Patagonia Trekking for Beginners

Maybe it’s the mild jetlag, but having recently returned from a trip that included roughly 54 km of up-and-downhill hiking plus days of city-wandering (for a total of 302,179 steps over 12 days according to FitBit), I find myself energized and motivated. About six months ago I spontaneously booked a hiking trip in Patagonia. Starting in Santiago, Chile and ending in Buenos Aires, Argentine, the guided tour was organized around the “W Hike” in Chilean Patagonia.

1.Puerto Natales

Patagonia is the windy southern region of South America split between Chile and Argentina. According to our local guide, Magellan’s first encounter with the indigenous Tehuelche upon reaching the far southern reaches of the Americas was a set of oversized footprints in the snow. Created by the thick guanaco hides that the Tehuelche used to protect their feet in winter, these footprints led Magellan to identify the residents of the region as a race of giants and to name them Patagones from the Portuguese for “Big Feet.” English travel writer Bruce Chatwin was drawn to a remote and barren Patagonia in the 1970s by its frontier mystique and legendary qualities. Chatwin’s In Patagonia is a travel account told through stories; an homage to a foreigner’s idea of a land of legend and myth, populated by dinosaurs, giants and outlaws. Now Patagonia attracts busloads of Gortex and Patagonia-brand fleece-clad tourists seeking novel terrains.

2. Catamaran to Paine Grande

Named for the shape it traces through Torres del Paine National Park, the W Hike is one of the most popular multi-day hiking trips in Patagonia. The traditional W includes four legs to three points: Grey Glacier, French Valley and Mirador del Torres. My tour did an abridged version of the W, hitting the three main sights but skipping the Las Cuernos campsite and the long leg along Lago Nordenskjöld. Our guide assured us that this was the “boring part,” although the company website cites limited space and uncomfortable terrain at Los Cuernos.

3. Grey Glacier hike

Our first campsite, Paine Grande, was nestled in grey-green valley on Lago Pehoé. We arrived by catamaran and shortly after began the first hike to the Grey Glacier lookout point. This was our first introduction to Patagonian wind. My toque nearly blew off and we had to brace ourselves in order to frame the obligatory lookout photos, but apparently it was nothing more than a “Patagonian breeze.” The next day we experienced a middling “Patagonian wind” in French Valley, which was enough to nearly knock me off my feet but not enough to qualify as “wind plus” on our guide’s scale of wind velocity.

4. French Valley hikeThe French Valley hike was approximately nine hours. The destination was an exposed ridge that was still overwhelmed by the surrounding mountains and overhanging glacier, despite being reached by a path that went up and up, over twisty exposed tree roots and red dirt and loose boulders. I returned with very sore toes but no blisters.

5. CaracaraThe third day we skipped the long hike, taking the catamaran back over Lago Pehoé, stopping for a short hike to Lago Nordenskjöld, and then carrying on by bus to camping Las Torres. Located on private land, this campsite featured yellow geodesic dome dining halls and thick foam mattresses resembling the blue gymnastic mats from elementary school gym class.

6. TreeThe grand finale of the W is Mirador las Torres – all uphill, finishing with a long, exposed scramble over moraine. We were treated to a shockingly windless day. Finally, we get to the base of the iconic Towers. Three distinctively narrow, vertical peaks recognizable from any Google Image search for “Patagonia,” the Towers peeked at us from different angles as we approached them until fully revealing themselves as we came around the final heap of gravel and rock to the shores of the Patagonian-aqua lagoon that sits in the bowl at their base.

8. a glimps of the Towers

9. Mirador los Torres

Although Patagonia is as far away from anywhere I’ve been, I often found the landscape familiar. While my ignorant, city-dwelling eyes miss many differences in flora and geological formation, Patagonia’s scrubby flat grasslands, interrupted by dramatic young rocky mountains carved by icefields and glaciers, did not seem all that different from Alberta’s own mountains and plains. In this context, the distinctively pointed domes of Las Torres are strikingly, and enticingly, other.

The ten day “Patagonia Trekking” tour was a new type of travel experience for me. It was my first time on a group tour, rather than travelling solo or with family, and my first trip to the Southern Hemisphere – or outside of my European and North American comfort zone at all. I am not an experienced hiker or camper. I swapped the discomforts of backpackers’ hostels for the discomforts of camping and the rewards of art museums and restaurants for the rewards of panoramic mountain views and hard physical exertion. (Well, there actually were some art museums and plenty of restaurants too…)

My travelling self is, in many ways, one of my best selves. Getting out of my daily habits gets me out of mental ruts and helps me view my daily self and life from a different perspective. As much as I am a creature who craves structure and organization, life does seem to offer more possibility when it is not divided into repeating segments of 9 – 5 and Monday to Friday. This effect was evident for me on this trip, which was so full of new experiences and challenges.

10. leaving Chilean Patagonia

Travel alters one’s relationship to time, place and other people, instilling openness, humility and motivation. The version of myself that travels is self-reliant and empowered, but more open to life. It’s amazing what you can do in a day when you have only two days to wring as much experience out of a place as possible. Being unable to fluently speak the surrounding language or social norms fosters an unselfconscious humility, making it easier to ask for help, or bumble through an unfamiliar experience or space without embarrassment. Connections are formed more quickly with fellow travellers than with acquaintances made in daily life. I am even more willing to chat with cab drivers. I get up earlier in the morning. (Admittedly that is as much to do with free hotel breakfasts before 10 AM and uncomfortable beds it is to do with refreshed motivation.)

I like resolutions. Tying an intention to a ritualized, significant moment – whether New Year’s Eve, a new month or a new payday – gives a tidiness to personal growth that I find reassuring. A trip can function well in this regard – a period of time taken out of the ordinary, punctuating regular life and providing perspective and motivation. I come home from travelling full of resolutions: to get up earlier, write or create regularly and to maintain a better work-life balance. Daily life has a way of eroding motivation and openness, but I hope to maintain my refreshed, post-trip attitude for as long as I can – hopefully as long as it will take to rebuild my savings account for the next one!


IMG_20180718_115103_621Elisabeth Hill is an Edmonton-based writer and researcher who currently works as a Programming and Engagement Coordinator at the Art Gallery of Alberta.

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