The Project: Located in Valle Chacabuco, Chile, (just northeast of Cochrane, pop. 4000) the future Patagonia National Park is currently a project in progress by Conservacion Patagonica (CP), an organization run by Kris Tompkins. In 2004, CP bought a 173,000 acre sheep ranch in the Chacabuco valley, located between the existing Jeinemeni and Tamango National Reserves, and which was identified by the Chilean government as land of high biological importance. After about 100 years of intensive sheep farming, the land started becoming a desert and not enough grass was growing to feed the sheep populations. The Tompkins saw great potential for the area to become once again rich with native wildlife, and so when CP bought the property called Valle Chacabuco they sold off most of the livestock and started their efforts to restore and conserve the land. For the last nine years volunteers, local workers and CP have worked to take out fences throughout the property, remove invasive species, plant native species, perform biological research, build trails and a park infrastructure – and now the park shows great signs of being a significant national park to stand with South America’s best. 3000 guanacos now roam the valley (and will walk right up to you), Chile’s largest population of Lesser Rhea can be found in the east end of the park, and pumas, huemuls, vizcachas, black-necked swans, Chilean flamingos, pygmy owls, Andean condors, and a variety of other species are doing much better in this restored ecosystem, which is already being referred to as the “Serengeti of the Southern Cone”.
The current plan is to turn the land over to the government of Chile as a national park once it is ready, and it will include both Tamango National Reserve and Jeinemeni National Reserve to form one large national park consisting of 650,000 acres (250,000 hectares). Campgrounds, trails, and a lodge are now available to visit, but much of the park’s facilities are still under construction.
The Work: From January 4-25 of 2013 I was a volunteer at the park. They have an organized volunteer program that accepts volunteers for periods of three weeks, and the work changes each year based on the park’s needs. (There is a three-month volunteer program available as well). During my stay, we spent the first 12 days building four kilometers of new trail near Lago Chico. Then after a two-day break, we collected native seeds for four days in the main valley.
Over the course of 12 days, two of which were free days, we built 4km of trails near Lago Chico and Lago Cochrane. It was the start of what will eventually be a 20km loop trail (though I do not think this distance is set in stone). Our team of 12 volunteers and another team of 4 ‘senderistas’ (local trail-building experts) worked together for the project. We started building the trail through a forest and then, after a couple of stream crossings, the terrain turned more rocky and dry as it passed into a large valley leading towards Lago Cochrane. The mornings were cool and the days were mostly sunny and dry. The weather would have been considered perfect if it wasn’t for the fact that the sun attracted a constant barrage of horseflies. After 4km we were instructed to stop and instead perform minor touch-ups on the trail, making the trail as ready as we could get it for future hikers. The remaining kilometers of trail will be completed by future volunteer groups.
During the final 3.5 days of the volunteer program, we headed to a different area of the park to collect native coiron grass seeds. We would wander out alone or in small groups across a large area looking for the grass, sometimes leading us to small streams and waterfalls. It was a very simple task and allowed for plenty of ‘thinking time’ while your hands began to go into auto-mode, sliding up the grass stems to pluck off the seeds at the end, all while enjoying the quiet landscape. The seeds will be used by Conservacion Patagonica to be dispersed elsewhere in the park where degraded lands need more native vegetation.
I ended up only doing seed collection for one day as I stuck around the main camp to attend a meeting to discuss the energy systems for the park. At the moment the park runs off a diesel generator but their plans are to have a 20kW hydro turbine, 29kW of solar panels and possibly a small wind turbine as their sources of electricity. There’s a lot of work yet to be done on their energy systems and I'm sure progress has been made since then.
During our first free day, Janis (a German volunteer with whom I hitchhiked to Ushuaia after volunteering here) and I ascended the nearby Mt. Oportus. It took about 4.5 hours walking from where we were camping and the summit had incredible views of the surrounding valley, lakes and mountain ranges. We couldn’t have picked a better day to go up. The camp dog (who you can see in the photos) decided to follow and make the summit with us, so from then on we called him Opo. On the hike down he led us exactly along our trail back, and would even stop during parts that were a bit confusing so we could catch up. The GPS we took along was not needed.
On our second free day Janis and I hiked to Lago Chico, where the trail will eventually lead, and went for a swim. Again, we had perfect weather though the water was a bit chilly and had some leeches.
How you can help: There are two main ways you can help: to donate or to volunteer.
At the moment there is an excellent lodge at the park, though a bit expensive, and proceeds from the lodge are considered ‘donations’ for the time being. This is one way to donate and experience the park. CP also accepts donations directly.
If you have a bit more time and want a hands-on experience, volunteering is an excellent way to make a contribution to the park. There are two volunteer programs at the moment: a short-term program of 3 weeks (and you pay $20/day to cover food and program costs), and they also sometimes offer long-term options (for which you do not pay) which include teaching English, working in the greenhouse or lodge, or other types of work if you have skills to offer. Applications to volunteer are required about 9 months ahead of time, but check their website for details.
The park plans to open officially in 2015, but you can still come and visit and see the works-in-progress. It’s an amazing part of Chile and, though a bit far from everything, is worth the trip.