Words & Photos by Bethany “Fidgit” Hughes + Lauren “Neon” Reed
“I don’t think a thru-hiker would much enjoy the Greater Patagonian Trail,” Neon, a Triple Crowner and my hiking partner in tackling the length of the Andes, mused. We were taking a yerba mate break about a month after hiking the Greater Patagonian Trail over the course of two seasons. “Thru-hiking is a balance between total suckage and astounding beauty and there are some long, sucky sections,” she completed the thought around long draws on the metal straw.
The Greater Patagonian Trail is a succession of routes created to enable distance hikers to immerse themselves in Patagonian landscape and culture. You can’t fully appreciate one without the other. This means you have to know how to handle yourself on long, remote distances AND communicate in Spanish while being able to adapt to Patagonian social standards. Any combination of these and you will enjoy large segments of the various routes but a straight thru-hike kinda sucks.
Yet, even in the years of its nascence, each season there have been successful distance-hikers. Though, as the trail continues to grow and evolve based on feedback from hikers, the trail is never the same. Of the GPT class of 2017, Pia and Oliver walked sections 6-24 all the way through. In the same season an older couple set out to spend as much time as possible on sections of trail, managing to stay out for up to three weeks at a time. We tip our sun beaten hats to both teams.
As Jan, the spearhead and co-creator, along with his wife Meylin, puts it, “there are three kinds of people attracted to the Greater Patagonian Trail: The noise makers (people who seek glory and attention), those who want to go fast, and those who come to appreciate it. This trail system was created for appreciation.”
You can hike one segment or connect a series of routes, depending on what the tempremental Patagonian weather allows. This season Jan and Meylin extended the trail south to Fitz Roy as we explored a northern route which connects it to Santiago, Chile, covering some of the most remote and challenging terrain I have ever encountered. Before you pack your bags and head south to the GPT, I thought it would be worth highlighting the three biggest hurdles we’ve faced along the trail so far.
1) It’s expensive
Many people are mistakenly under the impression that all of South America is cheap. Due to the remoteness of some of these areas, we have found prices generally commensurate to the cost of goods and services in the U.S. After purchasing quality and hardy gear, plane tickets, international traveler’s insurance, you should budget at least $800 per month per person.
As the route is yet in its infant years, the communities around it do not have experience with distance hikers, though they are excited to begin tourism industries. They are a people of many hats, out here in the campos and cordilleras. Everyone is a guide of some sort, along with a woodworker, farmer, weaver, construction worker, and any other opportunity which presents itself. For example, the hostel owner in Antuco also rents cabins, runs a hardware store, and wants to open a restaurant. He is 68 years old.
As we make them aware of this route and the rapidly growing number of hikers and explorers flocking to it, they see opportunity. The impression we hikers leave will be directly correlated with the amount of courtesy and business we bring, especially in these early stages. You may not have to get a room at the hospedaje in order to use their wi-fi, but you should at least purchase a juice or soda in the front room restaurant.
2) It’s not a trail
The GPT, as it exists today, has no official designation. Many segments exist as wilderness connections between actual trails. In this way, you can be hiking along quite happily on a beautiful, clear little track when you check your GPS to find the route suddenly diverted along that ridge a kilometer back.
Some of the connections go through punishing yet delicate natural landscapes: peat bogs; scree passes where tiny, hardy flowers fought hard to take root. We humans, in petty efforts to keep our feet dry or not fall off cliffs, tromp heavily and unsteadily. Through many of these sections the route “straight lines,” which we have come to learn means, “choose your own adventure.” Make it through however you can. The disadvantage to this is that higher traffic means overall greater impact on fragile areas.
By nature it also requires both the ability to read your GPS as well as the land itself. Physical maps of the route do not exist, and even in many of the national parks the best you can hope for is a nice tri-fold pamphlet. In the areas where it follows cow paths, the paths interweave and change seasonally, and you need to be able to follow the path laid out by the smart cows and check that against your GPS.
You will have to get a feel for the times when you ought to follow the line on the GPS precisely to within a meter through bamboo forests, and other times when it will be best to take an altogether different approach, or even, when to turn back. I can offer no rhyme or reason to it except to say, if the trail crosses a river, only to cross it again and you think you see a way to stay on one side without the back and forth, you are wrong. Cross the damn river.
3) You will be trespassing
Anyone set on thru-hiking the Greater Patagonian Trail needs to realize you do not have the right to thru-hike the Greater Patagonian Trail. While it does a good job of connecting park trails and routes such as the Sendero de Chile or various Rutas Partrimonial, many portions cross through private land. Some areas are occupied by owners and their animals (at least seasonally), others are vast tracts owned by some wealthy individual who lives in the capital or another country, guarded by caretakers with explicit orders not to let anyone pass. We have only been threatened with a gun once. This is because we have quickly learned the customs and manners of how to engage.
Most of the time, people do not mind you crossing their land, just be courteous about it. Beyond the obvious: leave gates as you find them, pack out your trash, don’t have fires, and learn the rules of engagement. For one, as your route approaches a homestead, begin to whistle. This alerts humans and animals alike that someone is approaching and can avoid some nastiness. If they stand expectantly, approach and introduce yourself. If your command of Spanish allows, ask permission to cross their land. If they are at a distance and continue with their work, simply waving will serve your purposes.
Knowing cultural manners will have a major impact on how the communities the route passes through sees hikers. There is much more of a group-care way of thinking in these communities, which have often been ignored by governments and companies except where they see resources which might be exploited for gain (read up on the Sin Represas movement). If you are lucky enough to be invited in, or offered to drink a yerba mate, make time for it: this is how trust and relationship is established. It is an opportunity for both parties to better understand one another.
Some of these people, living out in the humblest puestos (seasonal “shacks” where people spend the summer with their animals in the high valleys) will offer you their very last piece of bread, and you would be rude to refuse, as, to them, that is to say what they offer is not good enough. They will continue to offer and give until you say to stop. Compliment whatever is given, and express interest in the things they make, which is easy because up in these remote places, they make almost everything themselves. In these instances it is also important that you contribute a gift. Be it yerba mate, tobacco, some sweets, soap or shampoo, a trinket, what have you. Always carry something to give.
It is also customary to offer to help with labor. The generally ageing population of the mountains who know how to survive in these places face a massive amount of work and, in exchange for their hospitality, helping with chores around the house, cooking, and working with the animals is an important offering and reflects the selflessness with which they are sharing all they have with you.
En fin, in order to properly enjoy the GPT, one should have a command of cultural sensitivity as well as GPS and route-finding sense. Ability with the language is also helpful. You have to be comfortable with breaking the law but know when to ask permission to break it and when to put your head down and keep your trap shut. When to bolster up and push on and when to wait out the storm, both in terms of the tempestuous weather and in communication with people. This trail has been the most punishing and the most magical experience of my hiking career to date.
Bethany “Fidgit” Hughes and Lauren “Neon” Reed have been using and (rigorously) testing our 3400 Southwest Packs, Ultamid 2 + Mesh Insert and a variety of DCF Stuff Sacks since the beginning of their Her Odyssey journey from South America to Alaska in 2015. They’re constantly posting insights, photos and videos from the trail – so make sure you give them a follow on Facebook and Instagram.
Here’s the recap video from Her Odyssey’s first season of the journey.