Our featured blogger this week is Amy Turner. Based in Patagonia, she lists the things you need to know to make the most of your trek in this beautiful part of the world
On the face of it, you might not think that hiking in Torres del Paine National Park in Chilean Patagonia would require a great-many guidelines. After all, how many ways can there be to go for a walk? But in fact there are a number of steps that you can take to ensure that everybody has an enjoyable, safe experience that causes as little damage as possible to the environment that they’ve come to see. Enjoyment, safety and preservation; these are the three principles that underlie my top ten commandments for trekking in Torres del Paine National Park.
Many people don’t appreciate that following a marked trail is not just a question of easy navigation, in fact, it is also of vital importance to protecting the environment. It may seem more exciting to play the pioneer and blaze your own trail across the Patagonian steppe, but when you trample across plant life in your shiny new hiking boots you’re actually contributing to path erosion and the destruction of the landscape.
Once grasses and plants have been crushed and killed the topsoil is easily whisked away by the strong Patagonian winds, so new plants can’t take root. This is easily avoided by sticking to the trail and walking in single file when in a group so you don’t gradually widen the path. If you’re stuck behind a slow moving hiker, it’s your responsibility to wait until the path is wide enough before overtaking. And if you happen to be the slow-moving hiker, move over as far as you can to the side of the path (without stepping off) to allow others to pass.
This rule is very simple, if you brought it in with you at the start of your trip, then you take it out with you at the end. Pack it in, pack it out is the cardinal rule of any hike and in the delicate ecosystem of Torres del Paine it is actually forbidden to leave rubbish behind you. Nobody wants to see plastic food wrappers and discarded kit lining the trekking route, so don’t be the one to leave it there and consider taking it with you if you do find some. What a lot of people don’t realise is that this rule even applies to biodegradable waste such as fruit peel. Leaving it behind creates an eyesore for your fellow hikers as it slowly decomposes, but more importantly it also alters the environmental balance of the area and can attract animals in search of food they wouldn’t usually be exposed to. Take your waste home or to one of the dedicated sites within the park to recycle or compost. And yes, this goes for toilet paper too!
Smiling and waving at every person you meet in the city might not be practical or advisable, but when you’re hiking a trail it’s just good manners to say hello to your fellow trekkers. It’s a great feeling to know that you’re part of a community of like-minded people sharing a common hobby. However, taking a second to interact with people on the route might also be a lifesaver. If you should happen to get lost or injured, one of these fellow hikers could remember your face, your fetching hat or your bright red walking socks from your brief interaction and may be able to provide vital information to anyone out looking for you.
As conscientious members of the trekking community, you can also take the opportunity to share information on weather conditions and potential hazards along the route with those coming in the opposite direction.
There are parts of Patagonia where you can hike for hours at a time and not see another living soul, but if you’re headed for the main attractions in high-season the chances are you won't be alone on the trail. When two trekkers are travelling in opposite directions and there is only room for one to pass, deciding who has the right-of-way can be a slightly contentious issue.
However, it is generally accepted that a person coming downhill should yield to those coming uphill. The logic behind this rule is that when heading uphill it takes more energy to get going again once you’ve stopped, and that maintaining a steady rhythm is more important. You might find that some hikers heading uphill would actually prefer to let you pass and use the pause to have a quick rest, but since they’re working harder than you, let that be their decision.
It’s common sense that many people heading out to hike in Torres del Paine National Park are looking to escape from the constant noise of their daily lives, which makes it all the more surprising that there are people who insist on shouting and talking loudly or keeping electronic devices turned up to full volume. It’s worth remembering that it’s courteous to other hikers to keep noise to a minimum and turn electronics off or to a lower volume. It will also allow you to appreciate the sounds of the natural world around you, from bird calls to the howling of the wind and you’ll be less likely to scare off any wild animals you might want to see.
In some areas of the world, whistling or singing in the backwoods is actually recommended so that you don’t inadvertently sneak up on an unsuspecting bear, but down in Patagonia this isn’t an issue, so the quieter you are, the better!
Taking photos is the best way to remember your trip as an alternative to bringing home souvenirs from the natural world. Removing things from an ecosystem can be just as damaging as introducing something that should not be there, so if you didn’t bring it with you then don’t take it away. This point goes hand in hand with rule number 2, except this time if you didn't pack it in, then don't pack it out. Even taking a small rock, or picking a flower to press as a memento can have a huge impact when multiplied by the number of visitors to Torres del Paine National Park each year. To preserve the beauty of the landscape for those who follow you, make sure that the only things you take away – apart from what you brought – are memories and photographs.
Horseriding is a popular activity in Patagonia, so you shouldn’t assume that the only life you’ll come across on the trails will be human. Saying hello to a horse has less to do with politeness and more to do with safety, although you might consider saying a friendly hello to the rider too! Even the best trained horses can still be spooked by an unfamiliar sight and they might not recognise that a hiker weighed down by a 65-litre backpack, sporting a woolly hat, dark sunglasses and hiking poles is in fact human. A frightened horse can be a danger to itself, its rider and to you so it’s best to try not to startle it. You might assume that this means staying as still and quiet as possible, but in fact, moving out of the way and speaking gently at a normal volume can help a horse work out what sort of creature you are. Once it’s decided you’re a human being the chance of panic is much lower, which is great news for everybody.
Cairns are another controversial issue among trekkers, as some are genuinely useful while others are just a blemish on the landscape. On the one hand, some people see cairns as part of an age-old, romantic tradition in which each traveller adds a stone to the pile as they pass. They enjoy becoming part of the tradition, however they’re really just contributing to the erosion and distortion of the landscape. On the other hand, others believe they’re doing a good deed by actively knocking cairns down when they come across them, thereby restoring the land to its natural form. While well-intentioned, this is often misguided as some cairns are placed deliberately by the appropriate authorities to make it easier to follow the path. Without a cairn to point the way, hikers are more likely to stray from the track and become part of the problem of path erosion by trampling on plantlife. Therefore, the best advice when it comes to cairns is to add nothing and take nothing away; just leave it alone and go on your way.
While it might be tempting, it is not good practice to wash your dishes, clothes, or yourself in streams or lakes. The water might keep you clean, but out in the remote areas of Torres del Paine National Park, there’s nobody to clean the water you leave behind. By washing things in a natural water source, you’re contaminating it for other hikers, not to mention the native wildlife. Washing should be carried out at least 70 metres from any water sources, with a small amount of biodegradable soap. It should probably go without saying that this distance should also be respected for human waste, and for reasons of hygiene and common decency, solids should be well buried in a cathole at least 8 inches deep. Wherever possible, it’s better to use the facilities at campsites, hotels and lodges, which have policies for disposing of waste correctly.
This may be commandment number ten, but if you remember nothing else from this list, this is the one to hold onto! Smoking and bonfires are forbidden in Torres del Paine National Park, and for very good reason. In 2005, a Czech tourist destroyed an enormous 7% of the park when he lit a gas stove outside of the designated areas causing a wildfire that ripped through the landscape. In late 2011 another devastating wildfire, probably also started by irresponsible visitors, destroyed a large section of woodland. Make sure this doesn’t happen to you by respecting the cooking areas at campsites and using the proper equipment instead of lighting an open fire. Lighting a bonfire for warmth is as unnecessary as it is illegal. If you’re concerned about the cold, come prepared with extra layers and a sleeping bag with the correct temperature rating and you never need to be tempted to resort to a fire for heat.
Do you agree with Amy's list of commandments? What recommendations or rules would you suggest for trekking in Patagonia? Share your thoughts below!
Amy Turner is an Oxford graduate who recently relocated from London to Santiago to get to know Chile's landscapes and culture. This is the first in a series of blogs she is writing for Cascada Expediciones.