Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.

This is my personal blog and a space that I try to make sense of my wandering life. Depending on the day it could be a helpful resource for the country I'm in, or a self-help guide. We'll just have to see ;)

5 Reasons Patagonia Isn’t What You Thought it Would Be

Patagonia. It’s a place that has been described – albeit correctly – by every cliche and metaphor you can imagine. Just the word stirs restless energy in travelers hearts, and images of the land beg the question of what our world really looked liked before we messed around with it. First used by Ferdinand Magellan, the word itself has mystical roots. Having been derived from the word “patagón” (a mythic race of giants once said to inhabit the area) the word still seems to fit and has as deep of a political history as it does linguistic.

I’ve written and shared photos of the incomparable beauty that surrounds me here, and no matter how hard I try, I always end up sounding like the cliches that made me cringe before. But everyone here has that problem. While I am grateful every day to be here, to see and experience a place that so many never will…I get a little tired of being in Thoreau mode, of having thoughts that seem to echo the lines of “Into the Wild” or something out of Jack Kerouac’s personal diary.

So, I decided to write something a little different. The other side of Patagonia, if you will. Some of the reasons are lighter. They have to do with culture shock more than anything and are good accessory knowledge to throw in with the names of famous parks, glaciers and lakes.

I may not have all the dichos down,
but I’m working on becoming Chilean 😉

1 – The “Spanish” I wouldn’t have put quotations around the word Spanish if I thought I would offend anyone here, but even the Patagonians themselves will tell you they don’t exactly speak Spanish per se. Now, I speak and understand a fair amount of Spanish. A degree in the language along with months of living and traveling in Argentina, Costa Rica, Mexico and the Dominican Republic gave 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 the word.

That’s Chilean Spanish. Which is completely different from Patagonian Spanish, which you’ll especially understand if you’re from Kentucky too. We know just how much a country accent varies from a city accent. and that it only gets stronger the far away you are. Well let me tell you something. We are far away and it comes out in the language. It’s all “dichos” here, or sayings and slang. I actually have a book on them, titled “How to Survive the Chilean Jungle” that is 100% chilean-specific sayings and slang. I’ll write a post on the more interesting ones soon. Combine those with indigenous influence and borrowed words and you have yourself one heck of a Spanish-headache. The point is, if you’re considering backpacking Patagonia…you might as well save weight in your pack and ditch the beginner Spanish guide here.

2 – Technology This one really hit home for me when my dad had his accident. I was able to “be in” the hospital room with him, even this far away. You may think that just because it’s remote and wild, that you’ll have an easy time getting unplugged but the fact is that internet is everywhere now. Sure, I’m connected with a cord instead of wireless for the first time since I can remember, and sometimes Skype drops a call but it truly is incredible how far and wide technology has spread. I’m all about being unplugged, but there are local advantages too. Awareness, tourism, and conservation are thriving due in part to the access to internet.  

There are people with brand new Mac computers and internet cafes in even the smallest towns. Sure, it’s probably a lot easier to lose reception and internet access than at home. In my case, I just have to walk out my front door. It can be a culture shock to not have immediate access too, like when I want to ask Fernando what some Chilean word means and he is working out of radio, mail or internet range for a week. But it’s not always unconnected, and for all tech-lovers it’s might be nice to be miles from another person and still be able to post an epic picture on instagram.

Gauchos? – Yes, but also conservationists
and National Park Employees

3 – The People Not everyone here is a gaucho. Ok, so most are…but not everyone. And just because they’re gauchos doesn’t mean they’re wandering alone on horseback, looking for the next supper to skin and roast over a mountain fire (Alright, so it’s not uncommon again…but I’m getting to the point.) It’s not a deserted land as it’s been depicted. Sure, people are few and far between and towns only get more isolated the more “Patagonian” the further South you go, but it’s anything but a place void of human contact. There is a deep, prideful culture that is political, indigenous and steeped in survivalist stories and a deep appreciation for the natural beauty here. There isn’t human contact in the form of skyscrapers or vending machines. They wear berets, ponchos, and sheep-fur pants with a knife strapped to their front, back, and horse. But they are also aware of climate change and the implications of a growing tourist economy, and they probably have a better natural sense of conservation and sustainability than most people using the words right now.

4 – The Food So, if you’re not a gaucho (Alas, I am not…sigh) 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. 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…it really hits you. Food has a lot to do with place, and when you’re that far away, options are limited. And going to the store isn’t a quick jaunt here. For me, it’s nearly an hour on the Carrera Austral, the winding dirt road that connects this part of Chile to the rest of the world. 

Of course, there are some amazing Patagonian plates that define the region too…most involving some starchy veggie, a hunk of fresh meat, and broth. And if you’re traveling the tourist trail, you’ll pretty much be eating their version of barbeque and enjoying fresh, grass-fed, organic lamb off the bone (and that’s not because they’re trying to be fancy fancy…they just know thats the way meat really is when it doesn’t come from a factory or genetically altered livestock). But I’m talking Patagonian food the way the Patagonians do it. Freezers allow access to veggies, and fruit is enjoyed out of a can and doused in condensed milk. Instant coffee is drank twice a day or more. Pasta is popular. So is Chop Suey.

One of the proposed Dams will be built here

5 – The Wilderness I’ll admit…this is a stretch. The wilderness is everything you could ever dream it would be, and more. The animals are distinctly Patagonian, and they are abundant. Every growing thing exudes wilderness that is almost unheard of in most of the world…wilderness that hasn’t been so altered we don’t recognize it anymore. 

So where does my reasoning come in that it isn’t what you expected?

It’s in how much longer it will be able to meet your expectations, and the danger of having these wild ideas of what Patagonian wilderness means. Because as beautiful and true as the imagery used to describe this magical/wild/untamed place is….sometimes it blinds us to the truth. Or worse, we lose ourselves in the descriptions and forget that there is a reason there aren’t many places left like it. Because if we focus too much on what we imagine a place is, it can become something very different when we’re not looking. And then we’ve lost it, forever.

In the case of Chilean Patagonia, it’s the tragedy of Hydroelectric power. Of Dams being built in some of the most powerful, untamed rivers left in the world. Of altering hundreds of thousands of acres of habitat, an influx of foreign industry, and ancient history being submerged underwater unnecessarily. In part, it’s why I’m even here. It’s a huge focal point of Conservacion Patagonia, and the petition to help fight the Dam projects can be found here. But don’t take my word for it, do some research. You probably haven’t heard about it because no one wants to say that our excessiveness may result in the destruction of one of the last truly wild places in the world.


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This entry was posted on October 24, 2012 by in South America 2012.
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