Patagonia Less Traveled: The Pleasures and Pains of Getting off the Beaten Path
By: Erin Agee
. . .and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.
In our culture of FOMO and hashtags many of us find it increasingly compelling to seek out the roads less traveled. I certainly sought this experience when I was planning my first trip to Chile’s Patagonia. I had wanted to visit Patagonia since I was 17. Its wild, remote, and rugged landscape was exactly the kind of far away place that I longed to challenge myself in. It represented the unknown in the best kind of way. So when I got the chance to spend a couple weeks there in March of 2019, I knew I didn’t want to pass my days in the footsteps of countless other eager tourists. I was determined to experience the “real” Patagonia.
As my partner and I began researching options, we soon realized that going “off the beaten path” in Southern Chile might require a little more creativity and due diligence than we’d initially expected. Many of the gorgeous places that make the region so popular for outdoor enthusiasts require visitors to hike in a particular direction on a particular trail, or pay to stay in pre-selected and often crowded cabin-like accommodations, or hire a guide. Reserving the exact dates and locations months in advance didn’t align with my 17-year-old’s vision of a Patagonian adventure in the jagged and wind-ravaged landscape I’d spent years fantasizing about. With a little more research, we found a different option. It was not much more than a footnote in one of our guidebooks and we loved that. We would do the circuit hike in a mountain range called Los Dientes, or “The Teeth,” located on the 955 square mile Navarino Island, home to the world’s most southern commune.
Two weeks before our projected arrival date in Navarino Island’s largest town, Puerto Williams, (population 2,874), we read about a group of backpackers who got caught in a snowstorm and had to abandon the same trail we had chosen. It was autumn in Patagonia and the drifts that descended on the group were too deep for them to safely continue their journey. My teenage sense of adventure was delighted as we continued preparing for our trip. “Now that’s the Patagonia I’ve been longing for!”
But reality has a reliable way of presenting a more complex world than our fantasies. It wasn’t that anything went “wrong” on our trip. In fact, so much went extremely right. We did the 53.3-kilometer loop in the days we had allotted. No sudden snowstorm forced us to turn around. In fact, despite it being the third rainiest month of the year down in that polar tundra climate, the sky did not unleash so much as a drop of rain on us while we were out. And the notoriously ferocious Patagonia winds? They were alarmingly tame for the duration of our journey. We hiked for hours and did not see a single other human.
The quiet, the sharp peaks and the sparkling streams, the sense of adventure in every day, made it exactly the trip we had wanted. We made it back to town tired, muddy, hungry, and content. When we checked back in at the local Sheriff’s Office and signed our names in their oversized notebook of hikers who dare to venture out into the snow and wind without assurances of marked trails or any emergency services, the sense of accomplishment was undeniable. My 17-year-old self would have been proud. But there was another feeling I couldn’t shake. Once in the comfort of town, enjoying some dry socks and steaming crab empanadas, I couldn’t shake the thought that, just maybe, I’d let my teenage thirst for adventure blind me to a bigger picture.
A large part of the allure of this hike through the island’s Megellanic Moorland and Andean Desert was the very fact that we would not be asked to apply for any permits or tell anyone precisely when and where we’d be camping. We read signs at the start of the circuit explaining the local regulations: only camp in designated areas, no campfires, stay
on the trail, don’t swim in the lakes, pack out what you pack in. But as we got further from town, we saw repeated evidence of backpacker thoughtlessness. Fire rings were large and shamelessly frequent. We found trash in the camping areas by the lakes and streams and the sign of hikers unwilling to slog through the Patagonian mud was hard to deny—what should have been a single track trail became, in multiple segments, a six-lane thoroughfare. I don't share these memories to expound about trail etiquette or the virtues of Leave No Trace principles. Instead, I share them because I think they illustrate how the choices we have to make when traveling in wild places are always more complicated than what the hashtags and magazine photos might have us believe.
We came to this stunning, remote landscape and we had the adventure we’d sought. We got “off the beaten path”. But at what price? Had we just contributed, unwittingly, to this landscape’s irreparable alteration, to its un-wilding? Maybe not me and my partner alone in one trip, but there had been and there will be many more of us. The very attributes that drew us to this place—its breathtaking fragility, the absence of permit requirements or enforced regulations—were the same things that meant we were part of a force that could, if not exercised thoughtfully, also destroy it.
I love remote places. And I love that there is still ground on this earth where I can sleep without having to pay anyone and mountains where we can risk it all because help is nowhere nearby. But I also want to be thoughtful about how I love these places. Could it be that, perhaps, the best way I can show my love is to stay away? I hope it doesn’t come to that, but how do we ensure that’s a choice we never have to make?
I know that actions are louder than words. But I think asking these questions and having this conversation is one place we can start. It might be the least we can do to give back to the beautiful paths still less traveled. It might just make all the difference.