Patagonia is notorious for seducing the adventurous spirit, and I fell happily into that trap. From the ice sheets stretching into Antarctica to national parks, opportunities for adventure abound. The jagged peaks and icy white water make one want to summit, raft and explore. The vast mountains provide the perfect stage for epic journeys, while the boundless horizon gives the wandering mind a chance to feel like it’s alone on earth.
As a recent college graduate, the remoteness of Patagonia called out to me, and I applied for a job in the future Patagonia National Park. For five months, I taught English to the youngest park residents; local biologists, construction workers and cowboy kids. The park staff has been busy making sure I know as much about Chilean culture as their children, with afternoon Cueca classes (Chilean folk dances), and the traditional barbecues that are held regularly at the school where I teach. The school is a converted sheep shed that sits behind the park’s main facility, nestled in a valley formed by the Andes Mountains.
Located on the other side of the equator, Chile’s season is the opposite of the US season. So, just as my friends are preparing for winter, I am also preparing for warm winter activities. As it turns out, November is a beautiful month and the perfect time to beat the hordes of winter tourists who will flock to the national park to put Chile’s Patagonia National Park on the map for adventurers the world over. I decided to start from the inside, riding alongside the guachos (Patagonia’s iconic cowboys) along the newly formed hiking trail, soaking up as much knowledge as I could about the area and its landscape. Patagonia National Park was my home for those months, located directly on Chile’s famous Carretera Austral Highway, a highway built by the late dictator Pinochet to connect remote areas of northern and southern Chile. Whether I’m entering from nearby Argentina, or from Chile further north, the beaof this section of Chile’s famous Route 7 is there.
Trekking the Future Patagonia National Park
While the park is stunning at all times of the year, the spring and summer are particularly impressive, with warmer, drier conditions making travel easier and hiking less arduous. As a future national park, visitors will have to do it on their own, but in exchange visitors will be able to enjoy the sweeping scenery and the endless bush of Californian berries, a delicious snack that legend has it that those who eat it are destined to return. You can trek through the park for days, with only wild camels, armadillos and, if you’re lucky, the endangered Humul deer for company. Chilean condors soar overhead, while GPS-collared cougars are elusive evidence of the wildlife populations that have returned to this once barren flock.Lagunas Altas (meaning “high lake”), the park’s first official trail, is a strenuous and rewarding 26-kilometer trail with breathtaking views along the way. The trail, which was recently mapped, runs through a dense moss-covered forest and eventually reaches the ridge, where the trail’s name is revealed on the ridge. Snow-capped peaks, alpine lakes and winding trails left behind by the park’s iconic wild camels provide the stage for this long stretch of flat, high-altitude terrain to be showcased before a steep descent back to park headquarters. For those with limited time, the hike can be completed in one day or extended to three days, where visitors will have more opportunities to discover wildlife, take a dip in the pristine waters of the lake, and explore the park’s world-class campsites.
Exploring the Marble Caves of Portland Quilo, Puerto Rico
Puerto Tranquillo (which literally translates to “quiet port”) is the last place to refuel before the future Patagonia National Park, and the town lives up to its name. The small town is a sleepy fishing village, and although the view of the towering Andes can be seen from the turquoise waters, there are several restaurants serving fresh salmon, friendly people, and perhaps the most secluded spot on Route 7. Scattered docks and motorboats dot the shores of the lake, and visitors can pay a fisherman-turned-guide to explore the Capilla de Marmol, also known as the “Marble Cathedral”. After a five-minute speedboat ride, the marble cave emerges from the surrounding foothills and its wide passages can be observed from a distance. The yachts are tethered to natural columns formed by huge stalactites, and visitors can explore the cave walls, which drip down with minerals that form gold, black and milky white shapes, with fascinating ripples of water reflecting off the sunken rock face. Depending on the time of day, the water changes from a deep ocean blue to a milky white as the sun shines on the marble particles floating in the water, creating a magical effect that only those who explore this huge lake can experience. The cave can be explored for hours and the guide is happy to navigate you to new areas before returning to the main dock, grabbing a creamy hot chocolate and continuing on your way.
Visit the seaside town of Tortell
The small town of Caleta Tortel is strictly a township in southern Chile whose population is almost exclusively engaged in the timber industry. The town was initially exploited for its valuable cypress resources, but became a tourist attraction due to its kilometres of stairs, docks and paths. Constructed by locals with local timber, the steps are the only means of transport linking homes to each other, and their steep slope is impressively scenic with views of the bay. The town itself is spartan, and visitors should pack their lunches, prepare to dangle their legs on the hand-built docks, soak in the salty air, and revel in the tranquility this seaside town at the end of the world offers. Architecture enthusiasts will enjoy the small, colorful homes on the edge of the cliffs, while nature lovers will enjoy walking through the lush mountains, watching for seabirds and the occasional seal while admiring the lush peaks.Tortel feels like time travel, like a trip back to Patagonia before tourism, and the true value of Patagonia – its resources – is still used to keep the local community thriving.
Most importantly, Patagonia is a place where people go to find what they want. It is a place of mystery, a place of transformative landscapes, and a place to remember with pleasure. For me, it was a time of transition and exploration that helped launch my passion for international travel and the pursuit of meaningful work on a global scale. This winding road is made for exploration, and everyone pursues their own journey. But what I’ve found is that wherever the road leads, it makes the most fond memories of places you wouldn’t expect.