Caves in Última Esperanza show that humans, known as the Aonikenk people, have inhabited the region since 10,000 BC. In 1520 Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to visit the region. Development was spurred by the California gold rush, which brought trade via the ships sailing between Europe, California and Australia.
In the late 19th century, estancias (grazing ranches) formed, creating a regional wool boom that had massive, reverberating effects for both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia. Great wealth for a few came at the cost of native populations, who were all but wiped out by disease and warfare. With the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, traffic reduced around Cabo de Hornos and the area's international importance diminished.
Today fisheries, silviculture, small oil reserves and methanol production, in addition to a fast-growing tourism industry, keep the region relatively prosperous.
Feature: Enigmatic Patagonia: Chatwin's Masterpiece
In 1977 the late English writer Bruce Chatwin penned In Patagonia, an indispensable companion for the Patagonian traveler.
Chatwin's fascination with Patagonia began in childhood, when he coveted a giant sloth pelt from his eccentric seafaring relative Charley Milward, who resided in Punta Arenas. He was intrigued by the seemingly out-of-place immigrant communities, such as the Patagonian Welsh, and cowboys-in-exile Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. A six-month journey through Patagonia resulted in Chatwin's masterpiece at the age of 37. It tells of travels south from Buenos Aires to his final destination, Cueva del Milodón – the one-time home of the prehistoric sloth.
Chatwin mixed fluid storytelling, intriguing regional history, personal portraits and old-fashioned travel memoir, tossing one last controversial ingredient into the pot: fiction. In Patagonia reads primarily as a nonfiction travel memoir, yet subjects have challenged and contradicted events depicted in the book. There's no acknowledgement that any of the stories were fabricated. Many of the conversations and characters that Chatwin reported as true were just figments of his imagination. But that's not to say that the real Patagonia is less peculiar.