Overland miles: 9384 Bus hours: 292 Empanadar: 36
Make no mistake: Patagonia is THE place for trekking. As home to some of the most awe-inspiring vistas you’ll ever see, this place is paradise for those who love getting back to nature.
But while there’s lots of great walks to be had, there’s also a lot of snobbery. On meeting someone new round here, it’s not what’s your name and where do you come from, it’s what mulitple-day treks have you completed and which life-threatening ones are you planning.
At the top of the pecking order are people who’ve done the Dientes, a gruelling five day trek on Isla Navarino, with no campgrounds and barely any waymarkers. Woe betide anyone who sets off without their compass, let alone a stout pair of walking poles. As the weather is so changeable on the island, trekkers have to check in and out with the local police after the death of a French woman four years ago, and we heard reports of groups having to hole themselves up in their tents for over 24 hours because the snow was falling too heavily for them to see. Certainly not our idea of a good time.
Second in line for ‘Hardest Trek of the Region’ award is what’s known as ‘The Circuit’, a seven day trek around the Torres del Paine national park in Chile, and propping up the rear is the Circuit’s little sister, ‘The W’, (named for the orthographic shape of the trek), which at four to five days for the averagely fit walker is no mean feat in itself. Both of these take in all the highlights of the park (glaciers, lakes and Mordor-esque granite peaks) but the Circuit tacks on a few extra days just for the lols.
As well as the treks you’ve completed, or are planning, it also matters how you’re dressed. Despite most trekking gear being as attractive as a hessian sack, streets are full of people dressed in top to toe North Face or Jack Wolfskin, backed up with merino base layers and some sturdy footwear, regardless of whether they’re about to go on a hearty six hour hike or simply popping to the shops.
We may have mentioned on these pages that we are not born hikers. Jovian and I gazed forelornly at our motley collection of amatuerish trekking gear, hastily purchased before we left the UK at the Haringey branch of the UK’s foremost discount outdoor and fitness clothing retailer, Sports Direct, (value-pack thermals courtesy of Uniqlo, five year old cycling vest model’s own), and wondered if we’d pass muster amongst all these pros.
To add to our woes, most of the longer treks require camping – something that we were neither prepared for, nor particularly enjoy. We briefly flirted with the idea of renting the necessary equipment so we could feel part of the gang, but soon came to our senses. If we weren’t too fond of camping in the English countryside, which merely involves unpacking your things from a car, putting up a tent and hanging out in a field with your mates, how would we find camping Patagonian style? i.e. carrying up to 20 kg of all your camping gear, plus provisons, and clothing for all weathers, in a rucksack, from site to site (with gruelling six hour treks in between)? Jovian got freaked out by the very thought: he breaks out in a torrid sweat after 15 minutes of tackling a gentle ascent from the bus station to our hostel.
We wisely abandoned an extremely risky plan to attempt three of the potential five days on the ‘W’ and decided to stick to day treks instead. And, in an effort to fit in with with the rest of the camping community, we purchased a nifty thermos and mug, with a carabiner handle that we could attach to a daypack. With this cunning disguise nobody would know we weren’t proper trekkers, and we could stop and have a nice cup of tea (and a sitdown) whenever we wanted.
In the end, we managed three pretty spectacular day treks. Our hikes took us past views of jarring limestone peaks jutting out into crisp skies, scrambling up over boulders and through eery petrified forests. We drank from freshwater streams, saw shards of ice falling off a glacier, and strangely coloured slate blue pools of water. The weather was anything from cloud to sun, punishing winds and rain, to bright, bright sunshine.
The first day of the ‘W’, an eight hour mission which took us up to the viewpoint for the imposing Torres, which stand 2,800 metres high, and from which Torres del Paine park gets its name.
Over in Argentina, we walked seven hours to the mirador at La Loma del Pliegue Tumbado from where we could look out across Laguna Torre with Cerro Torre and Mount Fitzroy in the distance.
The following day we went another seven hours to the base of the rather impressive Mount Fitzroy. Travel guides to this region use terms like ‘jaw-dropping’ a lot. But it’s fair to say that when we looked back at its majestical, cathedral-like peaks, crowned in a celestial haze of golden afternoon sunshine against a bright blue sky, our faces fairly melted.
Finally we managed to squeeze in a bus trip to the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the few glaciers in the world that’s still advancing, a salutary reminder that the next ice age may not be so far apart from the last one.
So do we regret not camping? On the one hand, it meant we probably missed out on even more stunning scenery, but hey – once you’ve seen one glacier and some limestone peaks you’ve seen them all haven’t you? We didn’t get to go to sleep to the sounds of nature and unzip our tent flaps in the morning to a picture postcard view of Patagonian mountain ranges. However, on the other hand, the prospect of waking up in a freezing cold tent, with every muscle in your body aching, only to have to repeat everything the next day is not an appealing one. Heading back to your nice warm hostel where there’s a clean shower and comfortable(ish) bed waiting for you – is. And our cut-price trekking gear definitely passed the test.
What we learnt from all this is that we like our creature comforts. Giving up your job and flat to travel is one thing, but sacrificing what little luxury you have left in life is quite another.