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Patagonia is a large geographic region making up the southernmost third (approximately) of the continent of South America. The word comes from patagon, a term used by Magellan to describe the natives of the area. Its etymology is uncertain, although it may refer to big feet. In the 1520s, Magellan started a myth that lasted for centuries, that Patagonia was occupied by native giants. In reality, the "giants" were just the Tehuelches and Aonikenk tribes, with an average height of 1.80 m (~5'11"), in comparison to the visiting Spaniards, with an average height of 1.55 m (~5'1") at the time. The Patagonian giant myth was not widely debunked until the end of the 18th century.
Patagonia lies within the modern countries of Chile and Argentina. It primarily consists of vast steppe-like plains, marked by abrupt terraces differing by about 100 m (330 ft) in elevation. The majority of Patagonia is cold and wind-swept, covered by gravel. In the western portion of Patagonia, ascending into the Andes mountain range, the foliage becomes more luxuriant, and animal populations increase. The southern portion of Patagonia is quite cold, and features the largest ice fields in the Southern hemisphere outside of Antarctica.
Patagonia's terrain was shaped by tens of thousands of years of alternating glacial cycles. When the world temperature drops and the planet enters an Ice Age, large glaciers cover Patagonia, snuffing out all life and sculpting the landscape with rough scraping action. This glacial shaping is responsible for the endless quantities of gravel covering Patagonia. It also causes the fjord-dotted landscape on the south and southwest coasts of Patagonia, similar to the terrain observed in Norway, Iceland, Greenland, Siberia, and northern Canada. Patagonia is covered with small pools and lakes formed by ancient glacial runoff.
Today, Patagonia is one of the most sparsely populated regions in South America, containing a population of approximately 1,740,000 (2001 census) within a 900,000 km2 (350,000 mi2) area. The economy is based on mining, whaling, agriculture (sheep in the south, wheat and fruit in the north), oil, and some tourism. People from around the world travel here for excellent fishing, as well as beautiful views of unspoilt land. The most popular tourist destinations are the Perito Moreno glacier, the Valdés Peninsula, Torres del Paine national park, the Argentine Lake District and Ushuaia and Tierra del Fuego.
Frequently Asked Questions
What is Patagonia and where is it located?
Patagonia is a geographic region at the southern end of South America, shared by Argentina and Chile. It encompasses the southern section of the Andes mountains to the west and south, and plateaus and low plains to the east. This vast area starts from the Colorado River in Argentina and stretches to the southernmost tip of the continent, encompassing the Tierra del Fuego archipelago.
What kind of climate can be found in Patagonia?
The climate in Patagonia is notably diverse, ranging from subpolar in the southwestern parts to subtropical in the northeastern areas. The Andes mountains create a climatic barrier that results in distinct weather patterns on the Chilean and Argentine sides. The Argentine side experiences arid to semi-arid conditions, while the Chilean side is characterized by cool, damp climates and heavy precipitation, especially in the coastal regions.
What are some of the unique wildlife species found in Patagonia?
Patagonia is home to an array of unique wildlife, adapted to its varied climates and landscapes. Notable species include the Andean condor, with its impressive wingspan, the elusive puma, and the Patagonian mara, a large rodent. The region also hosts several species of whales, such as the Southern right whale and the blue whale, along the coast, and is a haven for birdwatchers with species like the Magellanic penguin and the Austral parakeet.
What are some popular activities for tourists in Patagonia?
Patagonia offers a plethora of activities for adventure enthusiasts and nature lovers. Hiking and trekking are popular, with trails like those in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile and Argentina's Los Glaciares National Park. Other activities include glacier tours, such as visiting the Perito Moreno Glacier, wildlife watching, kayaking, and fly-fishing in the region's many rivers and lakes known for their clear waters and abundant fish.
How has Patagonia become an example of conservation efforts?
Patagonia has become a global symbol of conservation, with vast tracts of land being protected as national parks and reserves. Philanthropists like Douglas Tompkins and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins have played a significant role, donating large areas of private land for conservation. Their efforts, along with those of local governments and NGOs, aim to preserve the region's unique ecosystems and biodiversity, promoting sustainable tourism and environmental stewardship.