Greg Johnson: Christmas in Patagonia |

Greg Johnson: Christmas in Patagonia

A few years ago, Explore contributor Greg Johnson traveled to Patagonia for Christmas. Instead of feeling like he was missing out on family traditions, he found something unexpected through the experience.
Courtesy Photo

— My first Christmas away from family and the traditions I grew up with had a strange feeling to it. The day itself wasn’t so unnatural. It was missing the routine I had become accustomed to: seeing old friends, eating my way through Chicago and spending time with family. It all had me questioning my decision. I felt guilty.

It was my first year living in Bolivia. I had a month off until I needed to report back to teaching and a disposable income for the first time in my life. Buying my ticket to Argentina is what had me feeling guilty. It would be my first extended trip outside of the United States, and it would start with a 2 1/2-week excursion to Patagonia.

I traveled with two fellow teachers, and we flew to Ushuaia, fin del mundo, the most southern town on Earth. Mountains came straight out of the Beagle Channel. My first sight of Patagonia had surpassed expectations — a recurring theme of the trip. We spent a few days exploring there before heading to the glaciers of El Calafate. Our next stop would be El Chatén.

We drove into El Chatén as the sun was setting. The view of Mount Fitz Roy and its spires woke up the whole bus from its slumber as we drove into town. This scene was not real — I would be spending Christmas in a fairy tale.

Turned away at our first two hostels, we ended up in a family house, Aylen-Aike Hostel. We would spend the next five days at this welcoming home. Wi-Fi was nonexistent in El Chatén, which made it easier to meet and connect with fellow travelers.

From town, you could walk to any trailhead and drink right out of the glacier-fed streams and rivers that populated the area. We spent our days hiking, first to the base of Mount Fitz Roy. One of my travel partners never had been to the mountains before and was moved to tears by the beauty and magnitude of our scenery. Our nights were consumed with Malbec wine, asado meats and great conversations.

Everyone in the hostel was staying until after Christmas, and as the nights went on, we all got to know one another well. There was a father and son duo traveling by motorcycle down the famed Route 40; a single woman from New Zealand who always travels alone but never seemed lonely; a pair of Alpinists from Norway waiting for a perfect window to climb Fitz Roy itself. As Christmas drew near, our small group grew close.

I realized it was the sense of community that I had worried about not having around the holidays. Missing out on my usual traditions could be replaced, but a feeling of belonging could not.

We came together in this little hostel, isolated from the outside world but surrounded by beauty. As the family who ran the hostel made their Christmas dinner, we all made ours. We shared stories and traditions from each of our homes. I can’t remember spending a Christmas where I stayed up later.

I am headed back home to Chicago this Christmas. I still enjoy the holidays with my family, and not every year can be an adventure. If you find yourself away from family this year, find that sense of community and make it a memorable experience.

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