Camping in the Lake District, certainly. A cottage in France, occasionally. Flying somewhere? Once or twice. Family holidays of my childhood were great, fuelled with lots of fresh air and exercise but not a lot in the way of exoticism. Patagonia though? That’s not a family holiday, that’s an expedition.
And yet, when the need for me to return to Patagonia arose again this spring, the only way I could work out how to wrangle it with my childcare commitments was to take my boys with. At which point my wife made it clear that she was not about to miss out on two weeks exploring Patagonia. So there we were, a family going to Patagonia, by happy accident more than design. In the run up to the trip I found myself nervous on two fronts. First was that I was introducing my wife to Chile, a country I love. What if she didn’t like it as much as I always have? The second was to do with the boys. At 10 and 8 would they appreciate just how extraordinary a holiday like this is, just how damned privileged they are?
Thankfully I got hold of myself some time before we touched down in Santiago. Linda would form her own opinions and the boys would be allowed to experience the journey as they saw fit, i.e. without me constantly breathing down their necks telling them to have a good time or be grateful.
The journey itself started in the southerly port city of Puerto Montt from where we drove a 4×4 south along the Carretera Austral through the Aysén region of Patagonia. Around 1,000km of paved and unpaved road. More the latter than the former in truth. Aysén has half the population density of Mongolia and half of what it does have live in the one large town of Coyhaique. Suffice to say, it’s a pristine landscape of forests, lakes, fjords, waterfalls, glaciers, mountains and rivers. And the occasional farm or gaucho riding the hills.
So what did we do? We hiked through the pristine temperate rainforest of Pumalin Park on Easter Day with my 10 year old saying: “This is the BEST Easter Day ever! This walk is amazing, it’s like the walk of life.” That just before they took off up and over a dodgy looking ladder over a 10m high boulder to discover their waterfall. My 8 year old spend an hour clearing out the hollow trunk of a vast tree in the Valdivian forest of Futaleufú. We jumped out of hot springs into icy fjords. We hiked through the pouring rain over fallen tree trunks to see a glacier emerge from under the cover of clouds, just for us. We missed our ferry and while I failed to calmly deal with the resulting prospect of six additional hours driving on unpaved roads, the boys (and Linda) reassured me that they were perfectly relaxed. We took a boat through marble caves on a bright blue lake. We rode horses. We carved roast lamb straight out of the fire pit. We hiked through desert landscapes to see ancient cave paintings. We rafted down a crazy blue river. We chased guanacos around the lawn of a lodge. We took a jet boat to a glacier for a picnic, nobody else within 30km in any direction. We ate together, late at night once in the fire station in Coyhaique – that’s a surprising place! We got up early to see condors fly just over our heads. We went looking for ancient arrow heads in a distant field. Not your average family holiday indeed.
Of course, we had bits where we bickered. Towards the end the boys were less keen on going on ‘another massive hike’. There were times when Linda and my eyes were popping out of our heads with the scenery around us and the boys had their heads down involved in some book or game. There were sunsets which went unnoticed as the boys decided to have some territorial battle over a blanket. The background noise of family life doesn’t magically disappear but it certainly doesn’t matter as much.
The point is that I did my best to leave them alone to have their own experience in Patagonia. The result? They loved it of course. Some of the bits that they loved are the things you would expect – having a massive glacier to yourself is always going to feature in the top 10 – zip lines and rafting too. Other highlights were more surprising – a forest, the rain soaked hike to a glacier, the constant moving on, the sheer variety of it all. Some of the things, the moments or details, they missed. The big things, they absolutely understood. I needn’t have worried, of course Linda loved it and the boys appreciated just how extraordinary it all is.
I wouldn’t have thought that this trip could possibly work for a family with such relatively young children. Circumstance sort of forced my hand. But in doing so, I discovered just how anodyne we parents can be tempted to make our family holidays. There’s probably a lot more adventure (cultural as well as physical) in our children than we care to unleash. So don’t settle for average, do something amazing.
Though Patagonia is probably the ultimate ‘not your average’ holiday, of course it doesn’t have to be all the way over in Patagonia to be amazing. Ask me about Spain and I’ll come up with a hundred ideas. ?
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