How did I decide to fly to Patagonia for a backpacking trip? Well, I had just hiked 900 miles on the Appalachian Trail, after Graduate School. Instead of living a life subjugated with student debt I turned to the refuge of the Appalachian Hills. I was looking for a wilderness experience, a place where I could see the primeval earth. I needed to reset my inner compass and discover a more independent path forward and the wilderness was calling my name.
What I found on the Appalachian Trail was a way of life, focused around backpacking. It was a marathon through the woods. Habitual hiking that kept the mind clear and thoughts focused only on the present. I met amazing, wonderful people and have memories that I will cherish forever. But it was not a wilderness experience.
I consciously picked the northern half of the Appalachian Trail. I wanted to walk through the Green Mountains of Vermont, the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and the ultimate prize, Baxter State Park. The mountains were beautiful and Northern Maine was rugged, muddy, and offered technical hiking. But again, it was not a “wilderness” experience.
At this stage of my life, I was young, and full of romantic ideals of the outdoors. I had no idea what wilderness was, just a feeling that I believed in. I was looking for a place where I could go and not see a person for days, where I could climb a mountain, look in every direction and not see a single road. Inspired by the explorers of old, I wanted to hunt for dark spots on the map and stake a claim to some undiscovered chunk of the Earth.
Upon finishing the Appalachian Trail hike, I returned home, unfortunately, to New Jersey. If you are not aware, it is the most densely populated state in the country. Perhaps it was this environment of extreme population that fueled for my desire to find the exact opposite.
In my quest to find a place where true wilderness lay, I studied light pollution maps. I was looking for the blackest areas of the globe. Places where civilization had not yet touched and the glare of electricity had not penetrated. Eventually, I found the southern tip of South America to have the exact qualities I was looking for. It was as black as the surrounding pacific ocean. At night, The region of Patagonia looked as if it was the Pacific Ocean. Upon further inspection, the wildness and beauty of the terrain filled my head. I quickly became obsessed with Patagonia.
I knew that I needed to save money for the trip and so I got to work. Living with my parents, I had found a job coaching at the YMCA and I split my time between two locations to scrape together nearly 40 hours a week. For a year, I saved almost every penny I could and my largest expense were my student loan payments.
6 months went by and I eventually moved out of my parents house and into the attic of my friend’s house. It was not insulated for the winter and it would snow on the coldest nights. To mitigate the cold, I setup my tent and used my sleeping bag for insulation. I was extremely happy about my living situation, for only $200/ month, it was a steal.
I slowly accumulated gear that I would need for a the trip. A Feathered Friends sleeping bag and a solo ultralight tent. I bought a point and shoot camera and invested in some raingear and I even signed up for Conversational Spanish at the local community college to help me communicate better. I worked, planned, and saved for 12 months, every day the dream of Patagonia helped me get out of bed.
Flying to Argentina
I studied Google maps for hours, finding national parks and hiking routes. I decided early on that I was going to go without a cell phone or a GPS system, only a compass and also decided to buy topographic maps once I arrived instead of carrying them with me. This plan quickly fell apart the minute I landed in South America. It became painfully obvious that there was no USGS in this part of the world and accurate topological maps were impossible to find in the local stores.
I flew into Buenos Aires and walked around the city for about a day. The hustle and bustle was incredible and it was one of the biggest cities I had ever been to. I was happy to board my flight to small town of Ushuaia as soon as possible.
Flying to Argentina’s most southerly point, I marveled at the landscape below. The mountains of this part of the world resemble huge mountain peaks, towering thousands of feet above the tree line. I soon realized they weren’t more than a couple thousand feet tall, the tree line only reached a couple hundred feet. The latitudinal extreme dawned on me at that moment. I was really as far south as one could go. Ushuaia is famously known as “Fin Del Mundo” or “End of the World” and I saw why.
Tierra Del Fuego
Upon touching down, I immediately hiked outside of the small town and toward my first destination. Leaving the port of Ushuaia behind I made my way to Tierra Del fuego, a protected park in Argentina. After planning the trip for a year, I could not wait to experience the remoteness of Patagonia.
Sticking out my thumb, I was able to grab a ride with a trucker and I tried miserably to converse with him. Not only was my spanish terrible but his heavy Patagonian accent made deciphering the language nearly impossible. I ended up missing the trailhead by a few miles but the hike along the road was ok. The views were stunning and the trailhead was nothing more than a walking path into the bush.
It started to rain, as it does in Patagonia, and I set off, following what looked like a footpath. The trails in Patagonia are not maintained by anybody and I foolishly thought I didn’t need a map, only my compass and some satellite imagery to help guide me. This was only my first hike but my ignorance to having a map would prove time and again my undoing.
The rain had only gotten heavier and I stumbled upon a small one room cabin, built to shelter hikers like myself, from the rain. I got inside, lit a fire, and fell asleep instantly. When I had woken up the sun was shining and I set off hiking again.
I had completely forgotten how long the days were. Patagonia is so far south that the sun basically stays up all day during the summer months. It must have been 9pm when I set off hiking again. Exhaustion quickly caught up to me and I eventually set up my camp near a beaver pond.
When I woke up in the morning, not a cloud was in the sky and the mountains in front of me made me breathless. Grey slabs of rock filled my vision, the snow caked onto their peaks brightly reflected the sun into my eyes.
I had walked off the official trail but had found a glacial valley, completely isolated from the world around it.That whole day I spent exploring the valley. I followed the river that drained the mountains to its headwaters, a small glacier. There I climbed up it a few hundred feet, laying in the snow and enjoying the balmy weather of Patagonia.
I climbed up the nearest mountain to me. It’s steep rocky walls slowly collapsing under the weight of my foot. Less than 100 feet from the summit I decided to stop. The slope of the rocks was too steep to gain footing and the potential for creating a rockslide was increasing by the inch.
I looked out over this unnamed valley and thought to myself, “ I would not have found this place if I used a map”.
Although the town of Ushuaia holds onto the claim of being the most southerly city in the world, Isla Navarino is the true home of the world’s most southerly settlement. A small island, south of the Beagle Channel, getting to it from Ushuaia requires ferrying across. It also makes this passage the most southerly border crossing in the world. Argentina to the north and Chile, claiming the island as their own.
There is an interesting dynamic between Argentina and Chile, both make claims to the Antarctic Peninsula and tourism is becoming an economic driving force in the region. As of today, Ushuaia is the port city for nearly all Antarctica cruises but Chile is constructing a harbor on Isla Navarino to compete.
While I was on the island, I witnessed military jets fly overhead and the local people rushed outside to see if they were Argentinean or Chilean. The ones I saw were Chile’s.
I ventured to this wonderful island for the most southerly backpacking route in the world, “Dientes de Navarino”. Roughly translated, the teeth of navarino. Created by the Lonely Planet company and blessed by the Chilean government, the route is simply incredible.
I was there in early December and Winter was still evident. My first day of hiking took me up in elevation and into the fierce antarctic winds of the island. The weather changed by the minute, from sunny, to storming, thanks to the terrifyingly strong winds blowing off the ocean. Because Patagonia is so far south, there is not another landmass located in its latitude, this allows the wind to circle the globe, growing in strength until it hits Patagonia once more.
The mountains of Isla Navarino were rocky, jagged, and fresh. The landscape looked almost infantile, loose rocky outcroppings pointed sharply into the sky. The water was immaculate and air cold, the cleanest I had ever breathed.
I hiked upwards, following signposts through the mountains. The trail continued higher in elevation before flattening out into a snow covered pass. The warm and muddy ground, only a thousand feet lower in elevation had become frozen snowpack. Walking forward, the weather quickly changed into a snow storm, the cold wind grabbed at my hat and snow made it hard to see in front of me.
I knew it was too dangerous to stop in such an exposed area and I made the decision to blaze forward, regardless of the conditions. The snow I walked on was deep but the upper layer was frozen and made walking easy.
I came to an alpine lake, still frozen solid. The locals had told me they were having a cold spring but that the lakes should be melted. I found out later that they were indeed melted the week before but had frozen over in the 48 hours it took for me to get to them. There is no consistency in the weather at the end of the world.
That night, I set my tent up only to be awakened by the wind. My face had become entangled in the top part of my tent, the structure being completely flattened by the winds. If I was to make an assumption of their speed, I would say 60 mph, at least. If I wasn’t in the tent, all of my gear would have been blown away. I piled rocks on top of the anchor points and reinforced the tent with paracord to a rock to prevent it from flattening. That got me through the night.
That morning, walking up a small mountain pass, the wind so fierce I dropped to the ground and covered my face, afraid I would have been blown off the trail. I had never been frightened by the wind before but the cold temperature and the strength that engulfed me made every cell of my body throw itself to the ground, I will never forget that feeling.
The conditions continued to change as I slowly made my way out of the mountains and into a valley. Beavers, introduced by the Canadians in the 1950’s had turned most of the low lying areas into swamps. The trail was marked with a signpost on one side of the swamp and then on extreme edge of the human eye, the next marker would be placed. In Between was a swamp, waiting to engulf me with knee high mud. I quickly learned to walk along the beaver dams and stick to the high ground as much as possible but it was slow going. I had no love for the beaver, and without natural predators, they run rampant in Patagonia.
On my final mountain ascent, I climbed the steepest section of trail and found myself on a plateau. Ducking my head below the lip of land, I was bathed in sunlight but peeking out above it, I was met with a fierce blizzard. The extremes between only a couple of meters of space was amazing to experience and terrifying to walk through.
Without a GPS or a map, I only had the signposts to navigate with. The conditions I was facing made navigation impossible, thanks to whiteout conditions. I began to leapfrog in the general direction I thought was correct, hiding behind rocky structures built by previous hikers facing the same conditions. I would catch my breath, with my back to the wind, mildly protected by the rock pile, and then stumble out to find the next area of shelter.
As I was slipping and stumbling, slowly getting colder, my backpack cover flew off. I desperately tried to chase it but the wind was faster than I was. I remember it was blown off to my left and I ran from the structure hoping to catch it. Mid-chase, the ground suddenly gave way, I was standing at the edge of a cliff, about 300ft above a small lake. Just a couple more steps and I would have run right off the edge.
I turned, to look for my pack cover and behold! I found the trail, it led down the rocky face of the cliff I was standing on and into the shelter of the valley below. Unbelievable, I thought.
This part of the trail was made of loose gravel and every step I took was akin to walking on a sand dune. I half slid, half fell for a hundred feet until the rocks became larger.
At the bottom of the canyon, I looked back toward the top of the mountain, the sky was black and I could hear the wind howling. But directly overhead was blue sky and I was happy to be lower in elevation.
I walked along the road for a short distance, making my way back to Puerto Williams, the only town on the island. The hike is supposed to take 5-7 days but I completed it in 3. Mostly fueled by the almost constant daylight and my unpreparedness not having a map.
Back in Puerto Williams
The road back to Puerto Williams took me along the Beagle Channel. Along the way was a botanical preserve, highlighting the wonderful diversity of the island. Hundreds of species of tiny orchids and mosses are found here in abundance. When Charles Darwin landed on this island, the amount of plant species was more of an inspiration to the theory of evolution than the birds of the Galapagos Islands.
A small stream ran through the preserve and into the ocean. I threw some inline spinners and managed to catch four small trout but nothing of the size I was hoping for. I even waded into the cold ocean waters hoping to find something but to no avail.
Walking past the small port, I gazed at the sailboats moored in the harbor. I fantasized about finding a captain and talking my way aboard the vessel. To this day, I still dream of sailing between the fjords of Patagonia and maybe when I am an old man, I will do it.
I found myself back at the only hostel in town, around dinner time, it was full of tourists. Many were gearing up to tackle the trail I had just completed. When I relayed the frozen lakes and the snow storms, even the hostel owner was shocked at my description.
The small house was heated with a wood stove and it was a salubrious temperature, hot enough to make everyone strip to their underwear. I made friends with a Quebecois couple, in their mid-fifties. Their accents were hard to understand but their love of hiking and mountains made us quick friends.
They told me of their own hike through Dientes de Navarino. And then, as most travel conversations do, began to talk about their own travels and the immensity of the Canadian Rockies. Eventually the conversation became fixated on how to get off Isla Navarino. There is the ferry crossing back to Argentina, a Chileno ferry through the fjords, and one airport with a few flights a day, if the weather permits. The couple I was talking to had been stuck on the island for over a week. The ferry was booked for months in advance and all the flights were sold out for couples.
Hearing this, I decided to set out on another hiking trip into the center of the island. Rumors of a large inland lake that held monster trout became the goal. The next morning, I woke up early, and set off.
Walking down the road I stumbled into one of the last remaining Yaghan settlements. A very old man came out of his abode and began talking loudly at me in a language I could not understand. I asked him about the lake I was going to in Spanish. He seemed to understand and pointed me in the right direction.
It was slow going through the dense Lenga forest. The trees were ancient and it seemed like the woods had never experienced any type of logging. The undergrowth was dense and primeval, I was reminded of what the Patagonia must have been like before humans arrived.
The air underneath the giant trees was still and the humidity in quickly condensed on my clothes. The temperature inside the sylvan setting was warm and I stripped off my outer layers. I estimated the trees were at least 200 years old, if not older. Setting up my tent as the sun was setting I was soon fast asleep. The soft ferns and mosses of the forest floor cocooned my body. The silence and stillness of the trees protected me from the harsh antarctic winds that had battered me so heavily before.
You can find the next part of my trip in Backpacking Patagonia Part 2.