Trouble In A Patagonian Paradise

March 11, 2018  •  Leave a Comment

Paine Massif from Laguna Verde A long time ago, in 1963 to be precise, only 2 years after I was born, a small team of climbers arrived in southern Patagonia to attempt the sheer granite walls of the Central Tower in Torres del Paine National Park, from which the now very famous park took it's name. Chris Bonnington, ( now Sir Chris ) who funnily enough served in the same regiment as my father in the 1950's, based in Germany, however I believe Bonnington was an officer, and my father not, and to make matters worse I  heard from a reliable source  that my father had emptied a type of high octane fuel into one of the officers jeeps ( possibly diesel with a difference for the tanks, details are unclear )  which when started roared into life then shot off with a somewhat shaken and stirred Captain at the wheel, and shortly after that exploded in the depths of a forest, I think my old man escaped punishment but I strongly doubt his future lay in the army anyway. After Bonnington left the services, he decided his future would involve a lot of climbing, and this of course proved to be the case, and the man is of course legend in world of mountaineering, but once when I asked my old man about Bonnington, all I got was " well he never liked to wash or shower, so a life in the mountains was perfect for him", I don't think they were mates, my old man loves showering and shaving on a very regular basis, so a close life long friendship forged in the wild of Germany during national service was never on the cards.

Anyway I digress, back to 1963,  Bonnington and his climbing buddy Don Whillans, by all accounts a right miserable sod, who could have a fight in an empty room ) successfully climbed the Central Tower, an incredible feat of skill and daring, even by todays standards, and so it was many years later in 1998, that I found myself standing at the base of those mighty granite towers that only the worlds elite climbers dare to tackle, I have no intention of my feet leaving the glacier at the bases of the 3 mighty towers just yet, but who knows with a bit more practice !!!. 


During my first visit here in 1998, I instantly became aware that the numbers of people I was encountering on this, the 1st of many trips I would make, was somewhat worrying, and I could not help but ponder the problems this beautiful mountain massif would suffer as tourism increased, and during my 3 years in the park, between 1998 and my last visit in 2003, I was to witness first hand the results of this increase, but on my return this 2nd week of March 2018,almost 15 years later,  I am deeply saddened by what I have seen and heard from old friends, who have made this town their home. To say that an explosion in numbers has occurred, would be a gross understatement and the results of this are nothing short of catastrophic for an ecosystem that cannot hope to cope with this mass influx of numbers.

The Torres del Paine National Park, is the goose that lays the golden egg in Chile, as far as the national parks system is concerned. The money made here ends up in Santiago, and is then redistributed throughout the system, as those behind the desks in Santiago see fit. However the cash cow that holds up the system, is in dire need of help, in more ways than one, but it seems the people in power are not listening and many here fear the future is not looking rosy this once slice of heaven on earth. I took a bus from Puerto Natales to the park's administration centre a couple of days ago to speak with the new boss of the park, but what I encountered, even this late in the season, shocked and saddened me in equal measure. The sheer volume of people waiting to enter office to pay and then head off to do the famous W trek or the longer Paine circuit, not to mention those waiting to fill the seats on the buses that had just dumped a fresh load of eager beaver trekkers, some woefully under equipped for the weather this place can unleash even in mid summer. On my first trip in 1998, numbers for the season were around 60,000 people, I nearly choked on my veggie empanada I just got fleeced for, when my friend updated me on the total number who passed through the gates last season, well over 300,000 people, which to not put too fine point on it, is total insanity.


The park has, like so many other places become a victim of it's own success, one place in particular that sprung to mind earlier tonight, while I was chatting to a somewhat beautiful Chinese girl by the name of Xiaoling ,  (pronounced Jowlin ) I met in a bar in town yesterday, was Peru's Machu Picchu, a place I was most fortunate to visit as a 16 year old, and I am somewhat glad I saw it when I did, because when she told me about the human traffic jam she encountered from start to finish, words failed me , and that does not happen too often, it seems  Disneyland crowds are a regular phenomenon in the former capitol of the Inca empire. So my return to this slice of heaven in Patagonia has commenced with a sense of foreboding for the future of this park, and I it would be fair me to say I was spoilt by having the pleasure of experiencing it's natural wonders under much less strain, but everyone who ventures out of the mundane routine of daily life, and ventures out to the far corners of the world has a right to do so, but these spaces deserve and need to be protected from mass tourism, because if there is one thing we as a species have perfected better than anything else, it is creating destruction, we have it down to fine art, so the powers that be in Chile have to take a long hard look at what they can do to limit the damage in Torres del Paine, because if not , it might cease to continue to be the goose that lay's the golden egg !!!!!


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