Though we have hiked more than 600 kilometers on what’s called the “Greater Patagonian Trail”, we didn’t travel in Patagonia yet. We stayed fairly north, where the weather is dry and stable in the summer months.
In Patagonia though, the weather gods are fickle and may swap pleasantly sunny for freezingly snowy in less than an hour. Strong winds chase the clouds across the plains and when a closeby mountain peak traps a dark one, you better have your coat and gloves stored at the top of your bacpack. As the saying goes, you can experience all four seasons in one Patagonian afternoon.
So yeah, who would want to miss that!?
The consensus seems that no hike is more beautiful and quintessentially Patagonian than Torres del Paine. It’s got peaks, glaciers, rivers, lakes, windy passes, rainy nights, condors, pumas, forests, sunrises – all packed along a relatively easy trail. Every hill on the path is its own mirador, and when you’re thirsty, just grab some water from one of the many mountain glacier streams.
Due to this combination of natural beauty and accessibility, the hike (and its namesake natural park) has become extremely popular. Every day, bus loads of tourists are delivered to the entrance, which are expertly straight-jacketed into a caravan that shuffles from camp site to refugio.
Rule number one: no fire or smoking outside of designated areas in the camps. Rule number two: take your garbage with you. Rule number three: don’t ever leave the signed trails. Rule number four: no wild camping, which means that you have to book a stay in the commercial camp sites at pre-planned dates.
The rules make sense, and allow a larger amount of people to experience and appreciate nature at its most scenic. For instance, on this 130km trail, we found almost no human garbage, which was a nice change from the often messy arriero trails.
However, after roaming freely in the Andes for six weeks, these regulations took some getting used to. Similarly, the mass of people annoyed Veronika quite a bit. Getting stuck as the last wagon on a train of people inching its way forward on a steep small mountain path really got on her nerves.
The worst by far, however, was the shameless cash grab by the Fantastico Sur camp site company. For 24 euros per person per night, they provide a field to put your tent in, showers (often lukewarm or simply too few for the people staying the night), toilets, and a kitchen to safely use your own small cooking stove with the food you carried along yourselves. That’s it.
Except for the last one we stayed in. Upon checking in, we were informed that no cooking was allowed. No idea why. The fact that most of the food we had left needed to be cooked and we would go hungry without it was met with “we’re sorry.” Our remark that they could have warned us in the other camp sites (mostly run by the same company) so that we could prepare in advance, was agreed with, and nothing more.
Note that this particular camp site had a nice refugio for less thrifty hikers, a well-stocked bar and minimarket (at the same extremely inflated prices as everywhere else in the park), an industrial kitchen, plenty of dining space, a large terrace, and a spot for people to smoke. There was no reason to not allow people to cook, except to force them to pay for dinner and lunch on the spot. We made do with what we had, though :p (I don’t blame the poor shmuck behind the counter delivering the message to annoyed tourists, no hard feelings!)
We don’t mind paying a bit of “tourist tax” every now and then. But it needs to be clear up front and we’d like to decide ourselves if it is worth it or not. Note that the camp sites have to be booked before entering the park, and that there is no way to change these bookings once on the trail. The two companies managing them basically have a state-granted duopoly, which Fantastico Sur is way too eager to exploit…
This juxtaposition of Patagonia’s natural splendor with peak mass tourism was quite the experience. For me, the views were more than worth the annoyances, as Veronika’s pictures hopefully show!