This is the second in a series of articles on my visit to Torres del Paine and Patagonia, Chile.
The iconic mountains, glaciers and waterfalls of Torres del Paine, named a UNESCO World Biosphere Reserve, seem timeless, and sturdy in their grandeur. Yet recent events have proved that the Chilean national park is all too vulnerable.
In December 2011, a hiker from Israel inadvertently started an inferno when he set some toilet paper on fire while camping. The blustery Patagonia winds, combined with the dry vegetation of the steppes, caused a blaze that affected more than 34,000 acres – 7 percent of the park – by the time it was done. The flames forced more than 400 tourists to evacuate, and closed several hotels, including the luxury outpost Hotel Salto Chico owned by the travel company Explora (although the fire came within 54 feet of the lodge, it remained unharmed).
The park reopened in January 2012. It’s so huge that you could easily spend a day or two touring, without noticing the damage. Most of the famous W hiking trail, for example, has been unaffected. But as you can see from these photos, twisted trees and scorched earth are readily apparent. Chilean park officials have estimated that it will take as long as eight decades for some areas to recover.
As we viewed the charred trees, our guide shook his head with disgust. To him, the problems in the park stem from lazy rangers, government employees who sit in their offices and drink beer instead of sussing out tourists who might pose a danger to others. The December fire was only the latest tourist mishap; an earlier blaze accidentally set in February 2011 would have been worse if it wasn’t raining, and a Czech camper caused another large conflagration in 2005.
Even those Chileans who rely on tourism for their livelihood wish the government had more stringent rules for park visitors. While no one is calling for specific limits, many residents in Puerto Natales – the tourist outpost closest to the park – believe that the region isn’t benefiting from the money that the government reaps from wealthy foreign visitors.
I’m not sure how much tourists can do to affect the debate, other than follow park rules and camp only in designated areas. It’s sad that the tourist who started the fire thought he was doing the right thing by burning the toilet paper.