It was just past noon when we arrived at EcoCamp in Patagonia, too late for a major day hike.
“Relax for a bit, then come to the community dome around one and we’ll have lunch ready for you,” said Victor, the check-in guy in his plaid shirt jacket as he led us down the wooden boardwalks to our own little geodesic abode, dome number 14. I asked him about doing the 4.5-hour hike to the base of the Towers lookout. “It’s too late for that; you have to start early. After lunch, I recommend the Serón Woods hike. It’s easy and you’ll be back in lots of time for the 6:30 briefing and introduction to EcoCamp.”
We were disappointed about the Towers hike but Serón Woods, the first part of the classic eight-day Paine Circuit, the “W” on the eastern side of the Torres del Paine Massif, was also on my wish list. All good.
While waiting for lunch, I leafed through the compendium in our room. “EcoCamp has stringent rules,” I said to Magelllan who was busy taking photos of our dome. “If you hike off the trails you’re subject to a two-thousand-dollar fine. US dollars, not Chilean pesos.”
It makes sense. Battling constant high winds, arid summers and freezing winters, the vegetation in this area is fragile—its Megallanic (love that word!) deciduous forest takes 200 years to mature.
And “No open fires,” EcoCamp’s booklet warned. In 2011 a fire, caused by a tourist who accidently dropped a piece of toilet paper he was trying to burn, devastated 16,000 hectares in the park. Four hundred tourists had to be evacuated and it took even more military personnel to extinguish the fire. Not only were many of the trees, shrubs and grasses destroyed, the fire went underground, scorching the already barren soil. Truly, an “Oh s—-“ moment” for everyone, including the guilty tourist who was detained in Chile until the legal investigation was completed.
By the time we finished a lunch of quesadillas, roast pork, passion fruit mousse and wine (included in EcoCamp’s price so we couldn’t resist), it was almost 2:30.
Up we walked in the blistering heat through a gentle forest on a foot path/horse trail. It didn’t take long to reach the Rio Paine intersection. So instead of turning around, we decided to follow the trail curving southeast on a river path flush with yellow flowers and cpses of silvery Lenga Beeches, probably scarred during the 2005 fire when EcoCamp had to be evacuated and, but for a shift in the wind, would have burned.
Victor had told us that six pumas had been sighted around EcoCamp this season. We couldn’t stop thinking about that as we walked, all alone, beside the river alongside tall grasses that would make good hiding places for pumas. We’d only seen one other person on the trail, and that was during the first 20 minutes.
Our map indicated that the trail verges southeast, away from EcoCamp toward Armaga Laguna, before a road takes you on a perpendicular back to EcoCamp. In fact, from the trail we could see swirls of dust from vehicles—the road looked to be less than a kilometer away—and to the west, about the same distance away, the knoll behind EcoCamp was clearly visible.
So you can imagine our shock when around 6 pm, we met a backpacker who told us it was another four kilometres to Laguna Armaga! All that separated us from the dusty road to EcoCamp was steppes of stumpy, silvery-black beeches and their deadfall siblings that had been left to hasten the regeneration process after the fire.
“I’m bored with this trail,” I said to Magellan.
“Maybe we should shortcut,” he said.
“Let’s do it,” I agreed.
And so we left the “W” trek and made our own “D” trail. “D” for its shape, for “Detour” and for “Dreadful.”
It started off okay. The steppes were solid, and there was lots of deadfall. Then it became swampy. My hiking poles, which I was using to test the ground beneath us, were sinking a foot into the sloshy muskeg. It was becoming more and more difficult to step from one piece of deadfall to another without sinking into the mud. Ankle-turning territory. We had to take it slow.
“Should we turn back?” we wondered. But we were too far into it.
Our appointed briefing time with the staff, 6:30, came. And went.
“Do you think they’ll send out a posse?” we worried.
“They can probably see us from the road if they looked this way, so they’ll know we took a shortcut.”
“What if they fine us for going off trail?”
Magellan had his cell phone and while there was no coverage, we had the comfort of having some light were we to be stranded in the dark. It was warm and being the queen of water consumption, we had fluids and a few snacks.
Stepping as fast as we could, we finally got out of the swampy area and practically ran up the long, steep, grassy hill to the backside of EcoCamp. It was now well past 8 pm. Sadly, in about the same time or less we could have made it to the Tower lookout and return. No time to shower or change, we dashed to the communal dome, our story well rehearsed. “Our apologies. It was such a nice afternoon that we took a longer route and didn’t realize how much time it would take us to get back. So sorry to keep you waiting.”
Guilty looks concealed, we joined our fellow campers in the dining dome. No one asked where we’d been. When we found our guide, he was completely nonplussed and in a few minutes told us all we needed to know about the next day’s itinerary. “You must be hungry. Please, go and enjoy your dinner.”
We settled ourselves at the table with the fewest people and ravenous, dug into the salmon cannelloni. We’d walked 23 kilometres! Toasting the day with more of that “free” wine, we made a vow to each other, one we renew quite regularly: “No more shortcuts.”
EcoCamp is on private land in the heart of Torres del Paine Nation al Park in Chile’s Patagonia. It’s a great base from which to see the area and comes highly recommended by reliable sources like the Guardian, Outside magazine, National Geographic and Footprint travel guides.
Total climbing: 1199 m