Torres del Paine National Park

Patagonia: What Is the Origin of Its Name?

Monument to Ferdinand Magellan in Punta Arenas, Chile.
Monument to Ferdinand Magellan and his encounter
with the Patagonians, Punta Arenas, Chile
Patagonia is the term to describe the southernmost part of South America shared by  both Chile and Argentina. The western section falls within Chilean territory, while the eastern portion belongs to Argentina. The Andes Mountain Range serves as a partial natural boundary, separating these two regions.

On the Argentine side, the provinces that comprise Northern Patagonia include part of Mendoza, La Pampa, and Buenos Aires, as well as the provinces of Rio Negro, Neuquen, and Chubut. Santa Cruz and Tierra del Fuego constitute Southern Patagonia.

On the Chilean side, the Patagonia is formed by part of the Xth. Region of Los Lagos and entirety the XIth Region of Aysen and the XIIth Region of Magallanes.

Located just 800 kilometers from the Antarctic Continent at its southern tip, Patagonia boasts an array of remarkable natural attractions. Much of its territory remains untouched by human activity, making it a secure and enticing destination for visitors. Today, Patagonia stands as one of the world's premier tourist destinations, renowned for its pristine landscapes and abundant natural beauty.

Origin of the name Patagonia

Today there are several hypotheses regarding the name of this geographical region. It has been 500 years since the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan circumnavigated the globe, proving what almost no one believed at the time, that the Earth was round. 

Magallanes spent the Winter of 1520 in the current Argentine region of San Julian, where he made contact with the local natives. One of the hypotheses states that the name Patagonia would come from a popular cavalry novel from the early 1500s.  It is said that Magellan may have read the novel in which the monstrous character 'Pathagon' closely resembled the local natives of San Julian, who were wrapped in furs and hunted animals with bows and arrows. It is believed that, during his interactions with the indigenous population, Magellan may have associated their appearance with the fictional character.

One of the faces of the monument featuring the Patagonian
Indian. It is said that if a visitor kisses his toe,
he will some day return to Punta Arenas.
To add more context to the encounter between Europeans and natives, it is said that the native population contacted by the Spaniards in San Julian, on the Atlantic coast, were very tall and had large feet. 
In fact, another of the explorers and chronicler of the travel, Antonio Pigafetta in his narration of Magellan's voyage around the World, tells without giving further explanation that the Captain of the expedition, seeing the natives called them "Patagoni" (Big Footed). 
In 1551, and confirming the above, the Spanish historian Francisco Lopez de Gomara wrote that the Patagonians were so called because their feet were disproportionate.  

For his part, the Spanish sailor and historian Martín Fernandez de Navarrete, in one of the volumes of his 'Collection of Voyages and Discoveries Made by the Spaniards by Sea from the End of the 15th Century,' where he compiles all the information he considered of interest obtained from the chronicles of the voyage and later testimonies of the survivors of the expedition, recounts the story of the first encounter between Europeans of the Magellanic expedition and the natives, saying: "All of them were taller than the tallest man in Castile" and that "they were called Patagonians because their feet were misshapen, although not disproportionate to their stature."    

Exaggeration or not, it is clear that the inhabitants of Patagonia, at least at that time, were exceptionally tall and had large feet, not only in the eyes of the discoverers in 1520, but also based on several other accounts from that period.