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Returning to Patagonia after 13 years

Written by Sarah Wightman | 30th November 2016 |

Category: Argentina, Stories

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When a destination imprints on you it can almost be a little scary to go back there. What if it's changed beyond recognition? What if it’s become so much of an attraction to others, the sense of solitude and connection with nature is lost forever?

So when the opportunity came up to go back to Patagonia, I was nervous and excited all at once. I first visited 13 years ago and it was also my first experience of South America. The huge, largely empty, savagely beautiful landscapes had such an impact on me that I was inspired to make a career change and so began my career in the travel industry – proving that travel can transform.

On this second visit my first stop was Pucon in the Chilean Lake District.  Despite its spectacular position beside Lago Villarica under the perfect cone-shaped volcano it is often overlooked in favour of other more accessible lake-side towns. So much so, over the years I had largely forgotten about Pucon.  On arrival, I was really taken aback by how beautiful this area is.  It is known as a mecca for high adrenaline adventure  and, sure, you can get the adrenaline going by climbing the volcano or rafting the Trancura river. For me, a simple hike in the National Park was one of the highlights of my whole trip. Walking in the forests beneath the imposing eye of the volcano, with some amazing panoramic views of the Andes, I kept having to stop, stare, take it all in and wonder how /why this place can be overlooked.

Next stop was Torres del Paine - a very special place for me where I have enjoyed many of my favourite hikes.  Being early in the season it was still very quiet. It does now get busy here in December and January but there are still many trails that are largely undiscovered and you can have them all to yourself. There is usually always a way to lose the crowds. I find the park to be such a magical place.  It’s no longer fair or accurate to refer to it as a wilderness but the weather can be wild and create that impression. One afternoon there was severe winds. I had been out hiking that morning so was happy to sit out that afternoon.  Just watching (and listening) to the wind furiously blowing the clouds around, the view of the towering peaks in front of me changed almost by the minute, as the cloud cover and light changed. I loved it. Who knew weather could be so entertaining.

As I made my way across the border into Argentine Patagonia, Mount Fitz Roy and Cerro Torre came into view and that feeling of excitement and nervousness returned. 13 years ago El Chalten was a quirky, scruffy little one-street ‘town’.  I have particularly fond memories of my time here.  It’s in a stunning position at the base of Fitz Roy within the spectacular Los Glaciares National Park so that won’t change, but as I pulled into the large, shiny new bus station in El Chalten I wondered what to expect on this second visit.

The town is certainly a bit bigger now with many hotels and restaurants but it still has a quirky charm about it. There are more micro breweries here than grocery stores and a refreshingly poor wifi connection means there are very few people staring at screens and phones! The appeal of El Chalten though is of course the surrounding scenery with some world-class hikes.  All of the hikes start from the town so it’s nice and easy and you really don’t have to walk very far at all to get a sense of these mountains.  Yet again, I was just in awe of the sheer raw beauty of these landscapes.

So 13 years on, I was anything but disappointed. I reconnected with my favourite place and felt alive and re energised. More amazing memories banked in addition to those already there.

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