First things first, let’s get one thing straight: I am not a backpacker. In fact, I don’t even consider myself a “hiker”. I much prefer walking the streets of the world’s most famous urban jungles to fighting my way through the stuffy underbrush of an actual jungle. Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the world’s natural beauty just as much as the next traveler, but I’d rather do it knowing I have a cozy hostel to go back to and restaurants nearby.
So, given all this, I naturally decided that going on a 4-day trek in the Patagonian mountains would be a good life decision for me.
In all honesty, it was a good decision, even though it didn’t make much sense at the time. I decided to go because trekking and hiking is just what you do in Patagonia – the tourism is all about the nature and less about the cities. Plus, my friends loved trekking, and I likely wouldn’t have the opportunity to do something like this again. So just like that, I went from hiking for no more than a few hours at a time to spending four days in the wilderness.
My three friends – Abby, Rachel, and Jocelyn – (fellow IES Abroad students) and I planned the trip for the end of April, during our mid-semester break from IES Abroad classes. The route was called the “Huemul Loop”, and we organized it through an agency called “Mountaineering Patagonia”. Our plan was to fly into El Calafate and take a 3-hour bus to El Chalten, where we would start our trek the next morning.
The weeks before the trip were a frenzy of last-minute purchases and long-term worrying (the worrying was mostly on my part). The trekking agency would rent us some equipment, like thermal sleeping bags, tents, backpacks, trekking poles, and gaiters, but there was still a long list of supplies that they expected us to bring. Some of the equipment we hadn’t thought to bring with us from the U.S., and some of it we didn’t even own. Abby had to buy hiking boots, I had to buy a winter coat, and all of us had to buy waterproof pants. The cost added up quickly!
As our collection of survival gear accumulated, so did my worries. How cold was it going to be? Maybe we’d stay warm while walking, but what about at night? What if I got frostbite? And how would I tolerate not taking a shower for four days? My hair would get so gross. And what about food and water? How much would the guides bring? What if we ran out? What if, what if, what if… ???
As it turns out, my constant worrying was the worst part of the entire experience, and it quickly eased once we arrived in El Chalten and met our guides – Leo and Diego. Together, the six of us left the tiny town on foot, followed Leo up a mountain and out of the valley we were in, and descended into the valley on the other side. That night, we camped in a wooded area in the valley, and the next morning, we headed toward el Paso de Viento. We crossed a small river using a zipline, climbed up and down some extremely steep rocky mountainsides (almost getting caught in a small avalanche at one point), and crossed Glaciar Chico. Unfortunately, recent snowfall made the rest of our planned path unsafe – especially on the glacier ahead of us – so we had to turn back. We returned to our campsite for the night, then the next day we headed back to El Chalten the same way we came. We spent the night in a hotel and woke up early the next morning to hike the trail to Mount Fitz Roy.
Now, just to put everything out on the table: I did not enjoy the camping. Before this trek, I had never before camped in a tent dead in the middle of the wilderness, and if I have my way, I’ll never have to do it again. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again – I like my comforts when I travel, and by “comforts” I mean a solid roof over my head, indoor plumbing, and controlled heating in the winter.
That said, the views of the landscape were absolutely worth it. Down in the valley, we were surrounded on both sides by towering mountains so tremendous that they seemed to be from another world. We crossed rivers and passed a lake full of clear, glistening water. Clean water! Can you imagine? And after it snowed on the third day, the tree branches around our campsite were coated with sparkling white dust. When we stood still, the snow seemed to absorb the sounds of the wind and the birds we were so used to hearing, creating a peaceful silence so heavy and complete that it seemed to be physically present there with us.
Plus, it all felt all the more special because you had to hike all day and spend all night in the wilderness in order to witness it. Not many people are willing to do that.
My endless list of worries from before also proved unfounded. Even if we started out cold in the morning, we would soon be dripping with sweat within one or two hours. At night, I wore my winter jacket inside my thermal sleeping bag and stayed toasty warm, even having to peel off a layer one night. Further, the lack of a shower for three days straight wasn’t as big of an issue as I’d thought. The weather was cold enough that I didn’t feel gross, and my mind was much more occupied with other things. Lastly, food and water were of absolutely zero concern. Our guides brought tons of delicious food—enough for three meals a day plus snacks for while we walked. The water in Patagonia is also potable, so whenever we were running low, we filled up our bottles with clean, icy water at the nearest stream. In short, my weeks of worrying over the trip turned out to be needless, self-induced suffering.
Looking back, even our worst moments on the trip make us laugh. In fact, our worst moments especially are now our favorite memories! During the night, we discovered that we weren’t alone in the woods – hoards of little hamster-like rats scurried out to keep us company. We like to think of it like that rather than acknowledge they were trying to gnaw into our tents and steal our food. During the first night, Rachel was up for hours smacking rats away from our tent walls and knocking them off the ceiling with her water bottle. Meanwhile, I was over here with my earplugs in, enjoying an uncomfortable but largely quiet and uneventful night. I just thought she moved a lot in her sleep!
The rats were hardly the only surprise in store for us on the trip. On the third day, we were walking along, minding our own business, when suddenly our feet started to feel a bit damp. We look down, and we’re standing in several inches of cold, filthy bog water! All six of us start awkwardly sprinting, going in no particular direction whatsoever with our behemoth backpacks swinging awkwardly from side to side. The ground was covered in snow, so we had no idea where the bog ended! Don’t worry, the story ended well – we eventually made it to dry ground, but not without a little huffing and puffing and some panic along the way.
While I’m on the topic of trip highlights, I have to mention our guides. Let me tell you, the guides make or break the trip, and Leo and Diego were everything we’d hoped for and more. Not only were they experts at what they do, but they had great senses of humor. Leo used to be a photographer, and he took lots of pictures of us with the landscape. His favorite touch was “portrait mode”. He even got a shot of Diego posing on a rock (see image below). The six of us made light of difficult situations—including the rats—and one night, we all played “Uno” together at the campsite. As we must have said a hundred times on the hike, it was all for the “Aventura!”, and that’s exactly what the trip turned out to be.
So if you’re not a backpacker but you think you might want to give it a go in Argentina, I’d recommend that you do. If you’re a little skeptical about spending days at a time in the wilderness, I don’t blame you. It’s a big step, especially if you haven’t done it before, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. However, it’s also an experience that you will never forget. Here are some tips to get you started:
- Bring what you need from home in the U.S. Expenses can rack up if you buy equipment in Argentina, especially clothes.
- Bring hiking boots even if you’re not planning on using them. I promise, you will.
- Account for everything on the packing list that the agency gives you – if you don’t have a piece of equipment, ask if it is necessary to buy.
- If you want to go trekking in El Chalten, the trekking capital of the world, look up Mountaineering Patagonia. Remember, your guides can make or break your trip!
- Approach the experience with a positive attitude. Not everything is going to be easy, and if it is, you’re not doing it right.
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<p>I’m studying for a semester in Buenos Aires, Argentina, where I hope to improve my Spanish language skills and learn more about the country’s women’s rights movement. I’m from the U.S. state of Minnesota, where I also attend college and study Spanish, Political Science, and English. I’m on a pre-law track and hope to pursue a career in immigration law.</p>