Chile: Parque Pumalin

The ParkParque Pumalín, or Pumalín Park, is an 803,000 acre private nature reserve owned by The Conservation Land Trust. Over the last 21 years, the trust and its president Douglas Tompkins have worked to create a high-quality park and conservation area of temperate rainforests, glacier-covered mountains, and pristine rivers.

Entry to the park is free and there are many campgrounds throughout the park as well as a few cabanas at which you can stay. The infrastructure within the park is of the highest quality. In Caleta Gonzalo, there is a restaurant with very good dinners, soups, homemade pies and real coffee, and a gift shop and information center sits across from the restaurant. Prices are a bit high but it’s the only place for hot food around.  For more information on places to stay in the park, see here.

The park is in temperate rainforest and receives over 20ft of rainfall per year, so make sure to bring your rain gear and warm clothes. Fires are not permitted in the park so also be sure to bring a camping stove if you plan to eat hot food.  Information on places to stay, how to get there, and the trail system are all available on Parque Pumalín’s website.

History: Doug Tompkins (founder of clothing companies Esprit and The North Face) bought a 42,000 acre parcel of land called the Reñihué Ranch in 1991. The land was pristine temperate rainforest and Doug wanted to keep it that way.  In 1992 he founded the Conservation Land Trust (CLT), which is a Californian-based land trust that works to restore and conserve land in Chile and Argentina.  CLT added another 700,000 acres over the next 10 years to form Parque Pumalín.  Since the 1990s, Doug and his wife Kris (former CEO of clothing company Patagonia for 12 years, and founder of the land trust Conservación Patagónica), have worked with their current respective organizations to turn parks over to the governments of Chile and Argentina. They also have several parks-in-progress under their management which are still privately owned reserves.

Parque Pumalín has faced much controversy since its founding, primarily because the land stretches from the sea to the border of Argentina, virtually splitting Chile in half. Despite various rumors that the Tompkins had other goals besides nature conservation, the park was declared a Nature Sanctuary on August 19, 2005 by the Chilean government. CLT then donated the lands to Fundacion Pumalín, a Chilean nongovernmental organization, who administers and manages the preservation of the park, similarly to a national park but under private ownership.

In 1990 Doug formed the Foundation for Deep Ecology, which is an organization with a goal to promote the ideals of the philosophy known as Deep Ecology. It’s a hard philosophy to define as one of its aims is to respect diversity of any kind, and part of that diversity includes different opinions as to what Deep Ecology actually is. Many books have been written about the philosophy (I highly recommend “Deep Ecology for the 21stCentury”, a collection of essays compiled by George Sessions) and many interpretations of what the philosophy means are provided within those books, but a common theme is the preservation of wild nature, regardless of its use to man. CLT works to conserve areas where land and the life that lives on that land can continue to evolve.  Obviously the conservation of large tracts of land will be controversial and the Tompkins have ruffled some feathers along the way, but many view their struggle as just the start of a paradigm shift amongst humans and how we view the rest of nature.

We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect
— Aldo Leopold

My visit: First of all, I’d like to say that Parque Pumalín has been high on my radar for several years now. Probably 6-7 years ago, I wondered what I’d hypothetically do if I had an absurd amount of money.  I decided that I would buy as much land as I could and just keep it natural, or restore it to its natural state. Shortly thereafter, I was reading a magazine and came across an article about Douglas Tompkins and his projects in South America. It turns out that my idea was not so original after all, and Doug was already 15 years deep into restoring and conserving land throughout Chile and Argentina, and the most notable project was Pumalín. When I saw the website for the park and a few of the images, it quickly became a place that I had to see for myself.  Six years later, here I am…

So getting to Pumalín was my first challenge. I was already on the island of Chiloé, which is across the Gulf of Corcovado from Pumalín, and there was supposedly a ferry that would take me to Chaitén directly from Quellón. After speaking to a number of people, I learned that the ferry got stuck in mud a few days prior and they did not know when it would be back up and running. So I had to take a bus back to Puerto Montt, and then down to Hornopirén from there. I arrived in Caleta Gonzalo by the Kemel Bus / Naviera Austral ferry combination from Hornopirén. Apparently this route has only been open for the last year and previous visitors always needed to come up from Chaitén, unless they hired a private charter from the north.

The ferry ride to Caleta Gonzalo was windy, rainy and incredibly beautiful. Mist-covered, fully forested mountains loomed on each side of the Comau and Reñihué Fiords that you pass through along the way. Caleta Gonzalo was in a small bay with waterfalls, mountains, and a sense of true wilderness that was felt immediately. The rain and wind added to the atmosphere. I had met an American couple in Hornopirén and we decided to camp together in Pumalín for a couple of nights, so after quickly getting an introduction to the park from the restaurant staff, we headed over to the campgrounds at Caleta Gonzalo. The path to the campground was well constructed and even had small lights to show the trail and bridge that crossed Rio Gonzalo. The campground had grass-covered camping areas separated by trees for privacy, and had two bathrooms with showers (cold) in different areas of the campground.

My immediate impression was that it was one of the nicest campgrounds I had seen, and this impression expanded to include the entire park’s campgrounds and trails; all were of very high quality and well constructed.

After our night at Caleta Gonzalo, we bussed it to Las Cascadas Escondidas campground and stayed a night there. From there are three trails. The closest, the trailhead of which leaves from the campground, is called Las Cascadas Escondidas (the hidden waterfalls), which leads to two incredible waterfalls and takes about 1 – 1.5 hours round trip.

The trail is fairly steep and contains wooded walkways and stairs most of the route, so it can be particularly slippery when it’s raining. The second trail is Los Alerces, which starts 1.5km north of Las Cascadas Escondidas campground, along the Carretera Austral. The trailhead contains a large sign and is unmissable. Los Alerces is a quick 25min loop trail that allows close access to some of the few remaining and easily accessible Alerce trees – large fireproof trees that can exceed 200ft in height and that were heavily logged throughout Chile and Argentina due to their value for timber, but programs are now in place to protect and restore their population in Patagonia.

The third trail is called Tronador, which I did not have a chance to do. The trailhead is 2km north of Las Cascadas Escondidas campground (or 12km south of Caleta Gonzalo) and, after a steep climb, leads to an amphitheater lake with a small campground.

For my next three nights I left the American couple and went to El Volcán campground, 29km south of Caleta Gonzalo and 29km north of Chaitén. The campground is a 2.5km walk from its entrance sign on the Carretera and is located in a beautiful valley that was previously deforested by workers from the Carretera construction crew. The campground is surrounded by breathtaking mountains. To the north is the glacier-covered Michinmahuida volcano and to the southeast is the Chaitén volcano, which erupted in 2008 covering the nearby town of Chaitén in several feet of mud. I had this campground to myself for three nights.

There was one SUV that drove through and waved at me on my second day, but that was it. Granted it did rain all day and all night 5 out of my 6 days in Pumalín, but as long as I wore waterproofs, I was dry and able to have one of the most beautiful settings I’ve seen practically all to myself. Within El Volcán campground is an Interpretive Trail, which with a guide shows you various flora species in the area. And then a 5km walk south along the Carretera takes you to the trailhead for Chaitén volcano. I went up this on my second day and it was a surreal experience, being that the volcano erupted in May 2008. Thousands of burnt tree trunks still stood on the sides of the volcano and the surrounding mountains, and lush green ferns and other plants thickly covered the ground.

As I neared the crater, the soil became much more gravelly, with bits of obsidian and volcanic rock scattered about. Upon reaching the crater, clouds, drizzle and wind had moved in so I was not able to take many photographs, but the site was impressive. The crater is apparently about 2 kilometers in diameter and a large lava dome sits in the middle. The lava dome is something like 300m (900ft) in height, and is red and gray in color. I didn’t realize what I was looking at until I showed my pictures to someone when I got to the town of Chaitén. Surrounding the lava dome was what looked like gray mud. Apparently the volcano is still on “orange” alert and considered dangerous, but the hike was incredible and it was amazing to see how fast life is bouncing back since the eruption.

So those were my six days in Pumalín. I spoke with the park manager about volunteering there, and they do have some programs they were developing for longer-term volunteers (at least four weeks). It is probably best to contact them directly or visit their website to see what opportunities are currently available.

Oh and on a final note, when arriving in Chaitén I was basically out of food and money, and most restaurants, supermarkets, and hostels there were not accepting credit cards, perhaps because they were still recovering from the 2008 eruption.  The ATM there did not accept Visa cards, and apparently the closest ATM (going south) that does is in Coyhaique, a 10-hour bus ride south. Luckily I found another American couple that offered to drive me there as they were headed in that direction, and I was able to reimburse them for some gas along with way with my credit card. Just a word of warning for those that are traveling south from here: bring enough money to give you ample time to get from Pumalín to Coyhaique without rushing, and check beforehand whether most of the ATMs in Chilean Patagonia still do not accept Visa.

Another quote that might (or might not depending on your diverse opinion) be related to Deep Ecology:

A human being is part of the whole called by us universe … We experience ourselves, our thoughts and feelings as something separate from the rest. A kind of optical delusion of consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from the prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. The true value of a human being is determined by the measure and the sense in which they have obtained liberation from the self. We shall require a substantially new manner of thinking if humanity is to survive.
— Albert Einstein