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Patagonia On Assignment

Patagonia On Assignment

Step into the world of writers and photographers as they tell you about the best, worst, and quirkiest places and adventures they encountered in the field.

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A. R. Williams

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Land's End

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By Simon WorrallPhotographs by Peter Essick

Once the sole domain of sheep farmers, the wind-whipped tip of South America is drawing a new generation of pioneers and adventure seekers.

Get a taste of what awaits you in print from this compelling excerpt.

The wind chased me everywhere I went in Patagonia. It clogged my sinuses and sent the Jeep slithering across the gravel roads as though on ice. Birds flew backward. Trees grew horizontally. The wind was a living thing. It could be violent, punching holes in glass windows or sending spirals of dust rising above the flat, dry steppe like miniature tornadoes. On a plateau above the Santa Cruz River Valley I got out of the Jeep to take a photograph, and a blast of wind wrenched the door out of my hand, bending it backward with such violence that it sheared off the two welded brackets holding the door to the chassis. At other times the wind had a feather touch. At a ranch near the Valdés Peninsula, on the Atlantic coast, I watched as the wind caressed a piece of paper, moving it about on the ground in a circle like a magnet moving a ball bearing. In Puerto Deseado I lay awake all night listening as the wind turned my hotel into a riotous orchestra. Doors rattled like snare drums. A gap under the corrugated roof wailed like a flute. The ventilation grill in the bathroom emitted a steady drone like a bagpipe. All night the wind played its wild fugue, dropping to pianissimo lulls, then rising to frenetic crescendos.
Until recently this vast, sparsely populated region in the far south of South America was a byword for remoteness—finis terrae, the uttermost ends of the Earth. Never a country or a state but rather a loosely defined region shared by two countries, Chile and Argentina, Patagonia is generally defined today as everything south of the Río Colorado and the eastern portion of the Río Bío-Bío. But there's no overarching sense of Patagonian identity, and everyone I met had a different idea of the place. "Patagonia," said one sheep rancher in northern Tierra del Fuego, brandishing a sizzling lamb chop in the air, "is everywhere you can taste this!"
Because of its remoteness and inaccessibility, Patagonia has always been, like Timbuktu or Shangri-la, a place of myths and legends. Bruce Chatwin, the British explorer-writer, thought he had found the origins of the unicorn myth in a cave painting in southwestern Patagonia. (It was actually a rare species of Patagonian deer, known as a huemul.) Now new myths are being born: To much of the world Patagonia is a clothing company, not a place. For adventurers it's the planet's "edge" destination—nature in its wildest form. For corporations it represents a storehouse of natural resources—oil, gas, gold, and fish. As globalization pulls more and more of the world into its magnetic orbit, and communications overcome distance, Patagonia is moving from the mythical margins toward the center of 21st-century reality.
All this is feeding new regional pride, and in my travels I often heard the phrase NYC—nacido y criado, which means "born and raised" Patagonian. The election in May 2003 of Néstor Kirchner, the governor of Santa Cruz Province, as Argentina's president—its first from Patagonia—has further boosted the region's growing self-confidence.
Of all the changes blowing through Patagonia, though, none has had greater impact than the shifts in ownership and use of the land brought about by the collapse of the huge sheep farms, or estancias, of the Argentine tableland. Stretching nearly 1,500 miles (2,400 kilometers) from the Río Colorado in the north to Tierra del Fuego in the south, this immense arid wilderness—the steppe—is the heart of Patagonia. Its culture and economy were built on the sheep's back. But since the 1970s falling wool prices and desertification caused by overgrazing have brought the industry to its knees. Hundreds of estancias have gone out of business, while others have been sold to wealthy foreigners. Nearly one-sixth of Argentine Patagonia now belongs to 350 foreign owners, many of them Americans.

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Decorate your desktop with an image of horses left free to roam in Patagonia—the Big Sky country of southern Argentina and Chile.

Final Edit
Rescued from the cutting room floor is this month's Final Edit, a strikingly colorful image of wild Patagonia.

More to Explore

In More to Explore the National Geographic magazine team shares some of its best sources and other information. Special thanks to the Research Division.

Did You Know?
Made internationally famous by the 1969 movie starring Paul Newman and Robert Redford, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were already infamous throughout the western United States, Bolivia, and Patagonia. Robert Leroy Parker (aka Butch Cassidy) and Harry Longbaugh (aka Sundance Kid) both got their start in banditry by stealing horses. Butch and Sundance joined forces in 1896 and along with the rest of Butch's gang, known as the Wild Bunch, began their careers as train and bank robbers. The Wild Bunch distinguished themselves not by their violent actions but rather by their daring and flair. Butch made a point of avoiding needless violence.The gang put together the longest sequence of successful bank and train robberies in the history of the American West.
The train companies hired the Pinkerton Detective Agency to track down these bandits.  Tired of always being on the run, Butch, Sundance, and Sundance's girlfriend, Etta Place, moved to South America, where in 1901 they bought a ranch in Cholila, Argentina. Butch went by the name James Ryan, and Sundance and Etta were Mr. and Mrs. Harry Place.  After a few short years of trying to make it as honest ranchers, the pair again turned to easier ways of getting money. They also had to watch their backs, as a Pinkerton detective had tracked them to Argentina and was closing in. In 1905 they held up a bank in Santa Cruz Province and another bank in 1907. That same year they sold their ranch, and Butch and Sundance went to Bolivia while Etta returned to the United States. Butch and Sundance continued making money the best way they knew how—robbery. On November 3, 1908, two Americans (supposedly Butch and Sundance) pinched a Bolivian mining company's payroll. The pair was tracked to San Vicente, Bolivia, where a shootout between the outlaws and Bolivian troops ensued. The two outlaws were killed.
What happened after that remains a mystery. Some claim Butch and Sundance died there. Others believe that another pair of outlaws were killed by the troops and that Butch and Sundance returned to the West and lived out their lives under new names and identities. The Pinkerton agency never officially called off the search for Butch and Sundance. In 1921 Mr. Pinkerton told an agent that "the last we heard of the Sundance Kid…he was in jail in Peru for an attempted bank robbery. Butch Cassidy had been with him but got away and is supposed to have returned to the Argentine." The Pinkertons never caught up with the pair and  in 1991 a scientific team excavated the San Vincente graves believed to hold Butch and Sundance. The DNA results showed the remains did not belong to either of them.
—Marisa Larson
Did You Know?

Related Links
Fundación Vida Silvestre
This nonprofit works to conserve and restore habitats in Argentina and around the world. Learn about its projects and discover how you can help.
The Living Edens: Patagonia
Explore the history and nature of Patagonia through photographs, interviews with experts, and a trivia game.
The Patagonia Land Trust
This conservation organization is working to preserve the ecosystems and biodiversity of Patagonia. By aquiring land and restoring it, the organization can then return the land to the public in the form of parks, reserves, and sanctuaries.
Washington Post  Photo Voyage: Patagonia
Explore the visual smorgasbord of Patagonia scenery and discover the wildlife, beauty, and culture of this remote land.
Patagonia Photo Gallery
Private Patagonia: View outtakes from photographer David McLain and writer Tim Cahill's exploratory mission to paddle the glacial lakes of Chili's southernmost latitudes .


Beccaceci, Marcelo, and Bonnie Hayskar. Patagonia Wilderness. Pangaea, 1991.
Chatwin, Bruce. In Patagonia. Penguin Books, 1977.
McEwan, Colin, and others, eds. Patagonia: Natural History, Prehistory and Ethnography at the Uttermost End of the Earth. Princeton University Press, 1997.
Rossi, Jasmine. The Wild Shores of Patagonia. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 2000.


NGS Resources
Cahill, Tim. "The Accidental Explorer's Guide to Patagonia," National Geographic Adventure (May 2003), 64-74, 106-8.
McDonald, Bernadette, and others. Extreme Landscape: The Lure of Mountain Spaces. National Geographic Books, 2002.
Amatt, John. Voices From the Summit: The World's Great Mountaineers on the Future of Climbing. National Geographic Books, 2000.
Bangs, Richard. "Torres del Paine," National Geographic Traveler (October 1999), 136-38.
Shreeve, James. "Patagonian Dinosaurs," National Geographic (December 1997), 120-37.


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