The Patagonia of old is a place that conjures up images of impossibly clear skies, mountains for miles, iconic wildlife and thoughts of frozen glaciers that stretch until the end of the world. Its most famous spot, Torres del Paine National Park, is remote, snuggled between mountains and the Southern Patagonian Ice Fields, with a unique landscape featuring the ancient towers of the Paine motif, deep valleys and wetlands of the ilk found nowhere else in the world.
It has been declared a ‘must-visit’ destination by everyone from The Telegraph to The Huffington Post and Wanderlust, and is a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve. This astonishing pedigree has called visitors for dozens of years, dating back to 1879 when Lady Florence Dixie explored the park (and subsequently published the excellent Across Patagonia book), and continues at an alarming pace to this day. But Patagonia – just like many other natural wonders in the world – is under threat.
That threat would be us, specifically the 250,000 visitors who come to Torres del Paine national park each year, a number expected to increase by 10% annually. Drawn to the luxury hotels and golden tipped mountain towers that they see in photographs, few take heed of the impact they make upon the landscape. Calling Patagonia home is the puma (mountain lion), the camelid guanaco, and an extraordinary array of bird species, just to name a few, each who have developed a deeply co-existent balance inside the Park´s often inhospitable landscape.
During summer, its famed ‘W’ and ‘O’ circuits are trodden upon by 15,000 well-worn hiking boots a month, resulting in the destruction of current trails and the development of various unauthorised side trails that trample through what is essentially a very sensitive ecosystem. Litter also rears its head.
“Sometimes you see things like paper and tissues, but the worst are things like plastic and bottles,” EcoCamp Patagonia Community Manager (and proud eco warrior) Timothy Dhalleine explains, “People get sneaky – they hide their trash. That’s why it is so important to take your rubbish with you, and why events like the Fiesta de la Limpieza are so important for the area.”
He is referring to the regular clean-up event developed by freelance guide, Javier Rojel, and organized by the Local Tour Guides Guild Association of Puerto Natales. The regular volunteers clean up any mess left behind by rule-breaking tourists, including waste scattered by the wind and remnants of makeshift bathrooms. This annual event is supported by CONAF (Chile`s National Forest Association) and attracts sponsorship from various local outfits, including EcoCamp.
“The Patagonia of old is a place that conjures up images of impossibly clear skies, mountains for miles, iconic wildlife and thoughts of frozen glaciers that stretch until the end of the world.”
EcoCamp Patagonia is in itself a unique concept, designed to show people the beauty of the park while making as small an impact as possible, and it has been lauded by everyone from Conde Nast to Travel + Leisure magazine. They were the world’s first dome-shaped hotel accommodation, based upon the original dwellings of the Kaweskar indigenous tribes that originally inhabited all of western Patagonia for around 6,000 years – today there are just 5 ‘real’ Kaweskar left, all living in urban centres. This geodesic shape allowed the region’s notorious wind to run off and made it easy for the Kaweskar to move around nomadically in search of food.
EcoCamp is labelled a glamping/hotel hybrid, and you will notice that it is a little different to the hotels of norm which tend to pull you inside with luxuries. According to Javier Lopez, one of EcoCamp´s three owners, the primary attraction is of course the spectacular nature of the park, and so every element in the design of the camp has gone into keeping you submerged in its transformative power, from the wind that moves the pod’s sides to the large skylights that twinkle with stars and the complete absence of modern technology like wifi (the cheaper domes do not have electricity).
It is also completely sustainable, with ISO14001 accreditation, composting toilets, and the little electricity they use comes from solar panels and a micro hydro turbine – propane gas is used only to heat water but this will soon be changed to solar energy. EcoCamp also seeks to offer ‘off the beaten track’ small group excursions as a way to combat the trail erosion affecting the well-worn paths most visitors tread.
They also contribute to to the the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund, a non-profit organization that places 100% of its donations directly back into locally-led projects focused on sustainability. One of their big ongoing projects is reforestation, prompted by the destruction of so much of the park since 1985 due to man-made fires. In 2005 around 32,000 acres (7% of the park) were destroyed after a backpacker lit a gas stove in a prohibited area of the park, and prompted a five year reforestation project coordinated between Chile and the tourist`s home country of the Czech Republic.
“Patagonia’s famed W’ and ‘O’ circuits are trodden upon by 15,000 well-worn hiking boots a month, that trample through what is essentially a very sensitive ecosystem.”
In 2011 two further fires occurred – the first controlled by the rain while the second burnt another 40,000 acres and was battled by an international team of firefighters. In total, 1/5th of the park’s area has been destroyed as a result of these three fires, destroying forests of native lenga trees as well as countless animal homes, including that of the critically endangered huemul deer, a species found only in Chile and Argentina.
The Legacy Fund is also working on the promotion of recycling in the gateway town of Puerto Natales, home to just 20,000, whose infrastructure is at capacity due to the influx of tourists. In 2016 they worked with the municipality to create the town’s first recycling system, with 14 recycling centres working to divert 250,000kg of waste from the present struggling landfill.
As visitors – whether local or international – we have an obligation to respect the places we go.
Torres del Paine is jaw-droppingly beautiful, with rich diversity and the kind of sunrises and crisp air that you don’t find everywhere, but the sad reality is that we make an impact in this fragile world. Therefore it is up to us to decide just how large that impact will be. We can investigate where you put your money, and we can make these decisions based upon establishments and tour operators who are tackling the issues of waste management and trail erosion.
While hiking the rules are few but golden: make no fires and leave no rubbish, no matter how well you can bury it. It is up to us to protect this world – not just so our children can see it – but because it has a right to exist.
Helen Cordery is a Social Anthropology graduate based in Chile, where she raises her family and works as a writer. Read about her adventures at www.queridarecoleta.com.