The dark, wooden pub was packed with travellers of all kinds – from the Gore-Tex-loving veterans to scruffy first-timers in awe of what they were about to embark on – and one could almost smell their respective excitement and anxiety in the air. One of the hostel staff behind the event was giving a very useful presentation on the park’s different hiking routes; the fabled W, the ambitious O and the even more ambitious Q.
But as much as I tried listening to her, I couldn’t help but wonder what had brought us all to Puerto Natales, that isolated city in the heart of Patagonia and the gateway to Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.
I’m an extroverted-introvert, a writer, and a traveller. And what that means for me is that as much as I like meeting people and listening to their stories while travelling, I do usually find myself seeking solitude after some time on the road. I believe solitude fuels the imagination, and imagination is what makes a writer put pen to paper and create stories.
So when I set off on my South American journey, Patagonia’s fabled desolation lured me to it with the promise of inspiring me to write some of the best stories of my life. I would hike the mountains, drink the waters of the stream and write about its jagged mountains, haunting fjords and endless plains.
Back at the Base Camp pub, small groups of twos’ and threes’ were being formed even before the session had ended, everyone instinctively looking for buddies as if it were the first day of school. Only this time they would be trekking buddies. I joined one such group, and we spent the rest of that day getting to know each other and planning our hike. We purchased enough food and supplies to sustain us for eight days of hiking, had a home made dinner and went to bed dreaming of the biggest hike of our lives.
Less than 10 hours later, I was limping back to the hostel, a searing pain shooting through my twisted ankle. I had got up early that morning, gone for a stroll to stretch my legs and come across a rickety, frost-covered swing in a deserted playground. I should have known better than to take risks with slippery swings, but one cannot live fully if one is afraid of a bit of fun.
Back at the hostel, I broke the news to others and gallantly asked them to go on without me. Over the next few days, as I waited for my ankle to heal, I would get myself out of bed in the early hours of dawn and clatter in the darkness to the kitchen downstairs, where I would pour myself a black coffee and feel sorry for myself. I started talking to other’s around the breakfast table; people preparing to leave for, or who had just returned from the park. And the more people I met, the more I wanted to know what had brought them to Patagonia and what they were leaving it with. It felt almost as if through their stories, I could live the experience myself.
I talked to twins tackling the hike as a bonding experience, adventurers on personal quests, and an old couple undertaking it as a last hurrah. But the one that stuck with me the most I suppose was a Finnish girl I met at the breakfast table.
“Have you done much hiking before?” I asked her.
“Yeah, my dad and I used to go hiking a lot when I was little. But he can’t really do it much anymore with his job and all. And none of my friends wanted to come to South America with me.” She bit into her apple playfully and shrugged. “So here I am.”
She was fresh out of high school, spoke no Spanish –although to her credit she was trying to learn- and was planning to spend 6 months volunteering and hiking in Patagonia, all by herself.
After about a week my ankle had healed enough for me to do a day-hike to the park. It wasn’t the adventure I had envisioned, but the air was so crisp and the silence of the vast plains so ancient that by the time I made it to the peaks; my spirits were soaring as high as their granite towers.
Having finally reached the peaks, I knew my time in Puerto Natales was up. On my way to the bus terminal, I instinctively looked in through the window of the pub one last time, and there I saw a familiar face; the Finnish girl who must have just returned from her trek. She was sitting on a bench under a large poster of the Torres del Paine peaks, glowing orange in the dawn of a new day – as if aflame from within – and for a moment, I could not decide which one of the two I was more inspired by.