GPT – The Greater Patagonian Trail
by Franz Schubert
GPT – The Greater Patagonian Trail is a long-distance route network in the southern Andes. It spans from the outskirts of Santiago to the southernmost point of mainland South America. It facilitates exploring the diversity of Patagonia and the adjacent regions. Six words pinpoint the rather unique differences to established long-distance trails. Informal, Guest, Immersion, Network, Packraft, Collaboration.
I was born in 1975 and already as a young child I sensed a profound desire to travel the world. The Atlas was my first favorite book. But while growing up in East German the cold war and the iron curtain made free travel an unreal and unaccomplishable dream. This suddenly changed in 1989 with the surprising fall of the Berlin wall. In the following years I used my summer school vacations. I cycled through good parts of Europe and while later studying Mechanical Engineering in Germany I did my first multi- day hikes. After obtaining my academic degree I intentionally opted for a job that makes me travel. In 1999 I moved to Switzerland to work as a field engineer for a company that designs, builds and maintains power stations all around the world.
So far, I have worked on all continents except Antarctica. While working as a field engineer, I specialized in inspecting gas turbines and forensic engineering. I get frequently deployed to failure investigations. This fostered my researching attitude and analytical skills. As part of my job, I also evaluate large amounts of images and other pieces of evidence and issue detailed reports. All these skills and attitudes became the cornerstone for investigating and publishing the GPT.
The GPT is informal
It’s informal because the GPT is not an official trail. The GPT is basically a documentation of existing routes that are mostly used by local residents for their purposes. This means, there is no public oversight, virtually no signage, and no regular trail maintenance but lots of surprises. And by walking these mostly neglected routes hikers immerse into the overlooked areas between the few overrun tourist hotspots of Patagonia.
Hiking guests on GPT
On good parts of the GPT hikers are just unexpected guest and have no right-of-way but trespass over private properties. Along these routes hiking guests will inevitably meet the herdsman (arrieros), the indigenous people (Pehuenche) and the settlers (colonos, pobladores) so be at least a respectful and friendly trespasser. If these residents are approached with interest, then doors will open and a journey on the GPT becomes a cultural immersion.
GPT route network
The GPT – The Greater Patagonian Trail is not a single route that connects a start with a finish point but a vast network of interconnected routes. This means every hiker must make many choices while travelling the GPT; or better said: every hiker can assemble a unique personally route. The GPT currently consists of 20’000 km of routes that spans an area of 2’250 km from Santiago to Cabo Froward.
GPT with Packraft
You may packraft on the GPT. The route network contains many optional water routes that are suitable for light-weight inflatable boats (packrafts). These routes on rivers, lakes and fjords add another dimension to the GPT for those, that opt for this form of travel.
GPT as a collaborative project
The GPT – The Greater Patagonian Trail is a collaborative project. The informal nature of the GPT makes it essential that all hikers and packrafters contribute to the GPT by documenting their journey and sharing their experience and updates. Currently, prospective hikers cannot opt out and choose to only utilize the GPT documentation without becoming a co-editor.
Jan, tell us how you got to Chile. What drove you to hike the length of this country.
I first came to Chile in 2001 to work in a power station in Tocopilla. In 2002 I started traveling the Andes in my vacations and mainly visited the few internationally known hiking areas like Torres del Paine In Chile and the Fitz Roy area in Argentina. In 2007 I met my now wife Meylin from Santiago de Chile and since 2008 I ‘m a regular guest in Chile and Argentina and we spend approx. 3 month per year in the Andes. From 2008 to 2012 we travelled by car the entire length of Chile and Argentina from the desert Atacama to Tierra del Fuego. The car served us to access many remote areas for hikes, bicycle tours and horseback riding.
In these 10 year from 2002 to 2012 I gradually discovered the southern Andes and more out of curiosity I started scanning the Google Earth satellite images wondering if the hidden mountain trails can be connected into one long hike. And indeed, it seemed feasible. After several months of detailed planning, we started our first long-distance hike in November 2013 and after 80 days of walking and paddling we had a 1’500 km long confirmed route.
In 2014 I started publishing the just confirmed route on Wikiexplora and with this the GPT – The Greater Patagonian Trail was born. In the following years we returned to extend the route network and our list of pending investigations does not get shorter ever since.
You have a Chilean partner. Does she shares your passion?
Yes, Meylin always wished to travel and hike the Andes she rarely had the opportunity to do it. When I asked, if she is able to carry her own backpack for more than 100 km she accepted the challenge. We now have travelled an estimated 10’000 km powered only by mussels while hiking, paddling, cycling, and riding horses.
How do you see the GPT in the coming 10 years?
I’m not a prophet so I do not want to make predictions, but I can share my vision. I hope that in 10 years the GPT – The Greater Patagonian Trail still drives as an untamable informal community project but that parts of the GPT – The Greater Patagonian Trail became attractive public hiking trails. That are hiked by Chileans and Argentines that become well-known under different local names.
In example the regions Maule, Ñuble, and Bío-Bío are full of attractive interconnected horse trails. That are used by local herdsman (arrieros) and the indigenous people (Pehuenche). On many of these routes the right-of-way is not disputed and not much investment is needed to create a new public hiking region. That is at least 10 times larger than Torres del Paine and much closer to the main population centres of Chile. It requires clarifying and formalize the right-of-way, building a few bridges over rivers that might become impassable during snowmelt and heavy rain. Installing regular trail markers, and publishing these trails on paper maps and digital maps. The trails are already there.
The biggest challenge is probably getting the consent of the larger estate owners (fundos) along these routes. The concept of the right-to-roam is unestablished in most parts of Chile and Argentina. While being colonies of Spain and young independent states oligarchic power structures shaped the ownership culture. It’s taken for granted that a landlord (patrón) rules over his property and the labourers (peones) on it like a king. And the legal framework in Chile and Argentina protects this culture.
In contrast, more egalitarian societies and cultures that incorporate a sustainable use of common goods have a long tradition of the right-to-roam. This means, even if someone owns a large plot of land all others have the right walk over it and pitch a tent at night. Archiving such a cultural change in Chile and Argentina is a tough nut to crack.
Tourism has like other industries a negative impact on the environment. Should long-distance travel for tourism be promoted?
My answer to this question would have been different before 2018. When I became aware of my personal responsibilities in the current climate crisis. The threatening consequences of global warming forces us to re-evaluate and re-think every sector of our economy including tourism. And long-distance flights have enormous ecological footprints that are not compensated by being a responsible “green” guest in a far distant country.
But unmotorized long-distance travel that starts and ends near home is a totally different story. Mussel-powered travel like hiking and cycling are sustainable. They temporary stop us from earning money that inevitably would be spend in part on resource- consuming products and services. Therefore as more time we fill with sustainable activities as less harm we are for our planet.
When scrutinizing our current way of life. We often recognize with frustration which loved products and services are not ecological viable. But we can re-imagine our life from a different perspective. What enjoyable and sustainable activities we should do more to be less burden for the world we live in. And this list is long. Read books, learn for the pleasure of knowing, meet with friends, listen and make music, handcraft, tinker and repair the things we really need. And people that love to travel far and long can hike and bike-pack starting somewhere near home.
Long-distance hiking and bike-packing are relatively inexpensive and profoundly satisfying. And this form of travel teaches how little someone actually needs. Because you cope for weeks and months with just the items that you are willing and able to carry. This shift towards sustainable non-gainful activities works only in an economy with fair salaries and flexible work arrangements. So a few months of gainful employment can pay for a few months of unpaid leisure time.
With this in mind I decided to keep my work accessible. But I do not advertise the GPT – The Greater Patagonian Trail outside of Chile and Argentina. And me and my wife are now preparing to settle down in Chile in the coming years.
The majority sees trekking as a sport. But without doubt it has more benefits for the society. What do you think in this respect?
I’m sure, most arrieros and settlers along these trails are happy to have some extra income by selling food and services to hikers. Marginal land that barely feeds a few flocks resilient goats may generate additional revenue with visitors. The transformation of the Alps in the last 100 years exemplifies such a development. The descendants of poor mountain farmers that barely made a living are now entrepreneurs. They run restaurants and hotels. Livestock farming in the Alps is now a necessary ornament but certainly not the main source of income. But don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that a similar monetarization of tourism in the Andes like we see it today in the Alps. This is neither desirable nor feasible but opening the mountains for guests should not be seen as threat but as an opportunity.
Being an arriero is a dying occupation and the children of many settlers have left their parents to work in the cities. There are economic reasons for this retreat, but a lack of appreciation is probably a contributing factor. Therefore, curious visitors that approach the residents along the trail with admiration help to preserve this way of life. The same applies to the indigenous Pehuenche. We met some that struggled with their native inheritance. It needs true respect to heal injured self-esteem and honest interest to value their heritage without being patronizing.
Countries like Austria, Switzerland and the US have well-developed trekking culture. But not everything that shines ain’t always gonna be gold. What should not be copied and applied in Chile under no circumstances?
In the last two decades I hiked exclusively in the Andes so my first-hand experience of trekking in Europe and North America is limited. My perception of these hiking cultures is more based on consulting hikers from Europe and North America and recognizing what surprised and struck them on the GPT – The Greater Patagonian Trail. In the following I mention two potential questionable developments without claiming that these are identifying for hiking in Europe and North America.
Commercialization is a double-edged sword. I wish that the GPT creates some extra income for the residents along the trails. But I also hope that not only paying guests are appreciated. Hiking should remain inexpensive for those that can not effort to pay for expensive services and such hikers should feel equally welcome.
When I learned about the long-distance trails and the thru-hiking culture in the US I was puzzled by the competitive mindset of some hikers. Not completing a 3000 to 5000 km long trail in one season was seen by many as a failure. Hikers proudly measured their achievements in miles per day to compare themselves with others. Such comparisons may be encouraging for some but toxic for many others. Interestingly, hikers with such a competitive mindset struggled on the GPT and aborted more frequent than other hikers. And they normally missed to engage with the residents along the trails. Because everything that slows down is removed like a needless burden. In this way they overlooked one on the treasures of the GPT in plain sight.
There are long distance trails in other parts of the world like the Transalp in Europe and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) and Appalachian Trail (AT) in the USA. You made your own trail. Do you want to highlight a difference?
The GPT is less than a long-distance trail and more than a long-distance trail depending on someone’s perspective.
First: The GPT does not consist of a single route that someone “must” walk and all hikers are burdened with analysing countless route options and making many choices.
Second: The lack of a centralized trail management means that parts of the GPT route network are poorly maintained or even impassable at times. So, hikers cannot rely on their plans and projections.
Both is toxic for athletic walkers that need to maintain a consistent rhythm to enjoy their self-imposed walking challenge. But exactly these two features make the GPT a mouth-watering buffet for hiking guests with a good appetite for adventure and surprise.
Another difference is the small number of hikers that are dispersed over this vast trail network. This means that hikers rarely meet their peers on the GPT. This might sound attractive at first, but many hikers don’t realize the relevance of the trail community for their motivation. There is hardly ever someone to trail-talk; nobody who shares your passion and could provide affirmation. This has driven some weathered thru-hikers quickly into frustration and off the trail. The GPT is dryland for people that need the admiration of others like water.
But the GPT provides fascinating opportunities for curious guests that are interested in their hosts and their live. We have spent many hours in puestos (makeshift shelter) with arrieros. We set around the stove with settlers in their homesteads. We learned how they raise and herd their animals, we watched them make cheese and we gave occasionally hand to sacrifice a goat and roast it over the fire. When we packrafted a fjord and bad weather forced to the shore we spend a day and a night with an older couple in their tiny makeshift home and they explained us everything about how they farm mussels. Such encounters make a journey on the GPT more than a hike; it’s a cultural immersion. You get to know people that deserve admiration for their resilience and hard work.
Chile is quite different compared to other countries; its more pristine, wilder, with less infrastructure, less trail signs and practically no huts. For whom the GPT is made?
Well, practically no route of the GPT was made for hikers. The trails and minor roads were made by and for the local residents to serve their purposes. Hikers are just unexpected guests. So, the appropriate question is: “Who will enjoy this weird conglomerate of routes?” and not for whom they were made. Self-sufficient and curious adventurers will certainly feel more comfortable on these routes than athletic hikers that primarily seek the challenge of a long walk. Such endurance walkers are better off on well-maintained public trails.
Good navigational skills and a proficient handling of GPS devises are paramount on GPT. There are practical no signposts to inform and direct hikers. Essential is also a healthy sense of outdoor safety. There is no rescue party with a helicopter on standby to recover the daredevil or misadventurer. The GPT also requires a good balance between resilience and prudence. Know your limits and back out before you reach them. And the unpredictable nature of the GPT forces hikers to adopt and replan. Occasionally several times per day. Stubborn fighters that pursue their plan single-minded will get themselves in trouble quickly.
Guests on the GPT must also have the skills and desire to live for weeks under the sky with practically not infrastructure. If the weather turns nasty and you are near a puesto or settlers homestead get there and ask for shelter. Otherwise find a safe spot, pitch your tent and sit out the bad weather in your tent. But the lack of man-made infrastructure in a mostly pristine wilderness exhibits a special kind of beauty that we can rarely experience in everyday life. It reminds us how this planet looked like before one mammal species outgrow its original habitat. Started dominating its home planet with unforeseeable consequences.
Hiking long and far in Chile means lots of time in the tent, cooking food and sitting at a campfire. You certainly have a vision for the GPT. Do you want to share it?
I see the GPT route network like the roots of a young tree that was planted just a few years ago. The tree drives its soft roots in all directions to collect water and nutrients and provide stability to a growing trunk. Some root branches will grow thicker while others remain weak or die off without hurting the tree itself.
It’s a unique benefit of an informal and collaborative trail project that it can probe routes into all directions without agreements and investments. A small number of hikers can investigate and document these routes and based on this a root branch can grow thicker. Remain weak or die off without hurting the project itself. Therefore, I hope that the GPT keeps flourishing as an informal community project but that parts of the GPT transform into attractive public hiking areas that become well-known under different local names. And I wish that more Chileans and Argentines visit their mountains nearby with respect and caution, fall in love with their homeland and protect it passionately.
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