At the risk of sounding cliche, Patagonia is magic. Where else can you see skies this vast, glaciers this ancient, wildlife this stunning or a mountain vista so dripping in otherworldly power that it transfixes you and makes it impossible to look away? Eyes just are not big enough to fully appreciate the spellbinding qualities of this isolated, wild spot hanging off the edge of the world at the bottom of Chile and Argentina.
Just getting here to Torres del Paine National Park has been a mission. A three hour flight to Punta Arenas followed by a five hour transfer – while comfortable – takes dedication. Perhaps this is a good thing, as the park already sees traffic of some 250,000 people each year and trail erosion, habitat destruction, waste and water contamination have been some of the tourist residue affecting the UNESCO Biosphere Reserve.
Tourism in the area is a contentious topic, with local economies thriving (including that of Chile – Torres del Paine is the country’s number one attraction), but the reality is that park visitors have dramatically affected the park´s landscape. Three devastating fires over the last thirteen years have destroyed 1/5th of its total area, an area that the critically endangered huemul (South Andean Deer), puma (mountain lion), guanaco (a type of camelid), skunk, along with 23 other mammals, 118 bird species (like the comical rhea), and a wealth of fauna types all call home.
The park itself is a fragile ecosystem, battered by 80km/h winds and 1000-3000 mm annual rainfall and freezing winter temperatures. There are four distinct areas: Patagonian Steppe, Pre-Andean Shrubland, Magellanic Deciduous Forest, and Andean Desert, as well as unique wetlands of the type found nowhere else in the world.
The park´s most famous sight, the Paine motif, are granite towers formed from 13 million-year-old magma and glacial forces. The Cordillera del Paine mountains are sliced by valleys such as the Valley of Frances, and forests of lenga beech, pumilio and scrub.
It was originally settled by the Kaweskar, a nomadic people who occupied all of Western Patagonia for 6000 years, who originally built dome-shaped movable houses that allowed the volatiles winds to slide off. Inside, they would gather around a central fire whose smoke would disperse through a hole in the roof. They had a rich language with different dialects and a strong preference for storytelling, and they lived in small family-based groups. They hunted deer, scrounged for eggs, and used canoes to hunt for sea lions and otters, among other things. In 1959 NASA was interested in developing a way for their astronauts to survive if they crashed on a frozen planet, and made some studies on the Kaweskars ability to withstand Patagonia´s extreme cold. They discovered that the human body is able to withstand and adapt to various conditions, such as in the case of the Kaweskar. Unfortunately, there are only 5 Kaweskar left that still speak the language and follow the culture, living in the small fishing community of Puerto Eden.
While there are various trekking outlets and hotels (mostly owned by Kusanovic family), given the many issues that face the park it makes sense to opt for a business that has sustainability at its heart. Enter EcoCamp Patagonia, an award-winning hotel/glamping hybrid situated in the Torres del Paine park itself Based on the original dwellings of the kaweskar, their domes were the first of their kind in the world, in 1991 setting off the wave of geodesic accommodation that can now be found worldwide. The camp is also fully sustainable, attaining the fist ISO14001 certification in Chile (and the only in Patagonia) and follows this eco philosophy across every aspect of its function. It has composting toilets and a full recycling program (it sorts its waste all the way in Punta Arenas and sometimes in Puerto Montt), and sources 98% of its energy from solar and hydro sources (it is registered carbon neutral). So-called ¨black water¨ from toilets are treated to become compost, while the ¨gray water is filtered and used again. Refrigerators are the Camp´s biggest energy sucker, and so to keep their environmental impact low they forbid the use of electrical appliances such as hairdryers and heaters. The domes were built on wooden platforms to make for easy dismantle and contain no concrete – even the walkways are raised.
There are 33 domes, the cheapest being the Standard which makes for the deepest immersion into the park´s nature. These rooms have no electricity and rely entirely on the patterns of the sun for light (bring a torch if you plan on some night-time reading!), created with the intention to keep the guest as in-tune with nature as possible. The Superior domes are larger and have heating, while the Suites are créme de la créme, perfect for relaxing after a long trek.
In terms of outdoor activities, Torres del Paine is one of the most beautiful spots in the world to interact with nature. From EcoCamp you can track wild horses or pumas, take a photography tour, trek the famous ´W´ or ´O´ circuit, or go for longer, more intense programmes that include sea kayaking, mountain climbing; they also promote all-inclusive travel, with special assistance for blind or wheelchair-bound guests.
These are the kind of trips that happen once in a lifetime. That´s why you should do it right, go for sustainability and quality over price, and see it from the perspective not of a tourist, but as a human being, an Earth animal going back to its roots away from the trappings of wifi, social media and work stresses.
The Nitty Gritty
For more about composting toilets, read this.
For more about EcoCamp, visit here.
To watch a video about EcoCamp have a look here.
To see some of the amazing tours in Patagonia, take a look at this.
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