The Route of Parks in Chile connects 17 national parks and passes through diverse and beautiful landscapes. Right in the middle is Patagonia Park. We pay a visit.
I cannot say for sure how long we have been rolling along the road with the yellow center line: for six hours, seven or perhaps even nine? It feels like forever. But minutes and hours are all relative in this region dominated by great lakes, broad steppes and glaciated mountains. All that matters is the space opening out in front of us. “If you hurry through Patagonia, you lose your time,” says our guide and driver Jorge Lepio, sounding like a South American Confucius. Jorge, sparse of hair and dressed in a white ranger’s shirt, has been working in tourism for more than eleven years. When he speaks of his homeland, his voice takes on a saintly earnestness: “You can see your reflection here without looking in the mirror.”
A new national park system of gigantic dimensions was established here in early 2018. On the narrow strip of land between the Andes and the Pacific, its waterside frayed by countless lakes and fjords, the Ruta de los Parques (Route of Parks) follows the Carretera Austral highway and continues south for more than 2800 kilometers through 17 national parks. It extends from the forests in central Chile to Tierra del Fuego at the country’s southern tip. The Chilean part of Patagonia is almost entirely protected, and its parks cover 115 500 square kilometers of land, an area nearly three times the size of Switzerland.
After flying from Santiago to Balmaceda in the Aysén region, we are now driving the final 300 kilometers to Patagonia National Park by car. Roughly 3000 square kilometers in area, the park is relatively small, but it forms the heart of the national park route, since it connects the conservation areas to the north and south.
The new national park system was put in place by Chile’s former president Michelle Bachelet, who, during her final days in office in January 2018, signed a decree establishing five new national parks and expanding existing ones. Hikers, backpackers and cyclists can now travel the Route of Parks for weeks on end without ever leaving conservation land. There’s not much chance of them meeting anyone, either, because the ratio of people to square kilometers in Patagonia is roughly two to one. So on this road, you have to be able to endure solitude, stillness and emptiness. Traveling by car or at least by bike is preferable due to the huge distances between lodges and campsites.
We stop every so often to get out of the car and walk around, and see blackened, moss-covered tree stumps with fresh, new shoots sprouting from them and scraggy bushes bearing round, prickly fruit. In some places, the air is filled with the pungent smell of skunk. Creeks and rivulets colored brown by decomposing branches and leaves snake through the landscape. Today, the land is fertile once again. “Years ago, this area was completely deforested and overgrazed,” says Jorge, running his hand across the tops of the grasses that reach as high as his waist.
Back in the car, our 31-year-old ranger tells us stories about the area. We learn that the first settlers from Europe and North America arrived in the early 20th century; that ranchers burned down all the non-tropical rainforest to create pastureland, and sawmills turned it into paper and cellulose; and how, once the highway had been built, mining companies blasted open the surrounding mountains in search of copper, zinc and gold, and salmon farmers dumped their waste into the fjords.
Minutes and hours are relative – all that matters is wide-open space
Patagonia’s renaissance was due in large part also to Tompkins Conservation – a U.S. foundation that seeks to preserve natural ecosystems. It was created by multimillionaire Douglas Tompkins, who died in 2015, and his wife Kristine. Nearly thirty years ago, the cofounder of the fashion labels Esprit and The North Face sold his company shares and along with his wife, the long-time CEO of the outdoor label Patagonia, spent several hundred million dollars of their own private capital as well as donations on the purchase of land in Chile and Argentina. Little by little, they donated the land to the government. “If you want to preserve an ecosystem, then the reserve cannot be big enough,” says Kristine Tompkins.
The pair invested 65 million dollars in Patagonia Park alone, buying ranches, selling cattle and sheep, removing thousands of kilometers of fencing and barbed wire, and replanting native flora. Today, the region is a hikers’ paradise and not nearly as crowded as famous Torres del Paine national park. We are headed for Chacabuco Valley, where the Nef River, which flows out of the glaciers to the north, meets the Chacabuco and Cochrane Rivers to form an icy blue basin enclosed by towering granite canyon walls.
We stop for the night at a lodge built of local stone in the middle of the park. Like everywhere else on the site, power and warm water are produced by solar energy. The meat served in the restaurant comes from cattle that graze the surrounding valleys, the wine is regional and the vegetables are homegrown. One of three campsites is on a meadow two kilometers beyond the greenhouses. Those who choose to stay there will be joined by guanacos, a wild relative of the llama, that come to seek shade beneath the tall poplar trees during the day.
The following day, we set off on foot along one of the trails, of which there are six. We climb up to a high plateau with a view of Cerro Kristine, a peak named after the park’s cofounder. The trail runs through a picturesque, hilly landscape, where box-leaf barbary (calafate) blooms among the poplars, along with prickly heath (chaura) and Chilean firetree (notro), sarsaparille, porcelain orchids and flowering neneo bushes. Below us, the pampa is a sea of yellow coiron grass, in which the few crooked wooden huts, almost overgrown, are all but hidden from sight. On our return later in the day, we see meadows covered in red and green, their source of irrigation the short-lived lakes created by Andean streams. The region’s diverse native wildlife is also returning: Guanacos, once displaced by ranching activities, are growing more numerous again. Pumas, no longer hunted by humans, roam the mountains once more. Flamingos stalk through the shallow lakes, and orange and purple butterflies the size of your palm flit through the air while condors and black-necked swans circle above us. Even the huemul, a rare Andean deer and Chile’s national animal, has returned to the forests, although at one time, only a few dozen were said to still exist in Chile. From the car window, we get to see one standing just a few meters away. “It’s a female, and she’s pregnant,” whispers Jorge. “Aren’t we in luck!”
At first, local people were suspicious of the Tompkins and their activities. Many workers lost their jobs when the ranches were sold and the land was no longer used to raise cattle. Foreign workers were evidently brought in to help turn the land into a park and none of the people hired to work at the lodges were from the local population. Instead, they all came from northern Chile. Plus, the rooms were so expensive that no one from the area could ever afford to stay there. “The Tompkins pursued their plan relentlessly,” Jorge said, conceding: “perhaps that wasn’t the best way to go about it.” There is one thing that he is happy about, though: The foundation donated the land to the government on the one condition that it would preserve and protect it. If economic interests came into play, the land would have to be returned to the foundation. By now, Jorge says, many of the locals have come to understand that the park was created for everyone, not just for rich gringos. If local people ventured into the valleys of Chacabuco, they would be amazed by the plant and animal life around them, he says. “The Chileans recognize the importance of national parks,” says Jorge, and here, he’s also talking about the financial aspect. It has been estimated that the Route of Parks could create some 40 000 jobs and bring in revenues totaling roughly 270 million dollars. “We just have to make sure it’s sustainable tourism,” he adds.
We rounded off our trip by hiking the steep, stony, six-kilometer trail to Mirador Douglas Tompkins to see some more of Patagonia’s magnificent, wide-open country. We reach the lookout platform at an elevation of 500 meters and let ourself sink, sweaty and exhausted, onto the yellow grass. For a moment, it feels like we can see all the way to the horizon and even beyond. Before us lie deep blue Lake Cochrane with Victor Island at its center and the snow-covered slopes of Cerro San Lorenzo, Patagonia’s second tallest peak. Just beyond it: Argentina. And that’s where Kristine Tompkins wants to continue the good work of helping nature regain its rightful place.
Natural attractions on the Route of Parks
Rocky: the Cordillera del Paine mountains in Torres del Paine National Park.
Icy: Pío-XI glacier in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park is five kilometers long.
Protected: Cormorants and penguins breed on uninhabited Magdalena island.
Thundering: Queulat National Park is known for its abundant waterfalls.