A road trip on Chile's wild new Route of Parks

A road trip along Chile’s new Route of Parks takes travellers to the ends of earth. The brainchild of a visionary conservationist, this is a journey that snakes through 17 national parks, showcasing one of our planet’s most extensive wild frontiers.Monday, 16 September 2019

During his five-year voyage around the world, Darwin stopped in Patagonia, on the southern tip of South America, and wrote these words: ‘No one can stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body.’

Patagonia has that effect on you. It isn’t part of the ordered world; this is a boundless land, pristine and desolate, unrivalled in grandeur and scale, untouched by progress and industry and cement and steel. This is a place where nature is still king. You come to Patagonia to feel the wildness of the world untainted by human touch.

Now there’s a new way to see it: the Route of Parks, South America’s most spectacular road trip. Launched at the end of 2018, the 1,700-mile trail — mostly dirt track — is an amalgamation of three existing long-distance scenic routes through Chilean Patagonia: the Carretera Austral in the north, and the Patagonian Channels and End of the World Route in the south. To do the whole thing in one go would take a month or more. So, I decided to tackle just the northern section, heading from Puerto Montt, at the region’s northern boundary, to the edge of the Southern Patagonian Icefield — 700 miles straight down in three spectacular weeks. 

This section is special because it’s still relatively untouched by tourism. Say the name Patagonia and most people think of Torres del Paine National Park in the south. It’s rightly famous: spectacular granite towers rise from the Patagonian steppe like the spires of some vast cathedral. Up here, it’s different. Tourism is still in its infancy — it feels adventurous and raw. And, arguably, the landscape is at its most dramatic and varied too: the lush rainforests and coastal fjords of the Chilean Lake District gradually giving way to the high peaks of the Andes. But this is far more than just a pretty drive. The Route of Parks is the realisation of one of the biggest and most audacious conservation dreams ever conceived.

It started with one man. Doug Tompkins was a rebel. Kicked out of school at 17, he set off to climb, ski and kayak the world. At the age of 23, frustrated with the lack of outdoor gear available to the mainstream market, he and his first wife, Susie, set up the original The North Face shop, in San Francisco, selling climbing and camping equipment. Esprit, a clothing company, followed shortly afterwards. Both ended up as globally recognised brands, earning their founders a fortune. 

But, like a true rebel, Doug gave it all up, sick of “selling people countless things they don’t need”, as he put it. Instead, in the early 1990s, he and his second wife, Kristine, who’d run the clothing company Patagonia for 20 years, sold up, moved to Chile and began buying up wild land there, with the aim of protecting it from development. Then, in January 2018, they did something no one saw coming: they gave it back.

Last year, the Tompkins Foundation donated one million acres of wild land to the Chilean people, the largest private land donation in history, on the condition that it would be matched by a further nine million from the Chilean government and used to create five new national parks and expand three existing ones in the region. This new land now links together a total of 17 national parks in the region, 28 million acres in all, from Puerto Montt, in the north, to Cape Horn, on the southern tip of the continent — one of the largest swathes of contiguous protected wilderness on the planet.

Tragically, Doug didn’t live to see his dream come to fruition; he died in 2015, after falling into freezing water on a kayaking trip on Patagonia’s General Carrera Lake. Instead, it was Kristine who ensured his audacious plan came to pass. “The Route of Parks strings together some of the wildest places left on earth,” she would tell me later in the journey. This is more than a road trip. This is a pilgrimage through one the planet’s last wild frontiers.

The first major stop on the Route is Pumalín Douglas Tompkins National Park, named in honour both of its founder and the big cats that roam these forests. I see it first in glimpses from the water, 100 miles and three ferries south of Puerto Montt: steep mountain slopes squeeze the ocean on both sides. Black summits dusted in white snow poke through the mist.

This was the first parcel of land the Tompkins purchased, back in 1991, and it’s among the more accessible areas. I hiked to rushing waterfalls, climbed rocky viewpoints along the coast and walked on the slopes of the Chaitén volcano, whose summit crater has been steaming since it erupted in 2008, sending a plume of ash 10 miles into the atmosphere. The highlight, though, was the alerces. These enormous trees, southern relatives of the giant sequoia, are among the longest-living organisms on earth. The tiny hamlet of Caleta Gonzalo is the gateway to the park — seven hobbit-sized cabanas, a restaurant, campground and visitor centre on the water’s edge. Nearby, I found a grove of hundreds of 3,000-year-old trees, draped in moss, soaring hundreds of feet to the sky. A thousand years before the first stones of London were laid, these trees had their roots in the ground. They predate the Roman Empire, Buddha and Jesus Christ. I hiked deep into the forest and found an old giant. Touching its bark was like reaching back in time. 

From there, I followed the road south for a week, my car climbing from thick jungle steam to serrated towers. I hiked to the Hanging Glacier of Queulat National Park, a spectacular river of ice, gaping over a 200ft-high cliff, like a frozen tongue. I saw the sunset over Cerro Castillo National Reserve, a perfect rooster’s comb of rocky peaks, completely devoid of crowds. I found a cave containing 7,000-year-old hand prints, left by the Tehuelches, the original inhabitants of Patagonia, and watched the confluence of two rivers, the bright blue Baker and silty grey Nef, combine, like a magician’s trick, into the brightest turquoise I’ve ever seen.

“Reversing to let him pass — half my tyre balanced on nothing more than optimism and thin air — was motoring Russian roulette”

For brief sections there was tarmac, but mostly the road was bumpy, muddy and wild. From the small frontier town of Chile Chico to the lakeside village of Puerto Guadal it was borderline suicidal. Picture a muddy road, barely wide enough to fit a car, hewn from enormous sea cliffs, crumbling on the edges like a frayed shirt. Picture no barriers on the sides — or worse, the occasional section with a car-shaped hole punched through it, signposting the spot where a hapless motorist had plummeted hundreds of feet down the sheer cliff face. Now picture me, sweating profusely, white-knuckling the wheel around a narrow bend, when a truck appears. Going in the opposite direction. If driving forwards was bad, reversing along the outer edge to let him pass — half my tyre balanced on nothing more than optimism and thin air — was motoring Russian roulette. 

But that’s part of the adventure. You don’t drive the Route of Parks for a smooth ride, you drive it because almost no one does, because coach loads of tourists can’t and, hopefully, never will. You drive it because, like climbing mountains to see the summit view, the best adventures are always hard-earned.

Big country, small communities

Not that I was roughing it all the time. Following a new itinerary from Spain and Latin America specialist Pura Aventura, Route of the Parks Uncovered, I had my own 4x4, a map and enough freedom to find, and occasionally lose, my own way. Which meant days immersed in the wild, nights tucked up in family-run guest houses offering home-cooked meals and generous pourings of silky Chilean wine. These included Posada Queulat, whose six snug cabins are surrounded by rainforest and waterfalls; and El Mirador de Guadal, a lodge with private verandas gazing across Patagonia’s highest peaks. 

Then, a perfect South American moment. Patagonia National Park, 40 miles south of Puerto Guadal, is the Tompkins’ crowning glory. “It’s extraordinary, because there are very few places within the region that have such diversity,” Kristine told me. “Lakes, rivers, mountain peaks, grasslands, the Northern Icefield, endemic species, huge fossil beds — they’re all here.”

“As the grassland has regenerated, the wildlife has returned: guanacos, Andean condors, pumas and the critically endangered huemul deer ”

But what’s truly special about the park is what they’re doing with it. When the Tompkins purchased the land in 2004, the Chacabuco Valley had been decimated by decades of sheep and cattle ranching. Their genius was not to manage its restoration by hand, but rather to let it rewild: tear down the fences, kick out the cattle and sheep, and then let the land simply be, and heal itself. And it’s working. As the grassland has regenerated, the wildlife has returned: guanacos (funny, red-furred llama-like creatures), Andean condors, pumas and the critically endangered huemul deer. I hiked the park’s flagship path, the 14-mile Lagunas Altas Trail, a 3,000ft ascent from the valley to a high summit ridge, and found all of Patagonia’s wonders — emerald lakes, sparkling icefields, an amphitheatre of Andean peaks. I could feel the land humming, feel the regrowth, the rebirth, the return of native species and balance buzzing in the air.

But such rapid transformation may have a cost. One of the most alluring aspects of driving the Route of Parks are the small communities you pass along the way, most of whom are still following a traditional, rural way of life — tending small farms, living in hand-built shacks by the side of the road. I watch gauchos in flat caps on horseback herding sheep and cattle to pasture. Many of these people see the Tompkins’ plan as a threat to their traditional livelihood. 

That’s where the Route of Parks comes in. Essentially, this is the eco-tourism arm of the Tompkins’ conservation dream, which aims to ensure local communities are connected, and invested, in the preservation of their own wild land. They’re hoping to inspire the gauchos to turn into part-time guides, villages to build B&Bs, restaurants and other tourist infrastructure. It’s looking hopeful: the project is projected to generate around $270m (£222.5m) annually in tourism revenue and create more than 40,000 jobs, proving that economics and conservation can be good bedfellows, after all. This isn’t just eco-idealism, this is a call to action.

From Patagonia National Park, the route heads 150 miles south to the town of Villa O’Higgins, which marks the end of its northern section. From here, a ferry will take you to the southern section where the landscape changes again to the windswept pampas and vast emptiness of the far south. But I detoured to the west for an alternative, and arguably, far more romantic finish to this northern stretch.

When the legendary English travel writer Bruce Chatwin wrote of this region in his seminal book In Patagonia as ‘the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origin’, he was surely describing the village of Tortel: no cars, no roads; a tiny settlement of approximately 300 souls built entirely on stilts around an idyllic bay. It was like finding an oasis at the ends of the earth.

Although I’d reached the end of the road, I hadn’t reached the end of the adventure. Further south still, accessible only by boat, was the Jorge Montt Glacier, on the edge of the Southern Patagonian Icefield — one of the largest non-polar bodies of ice in the world. Captain Noel, a local man whose family has lived in Tortel for generations, agreed to take me out on his handmade wooden ship for a night on the ice. But this wasn’t just any old dinghy. Featuring a large lounge with panoramic windows, four cosy cabins below deck, a wood-burning stove (yes, on a wooden boat) and a first mate who doubles as a gourmet cook, this was the Patagonian equivalent of a luxury cruise liner. For two days, we were completely alone. We moored on remote beaches to fetch fresh water from mountain cascades and chipped glacier ice to cool our cocktails. In the evenings, Noel taught me to fish the traditional way with spool and line. In the mornings, we kayaked around icebergs glowing neon blue from minerals in the ice, as if lit up from within. 

Kayaking around icebergs is one thing, getting hit by one in the middle of the night is something else altogether. Peace and stars, the comfort of my bunk, and then suddenly a sound like an earthquake ripping the side of the boat in half, shouts in Spanish and people running about on deck above. I raced up, visions of the Titanic flooding my brain. But I needn’t have worried. Noel just shrugged. There were no leaks. I guess getting hit by icebergs is the price you pay for coming to this remote wilderness.

But nothing compared to the drama of Jorge Montt itself. On our last day, we boarded a small, open-sided rigid inflatable boat that had been towed behind the main vessel, weaving through a bay of icebergs until we came to a rocky peninsula. We moored and scrambled on all fours to a viewpoint above the ice; Jorge Montt sparkling in the sun like glitter. Noel turned to me with a look of surprise, explaining he’s never climbed this peak despite a lifetime exploring these waters.

That’s why you make the journey to this far-flung spot. Doug Tompkins called national parks “the gold standard of conservation… preserving the masterpieces of a nation for all of its citizenry”. But as I stood on the edge of that great icefield, surrounded by some of the last unexplored corners of the globe, I realised that the Route of Parks is something more than that too. In Europe and America, national parks are cultivated for human recreation. That’s not entirely the case here. The vast majority of terrain the Route crosses has never been explored, there are countless unclimbed peaks, endless miles of unchartered terrain. There’s something right about that. In this ordered world of progress and industry and cement and steel, there should be places that remain untouched. There should be places where nature is still king. That’s the solitude that moved Darwin. That’s the flag in the ground

ESSENTIALS

Getting there & around
British Airways flies nonstop from Heathrow to Santiago. LATAM flies daily from Santiago to Puerto Montt.      

Average flight time: 14h30m.

Car hire is essential to see the Route of Parks as public transport is limited and unreliable. A 4x4 and a good paper map are highly recommended. Puerto Montt airport has rental offices. 

When to go
Patagonia is a vast region, so the climate varies considerably. Broadly speaking, the northern zone is semi-arid, with an annual average temperature of 12-20C. The southern zone has a cold, dry climate, averaging 4-13C throughout the year.

More info
chile.travel   

rutadelosparques.org

How to do it
Pura Aventura’s 21-day Route of the Parks Uncovered trip costs from £5,987 per person, including internal flights, accommodation, 4x4 hire, guided excursions and some meals. Excludes international flights. 

Published in the October 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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