As he sailed through the seas and straits around the bottom tip of South America during his 1520 expedition to circumnavigate the globe, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his crew purportedly spotted an enormous man dancing, singing and throwing dust on his head. So big was he, and the other members of his tribe, that Magellan subsequently branded the people of the region ‘Patagaos’, thought to refer to a large monstrous character from a popular book of the time. The legend of the land of the giants stuck, and so did the name, with Europeans ever since referring to the vast and sparsely populated region straddling the southernmost plains of Chile and Argentina, as Patagonia.
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Highlights of Chile
Home to no fewer than 6 designated national parks, Patagonia is a beautiful, wild and untamed landscape, largely untouched by the hand of man. It is truly a place that time forgot – albeit one which houses pockets of modernity and incongruent luxury. Its unspoilt wilderness harbours countless mountains, serene fjords, huge sparkling glaciers, dense overgrown forests and a unique collection of extraordinary flora and fauna.
Torres del Paine National Park
With its iconic granite spires towering above azure blue lakes, magnificent glaciers and meandering river valleys, Torres del Paine National Park is the jewel in the crown of Chilean Patagonia. Despite a reputation for tempestuous weather (officially there is no dry season), the park attracts over a quarter of a million visitors every year and has consistently been voted as one of the world’s most beautiful locations.
Entrance to the park is becoming increasingly restricted in order to try and limit the impact of tourism on the environment. For example, certified guides are now required to accompany hikers and bikers in some areas, but the investment in these experts is well rewarded, with the uncovering of hidden gems and stories of ancient folklore helping to add excitement and context to an already extraordinary adventure.
Nearby Puerto Natales acts as the gateway for Torres del Paine and is the perfect base from which to explore if you don’t mind staying outside the park limits.
This remarkable road runs south for 1,240km from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgens, linking the Lake District with northern Patagonia – though there are small gaps where ferries are required to cross certain stretches of water. Despite is length, it provides access for just 100,000 local people. However, it now also serves as a key tourist route and is very popular with self-driving sightseers. While construction began in the mid 1970’s, work on the road continues to this day, with more and more sections becoming paved and extra sectors being added.
The route, originally built to provide access to remote communities which had long struggled to maintain contact with the wider world, traverses around thick forests, fjords, glaciers, canals and mountains. The road itself can be a bumpy and at times unpleasant experience, but the sights and experiences it affords those brave enough to take it on, are definitely worth the pain.
The port city of Punta Arenas is the starting point for a host of different adventures. Many expedition cruise passengers on their way to the frozen continent of Antarctica will pass through, as will some of those travelling to Torres del Paine, the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego. A consequence of this thoroughfare status has been a marked increase in the number and quality of facilities and services provided in this otherwise fairly anonymous metropolitan backwater.
Having started life as a penal colony in the mid-19th century, the city has steadily grown in importance as a trade and tourism hub and as a useful strategic outpost – used to help defend Chile’s historic claim to the southernmost parts of the South American continent. Today it boasts attractive gardens, fascinating museums, and a friendly laid back vibe geared towards making visitors feel welcome and relaxed.
Tierra del Fuego
Inhabited by only 7,000 people west of the Argentine border, Tierra del Fuego is the least densely populated region in Chile. Cold, windy and often wet, the secluded island chain sprawled out at the end of world is not, at first glance, a place that should appear on the tourist map. However, lush sub-polar forests, deep meandering fjords and vast sprawling glaciers have helped to establish a burgeoning tourism industry both on land and aboard small expedition cruise ships.
A unique collection of wildlife also plays a huge part in the region’s popularity, boasting as it does, a long list of animals that includes: guanacos, king and Magellanic penguins, condors, blue whales, southern right whales, beavers, sea lions and elephant seals.
Cape Horn, an inconspicuous jut of land located at the very end of the habitable world is another a draw. While there is relatively little to see and do here, its history, remoteness and inaccessibility (it is only reachable by Zodiac from a small selection of expedition vessels at certain times of year, during near perfect weather and sea conditions), mean that it often features high on the bucket lists of those seeking out exclusive experiences that few others will ever have.