Chris Moss, The Daily Telegraph, April 04, 2012
In Patagonia, on the night before Christmas Eve, I dreamt about the end of the world. You never know why bizarre thoughts assail you when you’re away from home, but I decided to blame the merkén, a potent allspice traditional to the Mapuche – southern Chile’s sole extant indigenous group – which I had sprinkled liberally on a slab of beef I’d eaten the night before.
Perhaps the Indians were punishing me for invading their El Dorado. I was in Aisén, Chile’s 11th region and the wildest and remotest corner of southern South America. Just south of Mapuche territory, it was once associated with Trapalanda, a magical city that appears in ships’ logs and explorers’ diaries during the 16th and 17th centuries. But Aisén also possesses a non-mythic mystique: while the Spanish and, later, Chileans settled all the territories north and south of here, they never quite got around to penetrating Aisén, and the sensation of being in a faraway frontier land persists.
Two days earlier I’d hired a pick-up at the region’s main airport, Balmaceda, and set off down the Carretera Austral, the southern highway. Thirty minutes out of the airport the wipers were fighting a hailstorm, and when the land rose slightly blizzard conditions descended. Thirty minutes later the sky cleared, so I put on my sunglasses and wound down the window. Trapalanda seemed rather a pleasant place, and then the asphalt ran out and I was on a high-altitude, narrow, barrier-free, rutted and pockmarked gravel road – and I would be on it for the next seven days.
There was, however, sufficient grandeur and beauty all around to distract me from even the bumpiest bits of the carretera. Mountains cloaked in southern beech trees stretched for mile after mile on either side of the road, rising to peaks of 10,000ft or 13,000ft, many capped with snow or glaciers. At Aisén’s latitude, the Andes are no longer a neat chain, as the watershed collapses into a jagged coastal landscape and rivers flow in all directions. As you drive, you occasionally catch a teasing glimpse of the northern ice field – a 1,600-square mile mega-glacier left over from the last ice age, and the source of all the changeable weather.
Closer to the road, but equally wondrous, was Lago General Carrera, the second-biggest lake in South America (after Titicaca), which Chile shares with Argentina (where it’s called Lago Buenos Aires). Spreading out over an immense valley, it is 60 miles long, 21 miles wide and nearly 2,000ft deep – and it is turquoise. The lake is affecting because of its ubiquity – it becomes your companion for days as you drive – but it got to me for its eeriness.
I saw only a few geese on its banks, met no fishermen and saw no boats break its surface. Few people seemed to live around its edges and on the far, eastern side, there were no roads or settlements. Many lakes are former glaciers but where, say, Windermere looks ancient and full of organic material, Lago General Carrera looks as though it melted just last week. At my first stop, Puerto Tranquilo, I dipped my toe into the lake with a view to a swim; it was heart-stoppingly icy.
I hung out in this sleepy townlet for two days, eating empanadas and drinking rough red wine. I fancied a hike but found no marked trails in the area. So I drove along a side-road to the much smaller Lago Tranquilo, parked, and set off to do a circuit. This lake was also turquoise and its surroundings even more tranquilo than those of the big one, but fortunately there was a rough track left by cattle. It was a strenuous hike, made complicated by rushing streams and undergrowth – the temperate rainforest of Chilean Patagonia is well-watered and besides the beeches there are cloying ferns and spiky bushes galore. But this was the first time I had lost myself in Aisén’s lovely, uninhabited landscape, and my salami sandwiches and flask of shiraz tasted all the better for the exercise.
My next pit-stop was on the banks of Río Baker (pronounced here to rhyme with “hacker”), Chile’s most voluminous watercourse. At its source, on the southern edge of Lago Bertrand, you see the river fast gaining speed and strength, the emerald waters churning up into whitetops and complex eddies patterning the surface. The lodge where I was staying lent me a boat and a pilot so that I could visit the confluence of the Baker and the Río Neff, which comes down from the ice field. We couldn’t risk getting too close in the little launch, so we moored it and scrambled along the banks. The meeting of two great rivers was a maelstrom that sent out a fearsome roar across the ravine, and had the frightening presence of raw, indomitable nature. I asked the pilot where it was on the white-water rafting grade system of one to six. “It must be seven,” he said.
On the journey back upstream we saw some gauchos tying up lambs for their Christmas Eve feast. This corner of Chile was partially settled in the early 20th century by Argentinians and shares some of that country’s customs, from the herdsmen’s clothes – berets, pantaloons – to the fact that everyone along the carretera seemed to be drinking mate, the herby green tea Argentinians have farmed in the subtropical north-east since the 16th century and to which they are universally addicted.
Now, at this stage, my trip down the Carretera Austral might easily have been just another fabulous Latin American driving holiday. But, back in the airport, and all along the road, I couldn’t help but notice large posters and, occasionally, graffiti announcing “Patagonia sin represas” – “Patagonia without dams”. I knew of past clashes between hydroelectric firms and ecologists in Chile’s lake district and had heard whispers of projects in Aisén but, from the hoardings, it seemed the campaign against a dam was heating up.
A left turn took me to the heart of the story. During our Christmas Eve dinner, my hosts at the lodge on the Río Baker had mentioned “Tompkins’s place”, just an hour’s drive away. They were referring to a new national park being developed by the billionaire philanthropists Doug Tompkins (the founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing empires) and his wife, Kris (the former chief executive of the outdoor gear firm Patagonia Inc). The American couple is well known in Chile and Argentina, having already established several parks and reserves and gifted them to the respective governments in perpetuity – always subject to the strictest agreements on conservation and development.
I don’t like to overplan my trips and had left a night free, so I decided to go and check out the new park-in-progress.
Turning left off the Carretera Austral, I left behind the riverine landscape and, in place of V-shaped valleys, beech forests and scraps of farmland, found myself in a huge golden bowl. Guanacos – cousins of the llama – galloped across a field dotted with lagoons, the mountains rippled purple and blue under slow-drifting clouds and indigenous coirón grasses waved in the breeze. Patches of dome-shaped cushion plants made for a Martian touch. I was, immediately in a tongue of arid Patagonian steppe stretching west from the great plains of Argentina, cutting through the Andes and reaching for the Pacific.
Just five or so miles down the road I came to “Tompkins’s place”. It was a typical rural estancia, though as well as classic corrugated-iron outhouses from the early 20th century there were newer, solid-looking grey stone lodges and administration buildings. I asked if there was any room at the main house. “Yes, I think so,” said Paula, the Chilean manager. “And how much is it?” I asked, clocking the expensive furniture, coffee-table books and well-stocked bar. “As much as you like,” she said. “We operate on a donation system for now. You pay what you want.”
“And whose is that plane?” was my final question, pointing to the single-prop parked at the end of a faint airstrip. “Doug’s here for Christmas,” said Paula.
Over two hours, Tompkins explained to me his vision for the park and his belief that the dam project would not go ahead because of corruption, legal obstacles and the simple fact that Chile doesn’t need it. “The energy is principally to feed the mines in the north, near Atacama,” he said. “But they should be producing it there, where they can produce hydrogen using the sun – it’s free, unlimited and burns absolutely clean. And it can be piped down to Santiago using a simple gas duct.”
He said the park being developed would be called the Parque Nacional Patagonia, making use of a 300-square mile swathe of former cattle-ranching land bought for $10 million (£6.3 million) by a trust run by Kris. “This property sits next to two national parks,” he said. “We combine Kris’s land with those and we have a park to rival Torres del Paine.”
The previous day, a fire lit by a tourist had caused massive damage in Torres del Paine, Chile’s best-known national park . A new park might take the pressure off that wilderness. On the other hand, more tourism in Aisén could lead to more fires. A dam, though, would be like an industrial revolution for Aisén and its people – out of context, out of kilter with the rest of the world and irreversible. Tompkins’s central argument was a credible compromise: sustainable tourism could keep it, if not paradisiacal, then at least hopeful.
When I’d set out down the southern highway, I’d been in a “let’s go all the way” mood. On a map, you can see the carretera snaking towards a lonely end-of-the-road place called Villa O’Higgins. But I decided to opt for time and peace and a few more hikes over distance and all-day driving. Following my meeting with Tompkins, I turned around and went back to the river and the lakes and the forest. The steppe was sedate and sublime, but Chilean Patagonia’s unique energy – not yet penned in and transmuted into electricity – lay in the valley. As Gabriela Mistral, Chile’s second most famous poet, declared in her landmark work “Selva Austral” (“Southern Forest”), “How great, and blue, and quiet… I never saw water stopped.”
I’d mentioned to Tompkins that he must have racked up a few million air miles – and a gargantuan carbon footprint – in his days as the jet-setting boss of Esprit and North Face. And the same went for his wife. “Yes, you’re right,” he said. “So I guess now we’re giving something back.” There was an odd symmetry in the idea that his desert-like dream of a park might keep the great river flowing; if Trapalanda is to retain any of its magic, the dam must never go ahead. All roads are scars on the landscape, but the Carretera Austral, if it can bring in tourist-protesters, might be Aisén’s salvation after all.
Chris Moss is the author of Patagonia: A Cultural History (Signal Books).
Journey Latin America (020 8747 8315; journeylatinamerica.co.uk ) and Turismo Chile arranged Chris Moss’s trip to Aisén. JLA offers a 13-day tailor-made trip, with five days’ self-drive in Aisén, from £4,255, including all flights, b & b accommodation and car hire, and a 17-day guided group tour of Aisén from £3,198, including flights, transport and accommodation (one-off departure: November 10).
See the websites of Conservación Patagonica ( conservacionpatagonica.org ) and the Conservation Land Trust ( theconservationlandtrust.org ) for more information about the Tompkins’s parks and conservation projects.