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Flip flops in Patagonia: sowing the seeds for Pura in the 1990s

Written by Thomas Power | 6th September 2019 |

Category: Chile, Stories

Tom torres del paine 1995

In a couple of weeks, Pura Aventura celebrates its 20th anniversary. Something I'm still trying to get my head around.

It was two chance meetings in Torres del Paine back in 1995, moments of life-defining serendipity, that set the wheels in motion for what we'd become today. So my fellow co-founders and I took the chance to reminisce about the worst hotel room we've ever seen, our (by which I mean Diego and my) fashion faux pas and my unconventional approach to preparing porridge.

We've come an incredibly long way and grown up as a business over those two decades, learning a lot along the way. Including how to dress more suitably for hiking at the end of the world. I hope you enjoy reading.

Arriving in Paine

"I remember being quite convinced that I was seeing the most beautiful place I would ever see. I still think that's true."

Thomas Power: I guess we should start by talking about how we all got to Torres del Paine in those years.

Diego Martín: Let’s hear your story first then Tom.

TP: Well, I’d spent the winter of 1994 living in northern Mexico. I decided to return to Central America the following year. But a Chilean university friend had lost her brother, so I detoured south to Santiago, intending to hitchhike back to Central America once I had paid my respects. Luckily for me, Google Maps hadn't been invented by then. So the small matter of 6,000km and seven countries - of which about four were spectacularly unstable at the time - didn't really cross my mind. But whilst in Santiago, I saw lots of postcards of Torres del Paine and decided I simply had to see it.

So I set off into remotest Patagonia fully equipped for the tropics. Of course, one of the features of the tropics is rain, and heat, for which a waterproof poncho is ideal. One of the features of Patagonia is wind, for which a poncho is an utter liability.

DM: Well, I visited Torres del Paine for the first time in 1994 after a study trip with my university to Argentina. I went in winter, at a time when tourism was starting and the first huts were being built. I found out that you could apply to work as a volunteer ranger, so I took one year off university to go and work there in 1995.

Xabi Etxarri: I was already at Paine, working as a guide there. In those days the park was something quite magical. A place more for mountaineers than tourists, with barely any infrastructure. The wild nature invaded everything – no hint of civilisation for kilometres and kilometres. I imagined this was what Europe was like, the Pyrenees perhaps, in the middle ages.

TP: That’s a good way of putting it. I remember being quite convinced that I was seeing the most beautiful place I would ever see. I still think that's true.

Making friends

"We had a chat, coming to the conclusion that perhaps long-distance trek planning wasn't their forte and that perhaps they should return to base and opt for some day hikes."

TP: So, it was you guys that met each other first...

XE: Yes, the next season, when Diego started to work as a guide. It was the start of a period when we’d see each other regularly. Our paths would cross in the park, but most of our time together was in Puerto Natales.

DM: And Natales being the resting town for everyone working in Paine, we had a great time with beers and chats...

XE:Cerrando los bares as we say in Spanish... closing the bars.

DM: I still have some bar napkins with your free poetry from those years!

XE: I knew when we met that you were different, much more similar to me than all the Patagonians that I’d met in the town.

DM: Working there was nice because you knew everybody, in the huts, in the hotels in Puerto Natales... You were part of the small community. So when you had some free days you could go into someone’s farm and spend a few days helping out. Or check a new trail. It was a very good ground for adventure and experiences for someone in their 20s and without kids!

Diego takes a break by the shores of Lago GreyDiego takes a break by the shores of Lago Grey

TP: It would have been that same year then that we met....

DM: It was yes... I was working giving information in Pudeto Ranger station and you arrived to get the boat there. We just started chatting...

TP: I suspect your sense of the absurd was sent into overdrive when I got blown into that ranger station in my poncho! I had actually just missed the boat over the lake, so I remember we had hours to kill, which we did quite happily.

DM: My memory is not great but, I believe it was by chance that a few days later, as I was starting a hike around the circuit in some leave days, we ran into you and you joined us for the hike around the park.

TP: That’s right... There’s a bit of a story there. I had set off to tackle the full 10-day circuit of the national park. But because you aren't allowed to go it alone, I had to obediently wait at the ranger station to 'buddy up' with a young couple. But after approximately 1km, the pace started to slow significantly. Given that we were attempting to cover only 4km of flat terrain, the only flat terrain on this 110km route, this was a concern.

I noticed that the Mr was struggling under the weight of his pack so suggested that we look at redistributing the weight to improve his balance. First out of his backpack was a four-pack of lager cans. This was then followed by enough tins to keep them both going for a week or more. We had a chat, coming to the conclusion that perhaps long-distance trek planning wasn't their forte and that perhaps they should return to base and opt for some day hikes. I continued to camp one to wait for a more outdoorsy buddy - at which point Diego stumbled into camp. Then over the next month or more we hiked into every last part of the park, through all weathers and landscapes.

DM: We spent a long time sharing camping, hiking, sharing an asado with gauchos for your birthday, horse riding at Laguna Verde, where you were bigger than the horse!

TP: Actually, I think one of my favourite memories from the park was spending New Year's Eve in a hastily assembled hide watching a puma mother and cubs devour a guanaco. I say watching but most of the time it was more about hearing the crunching of the bones.

DM: Oh and I forgot about your Scottish porridge master classes...

TP: Ah yes, my Patagonian porridge recipe. Take one small pot with clip on lid. Fill with oats and water. Close lid. Place on open fire inside a cosy refuge. Forget pot whilst chatting to fellow hikers huddled up to the fire for warmth. Clean lumps of exploded porridge from every nook, cranny and person in the refuge.

XE: Tom you say about wearing a poncho and being so unprepared. But one of my favourite my memories was Diego freezing to death, because in the first trip you wore some boots for the first time and had such big blisters that you couldn’t wear them for two weeks and had to wear flip flops instead!

The gaffer-taped remains of my 1995 Torres del Paine mapThe gaffer-taped remains of my 1995 Torres del Paine map.

Leaving Paine

"I had a huge sense of gratitude. It struck me as absurd that a country as beautiful, as friendly and safe as Chile could be so little visited."

TP: So, after Paine we all went our separate ways for a little while... I had enough money to buy a flight to Santiago. But it was February, and I didn't need to be home until April. So the other plan was to save the flight money and instead hitchhike the 3,600km up into Argentina, back across to Chile and then north to the capital - along a road which wasn't paved and was barely populated. I made it to Santiago some weeks later, penniless and really quite hungry but having seen the most spectacular places and met the most wonderful people.

XE: I stayed to work in Paine in the trekking season, returning to Spain outside of that time to do various things. I was also going to India and Indonesia to buy jewellery that I would sell in Ibiza in the summer and working for an adventure sports company, becoming a guide in rafting and hydrospeed.

DM: In those years I was in between Paine and Madrid, seasons here and there. I was finishing my university degree on Geography, working as a guide in Patagonia on the season, then guiding in Spain, travelling to India for 3 months... going back to live in Argentina for a year. I would see you (Xabi) in Puerto Natales and you (Tom) in Madrid when you came by guiding your American student tours. We shared our experiences and had a good time, but we didn't spend much time together in those years.

TP: That’s right, I started tour guiding for high school kids around Europe, wintering in Central America but missing South America and realising that I couldn't possibly be a tour guide for more than another year or two. I always had a mission to keep learning, the point at which I stopped being asked questions I couldn't answer was the point at which I stopped being pushed to learn so I had to stop tour guiding.

XE: We all had this idea in the back of the head. After years working for others, Diego and I had a dream of starting our own business in Spain. We looked into it, but came to the conclusion that it wouldn’t be easy – similar business were struggling to even fill up one group a season. We had let go of the idea when Diego brought up the idea of us working with Tom a few years later.

DM: It must have been around 1998 or the beginning of 1999 that Tom came out with the idea and proposal to do something together to "share the places we love", mixing my experience as a guide and his business idea. We started the process that immediately meant that we would need more people on board for this adventure, so I suggested Tom to invite Xabi to the adventure.

TP: On that journey up through Patagonia I was looked after by so many different people in so many ways that I had a huge sense of gratitude. It struck me as absurd that a country as beautiful, as friendly and safe as Chile could be so little visited. That's what started Pura.

DM: Like I said, your thinking was sharing the places we loved, mainly Chile at the time, and do it with a mix of best outdoor with comfort..."active holidays in comfort". The idea sounded great to me after a few years of guiding a lot for a local Chilean company where we had to guide, set up camp, cook, wash, drive....it was exhausting. So a bit of comfort was welcome!

XE: And we had a clear audience – British people who culturally have always been great travellers. There really wasn’t anything like it during those times. So we all went for it.

 Xabi Etxarri during his early guiding days in Torres del PaineXabi during his early guiding days in Torres del Paine

Launching Pura

"I think that was the worst hotel room I’ve ever been in. And in India I’ve stayed in some bad ones."

DM: So in 1999 we started the company and travelled the three of us to Chile to recce a section of the Carretera and some areas on the Lakes. We had some fun on that trip...

XE: The first thing I think of is the times we’d stop the car on the Carretera Austral because we were enjoying the music we were listening to so much that we got out and just danced around the car. Then jumping back in to continue driving when the song finished. There wasn’t much traffic, so we didn’t bother pulling over to the side... we just stopped right in the middle of the road.

TP: And that hotel room in Coyhaique...

XE: I think that was the worst hotel room I’ve ever been in. And in India I’ve stayed in some bad ones. It was dark, humid, dirty... three beds, each one worse than the last. Dirty sheets, blankets full of holes, rats in the corner, dead ones hidden under the bed.

TP: But other than that it was perfect.

DM: That was... horrible.

TP: One a more positive note, there were so many memories... The Villarica Volcano. Swimming in the Ojos de Caburgua in freezing water, butt naked. The cuesta Queulat in the sun...lots.

DM: Everything mixes in my head...I just have a feeling of having a good time and visiting unique places like Puyuahuapi and the amazing Alerce Andino forest...and horse-riding in Chiloe to the beach.

Looking back

"The business landscape is changing to embrace the idea of responsible, sustainable business... I feel we're in a great position to be part of that new landscape. "

Pura's three co-founders, 20 years, and the odd grey hair laterPura's three co-founders, 20 years and the odd grey hair later

TP: So how do you look back on it all? And to the future I guess?

XE: I feel fortunate because I have been working all these years doing something that completely fulfils me; walking in nature, guiding people and giving them a sense of my passion for these special places for my own company.

DM: To me it feels like it has been a long way with lots of different periods. Also personally my involvement has been varied along the years - many years just guiding, then a few years I was away with the Bearded Vultures and only in the last five I have been fully concentrated on Pura as a business, something that is growing. Looking back the things I feel more proud of are that we have kept loyal to the concept of the holidays that we wanted to share 20 years ago and that there has been a huge learning process on the way. I also look back to the hundreds of people we have shared our passion with..

For the future I see a lot of work to be done to keep the Pura Aventura quality in a growing environment, a big challenge that personally will demand the biggest commitment and dedication and also more team-work. I am ready for it!

XE: And you Tom? How do you feel thinking back to all those years?

TP: Tired! It feels like we've been on quite a ride through the three incarnations of Pura Aventura. Our holidays have always been fantastic and, like you say Diego, driven from the same passion for sharing places we love. The only difference between versions one and three is really about how well we run the company, which in turn means we are able to generate more benefit for our hosts and partners.

So I'm proud, immensely proud. I'm also excited about the future. I think that the business landscape is changing to embrace the idea of responsible, sustainable business and I feel that our close connection to our destinations puts us in a great position to be part of that new landscape.

Further reading

Chile patagonia carretera austral woman drinking from leones lagoon flipped c pura aventura thomas power

10 questions in 10 minutes - Chilean Patagonia

Chile patagonia torres del paine mirador torres sunrise person c matthew power

Machu Picchu, Torres del Paine & 7 other places to be handled with care

Chile patagonia torres del paine looking out from las cornisas

Pura's 10 minute guide to Torres del Paine

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