In Chilean Patagonia, decadeslong private efforts to return the landscape to a wilder state have paid off with the creation of several national parks.
A wilderness of vast grasslands, snow-capped mountains, and glacial lakes, Chilean Patagonia just got a little wilder thanks to the largest-ever donation of private land to a country.
We have been hiking
for less than an hour when I start to smell beer. We’re in a remote corner of Chilean Patagonia, a hilly expanse of spear thistles and stony trails, of colorful coihue and lenga trees clinging to steep cliffs. The source of the smell is a mystery. We didn’t see a single other car on the hour’s drive here from our lodge, there are no footprints on the track, and there’s not a building in sight, never mind a pub. I want to assume we are out here alone. But something tells me that’s not the case.
Hans Rosas, our guide for the week, solves the puzzle— “Puma pee.” The yeasty aroma I had mistaken for beer is actually
the scent of a puma marking its territory. Recently. I start to get worried when we see fresh scat and paw prints on the track. But Hans is unfazed, even joking about where the big cat might position itself should it decide to pounce on us.
Incredibly, puma numbers in this part of South America are on the rise, despite the recent loss of one of their main food sources. In the not so distant past these fields were part of the 70,820-hectare Estancia Valle Chacabuco, a working ranch with tens of thousands of grazing sheep and cattle. The livestock was an easy target for pumas and other predators, who had a smorgasbord of slow-hoofed animals to choose from. But since Conservación Patagónica bought the estancia in 2004, things have changed significantly.
Nothing quite prepares
you for the drama of Chilean Patagonia, a surprisingly diverse ecosystem comprising everything from forests of southern beech to arid steppes, all backdropped by red-rock canyons, glaciated fjords, perennially snow-capped peaks, white- water rivers, and coastal volcanoes.
While most travelers make their way south to Torres del Paine National Park and its jawdropping ice fields, central and northern Patagonia are still relatively untouched. There are natural barriers—limited flights in and out of Santiago, rough roads, and sparse accommodation among them. And until recently, there was not much for tourists to actually do in this wilderness, with few marked walking trails and even fewer tour operators.
Conservationists Kris and Doug Tompkins —founder of outdoor gear company The North Face as well as co-founder of the Esprit fashion brand—felt an immediate connection with this corner of the country, relocating here from San Francisco in the early 1990s. “The expanse of the land, the fact that there were so few people … I felt something quite strong,” recalls Kris, who in 1993 retired as CEO of clothing company Patagonia, married Doug, and moved to Chile. “Doug was a ski racer and used to train in Chile in the off season. He got to know this part of the world well. When he retired in 1990, he knew he wanted to change his life and get out
of San Francisco. He started looking around for places to work in conservation, and ended up back here.”
Doug, who died in a kayaking accident in 2015 at the age of 72, first purchased part of what is now Pumalín Park, a 400,000-hectare nature reserve in Chile’s Palena province. “We had an idea of what we wanted to do, to ‘rewild’ this part of Patagonia,” Kris says. “But we never thought about working at the scale we’ve ended up at.”
That scale equates to more than two decades’ worth of conservation and regeneration projects that have resulted in the largest-ever donation of private land to a government, a landmark handover that took place at a ceremony in Pumalín earlier this year. The goal is to create one of the biggest national parks in the world. Unsurprisingly, getting to this stage was no easy feat.
After purchasing that first part of Pumalín, the Tompkins spent the next decade acquiring more than 287,730 hectares of property from absentee landowners to create the reserve that exists today. They also secured 84,175 hectares that eventually became part of Corcovado National Park, along the southern Chilean coast near the Corcovado volcano. And in 1998, they bought Estancia Yendegai in Tierra del Fuego, a conservation area that has since been transformed into a protected national park.
Two years later they founded Conservación Patagónica, a public organization with the goal of creating national parks and healthy economic opportunities for local communities throughout Chile. One of the organization’s first projects was Patagonia Park.
When Estancia Valle Chacabuco went on the market in 2004 in a biologically critical area of Aysen, it was one of the largest such estates in the country. It had suffered from more than a century of overgrazing: there were 30,000 sheep alone, plus cows and horses and other introduced species. Vast swaths of native forest had been burned to make way for grazing, the soil was damaged, there was virtually no grassland left, and native animals had either fled or been killed.
“We thought this would be an extraordinary conservation opportunity,” Kris says. “I
also thought it was too big. But we bought it and got started here.” She adds, “Because it was so large, the estancia had a lot of emblematic power locally. So people were really unhappy; they thought that cultural value would be gone and we would ‘ take it out of production.’ I always say that’s not true—we’re just changing what it produces.”
In the years that followed, the Tompkins and hundreds of volunteers donated their time to cleaning up and regenerating the land, restoring habitats, and promoting wildlife recovery. There was a heavy emphasis on community engagement, involving locals in the process and educating them on what was being done and why. More than 645 kilometers of fencing has been removed, and while 40 percent of flora is still exotic, native species are making a comeback, including 72 types of orchids, Antarctic beech, prickly heath, and Chilean fire trees.
Around 10 percent of the country’s huemul deer now call the park home, along with some 2,000 llama-like guanacos, culpeo foxes, armadillos, caracara, flamingos, Andean condors, and even a couple of Darwin’s rheas, the large native ostrich species endemic to Patagonia. There are a healthy number of pumas as well.
Today, Patagonia Park includes roughly 80,935 hectares of grassland, forests, and mountains surrounding the Chacabuco Valley. There is a strict limit on the number of visitors, with a maximum of 200 in the park at any given time. But there’s also new tourist infrastructure to support them, including the lovely stone-walled Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, plus well-equipped camping grounds and seven designated hiking trails, with more being built.
The track we share with at least one puma is Aviles, a 16-kilometer loop connecting the Chacabuco Valley with Jeinimeni Reserve to the north. It couldn’t be more stunning. The Aviles River cuts a tight gorge through the hills; we cross it on a hanging bridge suspended 30 meters above the water. While we’re walking, Kris is back in Pumalín, shaking hands with Chilean president Michelle Bachelet and donating the very soil we’re on back to the country. In March this year, Kris handed over all of Conservación Patagónica’s land in Chile—more
than one million acres (404,685 hectares)—to the government, which in turn pledged a further 10 million acres with the goal of turning it into national parkland. The total area to be protected is three times the size of Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks combined.
With the addition of this acreage, Chile will climb the ranks in countries with the highest percentage of protected land, comparable in proportion to Costa Rica. “The transition will take a couple of years, though,” Kris says. “You can’t take 11 million acres and fashion it in a short period of time.”
When fully executed, the agreement will create five new national parks, including Pumalín and Patagonia Park and the world-class infrastructure they contain. Patagonia Park will bridge the gap between two existing reserves, Jeinimeni and Tamango, to create a national park three times its current size—bigger than Torres del Paine, and almost the same size as Yosemite in California. The agreement will also expand three other protected areas: two existing national parks (Hornopirén and Corcovado) and one national reserve (Alacalufes). Moreover, a collection of lodges, visitor centers, hiking tracks, and campgrounds worth tens of millions of dollars will be added to accommodate growing tourist numbers.
The ultimate goal is to create the “Route of Parks,” a 17-park network spanning more than 2,415 kilometers from Puerto Montt (just north of Pumalín) to Cape Horn—a vast protected wilderness that Chilean citizens, nature lovers, global adventurers, and tourists from around the world can enjoy. “It really encompasses almost every ecotone that one would find in the south of the country,” says Kris of the planned network. Though not contiguous, it will cover an area slightly larger than Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic National Park.
According to a study commissioned by Tompkins Conservation (the organization overseeing the Tompkins’ multiple conservation projects), it has the potential to generate US$270 million in annual ecotourism-related revenue and employ up to 43,000 people in the region.
“All our land here was always destined to go to national parks,” Kris says. “We’ve had a pretty outrageous reaction to the land donation, but in a good way. I hope it gives people the reminder that you need to act, because things are quite urgent ecologically. You can’t love and tour these places and have a great time and then just leave them behind and think someone else will take care of them. We don’t have the luxury of entertaining ourselves through tourism without being mindful of our personal responsibilities.”
this picture: Local flora; safarichic decor at Patagonia Park’s Lodge at Valle Chacabuco; hiking in the surrounding mountains.
Above, from left: The 16-kilometer Aviles loop track joins the Chacabuco Valley with Jeinimeni Reserve to the north; a bedroom at the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco; a boatman on General Carrera Lake on the outskirts of Patagonia Park; guanacos roam the grounds of the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco.