Finding the secret sauce to a great group in Patagonia

written by Tara Tavener April 5, 2024

Around a restaurant table after days in the Patagonia wilderness, traveller Tara reflects on the key ingredient in epic shared adventures.

’Who wants in on a mate round?’ 

The bus ride is bumpy, but it won’t be long until we reach the dinner spot for a well-deserved meal. After another hike along Patagonia’s dusty trails, our achy legs and begging bellies aren’t even going to shower before eating. Despite being physically tired, everyone was in good spirits. The 10-hour hike had whizzed by in a flurry of conversation and laughter, like every hike we’d completed on this trip.  

Our Intrepid leader, Lorenzo, passes his mug, made from a hollowed gourd, between the chatty eleven of us. Over the past few days, Lorenzo taught us about the daily ritual of mate, a hot herbal drink beloved across South America. One of the beauties of having a guide like Lorenzo is learning about local customs like this one.  

As the shuttle pulls into El Chalten, I pass the mate back to Lorenzo, and the group and I exit the van and walk toward tonight’s dinner spot. Night is falling over the small mountain town. Hikers are trickling into the many local eateries that line the main road. Apart from outdoor retailers, El Chalten is almost solely made up of small bakeries and sit-down restaurants. Lorenzo has told us how important food is to Argentine culture, and this place is proof of that. Every meal we’ve eaten has been memorable, for both its food and the conversations shared.  

The minute we huddle around the long wooden table that has been reserved for us, a warmth settles into my bones. We all order quickly, so as not to delay the impending feast. Inside, the wooden cabin’s walls are covered in newspaper clippings. Single-stem vases sit on each table next to a dripping wax candle. Music I don’t recognise is playing, and mountains are visible from every tiny window. Everyone laughs, recounting today’s antics as plates of homemade pasta and piping hot bowls of locro, an Andean stew, make their way to our table. As the tiny waitress gracefully unloads her arms, I look around and notice that the other hungry patrons look like us – ragged and windswept.  

Vanity doesn’t exist here. But vulnerability does.  

As we all settle to eat, I hear Nicole, a fellow hiker from the United States, pose a question to the table, ‘What have you learned about yourself on this trip so far?’ I smile. I’ve come to expect this kind of question from her; I think the whole group has. People begin to answer between mouthfuls. 

‘This is a very good group,’ Lorenzo says to me just above a whisper so as not to interrupt.  

‘What makes a group good?’ I ask.  

‘When people open themselves up.’

Lorenzo tucks his black hair behind his ear and continues. ‘Ever since the pandemic, I think people yearn for it.’ 

I pause and look up from my ravioli, eager to know what he means by “it”.  

‘Connection. Today on the bus ride, you could have been on your phones. Instead, you engaged with one another even after ten hours of hiking and talking. I’ve seen it a lot more in my tour groups. A few years ago, most people would choose to eat dinner on their own. Now, groups almost always request I make a reservation. They want to be together. After the years we were forced to spend away from others, I see how people are eager to be connect with others.’ 

‘And I’m glad,’ he continues. ‘We are each other’s responsibility. In Argentina, we eat together. We share mate together. We take care of our neighbors when they are sick. It’s how it’s meant to be. So to see people from around the world fly here to this remote part of the world to spend entire days hiking with strangers and eating with strangers and even sharing rooms with strangers makes me happy.’ 

I am keenly aware of the alchemy he’s referring to; the magical way in which hiking turns people into friends quickly. I have witnessed countless times how walking next to a stranger for hours on end, never having to look them in the eye, allows for total and complete vulnerability. Throw in the mental relaxation that Patagonia’s rugged mountains and turquoise waters inspire, and you find yourself more readily disclosing whatever might be weighing on your mind.  

This dinner is proof of exactly what hiking trips can do.  

Here we were, eleven dusty, sunburnt strangers gathered together for a meal despite the option to eat on our own, no further socialisation required. It would be easy to chalk our group’s camaraderie up to our mutual enjoyment of the outdoors and travel, but my experiences tell me it’s more than that. I have found that it is notably easier to disclose my own truths to individuals I run little-to-know risk of running into at the grocery store, especially when my “audience” isn’t distracted by their phone (the benefit of hiking where there is no reception).  

We’re only a few days into our 15-day Classic Hikes of Patagonia trip, and already we’ve shared our stories as freely as we’ve shared mate. Throughout the hours we’ve spent together hiking Patagonia’s trails, I’ve heard stories of proposals and couples’ first meetings. I’d heard the intimate details of others’ grief and subsequent healing. We’ve shared travel anecdotes and our biggest, bucket list dreams. People have divulged how they really feel about their jobs and what made them book this trip to the bottom of the world. 

I am brought back to the present moment when I realize it’s my turn to answer Nicole’s question: what have I learned about myself on this trip so far?  

‘My turn?’ I say to a table the group now looking at me from behind nearly empty plates. They nod and lean in. The answer comes to me swiftly. 

‘I’ve learned that my love of hiking goes deeper than reaching a summit or a viewpoint. I think I’ve realised on this trip that I love spending uninterrupted hours connecting with people I might otherwise have never met.’ 

Find the gold in your own small group adventure in Patagonia.

Feeling inspired?

You might also like

Back To Top