Hiking the shit out of Patagonia

As you may have gathered by now, we like travelling slowly. We relish the little moments and experiences in getting from A to B so much so that they often become more important than A or B. And remember that age old saying from Chillo’s last blog? “quien se apura en Patagonia pierde su tiempo” – “those who hurry in Patagonia waste their time”. Patagonia demands that you slow down and take in as many details as you can, whether that’s stopping to admire a group of condors soaring above like aeroplanes, admiring weird and wonderful orchids, listening to rivers bubbling past or feeling the wind sweep you off your feet. And I’m hard pressed to think of a slower way of doing this than by foot.

As you may have also gathered, we’re not really cyclists. At least, back home you’d usually find us meandering around on foot. Chillo to the extent that he would walk two and a half hours from our flat to work most days just to avoid the tube. We didn’t even own bicycles until a month before we left. If Chillo had it his way, we would have walked our whole route from Peru, but luckily his better judgement (and I) won that debate. But while the Carretera Austral provided so many visual delights from the road, even bicycles were too fast at times. So when we got a message from our cycling friend Jochen begging “pleeeeeease, hike the shit outta that place!”, we had no problem obliging. Here’s a run down of all our non-wheeled misadventures.

Ventisquero Colgante

We were miffed to miss out on the first couple of national parks on our list because of the terrible rain, but were compensated with our first glacier in Parque Nacional Queulat. Ventisquero Colgante is a hanging glacier that, like many sights in Patagonia, looks straight out of a Disney film. We sat with Ad, Charlotte and Jay for what felt like hours, waiting for chunks of ice to calve from the glacier. We were rewarded a couple of times – what looked like a meagre crumble would be followed by an almighty thunderous crash reverberating through the valley, met with whoops and cheers from its captive audience.

The steady walk uphill to view this spectacle was the perfect warmup we needed for the trails ahead. It turns out cycling hundreds of kilometres a week doesn’t make you a stronger hiker, and we felt a little out of practice, even out of breath, but invigorated by the trail and ready to do more.

Cerro Castillo

“You guys doing the hike? Cool, us too”

And so our motley crew grew to six for our next and most epic hike. We’d heard of a multiday trail through Parque Nacional Cerro Castillo (Castle Mountain), but had no idea what it would entail. While cycling with Ad and Charlotte towards Villa Cerro Castillo at the base of the mountain, we met Jaan and Jehonne, a Dutch couple cycling through Patagonia on a tandem, as you do. We somehow came to the arrangement to all do the hike together, and within an hour were sharing a cabaña between the six of us, researching what the route entailed and figuring out how on earth we would take four days of food and equipment when only two of our group had big enough backpacks. Both other couples had three man tents, so we ditched ours and went old school – girls and boys. It felt like DofE all over again.

Strapping bags to other bags and sticks for walking poles. What more do you need for a gruelling three-day mountain trek?

Three incredible days followed, starting the trail at the bottom of a river valley and winding our way up via several icy river crossings to the imposing Cerro Castillo itself. If Torres del Paine further south is a fairytale kingdom, Cerro Castillo is its gothic counterpart. The dark, imposing towers felt especially dramatic when we reached them shrouded in cloud and snow, presiding over a brilliant blue lake at the base of the its towers. In the cold early morning we were the only people there. There was an almost sinister silence and the scale of the place was overwhelming. 

We had to be militant in our planning around the weather as there was rain and high winds forecast for the afternoons. So how do you solve that? Wake up at 5am and make it across your mountain pass for the day by lunchtime. We were rewarded for our efforts by crossing snow-covered passes with barely a breath of wind. This followed blissfully peaceful afternoons, with nothing to do but read, chat and debate whether the girls or boys got the best spot for their tent that night.

On our second night however it chucked it down. We woke with wet kit and no promise that the weather would relent and dry out what little clothing we had, so we decided to cut our losses and skip the last of this four-day hike. Luckily there was an alternative route down, so after taking in one of the most mind-blowing panoramic views I’ve ever seen, we wound our way back down the mountain to town and beer.

Perhaps if we’d been slightly better equipped we could have slept in a couple of extra hours in the mornings and also continued for the final day’s hiking, but we opted to play it safe. This hike wasn’t about conquering mountains or battling the elements, it was about a spontaneous adventure, coming together with strangers and creating a team.

Parque Patagonia

A week’s cycling later and Christmas was approaching, as was the brand new Parque Patagonia –  the result of a mammoth conservation project by former Patagonia CEO Kris Tompkins and her late husband Doug, formerly CEO of The North Face. The couple purchased this run-down estancia and “re-wilded” the area, ridding it of invasive plant species and livestock and reintroducing native guanacos, huemul, condors and even pumas. These 207,000 acres were gifted back to the Chilean government, the largest donation of private land in history. 

The park is a testament to the painstaking care and work that has gone in to this project. Everything, from the beautifully-maintained trails to the campsite facilities, even the signposts, is of a high quality and made to last. It was also a complete change in scenery to the Carretera Austral; within 10 minutes of turning off the southern highway we found ourselves in Patagonian steppe, the blues and greens we’d become accustomed to transformed into soft browns and sweeping yellows covering the rolling knobbly hills. In another Disney-esque moment I found myself racing guanacos as we bombed it downhill and they ran alongside us.

What was meant to be a two-day detour off the Carretera Austral turned into a week of cycling and day hikes, stopping at the three campsites available and completing the trails from each one. We had originally planned a Christmas break from cycling and Chillo’s parents had very sweetly given us some money to stay somewhere nice. However we ended up using it instead to supplement our action-packed week with some delicious meals and wine in the fancy restaurant at the park headquarters. It seems the concept of an actual “holiday” is currently beyond us.

Our stay in Parque Patagonia had a big impact on us. Before we left on this trip we had no idea how strong the fight against climate change would become. To follow this from one of the wildest and most beautiful regions in the world has been incredibly thought-provoking. We’ve been pushed to scrutinise our own lifestyles, but also to look further. We want to learn more about how those in charge should be doing more to confront the reality of climate change and lead change on a global scale. In a powerful exhibition at the park, the Tompkins Foundation’s message is that preserving these wild areas is a collective responsibility that transcends borders. By establishing this protected space they have ensured that it can resist the threat of the human desire for growth, instead allowing nature to shape its course. 

That said, we couldn’t help but notice some contradictions in tb. After all, the Tompkinses headed up international businesses that fuel consumption through an endless obsession with “gear” and marketing that encourages consumers to continually lust after the latest rain jacket or superlight walking pole. Perhaps their work here in Chile offsets that, perhaps cynicism is getting the better of us. But it goes to show how complicated this problem is and while we can all do our bit to lessen our impact on the world, it’s not going to get better until drastic action is taken.

Back to Argentina

Our next stop was the more widely recognised Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina. After being scared shitless by the briefing video for the intense multiday Huemul trail, we decided instead to embark on a three day hike linking together the more accessible trails around Fitz Roy itself.

This time we were able to get our hands on bigger backpacks so we could carry everything we needed for three brilliant days of fairly easy trails and incredible views. Every trail on our way could be done as a day hike from the town of El Chaltén and the campsites in between were all free and managed by the national park. The flip side of this of course is that they were much busier than our previous hikes, where we felt as if we had the trails almost to ourselves. But the easy accessibility and laid-back atmosphere made the whole three days feel more of a fun break than a gruelling expedition. 

It’s been a joy, if a little knackering, to get off the bikes and explore Patagonia another way. Taking it at this pace forces you into a different style of travel. I noticed from the photos I took everything was more close up, wanting to remember the tiniest details along the way, and when we weren’t gasping for air after a steep climb we even got to chat a lot more than we do on the bikes. It introduced some more variety to our routine that was so welcome at this point in our trip. I have no doubt we’ll come back to Patagonia at some point, and perhaps next time we’ll focus on exploring on foot.

The cycling v hiking battle did swing once in the bikes’ favour, in Torres del Paine. I was desperate to see the famous “towers” and “horns” for myself, but as we were passing through in high season and had heard talk of queues on some of the trails, we elected just to pass through. Torres del Paine offers so much – the awesome diversity of Patagonia is on display within one national park: mountains; brilliantly-coloured lakes; wild steppe; flora and fauna – it’s got it all. It’s perfect for those only with a couple of weeks to explore, but we’ve been privileged enough to experience these environments on large scales, along quiet trails and backroads, often on our own. As a last big farewell to the Andes it was perfect – almost like a greatest hits of everything we’ve seen – but we only needed to see it from our saddles. 

In the last month of our trip we’re ready to move a little (but just a little!) faster. Now that we’re mostly travelling through the vast emptiness of the Patagonian steppe we need to cover bigger distances quicker. After so much sensory overload it’s good to be back to just us, the bikes, and letting our minds run free. It’s all about balance after all.

Trail notes

Total distance hiked: 128km
Metres climbed: 5028m
Hiking days: 10
National Parks visited: Queulat, Cerro Castillo, Patagonia, Los Glaciares

Highlights: Crossing the snowy El Peñon pass on the Cerro Castillo hike, The Lagunas Altas trail in Parque Patagonia, having time just to chat as we were walking along

Lowlights: getting soaked to the bone on Cerro Castillo, realising cycling has removed any muscles for carrying heavy backpacks.

Tips: Cerro Castillo is definitely best enjoyed fully equipped! Villa Cerro Castillo is tiny, with no gear hire, so you’d need to go to Coyhaique for rental. It’s a four-hour round trip by bus, so factor this into your planning.

Make sure to bring plenty of food if you want to follow our route through Parque Patagonia – about a week’s worth. The restaurant is great for a treat, but can be pricey – sandwiches are about £8/$10, and evening meals more expensive.

We found Adventure Alan a great resource for more information on routes and trip planning, with downloadable gpx files.

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