by Denise Sauerteig

From January through July of this year I traveled around South America. My parents are from Chile, and my family currently spans five continents, so I often enjoy sacrificing any long-term career goals to explore the contemporary Jewish Diaspora, à la Roger-Sauerteig.

This trip was inspired by the wedding of my favorite cousin, Alex, in Santiago de Chile in January. After spending a week in one of the smoggiest cities south of the Ecuator, I jetted off to Argentina to start a new life in Buenos Aires. Here I discovered what is now becoming a well-known secret by educated travelers: an amazingly hip city full of gorgeous, intelligent people who eat well and look to Europe for fashion and philosophy.

But this story isn’t about Buenos Aires; it’s about what I found after two months of partying and hedonism in a city of fifteen million. It’s about discovering a part of myself I never knew existed: the Andean Mountain Woman. It’s about the Argentine Patagonia.

My month in the Patagonia, the southwest region of Argentina and some of the southernmost regions of Chile, was espectacular. The first two weeks I spent in the northern part, the lake region, hiking around and staying in little refugios tucked away in the forest, or along mountainsides, braving wind and my own clumsiness as I crossed streams and clamored over rocks, while working off all the homebrewed beer I encountered along the way.

The best time in this part was this little town El Bolson, a hippie enclave of sorts, where I heard more American English than ever. A town tucked away in a valley with its own special microclimate (no wind or rain or snow), it is undeniably blessed by some incredible energy. Perhaps that sounds too California—but something happened to me there. I had not felt that peaceful in a long time, and El Bolson helped me realize how much I loved life, my friends, and the ability to clear my head from all the madness of the Big City.

I then hopped on a thirty-six-hour bus ride to head super south, to El Calafate, a city created only for tourists to see El Perito Moreno Glacier, the largest piece of advancing ice in the world. This bus ride could have easily been a nightmare, especially since I had brought no food and was struggling to get into the Da Vinci Code (a pseudo-intellectual novel I later hated admitting I learned from.) But waiting for the bus, I met this crazy Canadian mountain man, Frederic, who smelled like he had been trekking for two weeks in all his clothes and popped down the mountain just to get on the bus.

Braving the aroma, I hung out with him for thirty-six hours, laughing the whole way, talking about the beauty of Pachamama, and sharing toilet paper and empanadas (mini meat-filled pockets of fried or baked dough) in true backpacker style. This guy basically lives out of his tent 350 days a year, sleeping in snow igloos in British Columbia, goes on rock climbing expeditions to Mexican volcanoes, and takes pictures for National Geographic along the way.

We pretty much had nothing in common. We headed down to El Calafate, and spent a night in his tent listening to the Perito Moreno glacier melting. The prelude to our fist kiss was Frederic’s dropping of my little digital camera and breaking the lens shutter. The glacier is enormous and beautiful, we had an almost full moon, and the devastations of global warming have turned this block of ice into a national park treasure, where pieces break off every twenty minutes. The crashes it makes causes your bones to shake and eardrums pop: like intense thunder. We listened to it all night, lit up by a full moon, in a clandestine little spot tucked away in the trees (illegal camping: very exciting). It was an epic experience, only to be topped by the next twelve days.

We decided to continue on together, heading to El Chalten, a sort of nothing little windy town, no ATMs or banks, and a rock climber’s paradise. The summit of Fitz Roy has eluded most alpinists, with only ten people ever having summitted the peak successfully. Fitz Roy Park is here, and it’s truly unbelievable. This is basically where my concept of life and limitations and my relationship with nature changed for good. Fred and I were still camping together, nothing really romantic, but he was totally taking care of me, letting me sleep in his down-filled sleeping bag and keeping me warm with his thermal Canadian slippers. The guy does not get cold, but of course I was freezing every night.

The trekking up here was phenomenal: crazy steep mountains covered in ice and snow, glaciers everywhere we looked. We still had a mostly-full moon, and wind that blew you twenty meters back every ten minutes. There were Israelis everywhere, comparing how much they spent on dehydrated soup and trying to talk to me in Hebrew (luckily, the word for “no” is lo in Hebrew and one of the few things I remember from Sunday School). And, of course, there I was, the little suburban princess conquering my own laziness and clumsiness to hike around and climb rocks and push the limits to see all the spectacular views imaginable, all the while being led around by a guy lugging thirty kilos in his backpack who was way more used to camping with guys out in the back country.

We took this one four-day trek that was incredible (note that I’m using the word trek, not hike, the subtle difference connoting the level of difficulty and seriousness with which we grant the Patagonia). There was a deep, gushing ravine you had to cross on cord and harness, a glacier we walked on for an hour (I couldn’t help myself from peeing on the glacier on the way back and claiming it for all my fellow nomadic Americans), all the fresh water you could drink out of streams and waterfalls, and steep rocky slopes where you could see the most incredible view of yet more glaciers and mountain peaks that you never thought could exist in one place.

All the while we were supposed to be slapped with winds and snow and rain, but we had this crazy Indian summer that blessed us with warm, sunny, cloudless days. It was a dream, the whole time, and we were alone out there, no other backpackers, and the magic of the environment was intoxicating and bewitching: a true fantasy. Physically I did a lot of things I never had before (mountaineering, that is) and came out of with an appreciation of the mountains and their severity. In short: It’s gnarly up there.

Coming down the mountain, my buddy Frederic and I needed to part ways, as our experience in Fitz Roy and the Patagonia was almost too magical and unreal. I also knew that I had more traveling to do, solo, to keep rediscovering myself and pushing my own personal limits. A month of trekking and camping had also made some amazing dreadlocks out of my long curly hair, and I was ready to take a shower and invest in some intensive detangler. After saying my farewell to Southwest Argentina and vowing to someday flee another northern-hemisphere winter to brave the unapologetic Patagonia summer, I boarded a plane back to Buenos Aires a stronger, slimmer, and marginally less-clumsy woman.

Denise Sauerteig, with her multiple passports, has been traveling the world since birth. With family living on five different continents, Denise often seizes the opportunity to explore new cultures and tackle Mother Nature in the multiple global spots she can call home. When not redefining traditional responsibilities to fulfill her passion for travel, she lives in San Francisco and works in educational research.