If you want to gain a deep understanding of Patagonia, you mustn’t ignore its history and culture. Learning about how life is and was in this remote corner of the world will make your trip an unbeatable experience.
Are there surviving first inhabitants? How was the region colonized? Which traditions last until today?
Here we’ll tell you 3 things about the Patagonian culture that will bring the region to life for you.
1. Indigenous Peoples of Patagonia
Given Patagonia’s wild and inhospitable climate, its first inhabitants arouse particular interest.
Different Indigenous Peoples with rich cultural traditions lived in the area between Chiloé and Cape Horn, who gradually disappeared in the 19th century due to the impact of Western civilization.
Among the archipelagos and waterways that extend over this region, these small groups of hunter-gatherers traveled in canoes searching for food.
They mainly survived by hunting sea lions, birds, fish and shellfish. Their daily life was mostly spent on the water and also among dense vegetation and amidst heavy rainfall.
Among these were the Chonos, who lived on the islands between the Chiloé Archipelago and Taitao Peninsula; the Kawéskar, between the Gulf of Penas and the Strait of Magellan; and the Yámana, who inhabited the islands to the south of Tierra del Fuego, according to Chile's Museum of Pre Columbian Art.
Meanwhile, unusually tall, well-proportioned native people lived on the extensive plains between the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego. They were also hunter-gatherers and the term “Patagon” — or “large-foot” in Spanish and Portuguese — is said to come from the large size of their feet.
Between the Santa Cruz River and Strait of Magellan, the Tehuelche lived by hunting guanaco (a South American mammal related to the camel) and greater rhea (a flightless bird). Their way of life was altered by the introduction of Western traditions.
Further south, the plains of Tierra del Fuego were inhabited by the Selk’nam, who are renowned for their rituals and cultural richness.
Although these people had an elementary social organization, they had profound religious beliefs and elaborate ceremonies, which has awoken much interest in the West.
For example, the Selk’nam were exceptionally resistant to the cold. They usually only used pieces of animal fur for clothing. They are also known for their body painting — from a mixture of guanaco fat and clay — which they used for their rituals.
Anyone interested in learning more about the cultures and customs of the Indigenous Peoples should visit the Martín Gusinde Anthropological Museum in Puerto Williams or the Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello Museum in Punta Arenas.
2. Chilean Gaucho
Although it’s said that the gaucho — a skilled horseman dedicated mainly to rearing livestock — is typical of Argentina, Uruguay, and Paraguay, there are records of the Chilean gaucho in Magallanes Region, as this registry by photographer Daniel Casado shows.
In this part of the country, the Andes mountain range is lower and does not present a significant obstacle for cultural influences to flow from one country to another. This is why the Chilean gaucho is a mixture of the area’s indigenous culture and Argentine gauchos.
There’s no doubt that in this southernmost region, there were much stronger and closer links with the Argentine gaucho than with the Chilean huaso or “cowboy.”
In Chile, Patagonia was mainly colonized by inhabitants of Chiloé who practiced fishing. However, the area has a significant potential for rearing livestock, and the settlers from Chiloé used to work on Argentine ranches where they adapted their rural customs and acquired riding skills.
Typical characteristics of gauchos are their leather boots, berets, neck scarves, ponchos with geometric designs and boleadoras, a lasso-like hunting device inherited from the Tehuelche. They’re known for being tough but also extremely hospitable.
Another gaucho custom is drinking mate, a herb infusion that is traditionally served in a hollow gourd with a metal straw. Drinking it is a ritual as there are many rules. For example, only one person should be responsible for preparing mate for a group, it must be passed to the right and if anyone says “thank you,” it means they don’t want anymore.
3. Patagonian lamb
Gastronomy is also an essential part of a region’s culture. A classic Patagonian dish is a lamb roasted on a stick over an open fire. It’s another tradition that comes from southern Argentina which was integrated into the customs of Chilean Patagonia.
The area’s climate and geographical conditions produce high-quality lamb which is reflected in tender meat with a delicious flavor.
It’s usually cooked outdoors for a few hours and is only seasoned with salt. As well as being a traditional regional dish, preparing roast lamb on a stick is also a typical way of spending time with family and friends. All at a slow pace, like most things in southern Chile.
These are some things that you should know about the Patagonian culture. By learning about its gastronomy, traditions, and Indigenous Peoples, you can reconstruct the history of one of the wildest places on earth.
If you’re traveling to Chilean Patagonia, we recommend you learn about its incredible history and culture as well as enjoying its stunning landscapes.
Learn more with this checklist for your trip to Patagonia