By Dana De Greff
Two weeks after my arrival in Patagonia, I found myself in the middle of a ranch with a freshly slaughtered lamb at my feet. It seemed stranger than fiction—a city girl from Miami suddenly transformed into a modern-day Calamity Jane.
That may be a little dramatic, but Patagonia is a dramatic place. It’s not uncommon to experience four seasons in one day, nor is it strange to see a fresh puma kill on your morning walk.
It’s no wonder people call it one of the last wild places on Earth.
Patagonia National Park
Ever since I read Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia, I’ve wanted to follow in his footsteps. When Chatwin went there, in the 1970s, he described a land of dark caves, blue glaciers, hard-bitten gauchos, displaced Tehuelches, and weary immigrants. In all its impressive beauty, Patagonia was (and still is) a haven for adventurers, artists, and nomadic misfits of all sorts.
And at the end of 2012, I was poised to realize my dream when Conservación Patagonica (CP) hired me to teach English at the nascent Patagonia National Park. My plan was to stay for three months to teach, explore, and finish work on a novel. I ended up staying nearly five times that long.
CP was founded in 2000 by Kristine Tompkins, the former CEO of the Patagonia clothing company, to preserve the region’s unique flora and fauna through the creation of national parks and, at the same time, to bring economic opportunity to surrounding communities and engender local buy-in to the concept of conservation. After finding success in establishing Monte León National Park on Argentina’s coastline, Tompkins turned her attention to Chile’s Chacabuco Valley.
In 2004, Tompkins purchased one of the largest sheep ranches in Chile, the Estancia Valle Chacabuco, to serve as the heart of the national park. But there was work to do: The native grasslands there had been overgrazed and animals such as guanacos, huémul deer, puma, and Andean condors–some of which are already imperiled–were disappearing from the landscape.
After years of CP-instituted habitat-restoration and wildlife-monitoring programs–employing many gauchos who had worked on the ranch–the natural balance is finally coming back to this biodiversity hotspot.
Life in a Park-in-Progress
Having a national park as a backyard was exhilarating. I had unfettered access to hiking trails, mountains, lakes, rivers, valleys, forests, steeps, and grasslands. The landscape often brought me to tears, and I don’t cry easily. I saw foxes, horses, deer, guanacos, flamingoes, and hares on a daily basis; once, I saw a puma dart out of the grasslands and tear up and over a hill.
Of course, it wasn’t always easy living in such an isolated place. Road closures due to rockslides, ice, and mud were part of daily life, the Internet was slow or nonexistent, and machismo was (and is) an ever-present reality. The winter, with its darkness and solitude, was the hardest season for me to endure; I did, however, gain an appreciation for boxed wine and the warmth of a simple wood stove.
There will be more people to share the experience when the park is opened to the public as a privately managed preserve at the end of 2014. In time, Conservación Patagonica intends to donate the park to the Chilean government, making it a truly national park. And with its smart use of solar, micro-hydro, and hydrogen energy, Patagonia National Park is on track to become the first energy-independent national park in the world.
Anatomy of a National Park
The park headquarters complex is made up of a welcome center, restaurant, a natural history museum, six-room eco-lodge, and housing for rangers and other park employees. Meant to be a mirror of their surroundings, the buildings are constructed from stone quarried in the Chacabuco Valley, recycled wood from the Patagonia region, and copper–one of Chile’s most abundant natural resources.
In a similar way, Patagonians cannot be separated from the land–or their traditions. Their culture is infused with superstitions (eat a calafate berry and you’re destined to return to the region, for one) and the gaucho identity is reflected in their anecdotes, dress, and facónes—the large knives men wear tucked into their pants. Their code of conduct can be summed up in one word: aguantar–to endure.
Over rounds of maté and traditional lamb asados, I gained the trust and friendship of many. (Being fluent in Spanish helped.) The park would not exist if it weren’t for these stalwart locals who serve as rangers, mechanics, cooks, trail builders, tractor drivers, dishwashers, landscapers, wildlife monitors, firewood choppers, butchers, and ranchers. They accepted me, called me la gauchita.
Like Chatwin, I believe that some of us have “journeys mapped out in our central nervous systems.” Living in Patagonia forced me to slow down and do things outside of my comfort zone: I slit a lamb’s throat; I learned to build a fire; I galloped on a horse alone in the middle of the pampas; I helped track a family of endangered huémuls. I may have left Patagonia, but its people and wild beauty will stay with me.
- See more photographs of Valle Chacabuco on photographer Eugénie Frerichs’ website
- Travel to Patagonia with National Geographic Expeditions