About the Author: Suze is a lover of all things wild! In 2017, she set off from her home country of England on a solo trip to South America, where she fell in love with backpacking. Since then, her love of the outdoors has sent her hiking all over the UK, North America, Patagonia and even Kyrgyzstan.
She remains passionate about conservation and works to protect our wildlife and wild spaces. Instagram: @awildsuze
Foreword: There were several moments where this day could have gone very, very wrong. I was extremely fortunate that things turned out okay and I have learned a great deal about hiking alone which I have applied to hikes ever since.
Take a look at your world map. Put your finger on the Americas and trace it all the way south to the end of the world: Patagonia. This is where, at the tender age of 24, I began my ambitious solo backpacking adventure which would take me to some of the most unspoilt, unimaginable and unforgiving landscapes over the course of the next six months.
I flew to Punta Arenas, Chile’s southernmost city, and the next morning set out on what I thought would be a relatively easy day hike to the most southerly lighthouse on the American Mainland. “Faro San Isidro” they call it. To this day, it remains my nemesis.
The 8km round-trip to the lighthouse (el faro) begins and ends at “fin de camino” – the end of the world. After a two-hour bus and short hitchhike I arrived at the trailhead, with not another soul in sight. To my left: The Magellan Strait. To my right: dense, unending forests of southern beeches and bushy undergrowth. The weather, always unannounced, cycled between blue skies, gale force winds and pelting hail – sometimes all three at once. I felt simultaneous sensations of foreboding and exhilaration, as I realised that I was very probably alone out here at the end of the world. I also felt a sudden pang of hunger, checked my daypack and realized that I had forgotten the small bag of trail snacks that I had prepared. Crap.
Lesson One: Always carry emergency rations. Never hike without food.
I wondered whether I should scratch the hike and wait for another car to reach ‘the end of the road’, and hitch a lift back. The route was only 8km and I had at least remembered my filtering water bottle and could see several dilapidated tin-shacks which, if things really got out of hand, would serve as an emergency shelter. I hoped that there would be a chance to purchase snacks at the lighthouse or its nearby museum.
So off I set! Along the pebbled shores, spirits naively high, proudly donning my Patagonia Torrentshell, comfy Lowa hiking boots and merino wool socks.
The “path” was literally just the stoney beach. Every step my foot sank into the pebbles so it was fairly laborious, but not too difficult. Mr man-in-the-shop who had told me about this hike, said that the trail wound round the peninsula for 4km where you’d then find el faro. I could see into the distance but el faro I could not. Nonetheless, it was staggeringly beautiful and I enjoyed the time to myself in the middle of nowhere, by the ocean with just birdsong and howling wind to comfort me.
About half an hour in, I started to admire the beach. The stones were so smooth and there was lots of pretty kelp, seaweed and crustacean shells washed up to the treeline… Something’s not right there. And then it dawned on me. “Is this a tidal walk?” I thought to myself. “Oh dear. I mean, I really should have checked. The entire beach is wet. Is that because it’s raining or is that because the beach will be covered again in a few hours? Okay, contingency planning mode, let’s think this throu- EL FARO! I SEE YOU! IN THE DISTANCE! ON THE HILL!”
All tidal thoughts were pushed from my mind as I squinted through the snowy haze to el faro. “I’m a genius. I’ve done it, I’ve found el faro. Task complete. I’m alone at the edge of the world and I’ve nailed it”.
This train of thought continued for a few minutes and I sauntered on with arm-flailing swagger as I congratulated myself. A karmic gust of wind then literally knocked me off my feet. I picked myself up and continued walking, sin-swagger.
Lesson Two: Don’t be a complacent idiot.
The thought of the tides was still playing on my mind but at least el faro was in sight, and I had brought my sleeping bag in case of absolute emergencies because I am always prepared. (At least I’ll just starve to death rather than freeze.) In general, I’d say I’m a realist, but apparently in situations of mild peril I choose blind optimism.
By 10am the hunger pangs were becoming as frequent as the bursts of blizzard. It was snowing even harder than it was before and I lamented not bringing gloves. I also realized that my pants were getting soaked through and I didn’t have a waterproof bottom layer. It was about four degrees above freezing and the wind was pelting bullets of snow into my face. And WHERE were all the other people? This was supposedly a tourist destination Mr man-in-the-shop!
Lesson Three: Do THOROUGH research before solo-hiking.
I round the corner and I’m confronted with a beautiful white house. I thought that this must be the museum or tourist zone before el faro. That this must be where all the other people are. But there was no path. Literally none. Perhaps the tide was too high? I scrambled over the slippery rocks in the snow, banged my knee, all the while telling myself that it’s worth it for el faro. It’s worth it for el faro. It’s worth it for el F-
“A SIGN! THEY SELL DRINKS!” (“Venta Bebidas” read the sign). Forget el faro, I’m getting a coffee and getting out of this bloody awful weather.
“CLOSED” another sign on the door reads.
Of course it was closed. By this point, the hunger and anger had combined into something awful and I had some very stern words for that sign.
Apparently, the sign belonged to no one. I looked in every window and couldn’t see a soul. Reluctantly, I grumbled on. El faro appeared on the hill in front of me and I couldn’t help but loathe it slightly. The wind was blowing sleet and rain horizontally into my face and I began the ascent to the lighthouse. It started to dawn on me that maybe there was no museum, no other people, no snacks; just an empty lighthouse. At least would provide some shelter from the storm. I really hope el faro is not just some locked-up, God-forsaken arrangement of bricks at the end of the world.
El faro is a locked-up, God-forsaken arrangement of bricks at the end of the world. With solar panels. (The irony of this in my current weather conditions was too much to contemplate.) It was empty. There was no one there. It was now so foggy out at sea, but the light wasn’t even ON?
“I mean, you’re a lighthouse you literally have ONE JOB. What even are you, el faro? Slither back into the freezing, snackless depths from whence you came, el faro.” I directed my angry, ever more elaborate curses at the useless building before me.
Lesson Four: If you start talking to inanimate objects, consider calling it a day.
The snow and wind were so cold, I had no choice but to take shelter from the wind behind the walls of el faro. My greatest nemesis had become my only refuge. Oh cruel, cruel universe.
There was a brief break in the wind and I decided to head down. I trudged back towards the empty house. A dog barked. And then it happened: I saw a person. A real, live, human person emerging from the house. “DO YOU SELL DRINKS?” I shouted at this man in frantic, excited Spanish. I don’t know why I even asked. I knew he sold drinks. I read the sign. He nodded and ushered me in.
His house was quaint and basic but it seemed like a palace to me. He gave me something which vaguely resembled coffee and offered me food. Oh my goodness. Food. Genuine food. He cooked some fresh flatbreads and provided butter and squeezy ‘dulce de leche’ to go on top. I had never tasted anything so good.
His name was Manuel. Manuel was my favourite human being in the whole world. Manuel was the guardian of el faro and provider of snacks.
Manuel spoke no English and my Spanish is risibly basic, but we actually managed to have a decent conversation (by which I mean I spent 5 minutes figuring out how to ask something, and simply nodded and repeat back the words which I understand in his reply, to make it sound like I knew what was going on). He told me all about his life, how he had lived there for a while and how he likes it there, but does get lonely in the winter.
I shared my plans for the next few months and explain that I love whales (this tends to come up in my conversations quite a lot.) He smiled and pointed behind me to a huge bone resting on the wall – part of a whale spine! He then proceeded to show me his entire collection of whale bones collected from an old, giant skeleton he found at a nearby beach. He had even made some of them into mimic harpoons, as a throwback to the days when the indigenous peoples used whale bones to make weapons with which to hunt seals. It was truly fascinating. There I was at the end of the world, holding a conversation in Spanish about whales and history and stuff. I awarded myself several gold stars.
Lesson Five: Never ever rely on help from strangers to see you through a hike, but count your lucky stars if you come across someone willing.
He explained that it’s not tourist season yet and he hadn’t seen anyone for days. He smiled at the look of dawning comprehension on my face as I realized that I probably should have checked this, rather than rely on the information given by Mr man-in-the-shop.
Regardless, it was nice to know that at some point, el faro would be open to the public once more. I didn’t find it quite so loathsome anymore. Time drew on, we chatted for a couple of hours and I figured it was probably time to leave. He gifted me a piece of whale bone and I promised to return one day. We got the mandatory selfie in which I pulled my favourite fat hamster impression.
The hike back was even more treacherous on the way there as the wind, snow and hail persisted for the entire time. Nonetheless, I was actually very content and no longer felt like I might die. That’s always a nice place to be.
The sun came out once more at the end of the walk, and I made a small snowman which I named SnowManuel. A metaphorical tribute, I thought. As I walked away, a huge gust of wind blew and I looked back: SnowManuel was no more. I hoped it wasn’t a metaphor.
I arrived back at the ‘end of the road’ and I met a Chilean couple who had driven here with the intent of walking to el faro, but upon arrival in the terrible weather had decided against it. Maybe that’s the decision-making point at which I went wrong? I was able to hitch with them all the way back to Punta Arenas and, as soon as I got in the car, they insisted that I share their juice and biscuits.
Since that hike I have learned that this area was one where Spanish colonists tried to settle in 1584. 300 of them attempted to build a life here but due to the freezing, inhospitable conditions, most of them died of starvation or the cold. It has since been named “Puerto del Hambre” – Port Famine. They certainly got that one right.