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Royal Geographical Society (with IBG): the heart of geography
Discovering Patagonia, 27 May 2009
Hidden Outback, 17 October 2009
Discovering Brunei, 25 March 2009
Discovering Guyana, 10 December 2008 »
Hidden Oman, 22 September 2008 »
Discovering Mozambique, 4 June 2008 »
Discovering Kamchatka, March 2008 »
Discovering Bhutan, Nov 2007 »
Discovering Best Bengal and Sikkim, 27 October 2010
Discovering Patagonia

This event was held on 27 May 2009, with the panel discussing travel in Patagonia.

The panel was:

  • Christabelle Dilks, travel writer and author of the Footprint Guide to Patagonia
  • Chris Parrott, director and founding member of Journey Latin America

bullet  Patagonia - background information

Patagonia is a distinct geographical region forming the southern-most tip of South America. The region, which has never precisely been defined, is considered to extend from the Río Colorado southwards to the tip of the continent. The region covers an area of approximately 673,000 square kilometres (260,000 square miles), and is just over a third the size of the land areas of both Argentina and Chile.

Argentine Patagonia officially includes the land south of the Rio Colorado, and consists of the provinces of Neuquén, Río Negro, Chubut and Santa Cruz. The region of Chilean Patagonia is less definite, but is generally considered to include the area south of Puerto Montt. However, many descriptions of Patagonia include the Chilean side of the Araucanía, the Lake District and the island of Chiloé.

The borders of the two countries meet at the Andes. The average height of the peaks of the Patagonian Andes is approximately 2,500 metres, much lower than further north, where peaks reach up to 7,000 metres. Between the mountains are U-shaped glacial valleys, many of which contain lakes. South of 45˚, the Andes are covered by two large ice-fields, Hielo Norte and Hielo Sur. From the edge of these ice-fields, glaciers drop westwards into the Chilean fjords or eastwards into the lakes and rivers of Argentine Patagonia.

The landscape of Chilean Patagonia and Argentine Patagonia differ considerably. The majority of Chilean Patagonia is a densely forested, mountainous area, with a wet and wild climate. Valdivia, in the Zona Sur region of Chile, is one of the wettest spots in the region with an annual rainfall of more than 2,300mm. This compares to the majority of Argentine Patagonia which is a region of vast semi-arid plains, which rise in a succession of terraces approximately every 100 metres. The plains consist of shingle with very little vegetation. Further west, towards the Andean Cordillera, the landscape becomes greener and the flora and fauna become more abundant.

The region of Patagonia can be split into three latitudinal zones of approximately 600km in length; the Araucanía and Lake District; Central Patagonia and Southern Patagonia. The mountains of Tierra del Fuego and its numerous islands form an additional zone to the south.

Patagonia lies within the southern temperate zone and has a cool and temperate climate, with four distinct seasons. The enormous expanse of ocean in the southern hemisphere leaves Patagonia exposed to extremely strong, saturated, westerly, winds which circle the Antarctic land mass. As a result the Patagonian Andes receive large quantities of rain or snow, and the area west of the Andes is affected by a severe rain shadow, creating vast areas of arid plains.

Generally the climate of the region gets harsher the further south you travel. The weather is often unpredictable across southern Patagonia, with violent storms sweeping across the Pacific, particularly in late spring and summer.

Patagonia has a population of approximately 2 million. Vast areas of the region are sparsley populated, especially Chilean Patagonia which has a population density of approximately 1 inhabitant per square kilometre. Both Argentinians and Chileans speak Spanish, and in the larger towns and tourist areas a small amount of English is often spoken. In certain areas in the south, small communities of English, Welsh, German, Italian and Croatian settlers continue to speak their own language.

In some areas, indigenous languages are still spoken, most notably the Mapuche dialect, spoken by the Mapuche Indians of the Lake District. Although both countries speak Spanish, there are often major differences in pronounciation and accent.

The principal economic activities include sheep farming, oil, mining, agriculture and tourism. Chubut and Santa Cruz provinces are the top producers of Merino and Corriedale wool. Tourism is growing rapidly within Patagonia, and is making an increasingly important contribution to the economy. Exports from the region include crude oil, gas, wool products and fruit.


bullet  History & exploration

Before the arrival of the Spanish conquistadors, the region of Patagonia was inhabited by several indigenous tribes. Signs of human habitation in the southern Lake District region of Chile can be dated back as far as 13,000 years. It is believed that these indigenous tribes reached the southern tip of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, around 9,000BC.

The indigenous people of the region included the Mapuche and Tehuelche tribes. The Tehuelche tribe occupied the vast plains of central and southern Patagonia to the Straits of Magellan in the south, and were nomadic hunters who followed large herds of guanaco across the Patagonian steppes. The Mapuche tribe occupied the central and southern part of Chile.

Europeans first discovered the area in 1519, when Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer, visited the coast of Patagonia. The name Patagonia is believed to originate from Magellan’s first sighting of the extremely tall and stocky Tehuelche people. Magellan named the Tehuelche ‘Patagons’, which derived from the word ‘pata’ for foot. The name Patagonia was believed to interpret as ‘land of the big feet’. The concept and belief in the Patagonian giants persisted until 1773 when John Hawkesworth, on behalf of the Admiralty, published a compendium of explorers’ journals, including James Cook and John Byron. Their accounts mentioned people no taller than 6 foot 6 inches (2 metres).

The first expeditions into the interior, less than a decade after Magellan’s expedition, were in search of the legendary Ciudad de los Césares, a supposedly rich city in the heart of the Andes. Jesuit missionaries also ventured deep into the heart of Patagonia attempting to convert the indigenous people to the Christian faith.

In the mid 16th century the Spanish conquistador and founder of Chile, Pedro de Valdivia, began the conquest of the area west of the Cordillera, south of Santiago. By 1567, in spite of fierce resistance from the Mapuche, many settlements had been established along the coast. However, by the end of the 16th century, the Spanish invaders were unable to resist the offensives of the Mapuche, and withdrew to the north.

In the second half of the 18th century, many Europeans explored the region of Patagonia, including James Byron, James Wallis, and Louis Antoine de Bougainville. In 1833, Charles Darwin sailed along the coast of Argentina aboard HMS Beagle, and made frequent expeditions into the interior of Patagonia, including a 200 mile expedition with Robert Fitzroy up the course of the Santa Cruz River.

In 1859, a Frenchman, Orélie-Antoine de Tounens, proclaimed himself king of The Kingdom of Araucania, the Mapuche nation of Patagonia. After declaring the independence of Araucania he attempted to expand the nation southwards, but within a year was captured and deported.

In July 1865, 165 Welsh settlers colonised an area of the Chubut valley. Between 1865 and 1915 the colony was reinforced by another 3,000 settlers from Wales and the United States. Although living conditions were harsh, the colony expanded by trading with the Tehuelches and by irrigating the barren land. The colony continued to expand until the Great Depression of the 1930’s. Many of their descendants continue to live in the region today. The arrival of European colonists and the military campaigns of the 1870s and 1880s resulted in the indigenous Mapuche and Teheulches tribes being wiped out or forced onto reserves.

Since colonial times, the border between Argentina and Chile was defined as the highest peaks of the Andes. In the late 19th century it was realised that a more precise understanding of the border was necessary, and under British arbitration, Argentina and Chile established an official boundary commission. The naturalists, Clemente Onelli and Perito Moreno, served for the Argentine Boundary Commission, and made extensive journeys into the Cordillera.

In 1902, King Edward VII, mediated for the two nations, and established a border across the summits of San Lorenzo, Fitz Roy and Murallón, and split many of the disputed lakes in two. The border has undergone many modifications and disputes since then, and the only part of the trans-Andean border still in dispute is a 50km section of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field.


bullet  Ecology & wildlife

Patagonia has a wide variety of habitats, including: marine, wetland, forest, alpine and steppes, and is home to an abundance of wildlife. 

There are roughly three zones of vegetation within Patagonia. These zones extend southwards down the country and comprise the evergreen, temperate or Valdivian forest (bosque valdiviano) of the mild wet lowlands of the west; the deciduous forest (bosque deciduoso) of the colder, drier montane environment; and the steppes of the semi-arid eastern Patagonia. The vegetation of Patagonia is dominated by the southern beech (Northofagus), of which ten species occur across the region.

An abundance of fungi can be found across the region, most of which are related to those of North America and Europe. Notable edible species include a yellow-orange fungi (Cyttaria darwini) which can be found in Tierra del Fuego, and the giant puffball which are common in the Torres del Paine National Park. 

With such diverse habitats, Patagonia has a rich birdlife. Notable birds include the pato de torrents (Merganetta armata), or torrent duck, which lives along the mountain rivers; the flamenco rojo (Phoenicopterus chilensis), or Chilean flamingo, which inhabits the lagoons and lakes of Southern Patagonia; the Andean Condor (Sarcorhamphus gryphus), a large vulture which is found throughout the Andes; and the flightless Ñandú or rhea, which inhabits the steppes of Eastern Patagonia.

Patagonia has an extensive network of national parks and reserves, including the Parque Nacional Perito Moreno, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares in Argentina, and the Parque Nacional Torres del Paine in Chile.

The valleys of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine enjoy a microclimate which is favourable to plants and wildlife. The park is home to 105 species of birds and 25 species of mammals. The area is renowned for its 200 plant species, including a variety of orchids, orange and yellow slipper plants (Calceolaria), Lathyrus and Oxalis. The hill slopes are particularly beautiful in spring, when they are covered with the brilliant red flowers of the embothrium, and the bright yellow flowers and purple berries of the calafate (Berberis buxifolia).

The Parque Nacional Los Glaciares, the second largest park in Argentina, runs along the Chilean frontier and covers over 660,000 hectares. Over 40% of the park is covered by a giant ice field, the hielos continentales. The habitat east of the ice field is the southern beech forest, and further east the Patagonian steppe. The area is home to over 100 species of birds, including the Maganellic woodpecker (Campephilus magellanicus) and the austral parakeet (Enicognathus ferrugineus).

The Patagonian steppes are home to a variety of mammals including the guanaco (Lama guanicoe), the puma (Felis concolor), the Argentine tuco-tuco (Ctenomys argentinus, the plains viscacha (Lagostomus maximus) and the Patagonian hare or mara (Dolichotis patagonum).

The coast of Patagonia attracts a huge variety of wildlife. The Reserva Faunística Península Valdés, a wildlife reserve in Argentina, was made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1999. In spring, the Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) can be found within the protected shallow waters of the Golfo Nuevo and the Golfo San José, off the coast of the Valdés Peninsula. Other cetaceans include the blue whale (Balaenoptera musculus), humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae), fin whale (Balaenoptera physalus) and the killer whale (Orcinus orca).

Other important marine mammal species include the southern elephant seal (Mirounga leonine), southern sea lion (Otaria byronia) and Commerson’s dolphin (Cephalorhynchus commersoni). The coast also attracts a huge variety of birdlife, including the Magellan penguin (Spheniscus magellanicus), which nests in burrows near the shores of the Valdés Peninsula, Cabo Dos Bahías, Ría Deseado, Monte León and Isla de los Estados. Other notable marine bird species include the black-browed albatross (Diomedea melanophris), the snowy sheathbill and the Antarctic giant petrel. 

bullet  Further reading & resources

The Society's Foyle Reading Room has over 200 items relating specifically to Patagonia, as well as modern guide books covering the region. The following are available for reference in the Foyle Reading Room.

bullet  Visit the Society’s on-line catalogue for information

Or visit the Foyle Reading Room in person, where a member of the Collections team will be able to assist.

bullet  Books/Pamphlets:

  • Chile, Bradt Travel Guide. Tim Burford, 2005.
    (mg FRR/03A)
  • Between extremes. Brian Keenan & John McCarthy, 2000.
    (mg BG/111A)
  • Where the earth ends. John Harrison, 2000.
    (mg BG/112A)
  • Trekking in the Patagonian Andes, Lonely Planet Guide. Clem Lindenmayer, 1998.
    (mg FRR/03A)
  • Argentina, Footprint Handbook. Charlie Nurse, 1998.
    (mg FRR/03A)
  • In Patagonia. Bruce Chatwin, 1998.
    (mg BG/238XB)
  • An Englishman in Patagonia. John Pilkington, 1991.
    (mg BG/112C)
  • Land of tempest: travels in Patagonia, 1958-62. Eric Shipton, 1963.
    (mg BG/112D)
  • Mischief in Patagonia. H.W. Tilman, 1957.
    (mg BG/112E)
  • A Yankee in Patagonia. Edward Chace: his thirty years there, 1898-1928. Robin & Katharine Barrett, 1931. (mg BG/112E)
  • Through the heart of Patagonia. H. Hesketh Prichard, 1902.
    (mg N07/28B)
  • Argentine, Patagonian, and Chilian sketches with a few notes on Uruguay. E.Alkers, 1893.
    (mg BG/112A)
  • Idle days in Patagonia. William Henry Hudson, 1893.
    (mg BG/112E)
  • Across Patagonia. Lady Florence Dixie, 1880.
    (mg N07/28B)
  • At home with the Patagonians: a year’s wanderings… George Chaworth Musters, 1871.
    (mg N07/28A)
  • Narrative of a voyage to Patagonia…in H.M. Ships “Adventure” and “Beagle”, in 1826-7. John Macdouall, 1833. (mg N07/24T-U)    
  • Narrative of the surveying voyages of his Majesty’s ships Adventure and Beagle... Robert Fitzroy, 1839.
    (mg N07/28B)
  • Voyage round the world, to Patagonia, Strait of Magellan… Capt. Samuel Wallis, 1811-24.
    (mg N07/42E)

bullet  Maps

  • Patagonia: an International Travel Map, 2005. 1:2 000 000.
    (mr Argentina S.81)
  • Parque National Torres del Paines, [1990]. 1:100 000.
    (mr Chile S.27)
  • Carta de la República Argentina. 1951-62. 1:250 000. 87 maps.
    (mr Argentina G.9)
  • Chile. Carta preliminar. 1950- . 1:250 000. 104 maps.
    (mr Chile G.2)
  • Carta provisional [later Carta topográfica] de la República Argentina. 1950- . 1:500 000. 80 maps.
    (mr Argentina G.8)
  • Sketch map of Patagonia [showing route of Boundary Commission and fixed boundary], 1904. 1:5 000 000. (mr Argentina S/Div.4)
  • Sketch maps of the northern and central regions of Pataconia by Llwyd Ap-Iwan, [1898]. 1:2 200 000. (mr Argentina S.73)
  • S.W. Patagonia surveyed by Nordenskjöld, 1895-6, 1:550 000. (mr Argentina S/S.31)
  • Francisco P. Moreno’s Erforschung eines Theiles von Patagonien 1876 & 1877… 1:1 750 000.
    (mr Argentina S/D.13)
  • Mapa de Patagonia Araucania y Islas de Chiloe …, 1858. 1:740 000. (mr Argentina S.38)
  • River Santa Cruz. To accompany paper in JRGS Vol.7 p.14 by Capt. Fitzroy, 1837. [1:1 393 920]
    (mr Argentina S/S.39)
  • Carta general de la Costa Patagonica …, [1822]. [1:1 000 000] (mr Argentina S.72)
  • Plan showing the Mouth and Bar of the River Negro on the coast of Patagonia … [1:21 000]. (mr S. America S.1)
  • Numero primero. Plano de Parte de la Costa Septemptrional del Golfo de San Jorge …, 1780. 1:250 000. (mr S. America S.1)

· Copies of selected maps (depending on copyright status) may be purchased as prints from the Foyle Reading Room, for more information please contact us at enquiries@rgs.org or 020 7591 3044.

bullet  Picture Library Material

Highlights include photographs by Sir T. Holdich, H. W Tilman, H. Burmeister, and Liborio Justo.

· Prints of photographs and other images can be purchased from the Society’s Picture Library website

bullet  Journal Articles

  • The Joint Services Expedition to Chilean Patagonia by C.H. Agnew of Lochnaw Yr & C.S. Gobey. (GJ Vol.140, No.2, June 1974, pp.262-8)
  • A journey in South-Western Patagonia by Otto Nordenskjold. (GJ Vol.10, No.4, Oct. 1897, pp.401-410)
  • Explorations in Patagonia by Francisco P. Moreno. (GJ Vol.14, No.3, Sept. 1899, pp.241-269)
  • The Patagonia ice cap by H.W. Tilman. (GJ Vol.123, No.2, June 1957, pp.148-155)
  • Explorations in Patagonia by Eric Shipton. (GJ Vol.125, No.3/4, Sep-Dec 1959, pp.312-325)
  • A year in Patagonia by Lieutenant G.C. Musters. (Proceedings of RGS Vol.15, No.1, 1870-1871, pp.41-51)
  • The Patagonian Andes by T.H. Holdich. (GJ Vol.23, No.2, 1904, pp.153-173)

bullet  Journal Maps:
· Several Patagonia maps from the Society’s publications can be purchase. For more information please contact us at
enquiries@rgs.org or +44 (0)20 7591 3044.

  • Map of part of Patagonia by Henry L. Jones Esqr to accompany his notes. 1861. £50 (154)
  • Patagonia to illustrate Captain Musters’ route 1869-70. 1871. £30 (288)
  • Sketch map of South-Western Patagonia from a survey by Otto Nordenskjold. 1897. £20 (737)
  • Skecth map of the Patagonian Cordillera … 1900.  £20 (812)
  • The Welsh colony in Patagonia [a collection of maps & diagrams…]. 1966. £20 (1443)

bullet  Further Reading:

  • Patagonia: A cultural history. Chris Moss, 2008. (ISBN: 9781904955382)
  • The last cowboys at the end of the world… Nick Reding, 2002. (ISBN: 9780609605967)

bullet  Internet resources & online travel reviews:

bullet  Visit the Foyle Reading Room
Access our varied materials, which together illustrate the world’s people and places, the history of exploration and the development of geography as a discipline. Around 2 million items are stored on-site and are available via the Reading Room.

Use our Collections for:

  • personal study and research
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The Foyle Reading Room is open Monday-Friday, 1000–1700 (closed on Public and Bank Holidays).

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If you would like to discuss your enquiry before you visit please contact us on enquiries@rgs.org or +44 (0)207 591 3044.

bullet  Joining the Society

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