Patagonia: First Steps

Patagonia. The name evokes images of jagged peaks studded with glaciers feeding into bright blue lakes — and at least for some, clothing catalogs.

It’s the trip of a lifetime and for us the planning started more than two years ago when we nearly pulled the trigger — but ultimately pulled the plug — on a trip. We vowed to try again in two years, figuring we’d need to catch our collective breath after the elections. How’s that for clairvoyance??

Our journey took us to Torres del Paine on the Chilean side. It was a deliberate choice to focus on one “small” part of Patagonia instead of hopping around this vast region. To truly experience the park, we would hike the legendary Paine Circuit, around the Torres del Paine Massif, bookending our trek at the one-of-a-kind EcoCamp Patagonia. The Paine Circuit is a 136-kilometer (85-mile) trek that we set out to cover in seven days, going counter-clockwise (as most people choose to do).

We flew all night to Buenos Aires and continued onto El Calafate, a small Argentine city that serves as the ideal jumping off point for much of southern Patagonia. After feasting on Patagonian lamb, split and roasted over a wood fire, and a good night’s rest, we crossed into Chile (a rather long and tedious border crossing). Upon arrival, our guide Danny, whom we had met the prior day, briefed us on what was to come while we sipped on some sticky sweet calafate pisco sours (calafate being a berry native to the region).

It also happened to be my birthday (commemorated with a pair of passport stamps) and we celebrated the occasion at EcoCamp, where I ate king crab legs and two desserts, and drank more wine than I should have on the eve of such a long trek.

Day One: EcoCamp to Lago Dickson

This one was a slog. A breathtaking slog, but a slog nonetheless. It’s worth noting that my guidebook refers to this stretch as “Day One” and “Day Two.” That may have been a pretty good hint to break up these 32 kilometers (20 miles) — but Danny’s objective was to cover as much ground on the first day as possible, building up our strength and leaving us with an easier second day before we hit the John Garner Pass. So we hiked 11 hours.

We started by heading north from EcoCamp through a mostly flat valley, broke for lunch (at a refugio where most people opt to spend the night!), and pivoted west at Laguna Alejandra, a small horseshoe-shaped lake. From there we climbed for about 40 minutes and, with Lago Paine to our right, headed southwest until we reached Refugio Dickson. Not a whole lot was said towards the end — especially after we came across a freshly-killed hare, mauled by a puma — and we eventually limped into camp tired and aching (but still doing better than the hare).

That first day we saw preciously few fellow hikers. There were a few people early on, but they stopped for the night at the midway camp, so after lunch we had the trail completely to ourselves (and apparently a puma).

Our first night’s camp would be one of my favorites. Situated in a clearing on the southern shore of Lago Dickson and protected by mountains on its other side, it was lightly populated with a basic refugio at its center. We were served fried chicken with tomato risotto, which isn’t as fancy as it sounds (wait, does it sound fancy at all?) but was downright delicious compared with what we’d be served at the larger camps.

Danny spoke to us about our punctuality, or lack thereof, and he was right. If we continued to take our time with breaks and photo ops (we’d finished an hour behind schedule), it wouldn’t bode well for the more challenging days ahead — namely the John Garner Pass. We took his comments to heart and never needed to be scolded again.

We crashed hard that first night.

Day Two: Lago Dickson to Los Perros

Our second day was a “rest day.” We quickly learned those words meant something entirely different in Chile. So we hiked 11 kilometers (7 miles) at a leisurely pace through dense forest. It really shouldn’t have been a tough day, but I think some of us (ok, it was me) were still feeling the effects of the prior day’s march.

Freddie, Peter and I started the day by walking down to Lago Dickson and dipping our feet in the icy blue water. It felt really good… for about five seconds… and then you started to lose feeling in your toes. (That didn’t stop us from doing it a few more times.)

For the first part of the morning, Lago Dickson was at our back, but I couldn’t help sneaking a few peaks before it completely disappeared. We stopped for lunch at a thunderous waterfall, enjoying the shade and some mist. That Patagonia sun could be powerful at times!

One of our great early discoveries was that in Patagonia fresh water flows like wine. We had ample opportunities to refill our water bottles every hour or so at various mountain streams. (Even if my bottle was mostly full, I’d refresh it with cool water every chance I could.) This was a big change from prior treks, where water had to be purified, and we’d grown accustomed to carrying up to three liters with us. That fact alone greatly lightened our loads.

Before arriving at our campsite we hit the day’s highlight: Laguna de los Perros. There a glacier calves directly into a small lake and chunks of ice float on its surface. It’s a spot known for its notorious winds, but in what would become the norm on our trek, we were able to spend a substantial chunk of time there.

We spent the night at the Las Perros campsite where we had our own cook for the night. “Cubano” spends three weeks at a time shuttling supplies between Las Perros and Dickson and cooking for trekkers. After a cheese and charcuterie course (a local gouda style cheese with jamon and small sausages), as well as some pisco sours, he made us a filling beef and lentil stew, paired with Chilean sauvignon blanc. Hey, life could be a lot worse! The campsite itself was in a small uneven clearing in the forest. We were pretty tired after dinner, but with the sun not setting until around 10, a quick after-dinner walk to the lake was in order.

Then it was time to go get some sleep. Because the John Garner Pass awaited us…