In A Lesser-Known Part of Patagonia, Tourism is Helping Keep the Coastline Wild

In coastal Argentina, a new conservation model combines rewilding and tourism to protect an untouched and very special place.

Glamping site by the water in Patagonia Azul

Rewilding Argentina is using low-impact glamping structures in Patagonia Azul, allowing guests full, comfortable immersion in nature.

Photo by Maike Friedrich / Courtesy of Rewilding Argentina

There are parts of the world whose beauty needs no introduction. They grab you instantly with their heart-stopping visuals: aquamarine waters, seemingly infinite canyons, or mountains that were always destined to end up as screensavers. Then there are places whose beauty sneaks up on you, where the contours and color palettes of the land and sky work a more subtle magic. Patagonia Azul is one of the latter. You don’t notice it at first, driving on a featureless road surrounded by enormous estancias. But by the time you reach the heart of this UNESCO region in Argentina’s southern Chubut province, and make your way to the top of a craggy hill overlooking wide, deserted bays, its spell has already started to take effect.

Maria Mendizabal knows what it’s like to be enchanted. She moved here a few years ago and was instantly smitten. “My first time I arrived here . . . I didn’t know the coast,” she says. “So we came here, and I started crying, really, and a whale jumped out. And I was like, are you kidding me, really? And that was my welcome to Patagonia Azul.”

Maria is a tourism development coordinator at Rewilding Argentina, a nonprofit founded in 2010 that works to preserve four locations across the country—in Patagonia, in two of the forested northern parts of the country, and right here. It’s an offshoot of Tompkins Conservation, which was founded by Kris and the late Doug Tompkins (of Patagonia and North Face, respectively) and is still run by Kris. (The pair’s decades-long conservation work in South America, including the creation of multiple national parks in Chile and Argentina, was recently documented by the National Geographic film Wild Life.)

Rewilding Argentina chose this part of the world, where the Patagonian steppe meets the Argentine Sea, for its latest project largely because of its incredible biodiversity. It’s home to an abundance of marine birds and mammals, including humpback whales and South American fur seals, as well as kelp forests and algae prairies. Some 40 percent of the world’s Magellanic penguins live in a huge colony at the Punta Tombo Natural Reserve.

A map of Rewilding Argentina's project area in Patagonia Azul

Rewilding Argentina has carefully developed a stretch of the Argentine coastline, adding camp sites and hiking trails, to encourage sustainable tourism.

Courtesy of Rewilding Argentina

However, despite some symbolic protection for the region—part of it is dedicated as the UNESCO Patagonia Azul Biosphere Reserve and part forms the Patagonia Austral Interjurisdictional Marine Coastal Park (PIMCPA)—it’s under threat from poaching, industrial fishing, and invasive species. Acronyms won’t save it. It’s also unknown by most of the world, let alone the rest of Argentina. As Maria says, “We have more than 60 islands here and Argentinians don’t know about it.”

That’s why Rewilding Argentina has been here since 2019, protecting the environment not only by restoring algae, monitoring seabirds, and eradicating exotic species but also by combining those efforts with a push for thoughtful tourism. The organization has been acquiring land, working with government officials on protecting that land, opening camping and glamping sites, and creating trails and other activities to reveal Patagonia Azul’s charms to a wider audience. And it’s been doing all of that in collaboration with local communities. It’s part of what Sofia Heinonen, the organization’s executive director, refers to in an annual report as “the economy of nature—in which neighboring rural communities generate income as a result of the restoration of complete and functional ecosystems.”

Brown sea lions surrounded by sea birds on Islas Blancas, near Camarones, on the Atlantic coast of Argentine Patagonia

Visitors to Patagonia Azul will be greated by thousands of sea birds and huge colonies of sea lions.

Photo by Beth Wald / Courtesy of Rewilding Argentina

Witnessing rewilding up close

In October, 2023, Maria and fellow members of both Rewilding Argentina and Tompkins Conservation picked me up at Comorodo Rivadavia airport, a couple of hours by plane south of Buenos Aires, to go exploring in Azul. It was a bespoke trip facilitated by tour operator Journeys With Purpose, which arranges excursions to pioneering conservation projects across the globe, led by the environmental leaders of those projects. (Forthcoming trips for 2024 are heading to Kenya, Palau, and Romania.)

Over several days, and fueled by copious amounts of shared maté tea, they showed me how this fragile area is being protected—and thoughtfully opened up to the wider world. We hiked, we toured campsites, we took to the ocean to explore the nearby uninhabited islands, and they took me to see examples of their work across the region. While I stayed at the conservationists’ lodgings, travelers following in my footsteps would likely glamp or stay in a hotel in the larger towns or cities.

On day one, we joined Rewilding Argentina’s conservation coordinator (and professional diver, sailor, and doctor of biological science) Lucas Beltramino for the view from the ocean. Our small inflatable dinghy was the only boat on the water the entire day. And in fact, Lucas says he can count the number of other boats he’s seen here on two hands. But we were far from alone. As we explored the bays and cliffs north of the village of Bahia Bustamente, we encountered huge sea lion colonies, zipped under flocks of petrels, and got a close-up of rock cormorants resting on their jagged perches. We didn’t see them, but whales and dolphins are abundant here too.

On the island of Isla Leones, we disembarked and carefully trekked through long grass past numerous penguins hiding in bushes to an abandoned lighthouse. Lucas tells me that the British and the French set up here for a while some 100 years ago, harvesting sea lions and penguins for their oil. They also introduced sheep to the mainland—which led to a deep-rooted culture of farming across the region causing desertification of the Patagonia steppe—and were among the whalers who plagued the area during the early 19th century.

Today, whaling has been transferred to the history books, but fishing (largely for hake and shrimp) still presents a big threat to the area’s valuable biodiversity. Maria told me about a time when all the fishing boats were consigned to the port at nearby Camarones by a storm and their sheer number became apparent. She looked out at all their lights as they waited for the weather to clear. The sight of so many boats shining through the rain was “beautiful, but sad to see,” she said.

We returned to Rewilding Argentina’s HQ as the sun painted the wispy clouds orange for an asado—an Argentinian barbecue—roasted over an open fire. Steak and malbec, of course, but also gin and tonics, bread spread with locally made pickled vegetables and seaweed, a homemade flan for dessert. In a snug dining room looking out over wide grassy plains at sunset, it was a cozy, convivial affair—the kind of immersive, shared experience that a Journeys With Purpose trip affords.

It also helped me learn more about the organization’s work, to ask questions and find out what exactly rewilding means to the people on the ground. Angeles Murgier, a former lawyer and member of the strategy and partnerships team, talked me through the four pillars of rewilding: protecting areas, restoring ecosystems, working with communities, and creating a restorative economy through tourism.

A few guanacos on the Patagonia coast near Camarones, with ocean in background

Guanacos roam the coast in Patagonia. They look much more at home than the sheep that were introduced.

Photo by Beth Wald / Courtesy of Rewilding Argentina

The challenges of protecting Patagonia Azul

The discussions continued the following morning, when parks and communities coordinator Diana Friedrich gave a presentation about the work that’s been done here and the challenges and opportunities that remain. She talked passionately about the efforts to preserve this significant area since she arrived five years ago.

The current designations for the region “means nothing in Argentinian law” she said. So the team pairs hands-on conservation—conducting surveys of wildlife including petrels and whales, removing invasive species like rabbits, rats, armadillos, seaweed, and crabs—with advocacy, infrastructure, and work with local landowners, government, and residents.

One of the biggest threats to the area’s biodiversity is intensive fishing and bottom trawling. Diana’s team plans to use remote cameras to take photos of the seafloor. “The fishermen say it’s just mud but it’s not,” she said. “Many, many different species cover the seafloor—sponges, urchins, sea stars. It’s incredible.” The fishing industry is well established, and some believe that creating a marine park would cost jobs. “People think we’ll destroy the economy. Meanwhile they are destroying the ecosystem that sustains the economy,” she adds.

There are signs of hope. Government officials, including the minister of tourism and the province’s governor, have visited and seem keen to create protective laws. Diana’s team wants to expand the parks, train new staff, and bring the local community on board. “The most exciting thing for me is to show the locals the place,” she says. “Because this area doesn’t have access to the coast because it’s all private ranches. Some of them have never seen these places.”

Lucas Beltramino in field holding an antenna to conduct an experiment in Patagonia Azul

Lucas Beltramino studied sea bass and whales for his degree in biological science. He conducts the organization’s rewilding work in the Patagonia Azul region.

Photo by Matia Rebak / Courtesy of Rewilding Argentina

New tourism projects build from the ground up

Underpinning all of the rewilding and advocacy work is a focus on tourism: a new Ruta Azul (“Blue Route”) that allows visitors to visit slowly, thoughtfully, and enjoy hiking, boat trips, kayaking, cycling, and other activities. The idea is that this economy of nature will gradually replace the farming and trawling industries on which the area currently relies.

At Portal Isla Leones, the southern gateway to the region, we visited a new wild campsite for 30 people that’s been created within a wide natural canyon of the steppe. Most of the infrastructure is almost invisible to the naked eye; it blends in well with the tufts of grass dotted around a flat valley backed by rocky outcrops. There’s a small building for bathrooms, an arrivals center staffed by local people working for Rewilding Argentina, and a communal firepit, but the site, which is surrounded by a network of trails, is incredibly low impact.

It’s free to stay here, and residents of the surrounding towns and cities (and further afield) are encouraged to visit. Free weekly events, such as bird-watching, yoga, and snorkeling, are advertised on social media during the summer. The aim is to show people the beauty—and value—of the place so that they’re invested in its protection and to demonstrate to the community and decision makers that nature can be an asset. During my visit, guests at the sites were local fishermen and tourists from France, Germany, and Russia. As Maria put it, people “who came here for nature and nobody.”

Closer to the coast, we toured the future site of a small glamping retreat that Rewilding Argentina was constructing. Wooden platforms marked where half a dozen semi-permanent tents were set to offer comfortable accommodation with hot showers and activities (for a charge) in one of Maria’s favorite parts of the region. She was a little conflicted about it. It’s hard to see diggers and building materials in this deserted and pristine space. But they’ve since departed, and the glamping pitches (which are now open) are low impact and removable. And visitors are bringing income and work.

We drove up to another viewpoint atop a rocky cliff overlooking the ocean, and the sheer scale of this landscape took me by surprise again. There were no roads, buildings, humans, or developments in any direction—only endless empty landscapes, save for the odd group of guanacos prancing in the distance.

Two people snorkeling in Patagonia Azul

Rewilding Argentina hosts regular events to bring local residents to the region and into the water.

Photo by Maike Friedrich / Courtesy of Rewilding Argentina

Partnering with local communities

Rewilding Argentina aims to involve communities with much of its work—through direct employment, education, and entrepreneurship empowerment. It created the Ocean Club with the aim of connecting children, young adults, and women with their coastal home. It also worked with residents from the nearby fishing village of Camarones (population: about 1,000) on a community garden focused on local, fresh food. A Youth For Nature program aims to inspire young people to start tourism enterprises, and the Festival of the Sea, now in its third year, celebrates the connection between community and ocean. There are regular community beach cleanups. The overall goal is to create a shared sense of ownership of—and appreciation for—this beguiling part of the world.

I saw much of this firsthand on the trip. I met Lautaro and Luqui at a newly constructed arrivals center, where visitors are greeted with maps and asked to sign a guest book. It was their first week on the job. Lautaro is from a ranching family. On a hike, we chanced upon a group of local children sketching under the wide canopy of a tree, another activity organized by Rewilding Argentina.

Our trip ended with a Saturday night on the town in Camarones. But this was nightlife, Patagonia Azul style. And it was the night before a general election to boot, so alcohol was verboten. The main bar was closed, and the restaurant we chose wasn’t serving booze. I ended up eating a fish curry with the team and popping out to the street for clandestine sips of beer purchased earlier from a local shop.

Despite the muted atmosphere, the conversations were lively and the night was fun. We talked politics quickly, but most of the chat revolved around the exciting possibilities in the area. My all-too-short few days with the group left me with a palpable sense of promise. Invasive species are down. Populations of such threatened animals as lesser rhea and guanacos are up. Newly planted, carbon sequestering native algae is growing—and surviving. At Gateway Bahia Bustamente, a former sheep ranch that Rewilding Argentina has turned into an interpretation center, the sound of shearers has faded and visitors get a preview of the natural beauty of the area and learn about the need to protect it.

While many people will still gravitate toward the ice-capped Patagonia of the brochures, or fly over this region on their way to Ushuaia and global tourism headliner Antarctica, those who take a detour will be richly rewarded—and likely as captivated as I was.

How to visit

Journeys With Purpose is offering an eight-day trip to Rewilding Argentina’s project at Ibera National Park, from September 29 to October 6, 2024. While that trip focuses on the forested parts of the north, the company also offers bespoke journeys and could add on several days in the Patagonia Azul region (or even craft a whole trip here).

Tim Chester is a deputy editor at AFAR, focusing primarily on destination inspiration and sustainable travel. He lives near L.A. and likes spending time in the waves, on the mountains, or on wheels.
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