I recently returned from a nine-day Trekking Adventure in Patagonia with eight Zephyr travelers. My major impression prior to the trip: Patagonia is a land of mystery. My impression now that I am back a few weeks: Patagonia is a land of mystery! I’d like to use this post to clear up some of the mystery, at least as far as our trekking trip goes, so those of you have thought about Patagonia as a travel destination will know better if it is right for you.
Location: Before you begin reading this post, orient yourself as to where Patagonia lies. Look up “Punta Arenas, Chile”, our airport arrival city, into Google Maps. Now keep clicking the minus sign (zoom out) to get a view of where Patagonia lies with respect to the rest of the world. Patagonia lies way, way south. It is farther south than Australia or the southern tip of Africa. It is across a small channel from Tierra del Fuego and a short flight from Antarctica.
Access: Patagonia is not easy to reach. Our group flew into Santiago, Chile and then took an internal flight south to Punta Arenas. From Punta Arenas, it is a five-hour drive north to Torres del Paine National Park, the location of our trek and perhaps the most beautiful area of Patagonia. Patagonia itself is much bigger than this, comprising the entire lower tip of South America including both Chile and Argentina, but our trip focused mostly on Torres del Paine.
Weather: The weather in Patagonia is wild and woolly (as you might expect) but surprisingly temperate (as you might not). The average high temperature ranges from 38 degrees in the middle of winter (July) – making it warmer than winters in my home of Boulder, Colorado – to 56 degrees during December when we visited. We had periods of intense rain (none while we hiked), high winds (mostly near the glaciers), sunny skies, and moderate temperatures. The weather was excellent for hiking and better than most of us expected.
Scenery: Perhaps the most awe-inspiring part of the trip was the scenery. We hiked along alpine lakes, forded rushing rivers, wound through dense forests, and crossed fire-scorched wastelands. We tramped through open grasslands, climbed rocky passes, and reached mammoth glaciers that have sculpted the mountains that make the park so wonderful. The famous Torres, the namesake of the park, stood magnificently above us on one hike. There is really nothing like this scenery in the Continental United States.
Trekking: As a reminder, we at Zephyr Adventures define trekking as “multiday hiking without carrying gear”. This allows trekkers to reach amazing areas of the world burdened only by a small daypack containing lunch, a camera, a rain jacket, and a few other necessities. In Patagonia, we achieved this in a number of ways. First, we limited our gear by staying and eating in backcountry refugios, or mountain hostels. Second, what gear we did need (change of clothes, toiletries, etc) was transported for us either by human porter or Zodiac boat.
Hiking Trails: The hiking routes were surprisingly well traveled. In an effort to save their natural treasures, the local authorities keep hikers to established paths and allow overnighting only in specific campgrounds and refugios. We ended up hiking with the same groups each day and this was an unexpected pleasure as we swapped stories with hikers from other groups and met people from around the world. Also, a surprise was that much of the hiking was quite moderate, with only the occasional foray (always optional) up a glacial-carved canyon requiring serious effort. One can make the hiking quite strenuous or relatively mild as one chooses.
Accommodations: Our accommodations were a combination of hotels, a luxurious Eco Camp with domed tents, refugios, and one night of camping. I think all of us found the accommodations surprising – some of us because they were so luxurious in the backcountry of Patagonia and others because of the rustic conditions!
Cuisine: The food was excellent. The Eco Camp staff treated us like royalty, we dined on fresh beef, lamb, and salmon, and even our packed lunches in the middle of nowhere were delicious. A fantastic custom of the locals was to greet us each evening with a pisco sour, the national drink of Chile (and Peru). We should adopt that habit at home!
Culture: In fact, my favorite part of the trip was the culture. I love Latin America and its people. It was great fun talking with our Patagonian guides and learning about life in that remote area of the world. I enjoyed practicing my Spanish, playing a pickup game of soccer with our camp staff, and talking with locals around the fire one evening. Simply placing a mountain trek in a Spanish-speaking country makes it a winner for me!
And for you? Is Patagonia the right place for your next vacation?
I would highly recommend Patagonia if you enjoy hiking but prefer not to carry your own gear, like the luxury of having a bed and shower most nights (even in the backcountry) but can handle a rustic venue, and want an adventure most people never dream about. Pisco sours with 10,000-year old glacier ice included.