fitness · traveling

Bettina goes Patagonia, hikes a lot, and thinks about things

My husband and I just spent three weeks in Patagonia (both Chile and Argentina). It was fantastic. Here’s a quick round-up of the itinerary and activities we did, and some thoughts about travel and feminism and sustainability.

Santiago, part 1: in which we cycle through vineyards

We flew to Santiago de Chile, where we spent a day and a half. We spontaneously booked a cycling tour of a vineyard located right at the edge of the city (picture below). The contrast between city and vines is actually quite striking.

The Cousiño Macul vineyard with the skyline of Santiago de Chile in the background

The company we booked with offers different cycling tours of the city and nearby vineyards. I liked them because they openly state that they have a pro-LGBTQ hiring policy, and because they try to offer something different and active, but are quite inclusive about it. They make it clear right when you book that you’re not signing up for a workout, but for a leisurely ride. Ours lasted about one hour plus another hour and a half touring the vineyard’s facilities. We also sampled five different wines. It was relaxing and wonderful.

Bettina and her ride, a seasoned green bike ideal for cruising around, but not for competitive cycling.

Torres del Paine National Park: in which we hike a lot and are exposed to the elements

From Santiago, we flew to Punta Arenas in the very South of Chile and took a bus to Puerto Natales, a small town that mainly functions as the tourist

hordes’ gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. We spent a night there, left some luggage at the hotel (we were returning five days later), and took only the necessary hiking and camping equipment to the park.

Torres del Paine is the national park everyone ‘does’ when they travel Patagonia. It’s easily accessible and has some stunning scenery. As a result, the infrastructure is excellent. There are lots of campsites, refugios where you can get a bed, and even some pretty luxurious hotels and cabins. Chile’s only eco-hotel is also located in the park. Also as a result of this, Torres del Paine is totally overrun. I wasn’t joking when I wrote “hordes” above. We visited at the tail end of the season, so it wasn’t too bad, but in high season, around January and February, I can only imagine it must be packed. We did a four-day trek known as “the W” (because of the route, which looks like the letter W) and stayed in our own tent.

View from our trusty red tent. The poor thing got quite battered by the Patagonian winds and rain, but it kept us nice and dry.

The park has suffered quite a lot from this; there have been some major fires and it’s definitely not as untouched as you might associate with the cliché of Patagonia. Rules are fairly strict, you can only enter if you have all your reservations beforehand, fires are forbidden, and at some places they don’t let you cook with a camping stove (conveniently, this also means the campsite/refugio can charge you a ridiculous amount of money for mediocre food; on the upside you have to carry less of your own).

What can I say? It’s still beautiful despite the masses. There is a reason the park is so full – it’s stunning. One morning at 8 o’clock, I’d just woken up and stood, mouth agape, marvelling at the mountain behind the campsite, aglow with the rising sun. It was out of this world.

The mountains, aglow with the rising sun

We had initially considered going to a much more remote park with next to no facilities, where we would probably have been mostly alone. However, we would’ve lost considerable time getting there, plus two contingency days for resting and in case we took longer on the trek. It would also have meant two additional flights and thus even more emissions, and this trip already wasn’t exactly an exercise in CO2 reduction. And as I mentioned before, there are upsides to the infrastructure: hot showers, you don’t have to carry all of your food, and you can go somewhere nice and dry when it’s storming and raining outside, which did happenon a few occasions.

It also occurred to me that on the whole, it may be better if only a few places are “ruined” by tourists – it offers an opportunity to keep the rest of the region largely untouched. I’m really not sure where I stand on this, and whether it actually is better to “sacrifice” some parts for others to be preserved. The way tourists concentrate in a few key locations throughout Patagonia is astounding. As soon as we moved off the beaten track, which we did for a bit of our overall trip, we were often on our own. I will return to this below.

Road trip: in which we bomb around Patagonia, stay at mostly empty campsites, and hike the Perito Moreno glacier.

Having completed the W, we returned to Punta Arenas via Puerto Natales to pick up a little camper van. We then drove south towards the Magellan straits (where I saw a dolphin! I’m still excited!), and then up to Argentina, across to the Atlantic coast, where we had planned to see a penguin colony close to Río Gallegos. Unfortunately this plan failed because of the poor road conditions and our van’s distinct lack of suspension and 4×4 drive. So we spent a lazy day in Río Gallegos.

This brings me back to my point about people not really moving off the beaten track. Maybe this is different during the high season, but both south of Punta Arenas and in Río Gallegos, we stayed at completely deserted campsites that were like straight out of a bad horror movie. We did get some beautiful sunrises out of this though, below the one from Río Gallegos.

Sunrise over the river Gallegos. Our campsite was located directly on the shore.

Via another stop further north and a guided hike through a petrified forest, we moved on to El Calafate. This little town is another touristy place and the gateway to the Perito Moreno glacier. El Calafate is nice and seems to consist mostly of tourist accommodation. We ate very well there.

We had booked an all-day hiking tour of Perito Moreno in advance. In the early morning, we were picked up by a bus and shipped to the Parque Nacional de los Glaciares, the national park covering most of the Argentinian part of the Southern Patagonian ice sheet, including Perito Moreno and Mount Fitz Roy. Perito Moreno was everything we had imagined and more. We lucked out with the weather and got a sunny day that made the blues of the ice intense and the three-hour hike on the glacier very pleasurable.

The face of the Perito Moreno glacier with some icebergs floating in the water

The guides split our busload into two groups first – a Spanish and an English-speaking one – to approach the glacier. It was a just under one-hour hike up to the access point, where were fitted with crampons before they subdivided us into smaller groups of about eight people for the hike on the ice.

One thing that surprised us was that the tour company didn’t follow through on their advice to wear suitable footwear and clothes, and only allowing people with a good level of fitness on the tour. There were lots of people who wore running shoes or sneakers and jeans rather than the recommended hiking boots and hiking gear. And a fair number of participants struggled on the hike to the access point already.

Bettina, wrapped up warmly and arms spread wide, atop Perito Moreno.

In a way it’s nice that they’re lenient, because it makes the experience more inclusive, but I do have to say that it compromised the experience of the rest of the group somewhat since accommodations had to be made for people who hadn’t read or didn’t care about the instructions on the website. They’re very clear and could only be improved in one way, which would be to remove the advice that this tour is not for overweight people – you can be “overweight” as long as you’re physically fit.

But I digress. Once we were subdivided into smaller groups it was fine; I think the guides did realise this was an issue and formed the subgroups accordingly. We very much enjoyed our three hours and lunch on the ice! The absolute highlight was an ice cave we got to see on the way down. Incredible.

Ice cave below the glacier – incredible hues of blue!

Goodbye Patagonia and Santiago, part 2: in which we “rescue” a solo traveller

From El Calafate, we took a small detour to a lovely campsite on a lake called Lago Roca. This was the only campsite where at least a handful of people other than us were staying overnight, and it was very well run. We then took two days to head back down to Punta Arenas to return the van and fly back to Santiago.

While we were waiting at the airport having a coffee, an American woman suddenly turned up at our table asking if she could talk to us for a while. It turned out she had been pestered by a guy who had kept asking her awkward questions about how long and where she would be staying in Santiago and what she’d be doing there. She had pretended to know us to get away from him, so we invited her to sit with us and had a nice chat.

I had thought about this on several occasions throughout this trip already: my privilege of accompanied by a man, who was also clearly my partner. No man on any of the tours or anywhere we went took any sort of “particular” interest in me.

I have travelled in Latin America on my own quite a lot and this lack of unwanted attention was a welcome change. As a female solo traveller, I have had to spend time fending off such approaches and have generally been a lot more alert. It’s definitely doable and lots of women do travel the region on their own, but it’s a different experience. Aside from general security considerations, this isn’t something a solo male traveller would have to spend a lot of time thinking about.

This also made me more acutely aware of my privilege as a woman living in a society where it is, for the most part, safe to walk around on one’s own after dark and go wherever I want. It’s complex, because in this particular case, it’s also about being a tourist. I don’t know if our airport friend would have had the same experience had she been Chilean. It’s possible, but probably less likely.

And also, even though it’s mostly safe for a woman to do all those things on her own where I live (in Europe), it’s not completely safe either. At a much lower level, here I’m also on alert walking or running alone in the dark or in a place where there are few other people. Or a creepy guy can chat you up in public and be difficult to get rid of. It’s an interesting thing to think about, and I’d love to hear your experiences with solo travel at home and abroad.

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