Patagonia’s culture and traditions are a unique blend of Latin American indigenous traditions and European customs that have been shaped by variables such as extreme weather, unbelievably vast landscapes and a deep sense of isolation from the rest of the world. While many visit the region to hike picturesque national parks such as Torres del Paine, there’s so much more richness in Patagonia to be experienced. Understanding the culture a bit more will help you connect more profoundly with every moment on your Patagonia adventure.
What to Know Before You Visit Patagonia
Mate is life here
All over Patagonia you will see locals walking around clinging to a large thermos as though it’s their emotional-support thermos. It pretty much is. It’s not to hold coffee or hot chocolate, but instead hot water to be able to pour over tea-like leaves from the yerba plant anytime, anywhere. To say it’s popular is a severe understatement. In Patagonia the average annual mate consumption is around 22 gallons per person. Practically every local drinks mate, in social situations and at work; in the morning as an energizer and in the afternoon as a digestif; on its own or accompanied by a sweet pastry.
It takes effort and dedication to consume that much, and most locals will be excited to include you in their tradition. Conquistadors once observed the indigenous Guaraní people and saw the energizing properties of mate (instead of caffeine, it has a similar component called mateine). “We are all equal before mate,” stated Valeria Trapaga, mate sommelier, highlighting the equalizing quality of the infusion. Think of it as like a peace pipe, but with tea.
Mate tastes almost like green tea. Some people sweeten it, others prefer it bitter. To enjoy it as a tourist, there are a few things you should know:
The tea itself is called yerba. It’s put into a gourd or other container called a mate and drunk through a metal straw called a bombilla. And then, when water of a very specific temperature is poured over it, the infusion is…once again…called mate. The water can’t have been fully boiled, or it is said that it will burn the delicate leaves. And no one wants a tepid mate, so there’s a sweet spot of catching the water right before the kettle starts to boil.
One person called the cebador pours the water. Once they start serving, they are the chosen one. No one else pours the water for the round. They hand the mate to someone, who drinks the infusion until all of the water is gone, and then hands it back to the very important cebador, who then refills the water and passes it to the next person. If it’s your turn drinking the mate, don’t dawdle. Everyone in the group is antsy and wants their turn. There’s a saying of “it’s a straw, not a microphone,” meaning don’t be a talker when you should be getting down to business and drinking. And don’t say “gracias” casually just to say thank you for the mate when it’s handed to you, because when you say “gracias,” it communicates the intention that you are bowing out of the circle and that you do not wish to receive any more.
Gauchos are basically Patagonia’s version of the Wild West cowboy
Gauchos are a nomadic sort dedicated to rearing livestock and have quite the earned reputation for being brave, unruly, and intensely private. They are incredibly skilled horsemen and equally skilled at using a knife. Gauchos often spend days alone in the saddle and seem to like it that way.
In the Argentine War of Independence in 1810, gauchos became a huge part of the revolutionary force that won independence from Spain, as they knew the land intimately and were never afraid of a fight.
One might think they would be rustic in dress, working outside and with livestock all day, but they are actually quite stylish. Typical characteristics of gauchos are their leather boots, specific trousers called bombachos that are loose-fitting then gathered at the bottom, a beret-like hat called a boina, a silk neck scarf, a poncho, and some might sport boleadoras, a lasso-like hunting device. They will always have a knife tucked into their belt. But the most defining characteristic of a true gaucho is definitely his horsemanship skills – they are horse whisperers through and through.
Many Patagonian estancias employ modern-day gauchos to caretake their animals or to lead their horseback excursions. While often men of few words, most showcase typical Patagonian hospitality and will probably be happy to answer any questions that you have regarding their unique lifestyle.
This place brings the term slow food to a whole new level
The focus here is on fresh ingredients and patience when it comes to cooking. There’s fresh seafood from the Tierra del Fuego and the ocean coastlines, trout from the abundant cold water rivers and lakes, high-quality lamb from the vast steppe, and mushrooms and plump blueberries, raspberries, and cherries from the Andean Region. Elderberries, Magellan barberries, blackcurrants, and sweet briar rose hips also make an appearance in the local gastronomy.
Meat is usually cooked outdoors over an open fire at a very slow pace, a typical way of spending time with friends and family. Spices aren’t really a big thing here, outside of salt and merken, which is a fairly mild smoked chili pepper.
At an asado, which is the grilling of the meat, the asador is the only one to touch the meat. No matter how many neighborhood barbecues you threw back home, leave this one to the real experts who have wood-fire meat grilling in their blood. It’s a sign of disrespect to meddle. What you can offer is a big applause when the meat is served, to show thanks to the asador for his work. And yes, “his,” as rural Patagonia still has some pretty machista undertones when it comes to grilling.
Most asados will be accompanied by red wine, even if it’s lunchtime. If you are invited to an asado, a good bottle is always a welcomed gift for your host. If you find out that your host does not drink, chocolate is another option. The region has incredible chocolate, with Bariloche in northern Patagonia being a chocolate capital of the world, often being called “Little Switzerland.”
Patagonia is not for the uptight
It’s definitely not a place to get stressed if someone shows up ten minutes later than planned…or even twenty. Siestas are common after lunch and most businesses shut down during the early afternoon so they can rest and have time with their family. Google might say a business should be open during set hours, but if they are there, then they are open, and if they aren’t, well, roll with it. Some small businesses might not take credit cards, or “the system is down,” so always keep some cash on you.
You can also plan to not have phone coverage in many places, and even wifi can be spotty.
That all being said, Patagonia is one of those places where you will appreciate having the time and peace to contemplate nature and to get to know the culture. So put your phone down, join a mate circle and laugh with new friends, sit relaxing by a fire as you wait for some of the best slow-cooked meat of your life, and absorb some of the most jaw-droppingly gorgeous views this planet has to offer. There is a lot about unplugging and enjoying the small moments in life that Patagonia has to teach those who are open to adopting its pace.