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Don’t fall in love with Patagonia

August 2, 2013

As I planned this adventure, I wanted the intensity of Peru and the group travel thing followed by a little bit of splurge and pampering. And I’ve come all this way, so I wanted to catch a bit more of South America. It took a lot of maneuvering to decide what to fit in for what I’d determined could be no more than a 4 week trip. I had a romantic notion of visiting the absolute tip of the Americas – Tierra Del Fuego, and maybe even hopping a boat to Antartica. The fabulous, writer Simon Winchester had some thoughts for me, but ultimately his idea of adventure is way more adventurous than mine (my idea of adventure is like Simon’s sunday afternoon).

Anyway, I loved the idea of Patagonia. After all, I already had the jacket. I kind of cheated by finding Explora, a luxury adventure travel group with three locations in Chile. Its not so rugged really, there’s wine and delicately prepared foods, but you are plopped in the middle of a rugged, remote landscape, now the Torres del Paine national park, nearly 1000 sq miles of glaciers, lakes, rivers, forests, and pampas, and expected to interact with said landscape every day.

Its winter in Patagonia and I was very warned against coming this time of year for fear that I’d be walking into a frozen nether land. With thanks (and disdain) towards global warming the weather was never worse than a late fall day in Maine. You’d need a down jacket, maybe gloves if you weren’t moving too much, but invigorating and sure to deliver a proper rosy-cheeked glow.

Many other folks did heed the warnings to find a different time of year, and the Explora hotel is the only one open this time of year. Yet it was still nearly empty. My first night there were less than a dozen guests. By my third, it was me, Nick from Sydney, Stephen from Christ-Church, and Sven from somewhere in Poland. We formed an odd family and gathered for cocktails at the bar each evening to share stories of our days.

Explora offers excursions into the park ranging from extreme – conquering the glaciers – to very mild – a leisurely walk around the hotels gorgeous grounds. Each evening we’d meet with a team of guides to plan our next day’s activities. The guides, along with the rest of the staff, lived at the hotel year round (it’s too far from anywhere to commute) and have been known to “go mad” during the winter months according to gossip they were happy to share. I knew these guides well, they are like so many 20-somethings I’ve known in New England, in fact until recently, they had a guide from Vermont, but he moved on to the Alaskan wilderness. The women were all clear-skinned, bright-eyed and wore braids. The guys were all a bit shaggy. with odd patches of facial hair, tattoos, or piercings. But all were extremely well-trained, charming, and fun. I asked what happened if they didn’t like someone they were guiding and all swore that it had never happened

I had two guides during my six excursions. The beautiful Camila, a former model and chef from Santiago, and David, a local kid who was raised with the park as his playground. Both were great company.

Camila took me to a nearby lake on my first day out, where we marveled at the geological formations and talked about life and boyfriends. Males outnumber females by a lot at Explore, both on the staff and guest sides but her dating pool was a little small still. After three years of guiding, she wasn’t ready to move on, but she said she may be soon. Her father’s advice, when she came south for a six-month internship in a kitchen in Patagonia – “don’t fall in love with it.” He knew if she did, she’d never leave. And he was right.

Its had not to fall in love. The landscape is stunning. You can close your eyes and spin and when you open them again, you’ll be looking at something fabulous. During my excursions, I saw icebergs, geological phenomena, ancient cave paintings,  as well as imposing glaciers and mountains. The landscape was riddled with guanacos, a kind of wild llama, and sometimes with the remains of a guanaco who’d met a bad end in an encounter with the area’s pumas (I never saw one).  Also on hand were bunnies, foxes, condors, beautifully colored birds, condors circling over head, and bright pink flamingos.  The fauna was sparse because of the season, but the forest was lush with evergreens and the pampas were dotted with trees and grasses. The winds are strong in Patagonia, so the tress grow up and into the winds in such a way that it always looks gusty even if the air is completely still. Yellow pom poms that could have been drawn by Dr. Seuss dot the trees. They are a parasite and dangerous to the tree, but they look great.

In 2011, a wildfire, ignited by a backpacker burning his tp, devastated the park. With high winds and dry lands the damage and danger spread  quickly. Listening to the staff talk about evacuating that day is like listening to New Yorkers recall September 11th. The shock, fear, confusion, and sadness felt so familiar. Charred trees are everywhere. A terrible reminder that the biggest threat in the wilderness is us.

When I wasn’t hiking, I was riding. The Explora stables are run by Patagonia gauchos. They took me out to the Lago Toro to test my limited skills and then up a steep mountain to look over the park from above. After the ride, the gauchos and various guides who were around invited me into their small kitchen to warm up with some mate tea. The gaucho ritual of the tea was detailed but charming and, like tea ceremonies worldwide, ultimately designed to bring us all together as a community. The mate itself was strong and bitter, but I had three cups.

5 days flew by, perhaps the best vacation of my life. I may have cheated a bit in my experience of Patagonia, but I loved it. I may even have fallen in love with it.

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