When we planned our trip through South America, we chose Patagonia as one of our anchor points. Especially one of the treks in Torres del Paine National Park. It was supposed to be one of the highlights for trekking in South America.
After few months spent in Central and South America with a limited supply of quality tap water, we were happy to come to Chile and be able to fill our glasses with tap water. The only place where we were able to freely drink tap water was Medellin and Bogota in Colombia. All other countries south of the USA all the way down to the South Pole don’t guarantee the quality of tap water except some Colombian cities, Chile and Argentina.
So we had only a few options on the way, either we buy bottled water or use some type of purification system. We decided to use Lifestraw bottles with filters during all our travels in Central and South America to purify our water.
How does it work? You fill up the water bottle and close the lid. Through straw-like filter you can suck the water, really tiny holes than blocks bigger object to get through. You get mechanically filtered water. It is a really good system but it has a small downside. You have to suck harder to get the water through the straw.
We were happy that we could put our Lifestraw filters out of the bottles in Chile and easily drink without increased effort. After few weeks in Chile, we got used to drinking safe water from the tap. When we came to Puerto Natales (city closest to the national park) and started to prepare for our trek, we were informed from several sources that the water in the national park is very good, clean and safe to drink. We haven’t been quite convinced, but CONAF (National Park officials in Chile) and also a local guide said it’s safe to drink from the streams without a filter.
When we packed our gear into backpacks, we decided not to bring filters. By this time, we were used to the high quality of water and drank plenty of it in Chile without ever having a problem.
Trekking in Torres del Paine
We decided to do a shorter 5-day trek “W” because we recently did a lot of hiking and trekking along Carretera Austral and El Chalten in Argentina. We were tired but still wanted to see most of Torres del Paine National Park. On our first day, I tried to fill up water bottles on steep hills and smaller streams. They are safer to use than rivers. There is only ice and snow above small streams and there shouldn’t be any source of animal or human pollution.
On the second day, we started to realize that we might have made mistake not taking our filters. In our camp the second night we saw a lot of mice. We stored our food away but mice were still able to get in some of our food. We had to throw it away.
The next morning we found out that there are people camping high above the place where we took the water from. Even when there was no designated camping area, CONAF can issue a permit to camp there.
We started to question the water quality, but probably too late at this point. As we thought it shouldn’t get worse, on the third day when we got to our next camp, we saw a road for cars. Even the newest cars can lose fluids, pollute roads and then rain flushes it down the streams.
Nails in the coffin of water quality happened on last day when we saw horses carrying supplies to campgrounds. It wasn’t something unusual but everyday routine. Gauchos with their horses are carrying wood to the campsite almost every day. Horse’s feces ended up in the river after some time and people used those rivers as water sources.
How can the water be 100% safe to drink when horses are crossing the streams and camps are overgrowing with mice?
We would have been lucky not get sick from the water. It worked for Maya, but not for me. I spotted first symptoms about 10 days after our trek. At that moment I didn’t know what the symptoms are and what the disease is. We left Chile for New Zealand and I was thinking I’ll get better in a few days. Well, I didn’t and it actually got worse. I was feeling very tired, my stomach was bloated and I could only eat a little bit until I felt I’m full.
After some testing, doctors confirmed beaver fever (also called giardia). I knew right there in the doctor’s office where I got it – during our trek in Torres del Paine, that was the last time I drank water from a stream.
So the answer to the question how to get beaver fever in Torres del Paine is quite easy. There are so many possibilities to get giardia or some waterborne disease.
You cannot trust anybody that tells you stories unless you see it with your own eyes. As soon as you see people crossing water streams and any kind of animals around you, the water is not safe to drink without purifying it first.
There is no guaranty in nature that the water is clean to drink. We strongly suggest using one of the purification systems on the market. If I was using Lifestraw bottle during our trek in Torres del Paine, I would not get sick, felt horrible for 4 weeks and took antibiotics. We recommend carrying Lifestraw bottles for any of Torres del Paine treks and Patagonia.
There are people who drank from the same streams and didn’t get sick at all, but who knows in whom the bacteria will catch on the next time. I bet you don’t want to be the one. Better be safe than sorry.
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