On our recent trip to South America, the original plan was to head all the way south to the end of the world. Torres del Pain, Tierra del Fuego, Ushuaia. The dream. However, our time was short, our car was too bad for Patagonian roads and our dreams likely to be dashed by a conveyor belt of people trying to hike the same routes as us. Every traveller we spoke to had the same tale: too many people rushing on the trails, too many people being competitive about hiking, too many people walking the W for the glory, not the nature.
That’s not what Patagonia is about. Patagonia is about being wild, being free and not seeing another soul on the mountain for days on end. It’s about carrying your world on your back and taking the weather and the landscape on with nothing but a determined grin. It’s about being awed by your surroundings, not being frustrated. It’s about trusting way-markers and scrambling up scree slopes and being slashed by icy winds. It’s about cooking over an open fire and drinking glacial runoff from rivers and knowing that there’s only one person in the whole world knows where you are.
And that’s just what we found, in El Bolson, Argentina.
Our week started with a beautiful, undulating four hour hike that dipped around glacial rivers and through dripping trees, with views of big mountains and snow-covered peaks. We stopped for pictures and to marvel at how clear the water was and to simply fully appreciate where we were.
We spent our first night at a refugio called Encanto Blanco. A beautiful little dark-wood cabin built in a glade fringed by a calm river on one side and cliffs leading to the sky on the other. We hung with two other people who were staying in the refugio – both who were taking some time out here to get away from city life, to reground and spend some time in nature away from the rat-race – before retreating to our tent for dinner cooked over a camping stove and a box of wine that was proving far too heavy in backpacks.
The wonderful thing about these little refuges deep in the mountains, is that in order to get there you must walk for hours to arrive. There are no shortcuts and no roads, no way to opt out and barely any other souls. They are wonderful, magical, solitary places reserved with only those with a special kind of heart, and they are perfect.
The next morning we woke to clear, frozen skies, filled our bellies full of porridge and were on the trail before 10. Although it was still bitterly cold, our day ahead was long and we couldn’t stall leaving our sleeping bags any longer, no matter how much we wanted to!
The walk on this day stands as the most difficult day in the mountains to date. Including summit night on Kilimanjaro. The first hours were thankless. Through thick bamboo forests that wouldn’t let up to allow us to see the sky or the mountains we were trudging between. The trail was littered with roots and fallen trees and obtrusive rocks, meaning that it felt like all of our energy was spent watching where we were putting our feet.
Three hours of relentless, wet, uphill scrambling and we summited to a view that blew away our exhausted expressions back across the Chilean border.
We stopped for a quick lunch of dehydrated risotto and tea and swiftly prepared ourselves for what we knew was ahead – a downhill that was more like an abseil than a hike. A traverse down the side of the mountain that would cause us to question the trail.
It was slightly more hardcore than we were expecting.
Ninety minutes of almost falling down the vertical side of a mountain whilst grabbing onto bamboo for support, slipping over rotted fallen trees acting as bridges and many a “WTF!?” from our mouths.
We reached the bottom and collapsed, drained and laid sprawled on the grass for five minutes, trying to gauge how bad the aches and pains were going to be the next morning whilst scoffing as much chocolate as we could handle.
Our original, planned route was due to lead us another four hours up-hill to a refugio called Los Laguitos. We were beat, so decided to carry along downstream to El Retemal where we were told that the hike was much easier.
Our decision was perfect, and we settled into the sunny El Retemal mountain glade for two nights and a day. Instead of carrying on right away, we took the time to stop and be, to watch and absorb Patagonia for all that it is. Huge and wild and free. Bursting with nature and adventure, with barely another soul in sight.
We left Retemal, well rested after having spent a day reading and drinking home-brew with the guy who owned the refugio, and headed straight up the mountain behind the little sunlit clearing. We hiked up through more bamboo forest, across rivers and through ancient, gnarled forests. As we got to what we thought was the top of the trail, the landscape suddenly opened out to a bowl of scree that tumbled down from the glaciers circling our heads. We walked and walked, noticing how the weather conditions were rapidly decreasing as we did.
Our only guide to the route was not a well-marked, detailed map, but red waymarkers painted on trees and rocks that lined the path. Because the trails we were using are seldom hiked, they were sometimes lost to the wild, and caused us to u-turn to find our way again, but today there was no mistaking where they were leading us: straight up the side of a mountain on a thick scree slope.
The going was tough and the weather appalling, but these are the days we live for – hanging off the side of a rock in Patagonia, face being whipped by snow and clouds belly-full with weather rolling towards us, making us hurry the hell up or pay for our laziness later. It was terrifying and astonishing, unnerving, harrowing and all too exciting at the same time. This is what we came to Patagonia to do – to be dwarfed by the wild.
We dragged ourselves over the summit and looked down on ice-fields, snow and our way outta there. The frigid wind pushed us down the slippery slopes, by waterfalls crashing through the ice and over rivers.
We arrived at our home for the night, a small, unmanned refugio with plastic sheets for windows and rusting machetes lying on the floor outside. Dedo Gordo was made for horror movies, and it’s obvious to say our imaginations run wild whilst holed up in the middle of the woods, tree branches tickling the roof and wind slamming shutters.
The next morning we woke to snow on the ground and sunshine trickles through the leaves. We gathered our things, had a quick breakfast of porridge, honey and chocolate tea and made our way back down the mountain for a well earned shower.
It’s safe to say that it wasn’t long until we were yearning for this again. We loved cooking on an open fire and being frightened of the night. We loved how the enormity of our immediate landscape made us feel so tiny and insignificant. But most of all, we loved that we had the trails to ourselves and we got to feel the real Patagonia, in all it’s wild, untamed glory.