This program combines academic and experiential learning. We will conduct our studies while traveling and living in one of the most exceptional natural and cultural environments in the world: remote Argentina and Chile. Students will develop their understanding of the flora and natural history of this area through direct field experience, the teachings of the instructor, local experts, required readings, class seminars, and group discussions. The experiential mode includes the careful observation of the biology and ecology of Patagonia and the local cultures. Academic learning is more demanding on the road, in the backcountry, and in a foreign country than it is on campus in the U.S. Learning in the field requires students to derive understanding from experience, an approach that may run counter to one's previous formal education. The experiential aspect of the program includes the observation of rural and backcountry life in the Andes, working with Argentine and Chilean assistants, students, and biologists, and becoming familiar with local and national customs and culture. This approach to learning requires students to be mature, responsible,determined, perceptive, motivated, and patient. We will be experiencing a new culture where customary approaches ranging from food preparation to problem solving differ from what we are used to.While this will enrich our experience, we must be prepared for the challenges inherent in a new cultural setting.
Because of the nature of this program, we will do a lot of backpacking. Some horse packing might also be involved depending upon group preferences, transportation options, and safety concerns, but it will never be a requirement. We will hike and pack into scenic and remote Andean valleys, explore high ridges and set up a series of base camps. A sense of adventure, the willingness to endure some hardships and inconveniences, and the flexibility to adapt to shifting circumstances will be essential. Because of our focus on wilderness education and the need to always work as a team in remote backcountry areas, students will put previous experience to work as well as cultivate new leadership skills. The dynamic that this type of group learning evokes is always unique and is an educational experience in itself. With it come the challenges inherent in every group endeavor, but also come rewards that are impossible to attain anywhere else. Enrollment is limited to 12 students to encourage learning.
Though it is not required for acceptance, knowledge of some Spanish would be extremely helpful on this program, as it is the national language of both Argentina and Chile. Classes will be taught in english, but there will be ample opportunity to practice Spanish at all levels (from beginning to advanced), and spanish speaking students in the group will be expected to assist in translation. Both Argentines and Chileans are very spirited people and the language difference has never, in my experience, hindered friendly and fruitful exchange. For your own benefit, however, we strongly urge learning/practicing some Spanish prior to your arrival in Argentina, even if this is limited to the use of beginning language tapes. We suggest if time allows that students enroll in one of the very inexpensive, intensive one-on-one Spanish schools in Argentina or Chile. More information about these schools is available upon acceptance.
Please remember that these are academic programs. Learning in the field is very exciting, but remember that coursework is extensive and faculty expectations are high. You should be prepared to work hard with quizzes, exams, and class presentations as part of the process. Also, we want to have a great time together as a group. Drugs of any kind, or inappropriate personal conduct, are not part of the Sierra Institute experience. The Sierra Institute reserves the right to dismiss anyone who is a danger to the land, herself/himself, or other group members.
We will traverse the South American continental divide, from the austere beauty of the dry steppe and plateaus of the Argentine rain-shadow up over into the lush temperate dry- and rainforests of southern Chile. The heat of the Argentine summer will call for cool clothing that also offers protection from the intense sunlight (the ozone layer is notably thinner in this part of the world than in North America) of Patagonia, though the nights are often quite cool. We can expect cool weather temperatures that range from 35° - 60° F and warmer weather temperatures that can reach upper 90°’s, but generally range from 70° - 80° F. Depending on the year, rainy or dry conditions may prevail, but extended rainy weather is unlikely. Temperatures vary dramatically with elevation.
One commonly comes across a specific adjective that is befitting the Patagonian plateau: “windswept.” The winds of this region are legendary and can quickly reduce both skin moisture levels and body heat. Once up in the mountains, the temperature is quite a bit cooler, particularly at night and inclement weather can develop with little or no warning. It is also not unheard of to have some snowfall at higher elevations in the Andean Summer. Additionally, the moist, tall, forests of the west side of the Andes are the result of high levels of precipitation. Bring layers of clothing that are appropriate for the described range of environmental extremes. You will want to come prepared for all of these possibilities. An equipment list will be sent upon acceptance.
In Argentina, we will spend our time in the northwestern region of the province of Neuquen (roughly 40 degrees south latitude) where the pampas meet the Andes. This is an area of exceptional natural beauty.
In southern Chile we will explore a variety of forest/vegetation types in a few different locations near the towns of Pucon, Osorno, and Puerto Mont. Our itinerary will take us to drier, high elevation Araucaria araucana forests (“monkey puzzle trees”) and into various examples of the Chile’s temperate rainforests, historically dominated by Nothofagus spp. (“southern beech”) and Fitzroya cupressoides (“alerce”). The latter is known to be the oldest living tree species, second only to the North American Pinus longaeva (“bristlecone pine”) of southern California and southwestern Nevada.
Patagonia in general is safe to travel in. Traveling in the remote Patagonian backcountry, however, is challenging, somewhat similar to backpacking in places like Alaska or Canada. You will be farther away from roads, communication networks, and safety services (emergency teams, evacuation and medical response, hospitals, etc.) than in the U.S. If an accident occurs, your instructors and classmates will likely be the first responders. I am trained in wilderness first aid but am not a health-care professional. In addition, many of the backcountry trailheads will not have vehicles parked at them because we will be dropped off and picked up by hired drivers. The Patagonian backcountry does not have a well-developed trail system and many of our routes involve cross-country travel over steep and rocky terrain. On trails we will always hike together and cross-country you will be required to hike in small groups led by an experienced North American, Argentine, or Chilean member of the support staff. (Please note that failure to follow safety directions from staff may result in dismissal from the program.) Before applying you need to be aware of the risks inherent in traveling in Third World Wilderness areas, including but not limited to difficulties obtaining medical treatment and other issues mentioned here.
Participants provide their own personal equipment. Group items (tents, stoves, pots) are shared by everyone and will be organized by the instructor. In brief you will need a backpack (large capacity, must hold your gear plus some group food and gear, preferably internal frame.); sleeping bag (15-25°); sleeping pad (not a Thermarest); light weight or medium weight boots (all leather best or partially nylon uppers); rain gear; personal first aid supplies; flashlight and batteries; water bottles; daypack; stuff sacks; knife; binoculars; vitamins; watch; and a duffel bag. A detailed equipment list will be sent upon acceptance.
Plan to bring at least $800 to cover food and water expenses. We can change some US currency into Argentine pesos while in Zapala, but exchanging money in Buenos Aires is highly recommended. Some vendors in Argentina will accept U.S. Dollars, but be prepared to do the math. At the time of this writing, the current exchange rate for Argentine Pesos is 2.89 to 1 USD, and for Chilean Pesos 585 to 1 USD. In the town of Zapala, we will organize ourselves into shopping groups and prepare for our departure for the field. Details will be provided upon acceptance.