National Geographic claims it as one of the most beautiful places on earth, so naturally I jumped on the opportunity to visit. After 5 months living there, here are 5 reasons Patagonia might not be what you expected:
1 – It will make you reevaluate your language skills
I wouldn’t have put quotations around the word Spanish if I thought I would offend anyone here, but even the Chileans themselves will tell you they don’t exactly speak textbook Spanish. Now, I speak and understand a fair amount of Spanish. A degree in the language along with months of living and traveling in Spanish-speaking countries has given me a good idea of the accents and language in general. Or so I thought.
Besides a distinct accent, the Chileans are famous for their own vocabulary. Your Spanish level 1 “Como estas” doesn’t fly here. To them, it’s “Como’stai-po?.” The word “Cachai” is used incessantly and – ironically – translated roughly to “understand?”…which, of course is even more confusing if you’ve never been to Chile and don’t, in fact, understand.
Just as English accents tend to warp the further into the countryside yo go, so does Spanish…and Patagonia is about as far from anywhere that you can get. It’s all “dichos” here, or sayings and slang. There´s an entire book dedicated to them, titled “How to Survive the Chilean Jungle” that is 100% Chilean-specific sayings and slang (it´s not only been a great resource for me, but a hilarious conversation starter as well!) Combine those with indigenous influence, ans borrowed English and German words and you have yourself one heck of a Spanish-headache. If you’re considering backpacking Patagonia…you might as well save weight in your pack and ditch the beginner Spanish guide here, and get used to learning from the locals.
2 – You´re not going to be off the grid, all the time
Sure, a huge draw of Patagonia is the dramatic landscapes and that ever-present feeling of being sent back in time. The landscapes here are larger than life, and that has a humbling effect on people…if not their instagram accounts. Patagonia turned out to be surprisingly well-connected with decent internet connection in many hostels, hotels, and cafes. While many (myself included) will roll their eyes at the need to have internet when there is so much out to explore, being connected isn´t always a bad thing. When my dad had a near-death accident, I couldn´t have been more grateful for the opportunity to be in the hospital room with him via Skype, and I know my family slept better at night getting more regular updates from me while I was on the road.
3 – There are people here, and they want to be heard
Google the word ¨Patagonia¨and I guarantee you´ll see landscapes….breathtaking ones, for sure, but this isn´t the kind of place that locals prefer to blend into the background. Patagonia is surprisingly political, and it´s hardy gaucho culture is slowly but surely serving as the backbone for world-class protests (like those highlighted in the Netflix film, Patagonia Rising), at the same time as it´s indigenous groups are pushing for more visibility from the Chilean government. The people here a prideful, resilient and they have a better grasp than most on what it means to appreciate nature and preserve it for future generations. Patagonians themselves are as varied as the dichos and slang they use – you can find biologists, nomadic gauchos, adventure guides, and school teachers all taking part in a traditional barbecue, their conversations as hardy as the smoked meats they pass around on wooden boards, or draped over their ever-present knives.
4 – It´s home to the best barbecue of your life…. but make room for the canned stuff
If you’re not a gaucho (Alas, I am not) you’ll probably be eating more canned and frozen food than wild-caught salmon, trout or the oh-so-famous patagonian lamb. Don’t get me wrong…you’ll eat a LOT of meat, and it will be some of the best, most succulent, golden-slow-roasted meat to ever touch you lips but you’ll also get a real life lesson on agriculture, growing seasons, and shipping techniques. When you go to the store like I did, and realize there isn’t a single fruit or veggie because the truck couldn’t make it over the icy roads…reality sinks in. Food has a lot to do with place, and when you’re that far away, options are limited. Going to the store isn’t a quick jaunt either, for me it meant bumping nearly an hour down the Carrera Austral – the winding dirt road that connects this part of Chile to the rest of the world.
There are some amazing traditional dishes that you´ll have to try too…most involving some starchy veggie, a hunk of fresh meat, and broth. Clay dishes from the north serve as nests to sweet corn puddings and seafood stews studded with every shellfish you can imagine. If you’re traveling the tourist trail, you’ll eat lots of asado (their version of barbecue) and be enjoying fresh, grass-fed, organic lamb off the bone because that’s the only option here. But if you´re wanting to see how most of the people eat you´ll have to give up the smoked meats for a few nights, throw some canned veggies in a pot to heat up and open a can of preserved fruit, topped with a cans´worth of sweetened condensed milk. Buy a big plastic jar of Nesquick instant coffee for the morning, and they might even mistake you for a local.
5 – It´s one of the most beautiful places on earth
The landscapes are everything you could ever dreamt they would be, and there are contrasts that make you question if you´ve ever experienced anything more intrinsically wild before. That may have been expected, but what you might not expect is how easily it could all be lost. A combination of harsh climate change that is causing glaciers to recede combined with a history of sheep farming that leaves the grasslands barren, and foreign-owned electricity companies trying to blockade some of the regions most pristine – and vital – rivers for hydroelectric dams means there´s a lot at stake. Another dam threatens to flood a site famous for it´s marble caves, and several key species are surviving through the efforts of non-profits and passionate wildlife volunteers and biologists. So, while you may expect Patagonia to be the dream destination you have it built up to be, what may surprise you is just how much deeper you can delve into it´s wilderness by helping preserve it. Grab some gloves, remove a fence line, rehabilitate a condor, or teach English – there is so much to do in Patagonia that will help preserve it for other travelers, and generations to come.