Take a trek through the mountains of El Bolson for an experience of minimal living.
I have recently become quite fascinated by a lifestyle called “minimalism”. Minimalism is about being conscientious of how we consume “stuff”. It is about keeping in-check our need to acquire possessions and about being mindful about the distinction between what we want and what we need. By releasing ourselves from the psychological attachments we have to so many unnecessary objects, we not only de-clutter the space around us, but we also de-clutter our minds. People who try to live by these principles have found that minimal living leads to a more meaningful life. A simpler life, but one more focussed on the important things. This is the essence of “Zen”.
The neuroscience of minimalism
Living minimally is not a magic cure but what neuroscience tells us is that its benefits come from a change in our attention. The brain attends to the objects we own in the same way that it attends to our body. Things that are “tagged” by the brain as being self-relevant receive preferential processing . A special electrical brain wave called the P300 spikes in response to owned goods, or even words that describe your personality. Just like we’re able to reflexively react in an instant to a “threat” (a kamikaze horse fly, for example) approaching our body, things that we own are privy to the same special brain treatment. The brain becomes vigilant when owned possessions are in sight. These objects beckon for our attention. They want to be used. It follows that if you own less stuff, the brain can relax and focus its attention on your self. Your real self. Your bodily self. You can become more mindful – aware, in a non-judgmental way, of your bodily sensations. Think what it feels like to breathe? When last did you calmly appreciate the predictability of your own heart beat?
In his famous work on the economics of how we come to value our possessions, David Kahneman describes the “endowment effect” which is the hypothesis that mere ownership makes us value an object more than the minute before it came into our possession. This sudden psychological attachment is explained by the fear of loss. The emotional experience of losing something that we own is more powerful than the anticipation of gaining something new. In the brain, the feeling of loss is regulated by declining levels of opioids and rising stress hormones. That panic-like experience when you suddenly realise your coveted camera with its un-backed up storage of images has been nabbed — that’s your body flooding with adrenalin and a drop in opioids. You feel like a hole has opened up inside of you. The amygdala, a tiny almond-shaped structure in the brain, becomes active, signalling fear. Your insula cortex starts pinging, shouting LOSS!
When we feel overwhelmed by stress in our lives, when the tasks we have to accomplish seem like imminent occasions for failure and loss (of reputation or others’ trust, even), hanging on to useless items may feel like our only way of putting up a “defence”. Like magical thinking, we believe these cherished items will soothe us and keep us safe. Much of this probably happens on an unconscious level. We feel better when we have more stuff. More distraction. Mindless shopping. Not surprisingly, compulsive “hoarding behaviour” is often seen in people with obsessive compulsive personality disorder, in which anxiety tends to be the core symptom. Studies have shown that in these patients, the fear of discarding items that may be of use to them in the future is what sustains the compulsion.
If we can liberate ourselves from the idea that material objects have any real connection to our mental well-being, we can take better control of our lives and focus on the things that matter. A break from materialism also means that there is less pressure to earn money. Do you have any thoughts on what really adds meaning to your life?
In many ways, travelling is an exercise in minimalism. You are forced to be highly selective about the possessions you keep with you. Even before you begin packing, the process of saving money for the trip requires that you watch your spending and repeatedly turn down the temptation to go shopping. There is the constant threat too of theft or damage that you have to make peace with, a fear exploited by insurance companies. Being on the road demands that you give up a lot of creature-comforts. At first it can be quite unnerving accepting that you will have to forego the luxury of an outfit for every possible occasion or an ointment for the full spectrum of imaginable bodily dilemmas. There is also the alarm (or is it sadness?) of living for so long without the books or memorabilia that we tend to dot around our homes and which come to feel like an extension of who we are. I have one such book tucked at the bottom of my backpack, I’m certain it will never be read. Because, even though I consider myself a seasoned traveller, I am yet to master the art of minimal packing. Somehow, several items always seem to be paramount to my wellbeing.
It doesn’t take long, though, to enjoy the liberation of travelling light… To not have to think too much about what you’ll wear each day or to keep track of so many belongings. In fact, you may find yourself wanting to rev it up a bit. To get out into the wilderness and free yourself of even more. Of traffic, commerce, concrete, even electricity, a comfortable bed or your favourite gourmet meals. Like us, people head out into the wilderness to experience the simple life. Back during our time in Cape Town, Mischa and I made a habit of spending weekends away in rustic dwellings in the countryside. A lonesome cabin in the mountains, for example. That’s where we headed straight after our wedding. The less amenities the better. Pure and simple living, that was what we needed to recharge our batteries. And so while in Patagonia, we were on the lookout for such places.
Near the hippy town of El Bolson (Argentina) there is a network of “refugios” (mountain cabins) and campsites in the splendid surrounding mountains which lack the crowds and hysteria of other famous treks, such as the Torres del Paine. El Bolson may not match up on the other-worldly rock formation front, but it offers a more peaceful experience, much like I imagine the Shire from The Hobbit does. If you’re looking for a few days of rustic, minimal living, this is the place to head to (But not so rustic as to not provide hot food, beer and wine…).
Here is some information if you want to go. Click here for a download with map.
How to get there: El Bolson is about 120km south of Bariloche. You can easily catch a bus from the main terminal and from there it’s a pleasant 2.5 hour ride. Once in El Bolson, you’ll need to catch a taxi to a place called Dona Rosa. The taxi driver will know where it is. Scroll to the bottom for a trekking map of El Bolson or download it here.
When to go: November to March. But, for tranquillity, try go out of the peak holiday season, either at the start of November or in March outside of Easter.
Cost per night: Refugios charge around 150 ARS for a bed or 40 ARS for camping. You cannot reserve a place in advance via the internet or a phone call. You must go to the Tourist Info Office in El Boslon to make sure there is availability. The office is on corner of the main plaza (Av. San Martin & Roca).
What to pack: Take a sleeping bag.
Food: Refugios sell hot meals for around 100ARS. There are also baked goods and freshly brewed beer. Very Shire-like in taste.
Day 1: trail to the Hielo Azul refugio. 6 hours, 15kms.
• Arrive at Dona Rosa.
• Walk for about 40 minutes and cross a bridge to reach the beginning of the trail. There will be a sign with a map on it.
• Uphill with no water points.
Day 2: Optional extra day hike (weather permitting) to the Glacier Hielo Azul and back, about 3 hours up, 2 down. If you have the time, do it! Why rush? Remember… the refugios serve wine and beer. And a glacier is a special thing to see.
Day 3: Trek to Cajon del Azul refugio. 15kms, 5 hours.
• The first hour is uphill. You will then arrive at the Refugio Natacion. Some people opt for combining day 2 with the hike to the glacier and then on to the Natacion refugio for the night.
• Its all downhill from refugio Natacion.
Day 4: From Cajon del Azul, hike back to Wharton, where you can catch a bus back to El Bolson. 10kms, 4 hours.
• Cajón del Azul is a place so quaint that you’ll enjoy fantasies about being at the Shire. There is the beautiful Rio Azul with crystal blue water holes and large sun-bathe-ready rocks. Don’t rush on. Why not spend a whole day here!? You can also take a detour for a night up to refugio Retamal for a more rustic experience.
• The hike back to Wharton is 4 hours, so you can spend some time at the river and make it back to catch the last bus back into town at 5/6pm. Check at the refugio about bus times.
• But, you may want to take it slow and spend a night at Refugio Playita, which is on the way to Wharton from Cajon del Azul, about 1 hour into the trek.
• Before you reach the final uphill ascent to Wharton, there is one more sublime spot… a majestic place serving icy real beer (not the Shire stuff) and hot tacos. I can’t recall the name but you can’t miss it.
Good to know tips:
The horseflies can be a real bother at times. Consider insect repellent.
Take lots of cash. There are many other refugios in the region and you may want to extend your trek.
Take a water bottle.
Don’t forget your sleeping bag…