“GIVE ME YOUR HAND, and close your eyes,” urges my guide, Mario. I turn and look at him dubiously. We’re barely an hour into a six-hour hike in Chile’s Huerquehue National Park. I had taken the lead on the well-marked Los Lagos trail, keeping my gaze down to ensure that I wouldn’t trip on a tree root at my speedy pace. Hiking, for me, has always been one part moving meditation, one part high-intensity workout. I get lost in my own head and connect with my breath as I climb, my heart rate rising.
Mario’s request to play this game irks me, as I’m starting to feel a chill. But as I walk back toward him, I can’t help but smile. Mario is dressed like an old-school Patagonian explorer, down to his wraparound Sherpa sunglasses and oversized pack. He isn’t more than 30, but I can tell he’s wise beyond his years—with a patience and calm I envy. Mario reaches out one mitten-covered hand to grab hold of mine.
“Now close your eyes,” he coaxes. This seems like a dangerous game, as the trail is about to slope steeply downhill. “I won’t be able to see anything,” I counter.
“You aren’t seeing anything other than your boots at the pace you’re hiking,” he scolds. “You don’t need to see to be present. You need to slow down so you can appreciate the forest.”
Like many travelers, I had come to Pucón, Chile’s adventure-sports capital, seeking adrenaline-fueled fun to complement my morning yoga classes at Hacienda Hotel Vira Vira, where I was staying. Located in Chile’s Lake District, this vast wilderness is considered a mecca for kayaking, hiking, and skiing with its crystal lakes, ancient forests, and snowcrowned volcanoes. Yet here I was, in one of the region’s most famous parks, walking at a snail’s pace with my eyes closed.
I’ve known Mario less than 48 hours, and already I’m at his mercy. “In the wilderness, trust is instinctual,” he says with such conviction that the tension in my jaw and body are released as I give in and trust him. In my self-imposed darkness, every sense becomes heightened. I feel the squish of the earth, damp with snowmelt, beneath my gaiter-covered boots. Instead of the thumping of my own heartbeat, I hear a different hammering. I yank on Mario’s mitten to pause. “Magellan woodpecker,” he tells me. “Nature’s jackhammer.”
After 20 minutes of blindly navigating river crossings and slick downhill slopes, I’m instructed to open my eyes. The scenery seems twice as vibrant as it was when we’d started. As I take it in, Mario pulls out a thermos of espresso. “At this rate, we’ll be lucky to be back by dinner,” I tease. “But what is the rush?” he questions, and I know he is right. Why not relax and be in the moment?
And so I find myself, over the next few days, applying the mindfulness I practice each morning on my yoga mat to my adventures with Mario. I scrap my original plan to skin up to the snowy summit of Volcano Villarrica, an all-day endeavor, and compromise with a two-hour ascent a quarter-way up by snowshoe. When I pick up the pace, Mario teases that my competitiveness has once again kicked in, but I promise I’m only moving so fast because of the cold. Later that day, Mario surprises me with a stop at some local hot springs, where we spend hours soaking in steamy waters and gazing at the surrounding forest canyon.
“And you wanted to freeze your butt off skiing all the way to the top of an active volcano?” he teases me.
The truth is, I skinned up that mountain the following day. Yet with each grueling breath on my way up and each exhilarating turn on my way down, I had a newfound ability to appreciate what was happening in each moment. Rather than indulging my mind in its endless chatter, I breathed in the crisp air, admired the way the snow shimmered in the sunlight, and shared a frozen smile with other skiers schussing by. And more than a few times, I even closed my eyes.