Xabier Etxarri: a man of many unexpected layers
I first met Xabi Etxarri back in the mid-nineties. Along with Diego Martín we all happened to be in Torres del Paine National Park, putting some miles on the clocks of our walking boots. Together we walked most of the trails in the park. It was evident that we wanted to share the extraordinary beauty and diversity of this place.
The idea for Pura Aventura grew out of that initial meeting. Diego went back to his native Picos de Europa to develop walking routes in those mountains and I decided, in my wisdom, to hitchhike back up to Santiago. Xabi stayed put to work on opening up a new river route into the park.
A few years later we came together to establish Pura Aventura.
So I've known Xabi for nearly 25 years now. And yet the complexity of his character and his sheer love for this part of Patagonia never ceases to amaze. Just when you think you know him, another anecdote will reveal some little quirk, some spark of joy. I think he won't mind me saying that beneath his tough, some would say stubborn, exterior is someone of remarkable depth and warmth.
The original map from our days spent on Paine's trails
The ground-breaking guide
Xabi is a Basque native, a qualified science teacher and astrophysicist. He always knew that the rhythm and constraints of the classroom wouldn’t suit him forever so off he went to Patagonia.
He has a remarkable legacy in Paine. Xabi's years of experience, his encyclopaedic knowledge of the park and his irrepressible love of the landscape have secured his position as the most authoritative guide in the park. Indeed, he wrote the manual for guides to use in Torres del Paine - the guides' guide.
25 years of guiding in Torres del Paine has sharpened Xabi's awareness of the conservation challenges the park has faced as tourism infrastructure has grown. Visitor numbers jumped around 35% from 2005 to 2010. From 2013 to 2018, they increased by an additional 70%. Over 300,000 visitors pass Paine each season now.
As the inevitable impacts of mass-tourism are felt in certain parts of the park, Xabi has been among the more environmentally conscious voices in the park in recent times. "Paths are being deteriorated, litter is increasing and fires are becoming more frequent. We are in a critical moment for the future of Torres del Paine National Park. We need to take the measures now that we should have done a long time ago, or it will soon be too late."
The taboo-breaking guide
Only a few weeks ago, at our annual guide meeting in the Picos de Europa, I heard another surprising anecdote…
The camaraderie between the guides who share the trails and refuges of Torres del Paine is generally harmless and enjoyable banter amongst like-minded lovers of the outdoors. But this is remote Latin America and most of the guides are male so not all of it was OK. Xabi started to react against the fairly constant use of people’s sexuality as an insult. At first, he asked them to stop using gay as a pejorative term. That didn’t work - after all, they figured, ‘why would a strong, alpha character like Xabi take offence?’ So Xabi simply told them that he’s gay.
Now the guides of Paine have a friend, colleague, object of respect and admiration, who is proudly gay - that doesn’t half throw a spanner into their casual prejudice. Whether or not Xabi is gay is beside the point, to the Paine guiding community he’s ‘Xabi, the gay guide’. In another few years he might be promoted to ‘Xabi, the guide’ at which stage his point will have been properly understood.
The pentameter-breaking guide
Xabi’s gruff exterior hides a poetic heart. Published in both Chile and Spain, this is how his love for the great outdoors finds its outlet.
"Patagonia is distance and loneliness, uproar and silence
Music abandoned over a stone.
She is wild, coarse, rude, wets you, freezes you, laughs at you
But if you know and love her you smile, shout and head the wind in the face.
When she wants, she's soft, but suddenly the wind comes again"
From Nostalgia cíclica, 2000
These days, Xabi splits his time between guiding in Torres del Paine and his home in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees.
He recently helped develop our new Torres del Paine self-drive itinerary, crossing the park in a 4x4, trying new places to stay and walking the trails in the quieter parts. You can retrace his tyre tracks on our new Ruta Uncovered trip. At 45-days it's a long one, but it can be done in chapters if you have less time to spare. So if you're thinking about Patagonia, we'd love to help.
The Pothole is Pura Aventura's popular monthly email. We share what we love, what interests us and what we find challenging. And we don't Photoshop out the bits everyone else does. We like to think our considered opinions provide food for thought, and will sometimes put a smile on your face. They've even been known to make people cry. You can click here to subscribe and, naturally, unsubscribe at any time.