Wednesday, February 23, 2011

From the Lodge at Valle Chacabuco

Last August, I wrote about the new Lodge at Valle Chacabuco, part of the audacious new conservation project in Chile’s Aisén region, just northeast of the town of Cochrane. Estancia Valle Chacabuco is in the process of being turned into Parque Nacional Patagonia, which would incorporate the existing protected areas of Reserva Nacional Laguna Jeinimeni and Reserva Nacional Tamango, with its key huemul (Andean deer) habitat. This would create a nearly unbroken swath of protected areas totaling roughly 380,000 hectares, stretching almost from the town of Chile Chico, on Lago General Carrera, south to Lago Cochrane.

Estancia Valle Chacabuco is a former sheep ranch (now home to abundant herds of guanacos), acquired by conservationist Kris McDivitt Tompkins (pictured below, center, at the lodge) and the foundation Conservación Patagónica, who outbid Chilean interests concerned - or obsessed - with the Patagonian property acquisitions of McDivitt’s husband Doug Tompkins, creator of Parque Pumalín. The plan is to donate the land as a national park and they have already opened the shining new lodge, with a visitor center, campgrounds and a restaurant all under construction (all of these should be ready for the next austral summer). All facilities will, in the long run, be leased to concessionaires under the new national park regime.

I had visited the property a couple times before, once inauspiciuosly when a reckless employee of the former estancia hit my own car nearly head-on as I drove toward the Argentine border. The second time was a couple years ago, before any construction was underway. This was the first time, though, that I had a chance to see the lodge in person and spend a night there.

In its exterior style, the custom-built lodge is appropriate to a mountainous park on the cusp between the Patagonian steppe and the forested western Andes. Its interior resembles its counterpart at Estancia Rincón del Socorro, where the Tompkinses have employed Argentine architects and designers to transform an existing building at the Esteros del Iberá. Valle Chacabuco’s six rooms employ an understated rustic elegance, each with its own theme - mine (pictured above) displayed photographs from Parque Nacional Monte León, a wildlife-rich coastal reserve that the Tompkinses donated to Argentina’s national park system through the Fundación Vida Silvestre.

Having seen the changes in Valle Chacabuco, I’m impressed with the thought and effort put into the project, but I disagree with one aspect of it. In the long run, Conservación Patagónica plans to tear down all the existing buildings, including the woolshed (pictured above) and the houses (pictured below) that lodged the former estancia’s employees. While these buildings may be nondescript, and there may be numerous similar buildings scattered on both sides of the Andes, visitors to the park are not likely to see buildings on other estancias. Preserving the woolshed and at least one of the houses, furnished as it would have been when the ranch was still a wool producer, makes sense to me. Presumably, the visitor center will present this material, but that's not the same as seeing it on the ground.

In the course of my recent stay, I interviewed Kris McDivitt for about an hour. Unfortunately, because I’ve had my hands full with updating Moon Handbooks Patagonia, I’ve lacked the time to transcribe and edit the interview, which will likely have to wait until I return to California in April, or perhaps even a bit later.

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