Losing My Prince in El Chaltén: Lessons from Patagonia

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I have been collecting books in Spanish throughout my trip in Patagonia. Nothing too heavy since I have only my 40-liter backpack, but I adore books and my need for practicing Spanish justifies the purchases. Almost all of my money goes towards books and food.

One of the first books I bought in Patagonia was El Principito, or The Little Prince. I bought this book because I have adored it in English, and being able to read in Spanish at an 11-year-old level by the end of my two months here has seemed like a sufficient goal. I made my purchase in Ushuaia, my first stop in the south of the south, but it wasn’t until I began traveling northward again that I realized just how much they love this librito here.

The author, Antoine Saint-Exupéry, was a pilot who worked for many years just outside of Buenos Aires, and one of the first to travel to the remote regions of Patagonic Argentina and Chile.

There are roads in almost every pueblo of Patagonia named Saint-Exupéry.

El Chaltén’s most prized feature is the peak of Fitz Roy, and understandably so. I went on some of my favorite hikes in this region. The four peaks surrounding Fitz Roy are less celebrated, but all of them bear the names of men as well. One of them is Saint-Exupéry. An idealist such as myself can’t help but be endeared by a place with a mountain named for a children’s book author.

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El Chaltén is a young, tiny tourist town of Argentina, clinging to its existence within the Argentine borders by the power of government paperwork and the payment of its citizens to continue living there. A little piece of wild Patagonia, barely attached to society between the rocks and the wind that define and shape it. It is nestled in the mountains, where you can spend days hiking on 20, 30, 40 kilometer trails and never suffer exhaustion from thirst amidst the clearest glacier water the Earth can provide; without venturing on these traverses, you find yourself stuck in a village whose entirety is walkable in 30 minutes and whose residents somehow survive on a diet of bread, dulce de leche, and a sad assortment of dead vegetables that for some reason are still delivered in their unpalatable state to the grocery stores. But because it is a tourist town, you wlso find some of the cutest, damned cafes here.

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It was in this barely-town-of-Argentina that I lost my copy of El Principito.

I don’t suffer much for objects. I thought I might have lost my whole backpack in Ushuaia and aside from feeling a little filthy without my bath products, barely flinched. My possessions here are few and cheap. I blog from my smart phone most of the time. I alternate between two main outfits that I wash in bathroom sinks and air dry.

But the loss of a book, the loss of words, the loss of my nightly comfort and ritual, here in the shadow of a mountain bearing the author’s name, here in a quasi-real village with barely existent Wi-Fi, here where the supply chain and vegetables both come to die…this was too much, and I re-traced all my steps in this tiny village in search for it.

This book has been printed millions of times and is loved by even more millions of readers. I could buy it again in El Chaltén for 95 pesos or less than 8 US dollars. Its author, though fascinating in his own history, was a flawed and pained human being in his own lifetime. Having his name on a mountain makes him no greater a being than the rest of us. But this book I lost, this was my copy. I have invested my time and effort in it. I have treasured it, scratched it. And to cure my bitterness over my own carelessness, I tried in my soul to be a better person and hope some other traveler discovered it like a lucky omen and a piece of love and solace during a long, weary trip. And at any rate, modern, solo female travelers have no need for princes to embark on journeys such as this.

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It was my final night in El Chaltén. Most nights in my adulthood, I sleep like a rock, but at the restless, insomniac time of 3:30 am, I rose from my bed and wandered into the halls of my hostel. And for whatever compulsion, I dropped down on a couch in the hallway and casually began lifting its seat cushions.

There he was, my Principito.

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I spent my last day in El Chaltén on the shorter, easy trails and finding tasty food to eat very slowly as I passed the time before my 20 hour bus ride to El Bolsón. The last thing one would expect to find in a town with few fresh vegetables in a culture whose cuisine is dominated by meat is an amazing vegetarian restaurant flooded with fragrant, foreign spices. But if there’s anything worth knowing about the world, it’s that what we do not expect, we find, and just because we cannot see a thing coming before us hardly means it doesn’t exist.

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