“Why then, and this is not only my particular case, does this barren land possess my mind? I find it hard to explain…but it might partly be because it enhances the horizons of imagination.”
- Charles Darwin
Aside from a precious few tourist havens and industrial centers, Southern Patagonia is an immense swath of parched, lonely land where wild animals and a few tough inhabitants eek out an equally tough existence. But within this stark region one also finds a land of desolate beauty and dramatic contrasts, where angry spires of barren rock and icy peaks give way to a seemingly never-ending horizon of semi-desert steppe that extends several hundred kilometers all the way to the Atlantic coastline. This is indeed Big Sky country – Patagonia style. Simply enduring the utter emptiness and natural ruggedness of this frontier region, which has a population density comparable to the Sahara Desert, is in many ways the very essence of the Patagonian experience. Wrested from its native inhabitants barely over a century ago, much of this remote wilderness is still unknown to the outside world. Perhaps for these very reasons, the austral landscape of Southern Patagonia seems to captivate the imagination unlike any other portion of Patagonia.
Yet a closer look at these barren expanses also reveals a surprising diversity of life. Among the more conspicuous native species are guanacos, rheas, condors, foxes, sea lions and even penguins, along with the elusive puma. And though they were introduced only about a century ago, all species of anadromous and resident salmonids found throughout Patagonia now survive – and even flourish – in some part of soutern Patagonia, the sole exception being landlocked salmon.
Immense, tempestuous lakes dominate the western margins of Southern Patagonia, and many sprawl across the Chilean border where they drain into the Pacific. Many are heavily influenced by the expansive Patagonian Ice Sheet, the third largest contiguous ice field and freshwater reserve on the planet behind Antarctica and the Arctic. Several of these glacial lakes lie under a backdrop of arguably the most dramatic scenery in Patagonia – sites such as Perito Moreno Glacier and Mount Fitz Roy, whose powerful combinations of rock and ice draw tourists from around the world and are deservedly among Patagonia’s most photographed landscapes.
As the dramatic mountains yield to the flat prairie to the east, only the largest few rivers in Southern Patagonia carry enough water to complete the several hundred kilometers journey across the desiccated steppe to reach the South Atlantic. The Gallegos and Santa Cruz rivers are the province’s primary drainages that accomplish this feat, and they have developed outstanding (though challenging) fisheries for large, highly-prized anadromous runs. The Gallegos offers chances for trophy sea trout, while the massive Río Santa Cruz boasts the only known run of Atlantic steelhead in the world.
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