Home / Articles / Features

What I learned tramping in Patagonia

Image of the June 2023 Wilderness Magazine Cover Read more from the
June 2023 Issue

It took two weeks’ tramping in Patagonia to realise New Zealand has it better.

Patagonia and New Zealand have more in common than shared latitudes. Both straddle major fault lines that are responsible for dramatic landscapes and ‘four seasons in a day’ weather patterns. Both countries have some of the most accessible glaciers on the planet, incredible alpine lakes, closely-related flora, and a culture of tramping – or trekking as it’s called in Patagonia. Two weeks of exploring in Patagonia opened my eyes to some of the most spectacular landscapes I’ve ever seen, but also made me grateful to call New Zealand home. Here’s what I noticed tramping abroad.

Visitors to Torres del Paine are turned around by park rangers if they leave too late in the day. Photo: Matthew Cattin

Race against the clock

While climbing to Torres del Paine, Chile’s iconic alpine lake and vertical granite towers, we passed three checkpoints along the 10km route warning us the track would close after an afternoon cut-off time. I assumed it was a guide rather than a rule, and was surprised to see four distraught French hikers turned around by rangers in the mid-afternoon, three hours into the four-hour climb. I could empathise with the agony of getting so close but remaining so far from the otherworldly lake. The restriction of tramping freedom felt very un-Kiwi, yet I can see the positives of the practice. The lake is an exposed alpine zone prone to unpredictable weather. Keeping hikers from walking in the dark so far from hospitals is a no-brainer. The cut-off times, enforced by national park ‘guardians’, also prevent hikers from freedom camping close to the pristine lakes, which could destroy the environment over time. Could we one day see kaitiaki turning afternoon trampers around on Roy’s Peak?

Campsites on Chile’s W Trek were much busier than the Great Walks. Photo: Matthew Cattin

Popular problems

Reaching further south than Rakiura, Patagonia is the southernmost permanently inhabited region on earth, but you wouldn’t guess it when you are there. Like several of New Zealand’s premiere tracks, those in Patagonia suffer from the perils of popularity. On the dusty climb to Argentina’s Laguna de los Tres, the queues of people resembled a summer’s day on the Tongariro Alpine Crossing. The free campsite nearby was marked by litter, windblown toilet paper and overflowing toilets. On the W Trek, Chile’s most renowned multi-day hike, it was near impossible to find solitude. The campsites were overbooked and under-resourced, the refugios (huts) were heaving, and the restaurants and bars at each accommodation took away any sense of tranquility or isolation. At Torres del Paine, we saw three marriage proposals in the 90 minutes we sat on the lakeshore. I began to long for the relative quiet of New Zealand’s wilderness. Compared to New Zealand’s Great Walks, where numbers are carefully managed, Patagonia’s famous treks had a hectic hostel energy that took away from the environment we were there to enjoy.

Visitors to Perito Moreno Glacier must queue before entering the national park. Photo: Matthew Cattin

Queues for views

Blessed are we Kiwis that our national parks remain free. In Chile and Argentina, visitors must pay to enter national parks – but that’s not the worst of it. In Argentina we made three visits to Los Glaciares National Park during a five-day trip to El Calafate. Each day we had to purchase a ticket at a road checkpoint, which required parking the car and joining a queue – sometimes for up to half an hour – to access the park. If you purchased a ticket online, you still had to pick it up in person by joining that same queue. I’m not averse to paying a small fee to help maintain and manage wonderful environments, and I can appreciate that Argentina is a third-world country, but queueing to experience the wilderness is not for me. We really don’t know how lucky we are in Aotearoa.

A wild puma stalks Central Campsite on the W Trek. Photo: Matthew Cattin

Midnight danger pees

On our first night camping on the W Trek, a puma stalked the perimeter of the campsite. My partner and I had noticed it after dinner, sitting about 30m away from our tent in the long grass, watching us across a dry riverbed. For 15 minutes nobody else knew it was there, such was its camouflage, but it soon made itself known, strolling around like it owned the place. Our neighbour told us he’d tripped over it outside his tent the night before and it was this story that haunted us as we shared a nervous danger pee at midnight. So, South America has pumas, America has bears, Australia has every other deadly creature, and little old New Zealand gets off scot-free. How lucky are we?