TheBigOutside Blog

Michael Lanza, creator of TheBigOutside.com and Northwest Editor of Backpacker Magazine, writes about hiking, backpacking, climbing, backcountry skiing, paddling and other self-powered outdoor adventures

The Patagonia You’ve Never Heard Of

As our 20-seat, twin-engine Otter DHC-6 prop plane drops through the ever-present Patagonian cloud cover, the Beagle Channel comes into view. On both sides, green hills rise to craggy, treeless mountains. To the north, the jagged Fuegian Andes of Argentina push into the sky. To the south looms our destination: the sharply pointed spires of the Dientes de Navarino. With a steep banking turn, the plane glides down onto the airstrip in the southernmost town in the world, Puerto Williams on Chile’s Navarino Island.
The leather jacket-clad pilot—whom I could practically tap on the shoulder from my second-row seat—turns around and says, “Que pase un buen dia!” or, “Have a nice day!” The other 18 passengers offer friendly responses, leaving the impression—possibly accurate—that Jeff and I are the only people on board who don’t know him.
Being the only gringos on the plane is the first hint at how different our trek of southern Patagonia’s Dientes Circuit will be from any international adventure I’ve ever taken.

Jeff Wilhelm trekking Patagonia's Dientes Circuit

The southernmost trek in the world, the 22.7-mile (36.5k) circuit around the Dientes de Navarino, or “Teeth of Navarino,” certainly qualifies as one of the most remote: At 55 degrees south latitude, the Dientes, which rise up from the edge of town and reach almost 4,000 feet in elevation, lie just 60 miles from the tip of South America and a short flight from the Antarctic Peninsula. Puerto Williams, home to more than 2,000 residents and a Chilean navy base, receives a grand total of six flights a week from this 20-seater (one per day, except Sunday).
My Boise friend Jeff Wilhelm and I flew here from Punta Arenas right after trekking in the flagship national park of Chilean Patagonia, Torres del Paine, where knife-like granite towers soar thousands of feet into the sky. (Read that story and see its photo gallery.) But that park’s proliferation of Europeans, Aussies, Kiwis, Americans, Canadians, and other foreigners can feel not only a bit crowded, but somewhat homogenized. In the packed huts, you could easily imagine being in Switzerland or New Zealand. That’s not an argument against going there—the mountains really are mind-blowing, and meeting people from around the world enriches the experience. But you don’t visit one of the world’s most sought-after national parks to discover a place untainted.
Established in the 1990s, the Dientes Circuit receives fewer than a hundred trekkers a year. Indeed, for four days out here, we will see no one and very likely be the only people on the circuit. There are not many outstanding hiking destinations on the planet you could say that about. Though it may someday become as much of a classic as others in Patagonia, this trek remains in virtually unknown.
So we have come to the Dientes de Navarino in part to get a sense of what Patagonia was like before it became a darling of the international trekkers’ set.

Read the full story and view its photo gallery, and see other stories and photos of outdoor adventures in the U.S. and around the world at TheBigOutside.com.

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