Torres Del Popular

Torres Del Popular // Eco Tourism in Torres Del Paine Chile - August 2016

Is all Exposure To Nature good Exposure? 

Torres Del Paine is a wild land, overlooking the patagonian ice fields it is shadowed by stunning lenticular cloud formations, and towering granite giants. It exists at the southern tip of the continent, and is home to puma, the endangered huemel deer, and though generally remote it is often a short term stop for between 200,000 and 300,000 migratory humans each year. 

The area is protected under a National Park status by the the Chilean Government, and its unique beauty has prompted rampant growth in the local eco-tourism industry. Look to any major outdoor brand and you will find photos of the park somewhere in their social media newsfeeds. The amount of attention is well deserved, but resulting visitors in the last three years has put a huge amount of pressure on the ecosystem. 

There is a lot of discussion about the private vs public national park system in Chile, and the sustainability of the current trajectory of Torres Del Paine. The public system is failing. Privately owned businesses are moving in to capitalize, and local NGO’s like Puerto Natales’s Legacy Fund are there picking up the slack doing the maintenance work the government hasn’t set a budget for, and the company’s that operate within the park boundaries are ignoring.

It is great that Patagonia can inspire so many people, and I used to think any exposure to nature, especially for people who may not have the opportunity to spend much time in the wilderness is positive. We as humans care about what we know, and to create a caring population we need to provide opportunities to connect with the environment around us. However sending first time campers and individuals from urban centres into the Patagonian “outback” (and I use that term loosely, as there are full cabins and porters available to enjoy.) has repercussions that are impossible to ignore, yet difficult to solve.

While I hiked the famous ‘W’ trek with a few other thousand individuals at the end of March 2016, I watched people wash dishes in the river we are all drinking from, and light their camping stove under a highly flammable tent fly. I saw the trail turn into a trench through different stretches dug out just by the foot traffic and the degradation really question made me question how positive the impact of people here really is.

Half the park was burnt in a devastating fire in 2015 set by an irresponsible tourist, and park rangers have closed trails because inexperienced and ill-prepared hikers kept needing to be rescued. There was a few hushed Noro virus outbreaks over this last summer season, and somewhere between the thousands of selfies and the boxed wine dinners shared between travellers all over the world, we’ve forgotten that getting into nature is important as protecting it. 

I’ve tried to think of solutions, and the only thing I can think of is better education and a higher price tag. 

Shortly after leaving Chile I walked Canada’s West Coast Trail - the permit fee about $150.00 when ferry fees are factored in, is four times higher than Torres and a cap at 70 hikers a day is set for the season May-September. Every hiker has to sit through an hour long orientation which was done by park staff and not a quick video. 

The experience in Canada contrasted Chile in so many ways and I now believe that an informed exposure to nature is good exposure. 

Torres del Paine was spectacular to witness, but there is so much more going on there than just a beautiful landscape. Tent city at the Paine grande campsite is a rainbow of shelters and absolutely beautiful, but like the receding glacier if things continue the way they are it won't last like this for long. 

Supporting organizations like the legacy fund are incredibly important in Southern Patagonia, as the world more globalized everyday. Teaching initiatives, restoration and planned tourism growth will be the only way to save the worlds most historic, and travelled sites.