Patagonia is known for its extreme weather. One day in Patagonia can see 15-20cm of snow, followed by high winds, and can close with warm sunshine and a clear sky, melting all the snow away. We experienced these extreme changes in weather in El El Chaltén and in El Calafate, two Patagonian towns in Argentina. In El Chaltén we did an 18 km (11 mile) hike in and around Mount Fitz Roy. It was a beautiful trail, but the weather was marked largely by heavy, low clouds that gave us rain, snow, and wind, before the skies opened toward the end of the day and offered us some sunshine. This is the reason by locals never check the weather – they know to dress in layers and expect anything throughout the day. They say it isn’t proper Patagonia if there isn’t wind.
In El Calafate we took a day trip to see the Perito Moreno Glacier, one of the many glaciers in the Patagonian ice field. Our day started out with a snowstorm, but by evening we were in t-shirts on our way to dinner, the bright sun setting only after 10pm.
I left Colombia and made my way to Santiago de Chile to start my tour of Patagonia. The primary purpose of this trip to South America was to see Patagonia. I left the country with the intention of pushing myself physically, to learn how to challenge myself in the outdoors, and to see extreme points of the world in it’s natural environment. I hadn’t imagined years ago that I would choose to travel to a hiker’s dreamland over other parts of the world. I’ve seen so much, but at this point in my life it makes sense to me to seek something new and exotic in an outdoor-adventure sense.
My itinerary of Patagonia was very ambitious and complex – I wanted to start in Santiago, Chile and head all the way down to Ushuaia, Argentina. In between I wanted to stop in Bariloche, El Chalten, El Calafate, Punta Arenas, and Torres del Payne National Park. Doing this alone while also planning to camp in Torres del Payne on my own seemed a bit daunting. And so, for the first time ever, I booked a tour. Many who know me know that I don’t do tours. However, after having done quite a bit of research I found that going from place to place in Patagonia is difficult, and the overland travel routes are complicated. I found a tour that covered all the points I wanted to visit overland and that also started in Santiago and ended in Ushuaia, and so I booked it.
I was very nervous about the tour, not because of the actual itinerary or method of traveling, but because I am not sold on the idea of spending more than 20 days with the same group of people. And, people who travel in tours are usually not the people I meet on my usual backpacker-style adventures. The tour is certainly a budget one, and seemingly more independent than other tours, however I still felt really nervous leading up to the start of the tour. What would the people be like? I tried not to have any expectations, but I was afraid of being stuck with a group of thirty middle-aged obnoxious American couples and with a tour guide who’s English was questionable.
On the first night during our pre-departure meeting I realized that our group was not what I had initially expected. We were a group of 17 that would be going up to 27 people further along our trip. The group is primarily English, then American, followed by Australia, Canada, and New Zealand. There are three couples, a few groups of two, and various solo-travelers, and their ages on a spectrum from late twenties to retirement age. Most of the people are women. We soon divided ourselves to younger and older groups when we coordinated daytime adventure activities. Being that the two groups’ tolerances for active physical activity levels among the age groups differ, it was a natural and subconscious divide.
I was a not surprised to see that mostly women join these sorts of tours. You don’t usually find young men on organized tours; they make up the large proportion of solo backpackers. This only validates the point I had made in my pre-departure letter about women traveling alone and how few of them actually do so. Even if they are actually going on a trip without a friend or partner, they are much more likely to travel in an organized tour in order to avoid having to worry about the specifics of city-to-city travel and of making friends along the way. A couple of people from the group are also solo backpackers like me, but for the same reasons that I chose to do a tour given the complexity of this region, they’ve also decided to go in this route.
I am pleasantly surprised that the group is much more fun and adventurous than I thought they’d be. The social dynamics of group travel, however, is something I am not used to. The general tendency of the group is to stick together during our flexible free days and plan all activities as a group. When I travel I am used to creating a plan and doing it regardless of others, and without compromise, while also allowing for flexibility of meeting fellow backpackers and doing day trips with them here and there. Travelers who use tours tend to not be as comfortable taking some day-trips on their own. They have a pack mindset where they are willing to compromise their initial plans and desires in order to meet the needs of the group in general. There is even discussion of sticking together in Buenos Aires, where most will be flying to after the tour. I can’t quite tell if some people in the group genuinely want to stay and experience the city with these particular individuals, or if they fear being left alone. Perhaps it’s a little bit of both.
A tour by its very nature is a compromise; there will always be places you want to see and cities you want to stay longer in that you cannot do, as the itinerary is inflexible. I am a firm believer in being open-minded to the people I meet and to friendships I make. But I also know that all journeys come to an end, and I quite like the natural coming and going of people in each place I visit. I see it as a beautiful thing to have a short-lived experience, which makes the time spent all the more meaningful.
I see this tour as another personal challenge for me. It’s a small experiment where I am curious to learn how I fit in to the social dynamics of building relationships with others and the small communities that are formed, both in pre-determined tours and in solo-backpacker travel. Will I be able to travel with the same group over a long period of time? Am I able to compromise my independent traveler spirit for this part of my journey? Am I up to the challenge of participating in these group dynamics while also having my own unique experience? Will the relationships I develop be more profound because of the sheer amount of time spent with these people, or does time not matter as much as the organic, unforced connections I make while backpacking? These are questions I will soon have answered at the tour’s end. All I know is that for now I am having a lovely time with my group, and most importantly, that I am privileged to explore yet another region of the globe – the beauty of Patagonia.