It was with more than enough skepticism, worry and fear, that I went on my first organized group trip. I’ve never hesitated to hire local guides, but I’ve always chosen to travel solo or with friends/family with a flexible itinerary and open mind. So why, might you ask, did I choose to go with a group of strangers to Patagonia? Hopefully, through the cathartic experience of writing this post, I might just discover the answer myself.
Here’s some obvious reasons WHY:
- Though I had plenty of friends that wanted to go with me to share experiences and costs, none could make the commitment. So it became a solo or group decision.
- Going solo was much more expensive
- I might, just might, meet people I like. (Heavy dose of doubt here)
- No thinking required. The itinerary is set. Get driven everywhere, no decisions about where to stay etc … Yes, I can be lazy.
And the obvious reasons WHY NOT:
- No thinking required. The itinerary is set. Get driven everywhere, no decisions about where to stay etc … Not usually that lazy.
- There was a good chance I would also get stuck with people I dreaded being with
My trepidations were fully realized but there was also some nice surprises.
The itinerary and the weather
The biggest issue with having a set itinerary in a place like Patagonia is the weather. When you travel some 11,000 kms to see some of the most spectacular landscapes on the planet, it would be good to be able to actually see it. Patagonia is a wet and very windy place. Something you won’t find on the brochure – even in the fine print. When you have a set itinerary and the one day that has been predetermined to go on the “hike of your life” and it’s both wet and windy and too dangerous to go – well, you are out of luck. Guess what happened to me on Cerro Fitzroy? If you are traveling independently, you can wait out the weather.
The tour guide leader will be quick to point out you could be waiting a week. That might be true, but you increase your chances of seeing it on a perfect day as every day passes. It’s worth waiting. El Chalten is a cool little town to chill. The next day was, of course, spectacular and I went on a different hike to Cerro Torre (so I could “catch the bus”) and it was likely the best hike of my life. That’s how amazing Patagonia is.
Exactly the same thing happened on my W hike in the Torres del Paine. On the first day we climbed 1,000m to the base of the towers. It was windless, but quite cloudy. As the skirt of clouds slowly and seductively lifted, we could see the tops of the towers. And it was awesome. The next day however, was uncharacteristically balmy, sunny and windless. All I’m saying is that with group travel, the bus leaves at 6 – be prepared to be bummed.
The cast of characters
It goes without saying that if you have a dozen (or so) strangers, you’ll meet some ‘interesting’ folk. I arrived a day early and consequently met a 58-year old (so she says) divorcee from Norway that was part of my entourage. We went out for dinner. Pretty early in our conversation, I got the sense she was looking to “meet” a man on this trip and got the uneasy feeling I might be her Prince Charming. Let’s just say it was a weird vibe. When I told her about my family (which includes my lovely wife), she almost looked annoyed. My first evening in Buenos Aires was off to a worrisome start. As we walked back to the (not so) swanky Plaza San Martin, she ducked in to every corner store to replace a beer bottle she took from the hotel mini bar. It was outrageously priced, apparently. As luck would have it I met the group quack before anyone else.
She quickly became the source of discontent with many of my fellow travellers. She was “the one” that always kept the rest of us waiting, didn’t bother to listen to what was going on, or do anything to prepare for, say, a 60km Patagonian hike. Most of us, for instance, found that hiking footwear was handy on this trip. Porters were to carry 5kg of our stuff for the W hike. Her bag weighed in at 8.63 (and that was without her sleeping bag). When it came time to tip our guides and porters, guess who passed? She had enough to get her hair done and a nice deep massage after the hike though. She was a piece of work and the 26-year-old tour leader was in way over her head. Berating her on the bus in front of everyone when she tried to leave the bus for another photo op wasn’t a good move. Awwwkward.
I quickly adopted strategies to avoid sitting next to her on the bus, or at restaurants, – and not forget to take my repressitol in the morning … others chose to winge cathartically. In time, she became entertainment: wearing a white plastic bag as protection from the sun; a ski mask from the rain; and singing (way) out loud on the bus whilst playing her MP3. Profoundly unaware of self, and others. A killer on a group trip. Be prepared, there’s always one.
My biggest worry before the trip was there would be more of these characters. The nice surprise I got was the opposite. I could not have asked for a better roomie. Tony, an Aussie with a heart of gold, didn’t complain once about my snoring or random cluster bomb that might have been emitted in the bathroom. Well, at least not to me. Tony was considerate and fun. We seem to be the ones that were last to bed, and might have been guilty of dragging people out for a drink (or two).
I’m not sure if was my imagination, or because I was “the elder” in a relatively young group of people, but many in the group felt a need to look out for me. I found Iveta, a 26-year-old Czech doctor often stopping ahead of me on the trail, and looking back – with a warm smile. It wasn’t a “hurry up gramps” kind of look, more like relief I was still upright. I wondered how quickly she could whip out her defibrillator. On the bus, we would trade MP3s to share each others music. On the long ride back to Puerto Natales after four days of hiking Torres del Paine (we were quite “ripe”), I noticed a “meditation” playlist. Intrigued I asked her about it and she whispered “Which shakra would you like cleansed?” Unintentional innuendo is always the funniest. We looked at each and then broke into gut wrenching laughter. Doctor Iveta and Nurse Holly packed some good drugs for the old guy with plantar faciaiitis. Nurse Holly also treated the Big Baby’s foot boo boos. In return, I made sure she had enough lemon meringue. Maria, a diminutive Italian, would get up from her own breakfast to pour me coffee and ran around every town we were in to find me a cigar (unsuccessfully). In return I would often be a post to lean on when she was tired. Many would pick up my walking stick; or fill up my water bottle at the glacial streams; or donate their pisco sours when we were (often) offered them. Small random gestures of kindness were a big part of this trip. I’m shocked to admit it, but there may even be future travel buddies in this group. All this might not surprise some of you, but it surprised me – pleasantly.
Would I go on a Group Travel trip again? Well, I have a kayaking trip in Baja booked in April, so I guess the answer is yes. But my opinion is different for Patagonia. It’s worth it to wait out the weather.