Monday 24 November 2014

A Reason for Being

Meaning, purpose, reason, truth, or rather the lack of a concrete answer to all of the above, has often been a struggle for me. An irregular nagging hidden at the back of the mind at the best of times, a deep all-encompassing depression at the worst.

I remember the trigger for the first of these depressions with great clarity: First year university, living away from home for the first time, the height of that post-adolescent, newly-found freedom. Non-stop excitement and entertainment: parties, drinking, new faces, novel experiences, self-discovery, not a care in the world. Flying high and free. Young and alive.

In the midst of this positivity came sad news. An ex-housemate had died. Hit by a train. This was upsetting for sure, but like most negativity at the time brushed off pretty quickly – he'd only lived with us for a few days and had never been very sociable. Seems callous and offhand now, but we were distracted by our infinite ever-expanding horizons, our invincibility. Death was sad, sure, but something that happened to other people.

Lying in bed a couple of nights after receiving the news, a cold realisation descended. There was nothing that really separated the two of us – him and I – we were both meant to be young and invincible. No reason for it be him instead of me. In fact, inevitable that my turn would come. I was, in reality, fragile and insignificant, a tiny temporary life-form in an infinite, uninterested and uncaring universe. What was the point?

Understandably I felt a little low. A feeling that eventually developed into a crushing depression. Depression isn't just being a little blue. It suffocates from the inside. A dark heavy fog on the mind, a barrier against the outside world. You forget how it feels to have any other mood, can't understand how other people manage to maintain their charade of happiness. This detachment and despair is all that exists and there seems to be no way out. You want to forget and go back to the way things were before, but you can't.

In short, it isn't very nice.

A jolly way to start a blog, right? Well, I just wanted to get down as low as possible before bringing things back up. Yay! If there's even a chink of light way down there then that's quite something. And I believe there is. All that's required is a shift in outlook, a realisation that all this negativity and pointlessness, this lack of meaning, is of your own creation. Given the choice of two distinct possibilities, two explanations for something, my natural inclination would always be to err towards the most negative. However, these weren't negative 'facts', it was my own negative appraisal of neutral information. A change of mindset was required. Much easier said than done, and even more difficult to maintain, but most definitely true.

Why do I feel the need to write about this? Because I think people shy away from these things too much. We all think about the big questions, but it's almost taboo to talk about such matters publicly. It's better to maintain a façade of disinterest, a raise of the eyebrows, retorting “Well that's a bit deep”. As if deep thought is a bad thing. “Sorry, I shall try to be more shallow”. Musing over these mysteries is what makes us human. We should feel more confident sharing these thoughts and theories with the wider world. So I'm going to embrace that and attempt to find some positive meaning (through the handy medium of bullet-points). This is what works for me currently. It won't ring true for everyone, perhaps not even for me in a few years time, and many people will disagree completely. But as the first point accepts, that's exactly the way things should be:

  • First off, there can never really be a universally accepted meaning of life due to the nature of free thought and human consciousness. People are free to think what they like and this is a good thing. This doesn't mean there is no meaning. On the contrary, it is hugely liberating as you get to create your own.
  • For me, the clearest 'Meaning of Life' is to find happiness, because once you do that nothing else really matters.
  • Your own search for happiness must not imped the happiness of others. In fact, helping other people find happiness is of equal importance to finding your own. If someone else is happy, their whole world is happy.
  • In essence, other people can often provide this path to happiness. We can all help each other.
  • Happiness is attainable to all, it may just take some work.
  • Happiness doesn't need to be constant – short glimpses, milliseconds of clarity like that instantaneous epiphanous spark on receiving a smile from a stranger, are just as important.
  • Happiness and love are synonymous.
  • Love is the key and a force for Good. When you love fully, as when you are truly happy, nothing else matters.
  • The present moment is all that can be experienced, therefore all that really exists. Embrace it, spread love and happiness within it. Don't worry too much about the past or future. Both have their place, but not NOW.
  • Live in the moment but plan for the future. Not only your own future, but for those who will follow you. They too deserve to enjoy their moments when they come.
  • Embrace the mystery, the wonder of now, the unknown. Enjoy the moment while preserving the future.
  • While catastrophising about the fate of the species/planet/universe is pointless because the future is unknowable, we should do whatever we can to ensure that future generations are safe and able to enjoy the planet as we do. The people of tomorrow are just as important as the people of today.
  • All humans, past present and future, are born equal and deserve the same chances. This can only be achieved by acting, thinking and living in a collectivist sustainable manner, rather than individualist, selfish and short term.
  • Everything in nature is how it should be, and we are responsible for preserving that.
  • Our tiniest actions can have huge effects. Smile at someone today, put them in a good mood, and this will be shared an infinite number of times into the future. You never know the long-term outcomes of your actions. As such, we have an obligation to be mindful of how we behave and to do so from a place of love and happiness.
  • Regardless on your thoughts on death, the inevitability of it doesn't render all that's gone before null and void. Everything you say, do and teach will continue to have an effect long after you're gone.
  • While you can still have an influence on the world and make positive changes within it (no matter how small) this is a great responsibility. Seize and cherish it.
  • Spread hope, not fear.

That'll do for now. 

In summary: Be nice.


Tuesday 4 November 2014

Why we need to decriminalise drugs.

Last weeks coverage of various MPs speaking out on outdated and robotic UK drug policy ( led me to write a long Facebook comment. I've decided to adapt this piece into a short blog. Why? Because I have some time on my hands and I'm just about egotistical enough to think people will read my ill-informed thoughts.

What is it that policy-makers are scared of and what prevents them from following actual evidence with regards to UK drug policy? Knee-jerk, nonsensical tabloid reactions. Response like 'lock them up and throw away the key', 'throw them off a cliff', 'bring back hanging' are habitually spouted by those who can't be bothered to actually look beneath the surface of the problem. Do these responses actually solve anything, are they really addressing the cause, or just the symptoms?

(As a side-note, those expressing such sweeping opinions should really be more wary when using the word 'They' – 'they should be locked up', 'they should be thrown off a cliff'. Who are 'they'? If this is generally referring to 'drug users', chances are it's referring to a lot of family and friends too.)

It's obvious that a blanket illegality approach to drugs doesn't work. Drug use is increasing, not decreasing. The illicit 'naughtiness' of illegal substances make them even more desirable to youngsters. People are still buying and using drugs, and currently have to do so through illegal channels. Which is where the real violence and crime comes in: Domestic gangs that sell drugs in the UK and, even more so, their suppliers in places like Latin America – where drug cartels have incredible power and cause unbelievable pain and suffering to the local population. Their running battles with law enforcement just cause more violence and death.

This is a global problem, that needs to be tackled as such. The fact that drugs are currently illegal in the UK leads directly to these cartels receiving millions of dollars each year, making them even more powerful but also influential and pandered to by corrupt officials (a UN report in 2013 estimated the global illicit drug market to be worth $320 billion. That's three-hundred-and-twenty-BILLION dollars – see extra reading sources below). If you decriminalise and control domestic drug production and the UK market, you cut off funding into the horrifically violent international illegal market. The only way to stop this vicious cycle. The 'War on Drugs' has failed.

The arbitrary labelling of substances as 'legal' and 'illegal' in the UK right now is also absurd. Why are alcohol and cigarettes legal but marijuana and MDMA not? Are alcohol and tobacco less harmful, or do they actually kill millions of people a year (tobacco is estimated to cause 6 million deaths worldwide annually, likely to rise above 8 million by 2030, and alcohol contributes a further 2.5 million worldwide each year – see extra reading sources below). And it's not just long term damage. Imagine three parties: One where all attendees are on alcohol, another all on marijuana, another all on MDMA. Guess which gathering will have the most violent and dangerous guests by the end of the night?

Even the horror stories about young people suddenly dying from ecstasy use – a 'bad' pill cut with who knows what other additional substances. In a decriminalised environment, where drugs are officially tested and controlled you would greatly reduce these dangers . Decriminalising drugs may even reduce their use – removing the taboo attraction that interests a lot of rebellious young people in the first place. Would you decide to try crack cocaine just because it's no longer illegal?

Legalising also doesn't mean selling heroin in Tesco. It means allowing those already addicted to the drug the ability to avoid dangerous pushers and pimps and instead move into a safe environment where they can also receive help and treatment for their problem. Prescription drugs are legal, but this doesn't mean you can just randomly pick them up off the street.

There are definitely risks associated with decriminalisation, but even more definite is the fact that the current approach doesn't work. It is time to step back and sensibly appraise a serious problem, a sentiment echoed by a number of current MPs and a cause for hope that rationality not fear will dictate future policy.

Sources/extra reading:
The drug problem in the Americas 2013 report -
Ash smoking statistics 2013 report -
Alcohol related deaths 2014 report -
Original BBC article -

Monday 19 May 2014

Homeward Bound

The end of a long trip always triggers a level of unease. A small but noticeable knot in the pit of the stomach and a slight, halting lump in the throat. Exactly the same emotions experienced when starting a lengthy bout of travelling, but with contrasting reasoning in the background. On departure there are worries of foreign lands, strange surroundings, a lack of routine. Once this has become standard day-to-day life, the impending return to previous normality plays on the mind in much the same way.

Dualism underlines the interpretation of this end of journey feeling: It can be channelled as negative worry or adrenaline-fuelled positive excitement. Both caused by a sense of the unknown, a return to a world you've ceased to be a part of in recent times. A world that nevertheless has continued in your absence. Has it moved on without me? Will I simply slip back in without missing a step? Or will subtle changes have occurred? Relationships between contemporaries developed, deepened and realigned. Will there still be a spot for me?

Human bonds are strongest between those who see and share the most together. Those who continue to grow and develop side-by-side, evolving and understanding in tandem. As such, it is always a risk to remove yourself from this constant process for an extended period of time. There are a number of people who fade from your life and don't return. However, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. It reveals who are really the true amigos. Those with whom a deep connection endures and effortlessly reignites even after six months without contact. Such friendships are often stronger afterwards, mutual appreciation heightened from the prolonged absence. An effortless and swift re-establishment of relations, a reassuring reminder that this is genuine amistad.

I am anxious but not apprehensive to get back home. Ready to see those few cherished friends and family again. Reconnect, reflect, renew.

Having nothing but the unknown lying ahead is no doubt a disconcerting situation to be in. But again, it can be construed in two distinct ways: Something scary, or something wonderfully liberating. I feel free when I don't know what's going to happen in the next few months, weeks, days. Possibly an unsustainable long-term state of affairs, but luckily all that really exists is the current moment (which is about as short-term as you can get). This time round there is at least some sense of stability in what I'm doing. I'm not experiencing again the sheer terror of stumbling back onto our green and pleasant land without a job, no money, no future security and few solid prospects. Some of these elements remain but I'm not completely skint and I'm pretty sure I'll be back out in Latin America tour leading again before the year is out. That's about all I need to know.

These references to 'coming home' are also a little absurd. Obviously, the UK and more precisely, London, is the insinuation here. But I don't technically have a 'home'. Four walls and a place to receive increasingly-irate letters from the Student Loan Company. That role is filled my mum's house (thanks, Mum). Still, even without the existence of a house, returning 'home' still feels like the right phrase to use. There's something warm, cosy and inviting about that word. A welcoming hug in four letters. It doesn't just signify the building in which you live, I'm not flying back to a bricks-and-mortar physical construction of a home, but more the concept of home. The safety, familiarity and reassurance garnered from the things and more importantly the people around you.

I say I'm going to be 'home' for three months, but ironically don't know where I'm going to live. Or what will be filling the days. Slight trepidation sure, but outweighed by excitement. It's another adventure really, albeit this time in just one place. Without a mochilla permanently attached to my back. And hopefully involving fewer spectacular bouts of diarrhoea, slightly less death-baiting bus drivers, a more sensibly-denominated currency, no more snoring bunk mates, generally a little more time to stay still and take stock. See where life decides to go next.

You know what, this could be a fun summer. Someone tell the sun to come out, I'll be home soon.

(scroll down for a short highlight reel of the trip in photographic form)

This seems like a long time ago - first week with Host Family mum and fellow Spansh student, Quang. Quito, Ecuador.
Otavalo Market, Ecuador
Sunset. Montanita beach, Ecuador.

Tungurahua Volcano erupting. Riobamba, Ecuador.

Searching for the perfect beach. Los Frailes, Ecuador.

My birthday night. The big 27. Montanita, Ecuador.

The beach bums. Mucho amor for these guys! Mancora, Peru.

Santiago, Chile.

Valparaiso, Chile.

Atacama Desert, Chile.

Atacama Desert, Chile.

Atacama Desert, Chile.

Chiloe Island, Chile.

Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina.

Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina.

Paradise. Trekking in El Chalten, Argentina.

The trekking crew. El Chalten, Argentina.

Looking down over the tiny town of El Chalten, Argentina.

Ze Germans! Ushuaia, Argentina.

Boat trip on The Beagle Channel. Ushuaia, Argentina.

Boat trip on The Beagle Channel. Ushuaia, Argentina.

Beached bottle. Cabo Polonia, Uruguay.

Footsteps in the sand. Cabo Polonia, Uruguay.

My wonderful host and a wonderful drink. Emi & Fernet. Cordoba, Argentina.

Fede & Emi. Humbled by their hospitality over Easter week. Cordoba, Argentina.
My boy, Yannis, and my home away from home. Chill House Hostel, Montanita, Ecuador.

Night time hilltop viewpoint. Cuenca, Ecuador.
What I'm actually meant to be doing here - Tour Leading! Final group on their last day in Cajas National Park, Ecuador.

Friday 25 April 2014

The Importance of Being Friendly

Is there anything in this world more important than friendship? Solid, unwavering friendship. Maybe love, but this is always rooted in friendship, albeit friendship on a deeper level. Love is also more volatile, likely to fade and dissipate altogether. Real friendship remains, persists, endeavours. Some might say truth, justice, democracy, collaboration, understanding, forgiveness. All undeniably vital in these troubled modern times. All required to improve the dire current situation with the rifeness of war, famine, prejudice, despair, hate. All sharing the same underlying necessity to exist, function and grow: Friendship.

I miss my friends. Travelling solo for extended periods of time - five months this time round, 11 months a couple of years ago and, if work goes to plan, up to nine months each upcoming year for the foreseeable future - in these circumstances you can't help but yearn for those connections with people who really know and understand you. In normal daily life you are surrounded by companions, maybe a lover (or two), a soul mate. Fellow human beings with whom relationships have been built over years of shared experiences, conversations and activities. A deep mutual appreciation. The sort of friends you want to be around no matter what the circumstances. Whatever your mood their company never fails to provide a warm glow. There may be literally nothing to discuss, no news, no updates. A state of affairs that would prompt awkwardness and stilted attempts to converse with anyone else, but with these true comrades you can talk and laugh for hours on end regardless. Without fail.

To go from having such amigos instantly contactable and meetable on a whim, unlimited social opportunity at your WhatsApp fingertips, to residing alone in a distant corner of the world where the only option for contact is Skype calls on 90's-era internet speed. This is a challenge. Even more so than you'd expect.

However it is not all doom, gloom and crying as your Facebook feed refuses to refresh. These unusual circumstances of amistad that travellers find themselves in trigger a quite beautiful reaction. Friendship is always built on shared ground, something that draws you together. Visit any hostel in the world and you will find all the inhabitants have one thing in common: A friendship deficiency. A sense of naked loneliness that leaves them feeling a little adrift, vulnerable, stripped of the support from those they would usually lean on. The gradual realisation that everyone else is in the same boat causes the solitary drifters to adjust course and move towards each other. Like survivors of a shipwreck, huddled close for warmth. You´re all in this together.

The result is a very direct approach to socialising. Gone are the barriers to starting a conversation you'd usually encounter (god forbid, with the extreme example of the London tube network). Gone too are the usual personal barriers - you're sharing a house, a bathroom, a bunk-bed, with complete strangers. It's not normal. And under these abnormal conditions with a heightened need for companionship, within seconds of entering the same room as someone else you will know their name, nationality and travel itinerary. After a few minutes, romantic and family circumstance. By nightfall, over a few drinks, worst habits, secrets, fears and dreams will be up for open discussion.

Friendships develop at an unusually rapid pace. Spurned on partly by the lack of amigos from home but accentuated by the daily routine of a viajero. Days are spent in a state of shared wonder, observing once-in-a-lifetime sights, otherworldly experiences. Hardships, visceral danger and tough challengers are faced together. Nights are spent marooned in your cosy new group, often drinking, always talking. Complicit in the sense of blissful isolation and abandonment a long, long way from home.

Most of these relationships are fleetingly temporary. Lasting only a couple of hectic days and heady nights before you all continue on your separate paths. Regardless, the strength of feeling is not diminished. These fires of fellowship may be permanently extinguished with alarming speed and frequency but nonetheless they burn true and strong in the moment. 95% of the people you meet on a trip you'll never see again. This may seem like a lot of effort for zero long-term result, but for me it has a real beauty on two levels:

Well-lubricated socialising
For one, the purity of these ephemeral encounters is genuinely humbling. There is a raw honesty and absence of pretence in all interactions. People thrive in the freedom these transient situations provide. You'll probably never see this group again, you're unshackled by the usual fear that they might not like the real you. If they don't, who cares? Tomorrow night you'll be in another city. The most interesting outcome of this unpretentiousness is that with everyone obviously dropping any cloak of falseness, the chances are people will like you. Unless you're a complete dick.

Secondly, the 5% who you do make the effort to see again - they must be special. Some of my current closest relationships, human beings for whom I feel nothing but untainted love and affection, those who I could and would tell anything, have developed from travelling buddies. No doubt these connections are all the stronger for having sprung from this source.

The last couple of weeks of my current trip inspired the theme of this blog. I've been in Cordoba, Argentina's second city, hosted at the home of one of the girls I met back in February in Ecuador (remember this blog). Our gang for those two weeks on the beach developed a closeness triggered by all the circumstances discussed above and on our inevitable parting I was bombarded with offers to "stay at my house" if the ongoing wanderings happened to pass by their various hometowns. Suprisingly, in Latin America, when someone says this they actually mean it.

El Jardin
No sooner had I informed Emi of my imminent arrival in Cordoba, along with our mutual vagabond acquaintance Spanish Stephane, than the invitation was reaffirmed and I was prohibited from booking a hostel. The following week was Semana Santa - the Latino celebration of Easter. Over here it's not just an afternoon of smashing oval-shaped chocolate into your face, it's a week-long celebration with great significance. The focus being on immediate, close-knit relatives. Not ordinarily involving a random hairy English guy. Consequently I had my reservations about imposing at a time like this. Objections that were scoffed at and dismissed off-hand as I was promptly allocated a bedroom in the stunning family home. Nestled on the leafy outskirts of Cordoba, a gorgeous single-story mini-mansion, it's horseshoe-shaped design wrapped around an expansive garden rippling with rich green and doused in autumnal sunshine all day long.

My inclusion was mandatory in all activities and outings throughout the week. Stephane and I were personally escorted on city tours, accompanied to the best museums and galleries, informed of locally-lauded restaurants off the tourist trail, dined in the company of extended family, feasting on famously-Argentinian Asados - huge plates of irresistibly succulent meat, giant cuts cooked to perfection and stacked to the ceiling, all washed down with traditional Fernet and coke - personally chauffeured around the peaceful, rolling sierras that surround the city centre, and accepted without objection at student parties we were both definitely too old to be attending. Exploring a place with locals like this really authenticates the experience. You're not a 'tourist' any more, you're a friend from overseas.

A little culture
Coming towards the end of my trip, after nearly five months on the road, such boundless hospitality was humbling and most welcome. Having spent all previous nights in hostels meant that every luxury barely noted in normal life was amplified and appreciated like never before: Not having a 'check-out' time in the morning, sleeping in a one-story bed with no-one fidgeting above or below, in a private room without a permanently snoring installation in the corner bunk, not living out of a rucksack, having a washing machine and fully functioning kitchen. Being part of a home, a family, friends. Eternally grateful to the level of natural unabashed generosity I've experienced here.

This situation, this wonderfully warm and affirming couple of weeks, wouldn't have been possible without the childlike open approach to friendship that is such an integral part of travelling and that allowed us to connect without barriers or borders all those months ago in Ecuador. Possibly transitory initial meetings that were embraced without hesitation and quietly developed into something beautiful. Something real. Something truly fulfilling. There you have it: The importance of being friendly.

The gang from the beach

The gang from the beach

The gang from the beach

Emi & Fede

My temporary home

My temporary pets

My temporary pets

Sharing Mate (tea) - an Argentinian tradition


Fede - the Asado (BBQ) king

The first course

Stephane likes meat

Fernet - the only alcoholic beverage in Cordoba

Fernet & Cola - I have drunk far too much of this

Sunday 6 April 2014

Oh, Patagonia.

Down. Way down. Down a bit further. Down as far as you can go. Here you'll find Patagonia. Sat stubbornly on the edge of the civilised world. The icy tail-end of South America. A world of historical human endeavour. Hope and despair. Triumph and failure. A rugged uncompromising land of steeps and shingles, granite and ice. Sparse vegetation battered by the elements - 120mph winds, driving rain, tumultuous seas. Not somewhere easily consenting to population and exploration. Yet, many proud fixtures in the resistant environment carry the names of those who successfully led the way in their conquering: The Magellan Straight, The Beagle Channel, Cerro FitzRoy. Alongside reminders that not all were so lucky: Last Hope Sound.

The major regret of my first Latin American adventure was not making it down here. As a traveller motivated primarily by challenges and drawn to the extremes, there is something greatly symbolic about the lower reaches of Patagonia. The final frontier of this incomprehensibly huge, varied and wonderful continent. You've reached the end, balanced on the tip, teetered over the edge of world. There's nowhere else to go (unless you have a spare £5000 for a week's cruise around Antarctica). When presented with a second chance to reach this milestone, I had my trekking boots on before you could say "Tierra del Fuego".

Snow trekking
The tougher side of travelling is always the most enjoyable. Testing the limits and feeling like something has been achieved. A summit reached or hardship overcome, no matter how ultimately pointless and unnecessary. There's a certain romance to trudging up a snow-covered mountain, head down and body bent against the horizontal rain, lungs burning in the thin air, feet frozen, hands numb. Just to stand on the summit for a few minutes before stumbling all the way back down again. There is nothing remotely fun about this, but it feels worthwhile just to have achieved something against the odds. A kick to the nuts of laziness, "I haven't just been bumming around, I did something really quite horrible for no particular reason." Why isn't important. Success is. As early mountaineering pioneer George Mallory explained when asked why he wanted to climb Mount Everest: "Because it's there."

Such an attitude drives the desire to explore Patagonia. It's not a particularly easy place to travel. Distances long, dwellings few, conditions testing. This unpleasantness carries great allure. Just arriving somewhere that was tough to reach greatly increases my enjoyment of that place. I'm fully aware of the fact that this is all bizarre stubbornness inside of my own head, but such knowledge does nothing to reduce the effect. All these things considered should make it easy to guess: I love Patagonia.


Glaciers like the cold. They are at home in icy surroundings. The colder the better. Which explains why such a vast number have settled in Patagonia. Eking out an existence, advancing and retreating at a fittingly glacial pace. Crawling down from freezing mountain-tops, slowly winding through snug windswept valleys to create large frigid blue-green-glowing lagunas. They vary greatly in size, state and shape, but all share an undeniable ability to awe.

One frozen behemoth deserving of particular attention is the immense Perito Moreno Glacier in Argentina's Parque Nacional de los Glacieres. No amount of pre-reading into the unfathomable scales at play - a width spanning 5km, sourced from numerous other smaller glacial flows converging 35km behind the 70m high front face- can prepare you for a viewing en vivo.

Ice falling
The vast majority of glaciers in the world are in a state of recession. Perito Moreno is extraordinary not only for the fact that it is advancing (one of only three in Patagonia) but also at an incredible speed - up to 2m each day. Such rampant natural dynamism causes immense pressure and great jagged hunks of ice to collapse from the face in spectacular fashion. First, a booming crack. The sort of noise that hits the pit of your stomach, resonates through the chest and makes you miss a breath before it's even registered cerebrally as a sound. Great sheets of frozen mass sheer from the shaking facade and plummet down, bombing into the water below. Mini-tidal waves emanate from the point of entry before gigantic newly-formed icebergs bob to the surface, shimmering an impossible shade of blue in the sunlight.

Perito Moreno Glacier
A crowd stands enraptured on the viewing platform, mere metres away from this living, advancing object. Complete silence. Breath held. Scanning the icy expanse in nervous anticipation of the next section to collapse into the frosty depths. A mesmerising otherworldly experience. Time stops and the glacier takes on a sentient quality with all observers at it's absolute mercy, enthralled by it's presence, willing the next thunderous snap and fissure. Hours slip by unnoticed with all spectators stuck in this meditative state of awe. A reminder of the brute natural forces at work on this planet, processes that have been progressing without the need for conscious thought since long before humans arrived on the scene, and will continue to work and adapt to the environment long after we've gone again.

In short, it's really quite pretty.

Torres del Paine

Chile's Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is one of the most visited national parks in South America. The reason is simple: Trekking. Not just any trekking but an established yet remote and challenging 'circuit' that traces a 'W' shape through and around the park's centrepiece: Soaring granite towers that burst out of the Patagonian steepe and reach over 2000m up into the heavens. The sheer scale necessitates a week-long hike to cover the entire route.

This hiking/climbing/camping adventure has been top of my to-do-list for almost as long as I've been wandering the continent. Which made it very difficult to accept that having finally made it all the way down here, I couldn't get stuck into the 'circuit'. Being on a work assignment 'shadowing' another tour leader, our group only had three nights in the park. Not enough to attempt the classic trek. Still this relatively short time, this little taste of the majesty Torres can offer was sufficient to whet the appetite and harden my resolve to return next season with more time, more freedom, a tent and a comfortable pair of boots.

El Chalten

El Chalten's tourism strap-line 'Argentina's Trekking Capital' was enough to get me hooked. The reality was beyond any hiking aficionados rambling dream. A compact colourful hamlet with less than 1000 in the permanent population, crouched down at the bottom of a peaceful river valley, snuggled against rolling hills, evolving into sharp, snowcapped mountain-tops on all sides.

Roof wind damage - El Chalten
A fairytale backdrop that, bathed in sunlight, enchants even the most world-weary of travellers into feeling like they've fallen head-first into a flawless oil painting. The sun doesn't always cooperate in this respect though. This is Patagonia: The rain can fall in solid sheets, the winds can howl over 100mph and the clouds can conspire to obscure even the most minuscule of peaks. In such conditions, the fairytale descends into a Brothers Grimm nightmare. Luckily, my previously-discussed penchant for sadistic energy-sapping soirées means both scenarios hold a certain charm. Experiencing the bad elements only makes you appreciate the sunny days even more.

As it happened, I was informed on arrival in El Chalten that the following day was set to be the best of the year. Quite a promise, but hopes were kept low enough so as not to be shattered by the inevitable disappointment of the ever-changing Patagonian weather forecasts. El Prognostico held true however, and teaming up with a rag-tag band of other willing adventurers, I set out on a day's trek to Laguna de Los Tres. What a day. An all-encompassing treat for the senses: Crisp air blowing a gentle breeze across autumnal landscapes embellished in deliciously rich and vivid shades of red, yellow, green, overhead a boundless deep blue sky peppered with shy, sporadic clouds precariously clinging to the towering shards of the Cerro FitzRoy mountain range.

Cerro FitzRoy
Our jolly group of bumbling viajeros skipped carefree through this magical land for 9 straight hours, pausing only to drink pure icy water direct from burbling glacial streams and to take in the impossible beauty of valley-wide vistas from the heady heights of placid hill-top lakes and sweeping miradors. This was one special day when the planets aligned and the elements allowed for a celebration of absolute natural perfection on the outskirts of a remote Patagonian town. Henceforth, El Chalten is now a strong competitor for my favourite slice of paradise on this little old globe of ours.

The week that followed was spent in a similar manner, albeit under deteriorating climactic conditions. Each day I set out on a new trek, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied, always free. There is nothing quite as liberating as the sense of freedom from a careless jaunt across paisajes that never fail to awe at every corner, every summit, every turn in the path provoking wonder afresh. Lunch in the backpack, a head clear of worry, one foot in front of the other, bliss.

On more than one occasion I found myself alone on a meandering pathway as the wind died down, the sun broke through the clouds, nothing stirred the silence. A moment of clarity and untainted peace. Everything seemed right. Is this the answer? What we're all really looking for? If not, it'll do for now.


The 'Southernmost City in the World' seemed a good place to finish my expedition. Pinned between the Beagle Channel and 1500m Andes peaks, Ushuaia ('oosh-why-er') is a beautifully rugged and isolated spot, a wild frontier at the very edge of this colossal continent. Offering more of the Patagonian staples - gorgeous twinkling glacial lakes, secluded miradors atop stark mountainsides, tough trekking, cold wet and windy delights - all just that little bit more extreme than before.

Unless you fly (i.e. cheat) the city is only accessible via a series of exhausting bus and ferry exchanges traversing the wonderfully-christened Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire). An odd name for a veritable land of ice, but so-called as a result of those aboard early European passing ships being enchanted by the myriad fires blinking along the coastline, tended by the contemporarily-unknown and mysterious indigenous population. Secluded, far-flung, hard-to-reach, surrounded on all sides by raw, imposing natural beauty. A fine setting in which to 'layer-up' one final time and take a bracing boat ride down the Beagle Channel, lean into the howling wind, breath my last Patagonian air and reflect. Gazing back at the final outpost on this astonishing continent. South America. A place that feels like home.

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

Glacier Grey

Perito Moreno Glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier

Glacier Grey

Torres del Paine

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten

El Chalten (town location)

Tierra del Fuego National Park




Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel

Beagle Channel