Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Weekend at Piñera's

Doug Tompkins may have started something. Since the US environmental philanthropist succeeded in having Parque Pumalín declared a formal nature sanctuary under Chilean law, Sebastián Piñera - elected Chile’s president in 2010 - has created his own private nature reserve in the virtually roadless southwestern sector of the Isla Grande de Chiloé. This past weekend, for the first time, I visited Piñera's Parque Tantauco.

Since acquiring the property and declaring it a park in 2006, Piñera - who consulted with Tompkins about the project - has built an attractive guesthouse, an elegant campground with modern bathrooms and a spacious quincho for cooking, several hiking trails, and a series of refugios (shelters) along those trails for hikers who brave the park’s nearly incessant rain and soggy forests. At the same time, he’s created a plant nursery to reforest areas damaged by fire and logging, principally near the park’s overland entrance at Chaiguata, near the city of Quellón.

The park’s nucleus is its headquarters at Caleta Inío, a settlement created some 30 years ago to exploit the area’s extensive kelp beds. Accessible only by foot or motor launch from Quellón (2.5 to six hours away, depending on the vessel), Inío has a permanent population of about 50. Many of them are now park employees; others benefit from the park’s presence by offering lodging, meals, and handicrafts for sale. Given Inío’s isolation, they also benefit because Tantauco’s daily launch takes them to and from Quellón for free, on a space available basis (paying passengers have priority).

During my weekend, I stayed at the park guesthouse (pictured above), which offers only bed and breakfast, unlike Pumalín (which has a full-scale restaurant). I took my meals from the simpática Doña Silda Cadín, whose kitchen produced far better food than I had any expectations for. Her greenhouse cucumbers and tomatoes, for instance, formed the basis of superb salads, and her carbonada (beef stew) and grilled fish were as good as, or better than, any restaurant in Quellón. She also offers decent accommodations, with full board and even satellite TV in the evening, for less than US$40 pp.

On arrival at Inío, I took a three-hour hike on the Sendero Punta Rocosa (pictured above), a trail that climbs to a solar-powered lighthouse erected by the park and then loops through rocky headlands punctuated by several small, secluded beaches. Tantauco, in fact, may have some of South America’s most beautiful secluded beaches, even if the South Pacific at this latitude is a bit too chilly for swimming except on the warmest summer days.

Though Tantauco’s really in its early days, one trek appears likely to become an instant classic: several hikers I met, almost all of them Chileans, had completed the five-day, 52-km Sendero Transversal from Chaiguata (reachable by bus from Quellón) to Caleta Inío, where they would catch the launch back to Quellón. En route, they stayed at the four simple refugios, which eliminate the need to carry a tent. The shelters also have cooking facilities and latrines (not flush toilets).

At first glance, the daily distances suggested - ranging from 7.5 to 15 km per day - sound pretty modest for experienced hikers at low altitudes (the trail’s highest point is only about 250 meters above sea level). That’s misleading, though, because a good part of the route crosses soggy (sometimes muddy) terrain and involves climbing up, over and down fallen tree trunks. Many but not nearly all of those trunks have steps cut into them, even then, they are often slippery and require caution to avoid spills and sprains (both of which I experienced over the weekend). In some areas, boardwalks, bridges and staircases make things easier.

Another option is the Sendero Quilantar (pictured above), a two-day, 22-km loop from Caleta Inío that includes a night at Refugio Quilantar; I hiked part of this route on Sunday. All trails are clearly marked with bright metallic triangles every 100 meters; at regular intervals, these also have numbers that indicate progress along the route. Still, given the area’s copious rainfall and winter storms that often knock down trees, maintenance is a major issue.

Combined with whale-watching in the Golfo de Corcovado, Parque Tantauco could make Quellón a notable eco-tourism destination. At the same time, Tantauco lacks some of the attention to detail that Tompkins brings to Pumalín and his other projects - Tantauco’s guesthouse, for instance, lacks double-paned windows, there are no books (though there are bookshelves), and there are no towels (bring your own). Electricity comes from a diesel generator (there are no suitable sites for a hydropower turbine, but wind power is a real possibility here).

It’s hard to imagine that Piñera can’t afford a wind turbine for Tantauco - his fortune, made largely through LAN Airlines and the pioneering implementation of credit card payment systems in Chile, must be immeasurably larger than Tompkins’s. On the other hand, for the Chilean president, Tantauco is just one of many projects; conservation appears to be Tompkins’s principal life goal.

In any event, I would recommend visiting Tantauco sooner, rather than later, before it’s become a fixture on the international eco-tourism circuit. If not, though, there may be at least one other option - across the Golfo de Corcovado, near the even more isolated settlement of Melimoyu, the Sociedad Naturalista Patagonia is assembling a 100,000-hectare ecological reserve in and around the 2400-meter Cerro Melimoyu. Sebastián Yancovic Pakarati, one of the of the Sendero Transversal hikers I met at Inío, is working on that project, which is not yet open to the public (in fact, from the website, it’s not clear that it ever will be). Sebastián, interestingly, is of Croatian and Rapanui (Easter Island) descent.

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