In Patagonia National Park in southern Chile, condors wheel through the clean, blue sky. Pumas prowl along tawny hills, and guanacos saunter through honeyed pampas, greeting visitors with an impassive, wide-eyed welcome. The savanna-like landscape teems with life.
Patagonia’s nomadic Indigenous peoples once traveled through this natural corridor, hunting wildlife along the torrent of the Chacabuco River, but in the 20th century, sprawling livestock ranches drove out endemic species and razed the forest and grasslands. Patagonia National Park was founded with the hopes of changing that through rewilding—a holistic approach to ecosystem restoration that was prioritized by the United Nations in 2021 to mitigate climate change. The newly flourishing ecosystem here is evidence that it’s working.
The park is the latest in the Route of Parks of Patagonia—a conservation project founded in 2018 by the nonprofit Tompkins Conservation and its offspring, Rewilding Chile—and is perhaps the most successful example of rewilding in the country. Now, visitors to the new Explora lodge in the park, which opened at the end of 2021, can get a firsthand look at the restoration efforts and support continued conservation. Hiking, cycling, and overland adventures led by expert naturalists immerse travelers in nature, where they learn about the area’s history along the way.
A harmonious approach to conservation
Rewilding in Patagonia National Park involved a combination of removing invasive species—in this case, 25,000 sheep and cattle that overgrazed the landscape—reintroducing endemic fauna including condors and rheas (South American ostrich), and natural reforestation. “When you’re talking about rewilding, it’s an active ecosystem restoration that involves everything,” says Carolina Morgado, director of Rewilding Chile. “You want to achieve a complete ecosystem.” This distinguishes rewilding from other sustainability initiatives that can be more siloed.
The removal of 400 kilometers (about 250 miles) of ranch fencing helped to naturally re-establish corridors used by guanacos. The pumas that hunt them followed, as well as huemul (endangered Andean deer), which were recently identified as one of 20 mammals worldwide whose restoration is key to ecosystem health. Tompkins Conservation continues to monitor the species, and a National Huemul Corridor project is in the works that includes Patagonia National Park.
Rewilding Chile has also rehabilitated and released condors into the park, where they have plenty of space to thrive, and established a rhea breeding center. When the rheas are large enough to survive on their own, they’re released and act as seed dispersers, fertilizing the grasslands. Without the impact of overgrazing, the region’s lenga and nirre forests have begun to grow again, which travelers will walk through on trails like the Lagunas Altas, a 23-kilometer (14-mile) hike that climbs up to a craggy ridgeline strung with glittering aquamarine lakes.
The regeneration of the pampas, forest, and wetlands is not only helping to create a healthy ecosystem in the region but also could benefit the entire planet. Rewilding Chile’s vision is for Patagonia National Park to become part of a “green lung” in South America, with the potential to sequester more carbon than the Amazon jungle.
Restoring a centuries-old corridor
Visitors who hike or bike along the park’s trails will not only experience a newly rewilded landscape; they’ll also be following in the footsteps of the nomadic Indigenous peoples who traveled through the region for centuries. “The Chacabuco Valley was a corridor for the movement of animals and humans,” says César Méndez, an archaeologist at the Patagonia Ecosystems Research Center.
Before colonization, Patagonia’s Aonikenk peoples and their ancestors traveled from Argentina into what is now Chile, hunting guanacos and rheas along their migration route. A six-hour round-trip hike brings visitors to the Cueva de las Manos, or Cave of Painted Hands, where over 210 red ochre motifs—including handprints and hunting scenes—are emblazoned on the cavern’s shadowy walls. “We know this was a recurrent area that people traveled through because the cave has been painted during six or seven different time periods dating back 9,000 years,” says Méndez.
The creation of Patagonia National Park has helped garner support for archeologists studying and preserving human history in the park. “It brought a lot more attention from both the public and the government,” says Méndez. Along with his colleague Amalia Nuevo-Delaunay, Méndez also trains Explora guides in this history to help educate guests who visit the historical sites.
The area’s nomadic Indigenous peoples left few traces in the landscape, something we could all learn from. “It’s only in the last 100 years that the valley has suffered a dramatic transformation because of human activity,” says Nicolas Vigil, head of explorations at Explora Patagonia National Park. “Learning about the human history here is an important lesson in how to coexist with nature.” Visitors can dive deeper into the past at the Patagonia Park Museum adjacent to the lodge.
A new relationship with nature
Just as human presence is an important facet of the park’s history, people are still a crucial part of the ecosystem. That’s why from the beginning, Tompkins Conservation has worked to employ local residents in their rewilding work. The creation of the park has also supported gateway communities, establishing a foundation for a robust conservation-based economy in the remote Aysen region.
“None of our conservation work would be possible without public education and building government support by showing national parks are an investment in the region’s economy,” says Ingrid Espinoza, conservation director for Rewilding Chile. The addition of a for-profit business like Explora in the park is also a powerful tool to fund conservation initiatives and create awareness.
The lodge has plans to develop programs in collaboration with Rewilding Chile to give guests a closer look at some of their projects, helping to track and monitor at-risk species and contribute data. But simply by visiting the property, guests help further rewilding efforts through a portion of revenue that’s invested back into the park’s conservation. “Under the tourist attraction is an opportunity to preserve this place,” says Morgado.
Perhaps even more importantly, both locals and travelers will hopefully leave with a better appreciation for this delicate ecosystem and the work that is being done to protect it. “Conservation is about knowing, loving, and protecting a place,” says Espinoza. In a newly rewilded landscape where guanacos once again canter through windswept grasses and huemul deer amble through beech forest, there is much to cherish.