By Alex Mehlin
We stood shoulder to shoulder like cattle in the one shelter that our free campsite offered. The rumble of camp stoves echoed off the tin walls grinding in with the murmurs of foreign tongues. It was our first night on trail in Torres del Paine and it was just as we expected, packed.
Like refugees, late arrivals scrambled to find a flat piece of mud to lay claim for the night. We arrived safely before the influx and leisurely sat back watching the show. Every sort of tent ripped out of stuff sacks, the few experts put together their well worn middle of the road tents with ease. The majority struggled to figure out their rental tents, while the Patagonian Elite stood puzzled looking at their top of the line structures unsure where to start.
Over our travels we have become jaded and judgemental. Sitting back and stereotyping has become a Gypsy pastime, all of the campsites on the ‘’W’’, the most popular offering 3-4 days hikes or single day outings, offered us great subject matter. Mike and I stood examining tents comparing and contrasting designs, weighting the benefits of the four season designs and poking fun at the people who obviously walked into their local outfitter and picked the most expensive tent possible for their great Patagonia adventure. The Elite stood glimmering in matching blemish free apparel while the rest trudged through the mud mismatched and patched together.
We spent the next 6 days hiking the Paine Circuit, looping around Torres del Paine. Going into the hike we were aware that it was the most visited park in South America, averaging 200,000 visitors a year, but we were not prepared for freeway like atmosphere that waited on the trail.
There is no question as to why the park is so popular. Granit massifs dominate the skyline, giant glaciers empty into turquoise lakes, hardwoods lead to alpine shrub and it is impossible to escape the sounds of rushing water and thundering avalanches. There is no point along the trail that is not photo worthy and awe inspiring.
We pushed our bodies to the limit. Logging ten hour days we pushed past pay camping and flew past other hikers. The Paine Circuit is not so much a walk with nature, but a social appreciation of travel and natural beauty. Our first night on the circuit we met the crew we would be leap frogging down the trail for the next few days. Of the 30 odd people we met our first night, five made it through the Circuit in the same time and efficiency as the Gypsies. Each time we passed one another and each night around the sheltered table we traded stories of Antarctica, our bus, swapped favourite sights and views of the day. By the end of our journey we had become friends with our trail companions.
We sat with only three kilometres left of or 101 kilometer journey. We ate the last of our food while overlooking two distinctly different lakes, three snow-capped mountain ranges and a waterfall. On the opposite side of the ridge a luxury lodge and parking lot filled the vista. I arrived first sitting cropped up on a rock enjoying the serenity of the moment, eating my last bits of trail mix and watching the traffic pass below me. The Gypsies came around the corner, I heard Ben’s distinct laugh before I saw them and I knew it was over.
As we drove out of the park I could not help but to think that we missed something. It seemed too easy, the sights were immaculate, but there was little sense of adventure. Five fully loaded tour busses rushed past us leaving a cloud of dust obstructing the reflection of the Paine massif in my rear-view. The busses disappeared as we crested a hill, giving way to another spectacular snow-capped range. I wondered how long it would be before the media made it the next big place to be and the flocks of tourist would be carted in and out of the new picture book adventure destination.