The mighty Alerce Tree
I’m not sure if it’s the name, by Big Woods – or rather big tree always attract me. This part of Patagonia is home to the coniferous Alerce Tree (False Larch). Just like the Redwoods of the US west coast, these majestic trees can grow for over 4000 years and reach heights up to 70metres. They grow about 1mm a year.
They are a marvelous demonstration of nature, that were prized by the Spanish colonists, due to their characteristics of being attractive, easily worked, water and insect resistant. As such the Spaniards and Chileans since then have used them extensively for shipbuilding and for constructing churches and other key buildings (such as the churches in Chiloe that we visited).
With the growth of both legal and illegal logging, the Alerce is facing a worrying future. Thankfully the tree is now protected by the Chilean government, but that does not guarantee in anyway its future.
The Mapuche indigenous community call the tree Lawen, and believe it is sacred.
Parque Nacional Pumalín
Last time I was here in 1997 I met an amazing and inspirational guy called Doug Tompkins. At that time I had no idea who he was, but I enjoyed his company. Since then Doug has become a real hero to me, to Chile and a role model for the world.
Doug was the CEO of Northface and left to form the Esprit clothing business. In 1991 he and his wife (ex CEO of Patagonia) used their wealth to buy a 17,000 hectares of temperate rainforest that has since expanded to over 400,000 hectares and has become the Parque Nacional Pumalin. Faced with massive resistance from the logging companies, the Chilean government and at times the locals, Tompkins and his wife have developed a showpiece of a park system. With expert biologists, and excellent park facilities (camping, walking paths, visitor centers etc, Pumalin shows the Chilean government and the world how a park should be run.
Sadly, Tompkins died last year in a tragic Kayaking accident. His wife and the trust he built continue on with his legacy and the work of protecting the forest. By coincidence, the trust officially hands over the park to the Chilean Government, who now have the responsibility and tough task to keep driving forward the project. Thankfully the current and future Presidents both have taken this as a golden opportunity. This great article in the Guardian explains the situation in detail: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/jan/29/chile-creates-five-national-parks-in-patagonia
The park takes its name from the Puma or mountain lion that inhabits these parts. More information: http://www.parquepumalin.cl/en/
We visited the park with an excellent eco tour company based on Chaiten, who I totally recommend. Our excellent guide Igor – gave us a brilliant tour delivering depths of information and great stories about the trees, plants, indigenous community and current political struggles. We visited the Sendero Los Alerces, the Cascadas Escondidas and had a sunset glass of wine on the lovely Santa Barbara beach.
In 2008, the Chaiten Volcano erupted showering the town with ash, but more tragically releasing massive landslides of snow, rocks and ash from the mountainsides that crashed down cutting the town in half. Luckily the town was evacuated and now one died, but it was destroyed.
Chaiten previously had 4000 inhabitants, and slowly bit by bit it is recovering. Today there are approximately 2000 people, and it’s back to being a wonderful place to live. Not surprisingly the government has faced harsh criticism for the slow response and lack of funding to restore the city.
Another disaster strikes the community
Just before Christmas this year, the melting Yelcho glaciar released a massive landslide of mud, rocks and snow that destroyed the village of Santa Lucia, approx. 80 kilometers down the Carretera Austral. Sadly, this killed 32 people, and many more are feared dead.
Consequently, the Carretera Austral is cut in half. There is a launch that ferries people across the Lago Yelcho connecting with buses to get to Futaleufu (5hours). As the buses/boats are very full at the moment with tourists, it’s very tough to get your bike onboard. As such we had to choose option B which was to get a free 7hour Transporte Austral ferry from Chaiten to Puerto Raul Marin Barmaceda, and then a 59km Ripio to get back on to the Carretera Austral at La Junta (a 150km detour).
It was a shame to have to leave so quickly. The community really need a holistic and sustainable tourism strategy to take them to the next phase of development. Eco-Adventures invited me to share ideas and a path to do this, but sadly we had to get on with our journey. I promised to share some ideas. Perhaps that’s a very good reason to come