones, the Sélknam and the Yaganes all coexisted. All these groups managed to adapt to the harsh living conditions, with simple ways of life yet incorporating rich religious and artistic expression.
In 1520, leading the first western expedition to the south of South America, Magellan discovered a natural passage that connected the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. From then until the beginning of the twentieth century, the Strait of Magellan, baptized in honor of its discoverer, became the most important route between the two oceans.
At the end of the nineteenth century and pushed by the demand for wool in the British textile industry, the economy of Patagonia was concentrated on the livestock industry, especially sheep. On the expanse of the pampa, large ranch properties were established, many of which remain till this day.
The sailboats of the end of the earth: The CapHornier
Cape Horn (the southernmost point of Tierra del Fuego) was discovered in 1616 by the explorer and Dutch businessman Jacob Le Maire, searching for an alternative route to the Strait of Magellan, under Spanish control, to establish commerce with the far east.
With time, the intense winds and waves of this pass transformed it into a trial for the bravest sailors of the world.
In 1937, in the French port of Saint Malo, the first Brotherhood of CapHornier Captains was founded. It brought together a select group of sailors who, with more courage than technology, shared the experience of having crossed Cape Horn, propelled only by the force of the wind. The spirit of Saint Malo and his celebration of loyalty, bravery, decision and leadership spread to Chile, Australia, Finland, England, New Zealand, Norway, and Holland.
Notable explorations of Patagonia
- 1520: Magellan, Portuguese sailor.
- 1616: Jacob Le Maire, Dutch explorer.
- 1766: Louis Antoine de Bouganville, French sailor.
- 1799: Alexander von Humboldt, German naturalist.
- 1830 1831: Robert Fitz Roy, sailor and English scientist.
- 1831: Charles Darwin, English scientist.
- 1879: Florence Dixie, adventurer and English feminist.
- 1895 1896: Otto Nordenskjöld, Norwegian scientist.
- 1901 1908 1914: Ernest Shackleton, Irish explorer.