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Patagonia is nature at its most pristine and desolate, a land of wonders at the end of the earth. This combination of opposites, of the inviting and the inaccessible, has both lured and deterred numerous peoples to and from the region.

Indians were Patagonia's first human inhabitants, tribes that adapted their cultures to the staunch challenges of the land. Of all these tribes, the most formidable, the most legendary, were the Tehuelche -- allegedly, a a truculent, gargantuan Indian race. Of course, when the first Europeans encountered the Indians, the Tehuelche proved shorter and more amenable than reputation suggested.

Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to reach Patagonia, stopping there briefly in 1520 during his voyage around the world. Dutch adventurers blazed Magellan's trail in the following years; in 1616, a Dutch navigator named the southernmost tip of Argentina Cape Horn after his hometown, Hoorn. But aside from a scant number of coastal settlers, few Europeans journeyed into Patagonia itself.

Finally, in 1850, a Welsh expedition ventured into the vast natural wealth and wasteland that comprise Patagonia. Members of this party were amazed at the extraordinary, almost otherworldly sights before them. The names the Welsh explorers gave to many of Patagonia's geographic locales -- the Island of Desolation, Anxious Point, Port Famine -- attest to their trepidations. The names they gave to animals, on the other hand, suggest the rapport that the Welsh formed with Patagonia. In particular, the Welsh had an affinity for small flightless birds, "Pen-gywns," that according to legend, were the resurrected souls of drowned sailors.

Today, Patagonia -- which occupies nearly a quarter of Argentina alone -- is home to a minute number of farmers and sheep ranchers. Most inhabitants live near the Colorado and Negro river valleys, where farmers grow alfalfa, pears, and apples. Still, sheep herds remain Patagonia's number one economic activity. Ranchers occupy wind-protected canyons, where their flocks of sheep have adequate room and food for grazing.