November 2, 2010

Adventure travel on a budget leads to change in perspective.

I marveled up at the magnificent Torres, the rock towers that gave Chile’s Torres del Paine national park its name, buried under five pairs of pants, two t-shirts, three sweaters, and a few thin jackets—an oversized hand-knit red scarf wrapped strategically around my neck completing the look.

At the final mirador of the Torres rock towers.

One by one I had lost my warm jackets to Chilean discotecas—stolen from chairs and tables as I ignorantly danced the night away and leaving me with little in terms of winter clothing.

An Irish man, seemingly unfazed by the bitter Patagonia winds, bounded over the ridge of the final 45 degree slope of the Torres hike decked in nothing but khaki shorts and a thin sweatshirt. His very content looking sister, dressed in a raggedy leather jacket and ancient hiking boots, followed closely behind.

Further below, North Face clad European and American tourists infiltrate the park’s luxury hotels and over-priced refuges. Rolling suitcases can be pulled onto expensive cruise tours of Patagonia’s waterways and glaciers, and hiking boots are kept sparkling clean by using horseback riding to complete some of the area’s rigorous hiking.

The best miradores (viewpoints) of the Torres, on the other hand, are only accessible on foot, attracting the more humble group of visitors whose only way of enjoying nature is not by merely marveling up at it, but actually interacting with it. Without the luxury of time, money, or apparently appropriate clothing, my friends Alyssa, Emily and I were grouped in immediately with the motley looking crew of tourists gathered at the Torres.

It was only day one of our three day camping trip in the park and after a long day of plane and bus travel the day before and two hours of hiking with heavy packs behind us that day, we were already starting to feel the effects of budget traveling when we started the hike.

Emily and I hiking to our next campsite.

But, after four months of exclusively urban living, we were adamant on coming to Patagonia to reconnect with nature.

By day three of rushing from hike to hike to see as much of the park as possible, sleeping on the ground, and nothing more decadent than dried fruit and avocado for calories, we felt defeated by it.

In the end our financial constraints forced us to have direct contact with the natural world, which made us not only reconnect, but formulate a whole new relationship.

I now not only felt a stronger appreciation for nature, but a new urge to save it.

View of Los Cuernos, another iconic rock formation, from Lago Pehoe.

A kayak guide who we met in Puerto Natales, the closest town to the entrance to Torres del Paine, had similar sentiments.

It’s not enough to see nature through a television screen like a lot of the world does, he said. A sense of preservation only comes from living in it. He said that the citizens of Puerto Natales, which advertised ecotourism and where I was offered for the first time in Chile reusable grocery bags, are more conscious of their environmental effect because they interact with it daily and economically heavily depend on its conservation.

Growing up in Boulder, this daily connection with nature was always at my fingertips. There was no need to worry about protecting the joys of the natural world because they felt like they would always be there.

But I had to make some sacrifices—energy, comfort—to experience Torres del Paine. And in the end the sacrifices were so worth it that I realized how much I care and depend on conserving the environment.

As I sat and looked up at the Torres, I felt the pure joy of feeling connected to unaltered, natural beauty. There are few truly awesome experiences in the world that cannot be bought, where the world’s millionaire are put on the same playing field as it’s more humble budget travelers. These connections to nature are some of the only ones left, and it’s vital that they remain possible for the future.

Celebrating Patagonia along the shore of Lago Grey.
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