In 1968, Yosemite rock climber Yvon Chouinard left California with a few of his friends in a Volkswagen bus to follow the Pan-American Highway south to Patagonia, where the group spent a few months that would change their lives - and, indeed, the outdoor industry - forever. Five years later, Chouinard sold his climbing hardware business to focus on his more profitable outdoor clothing line, and the Patagonia brand was born.
Around the same time, in 1974, British writer Bruce Chatwin walked away from a meteoric career as an art critic with a simple telegram to his editor: “Have gone to Patagonia.” After six months of wandering through the region he published his seminal travel memoir, In Patagonia, critical acclaim, and it has become an enduring classic of the genre.
Chouinard and Chatwin helped to bring the idea of Patagonia into the mainstream consciousness. Stark landscapes that were once obscure footnotes in the outdoor canon have become fixtures of adventure media and increasingly familiar to the traveling public. But swiping through Instagram feeds or clicking through online galleries can never convey the visceral experience of being in this land of extremes. Here are five reasons not to take Chatwin’s word for it and to go see Patagonia for yourself.
Spend a week in Patagonia and you, too, will leave with memories of enough colors to found a clothing line. Turquoise waters, yellow plains, azure glaciers, verdant hillsides, tawny guanacos, slate mountains: Patagonia is a region with a palette so rich and distinctive it is unmistakable, like the Kenya of Blixen and Hemingway or Gauguin’s Tahiti.
Sailors say, “Below 40 degrees south there is no law. Below 50 degrees south there is no God.” Inspect an atlas and you will see that far southerly latitudes are nearly devoid of landmasses, save for Tasmania, New Zealand, and Patagonia. With no terrestrial features to break up oceanic winds, gales howl through these latitudes with extreme energy, creating the infamous sea states that mariners fear. Add to this the sloshing together of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans at Cape Horn and you get the spectacular weather Patagonia is known for. In theory, you may understand this. But get knocked flat by a Patagonian windstorm, and it will truly make sense.
Patagonia is a land of great geographic diversity and density. In the brief 55 miles of the W Trek in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile, a hiker will pass a calving glacier one day, scale a picturesque peak the next, and amble through arid plains the following. Linking these landscapes into a week of hiking creates a quilt of geography in your mind, rich with all the details that a series of snapshots cannot convey.
Plants and animals are the language of landscapes and the articulations of their geographic personality. In the same way that only the acacia plains of Africa say “giraffe” or the grasslands of North America “bison,” only the mountains and plains of Patagonia say “guanaco.” Bring your binoculars and a long lens for your camera: the condors, caracaras, ñandús, guanacos, and other regional creatures of Patagonia are common throughout the region and a treat for foreign visitors.
The remote location, rugged terrain, and punishing weather of Patagonia can serve up a challenge for any adventurer. Don’t just be an urban poser: make it through a trip to the end of the world and you can wear your branded gear with pride.