A Slice of Patagonian Paradise at Estancia Chacabuco

I’d certainly put the Future Patagonia National Park project under pressure. Having followed the project since day 1, and seeing it spoken about/written about so many times to make me dizzy over the past few months, it was a relief to finally be there. But since I knew how remarkable the effort was, yet I also felt it was all so full of contradictions, I was looking for something amazing to happen here.

We turned off the Carretera Austral onto an unmarked dirt road next to the confluence of the Baker and the Chacabuco Rivers. What a spot! The air suddenly felt cleaner, the horizon more pure. And this is in a region already thought to be clean and pure!

It only was a matter of moments before the Animal Kingdom displays began.

Most of you already know that this project is a massive eco-philanthropic private wilderness park funded by folks from the US of A. Eventually, the plan is to convert the sprawling former Estancia Chacabuco into a Chilean national park. By joining it with its neighbours (Jeinemeni National Reserve to the north, Tamango National Reserve to the south and a relatively small private estancia that was purchased by Yvon Chouinard to the west), this would become the largest national park in Patagonia.

The gorgeous landcape that stretched before us – where the rugged Steppe rolls into the high Cordillera – is undergoing a meticulous conservation. All livestock have been removed, including more than 24,000 sheep. This is Patagonia without cows and sheep.

Exotic species along the roadside – so colourfully deceiving elsewhere – are being eliminated and fences are being torn out.

So we knew we were looking at a truly natural Patagonia, something very elusive in a region that has been dominated by overgrazing ranches for more than a century.  The light seemed to be more gentle, a golden hue covering the slopes. The river below a emerald sheen.

It was like going back in time. This is the way Patagonia may have looked 150 years ago.

Within minutes, the guanacos came out. A lone macho. A herd of a dozen. Two males chasing one another. Young chulengos lopping after their mothers.

They were everywhere as we rolled into the luxurious Lodge at Estancia Chacabuco and were welcomed by some road-weary foreign volunteers. Later, I’ll write about the lovely hospitality we experienced here, about the late-day stroll and late-night conversations around the giant fireplace. There are so many questions to ponder here, and a cast of puzzling characters.

When it was time to reluctantly continue our journey west, we slipped the Hilux past a crowd of adolescent guanacos in a giant wrestling match. The chest-bumping, neck-ramming, back-humping and high-jumping were coupled with screeching sounds of delight. I’ve seen a lot of guanacos in my day, but I’d never seen this kind of show.

It was just us out there. Intimate and surprising. We didn’t pass a single vehicle for hours as we slowly made our way to the border outpost at Paso Roballos.  After an hour and a full memory card, we had to push on to the pass.

And as we were welcomed into the Argentine side of Patagonia, the doom and gloom of a different kind of Patagonia – one that has been overgrazed, where the landscape is dry, cracked and eroding and the residents clinging to a disappearing lifestyle – will never look the same.

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