Behind the Story: A Visit to the Patagonia National Park-in-Progress

Photograph by Pablo Cabado for Bloomberg Businessweek

How you’ll know you’re getting somewhere if your destination is Patagonia: The plane will start to shudder. If you’re in the rear of the jet, it may fishtail so violently your hips jerk into the armrests. You’ll also lift and drop, enjoying that weightless-to-anvil-through-your-pelvis roller coaster gut wrench. Two rows ahead, a fellow passenger will lose his lunch into a laminated bag. (They still have those, phew!) A worried look to a flight attendant will get you a wan smile and a shrug. You’ll take faint heart in realizing that the windy, bumpy descent into Balmaceda, Chile,  es tipico.

To report a story on Kristine (Kris) McDivitt Tompkins in the April 21-27 Bloomberg Businessweek, I traveled in January to Santiago, Chile’s capitol, and then boarded a domestic flight that stopped in Puerto Montt before landing in Balmaceda. There, I met Argentine photographer Pablo Cabado, and together we drove South to Valle Chacabuco, where Tompkins has been leading a 10-year effort to transform a former cattle and sheep ranch into a future Patagonia National Park. The former chief executive officer of Patagonia, the apparel company, Tompkins and her husband Doug, the cofounder of The North Face (in the 1960s) and Esprit (’80s), have dedicated their lives and fortunes to saving Patagonia, the place.

Pablo and I had not met before but found each other easily at the window for Traeger, a rental car outfit. Names you might not expect—such as Rolf Traeger, the proprietor—are actually to be expected in Patagonia, which spans Chile and Argentina at the tail end of South America. Largely uninhabited, it has long been a magnet for expats from Wales, Germany, and Italy, among them a high percentage of deadbeat debtors, broken hearts, and fugitives (most famously Butch Cassidy) willing to take on the region’s formidable terrain and severe weather in order to be left alone. The term of art among Kris and Doug’s tribe of climbers, surfers, and lifelong travelers is “bu-fu,” as in “out there in bum f— nowhere.” We rented a 5-Speed Hyundai 4 x 4; for heading South, where the pavement soon ends, it’s worth the premium for four-wheel drive. (At the rental window is also the moment to get a permit to take the car into Argentina—get it even if you aren’t sure because Tompkins’s Patagonia Park is situated on an excellent several-day circuit that crosses into Argentina and re-enters Chile.)

From Balmaceda (pop. 500), a village of little note beside the airport, it’s roughly a five-hour drive south to Valle Chacabuco, but better give it seven or eight. The gentleman at Traeger told us six. So did the woman at the bodega in a town one and a half hours in. So did the server at a hostel/diner three hours south. More than three hours along, in the last little village on a lake before entering bu-fu-land, we asked again. “Seis hora?” “Seis hora.” Then someone else came out to say, no, maybe four. Perhaps they factored in our getting lost? You’re six hours out until you’re actually there.

We’d barely left Balmaceda when huge raindrops hit the windshield with such force I thought at first they were large bugs. With night falling, we drove on into the dark and wind-whipped rain. No signage. Few guardrails. Occasionally a truck would come at us, its headlamps at eye level, and blind us with a thousand brilliant diamonds right before soaking the windows in a chocolate shake of thrown mud. It was not driving as a casual getting-from-point-A-to-B, but driving as a fully engrossing, even harrowing, activity.

When we arrived at the park headquarters, the rain had stopped and the clouds had begun to clear out, allowing for a bit of starlight, but only enough to give a sense of the mountains surrounding us. The entire compound was pitch black. The diesel generators that provide electricity are cut off every night at midnight. Not knowing which buildings were what, we found a place to park next to a backhoe. We’d just resigned ourselves to sharing the back of the Hyundai for the night when a pickup rolled into a camp, a searchlight mounted on its side view. They’d been out tracking puma, we later learned. The driver’s friend Sergio, who came out of the house they shared, helped us find the lodge and a key that had been left for us. The bed—clean, firm, obscenely high thread-count for the near end of the world—was delicious.

You hate to miss the scenic overlooks on the way in, but there is something wonderful, too, about arriving in the dark and coming awake the next morning to discover a new world. The main lodge is surrounded by slopes on three sides, two steep and one gradual. To the Southwest—roughly, the way we came in—there are three distinct sets of ridges: foothills; taller, bare granite peaks; and then glaciated peaks beyond. In the near frame it’s all grass and scrub steppe. Not a soul in sight beyond 100 yards. On the lawn outside stood a group of guanacos, which look like a cross between a llama and a camel, and stand 6 feet tall. I’ve never seen a guanaco before. They added to the immediate sense that we were elsewhere.

The main lodge has six rooms for two or more people (extras get a cot). In the center is a great room where breakfast and afternoon tea are served, and where guides hold frequent nature talks and slide shows. The rooms go for $350 per night for a single or $500 for two and require a reservation. (Contact the park through its website.) Lodging includes breakfast, as well as dinner at a separate dining hall modeled on similar cafeterias in Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks.

At the lodge, the custom is to ditch your hikers at the door for alpargatas, a slipper of woven grass and cotton, typical of Argentine Patagonia. The floors are black and white marble, the ceiling beams are exposed, dark wood, and the walls hold massive, framed photographs of mountains, pumas, and wildflowers. These prints seem to be a motif for Doug, who designed all the buildings. Similar oversized prints of rock climbers and granite faces adorned the walls of the original The North Face store he ran 50 years ago at the corner of Broadway and Columbus in San Francisco. (“We were sort of kitty-corner to City Lights Bookstore,” Doug says. “Allen Ginsberg lived up the block, and when he had out-of-town guests, he’d always bring them in on the way to City Lights, to show them the pictures we had up of climbers climbing.” Ginsberg would stand beneath them in awe: “‘It’s madness!’”)

The staff at the lodge and park is a mix of local Chileans, a couple of Chilean refugees from the big city, and expats from the U.S., all in their late 20s or early 30s, who look as if they used to work at the REI in Boulder, Colo. Everyone was intensely friendly. Part of this I took to be Chilean influence: Less than a full and honest answer to “Como estas?” even upon a first meeting, could seem rude.

After a morning of interviews with the Tompkinses, Nadine Lehner took us to see a trail that climbs from the Patagonia Park into the neighboring Lago Jeinimeni National Reserve. Lehner is the U.S. director of Conservacion Patagonica, the nonprofit that endows and manages the park. On our way, we saw pink flamingos in a long lagoon, and stopped to chat with some volunteers, including a handful from the U.S., who’d committed several vacation days to weeding invasive plants from the roadside. On their off days they were exploring the park, but the weeding was clearly tedious—a Portlandia sketch waiting to happen.

Lehner led us a mile or two up the trail across a flood plain to the mouth of a narrow canyon (Aviles, by name). From here, the long view down the Chacabuco Valley confirms how vast and open this land really is. The trail continues to form a three- to four-day hike that’s highly rewarding. But, Lehner warns, hikers need to be prepared for several wet river crossings. As we made our way back, the wind picked up again, loud as surf.

On the second morning, I took Pablo back to Puerto Tranquilo to catch a bus home, and so got to see the vistas we’d missed the first night on the Carretera Austral, the main north-south road. It’s rarely less than spectacular, and the Tompkinses hope it will become a tourist attraction in its own right. On the third day, I took  time off for a seven-hour hike, a loop that Conservacion Patagonica has temporarily marked with re-bar. It leaves directly from the main compound and visits several alpine lakes—the Laguna Atlas Loop Trail (PDF), it’s called. It’s 23 km (14.2 miles) and ends at Los Westwinds, a new walk-in campground about a 15-minute walk from park headquarters. For now, no reservations are required at Los Westwinds, but you must register for a campsite at the park office. It’s 5,000 Chilean pesos (about $10) per person per night. I began the Laguna Atlas Loop at Los Westwinds, arriving back at the lodge, and later came to regret not swimming in the first lake I came to; the others were shallower and thick with reeds at the edges. At one smaller pond, I made the acquaintance of powder-blue-billed duck. It didn’t quack. It beat its breast with its beak four or five times quickly, percussive, then emitted a sort of stomach grumble-whistle. Wish I could improve on that description but I can’t.

That night, my body tired from the hike and a full day in the latitude-47 sun, I sat, a glass of Chilean red in hand, and watched night fall like it was a lavishly produced entertainment. The ranges provide an absorbing depth of field, with the lusher plains in purple shadow, the foothills slightly brighter but fading, the granite peaks naked and austere, and the snow-caps pink candy in the last of the sunset. Looking on it provided a rare, deep contentment.

Because of a March wildfire, as many as 7,000 acres on the park’s approach are charred, and the ribbon-cutting grand opening expected for December 2014 has been postponed. But the park is open to the public, and for the time being, I’d give it three nights, unless you’re planning a longer overnight backpacking trip, such as the one Lehner showed us, out the unfinished Aviles Trail to Chile Chico, or booking a rafting trip on the nearby Baker River. Don’t tell too many, but it’s also a prime fly-fishing area.

There’s a legend that those who dare to eat the native calafate berry will return to the region. They say dare, because the berries are small, tart, and full of seeds—you have to be very patient, or chew a dozen at at a time to get much juice. My last morning, I picked a handful and ate them all at once.

( Corrects spelling of Nadine Lehner's last name in the 11th, 12th, and 15th paragraphs. )
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