Where You Can Hike to the End of the World — in a Wheelchair
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because “having a disability should not keep anyone from traveling.”
By Ali May
The air in Torres del Paine is like nothing you’ve breathed before — its crispness makes you feel alive. Its vivid colors are life in high definition, from azure lakes to green lenga tree leaves to pink chaura berries (with the texture and taste of apples). And just to picture its mesmerizing, jagged and elusive three granite peaks — that emerge only when they feel like it — is enough to compel you to travel halfway around the world to this stunning national park just a stone’s throw from Antarctica.
Torres del Paine, in southernmost Patagonia, is one of the most striking, Instagram-worthy sites in Chile, if not on Earth. A people’s vote in 2013 picked the 1,127-square-mile park as the eighth wonder of the world from among 329 locations. And while people come here from all over the globe to hike these challenging trails at the end of the world, some come here to trek them — by wheelchair. There’s even been a short film made about accessible hiking in the park, which won top prize in a 2018 contest.
Having a disability should not keep anyone from traveling.
Timothy Dhalleine, EcoCamp worker and filmmaker
The park has dozens of well-marked trails, each with their own distinct character. The French Valley is a full-day trek through verdant trees, shrubs and wildflowers. Aonikenk is the best route to see guanacos (camelid) in close range and watch birds — magnificent condors, oddly beaked caracaras, the delicate upland geese — perched on cliff edges or gliding above. But the most iconic hike is the 15-mile Base de las Torres trek, which comprises a rich mix of landscapes, traversing valleys and streams and culminating in a steep, rocky ascent that can tax even the fittest of hikers. When the big, dark Condor’s Nest peak and the vista of three other mountain horns come into view, you immediately know it was worth the climb (10-hour round-trip).
EcoCamp Patagonia, a cluster of sustainable geodesic domes, is located near the start of the Base de las Torres trail, one of the legs of the W trek, a five-day hike that covers the main routes in the park. It supported Álvaro Silberstein in 2016, when he became the first person to take on the W trek in a wheelchair. The French-made all-terrain wheelchair — named Joëlette — was then left at EcoCamp so that anyone with a disability or reduced mobility could use it to enjoy excursions in Torres del Paine. Joëlette is available to anyone for free, even if they are not staying at the camp, as long as you are accompanied by volunteers trained to use it and you book it in advance.
Timothy Dhalleine, who has worked for EcoCamp for five years, says that “having a disability should not keep anyone from traveling” — and that means being able to hike in Patagonia in a wheelchair and on remote trails. To help spread the word about accessible hiking in Torres del Paine, Dhalleine made a short film about Silberstein, called Adventure Is for All — which won first place in the 2018 Adventure in Motion film contest. Silberstein went on to create Wheel the World, a company that specializes in adventures for disabled travelers in Chile, Peru and Mexico.
Despite its accessibility and beauty, Torres del Paine is not always an easy place to stay — or to keep pristine. With the region’s unpredictable and sometimes harsh weather and ever-increasing visitor numbers (now around 250,000 per year, up from around 130,000 in 2007), most park workers see protecting the environment as their primary responsibility. Juan-Pablo Dasencic, a horse-riding guide at Hotel Rio Serrano who says he feels privileged to work at the park, says both visitors and businesses should play their part in protecting the park, and preventing it from getting contaminated. “If we don’t take action now, maybe next generations won’t be able to enjoy all of this beautiful nature,” he says. And his worries are justified: The park has had several serious fires in the past two decades, which resulted from careless visitor behavior.
For park ranger Javier Gomez, the issue is even more personal. “Season after season I keep coming back because I like the park. I know it completely. Now that I’ve been here so long, it is my home.”
Go There: EcoCamp Patagonia
- Directions: It’s a 10 1/2-hour direct flight to Santiago from New York or a 14 1/2-hour flight from London. From Santiago, it’s a 3 1/2-hour flight to Punta Arenas, followed by a five-hour drive through the steppe to get to Torres del Paine.
- Accommodations: Suites at EcoCamp with a private bathroom and wood burner can be booked for $500 per night. (Standard domes may not have those luxuries.) There are several other hotels in the park to choose from, plus there are campsites available for the brave. All require advance reservation.
- When to go: Visit in November for spring vibes and April for fall colors.
- Where to relax: After a grueling 15-mile hike, take your tired body to Hotel Rio Serrano, with its mountain-view spa, and have a pisco sour by the log fire.
- Pro tip: Before heading to Patagonia, spend a couple of days in bustling Santiago. Stay in Hotel Magnolia, within easy reach of great bars, restaurants and museums.
- Ali May, OZY Author Contact Ali May