Responsible tourism in Patagonia

From ecoshabby to ecochic, millionaire land owners to farmers of smallholdings, Chile to Argentina, Patagonia’s extremes merge together to create a fusion of what is, for so many, fantasy tourism at the end of the world. However, these awesome extremes come at a cost – literally. Patagonia’s remoteness has pushed up prices to the disgust of tourists, and phenomenally rich entrepreneurs buying up vast tracts of land – to the horror of its displaced native peoples.

Patagonia isn’t just the end of the world; it is many worlds. Our job is just to keep its shining status of being totally out of this world.

People & culture

Patagonia for sale

The Spanish conquistadores never penetrated the wild reaches of Patagonia. Pushed back by the ‘Indian problem’, this land remained uncolonised, a final stronghold for Chile and Argentina’s Mapuche people. But five centuries on from the ‘discovery’ of the Americas, Europeans – and North Americans – are once again discovering seemingly untouched wildernesses in the New World, and scrabbling to stake their claim to what they see as unclaimed land.
Patagonia has seen an influx of foreign investors, with the Benetton family turning a million hectares into cattle and sheep farms, and other impossibly wealthy speculators buying up forests, riverbanks and entire lakes, to turn into exclusive retreats, farms and golf courses. Argentina in particular has virtually no controls in place over the sale of land. In the late 1990s alone, over 8 million hectares were sold, and the economic crisis of 2001, which resulted in the devaluation of the Argentinean Peso, only worsened the problem. More recently – and more dangerously – Chinese agriculture companies have caught on to the availability of land, and with this comes the threat of dams, excessive water usage and heavy use of agrochemicals.
Not all landowners have used the land for their own gain, however. Most famously, the late Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face, conserved over 2 million acres of land across Chile and Argentina through his organisation The Conservation Land Trust. Some of the land is now a private park with public access; while another tract was returned to the Chilean government on the condition that it would become a national park – it is now Corcovado National Park. CNN’s founder Ted Turner has also conserved vast swathes of land in Argentina. However, despite funding local community projects, the privatisation of these giant ranches and the resulting loss of public access to the land and fish-rich rivers has still caused its own controversy.
Because as well as the environmental damage caused by unscrupulous land use, the ‘Indian problem’ remains. Patagonia is the ancestral home of the indigenous Mapuche people, who have lived on this land for centuries, yet have no papers to demonstrate ownership. Land is sacred to these people, and moving them from one tract of land to another is not acceptable. They do not see land simply as a source of income, pasture or water – it is a part of their origins, and their spirituality.
What you can do
Quite simply, money is at the root of the issue here, and only by generating income from untouched land – including that within the national parks – will the unregulated sale of land appear less appealing to the government. Explore the parks. Pay your entrance fee. Visit local communities. Stay with gauchos on traditional ranches. Empowering local people to create livelihoods from the sustainable use of their lands will give them a bigger voice against the billionaire entrepreneurs and multinationals – and everyone who visits and speaks with them is able to go out and tell their stories, raising awareness of this modern tale of colonisation.

Don’t complain too much about the high prices in Patagonia: it is very remote so supplies have to be shipped in. Many regions also have a short tourist season, meaning that people need to spread their profits, so tourists need to shift their mindset a little when traveling to the tip. Remote and rugged comes at a cost

Read more in the Huffington Post and New Internationalist.

There are guides, and then there are good guides

Do try and hire a local guide. There are a lot on offer, but you want to ensure that they are well qualified if you are going on a demanding hike. UIAGM-IFMGA-IVBV Mountain Guides is the highest international recognition awarded to mountain guides all around the world – however, there aren’t many of them. In Argentina, the local guiding qualification is AAGM Mountain Guides (Argentine Association of Mountain Guides) and in Chile, check out AGAM (National Association of High Mountain Guides).

If you can’t get hold of a guide’s qualifications, ask a lot of questions. What training do the guides have? Do they have records of any accidents? How long have they been guiding? What is their medical expertise? It is also worth asking for references and testimonials and following these up via social media if possible.

It is extraordinary to see that the majority of guides in Patagonia are not local but brought in from abroad especially for your trip. However, this may be due to a lack of qualified guides so, if this is the case, ask if they partner with local providers as co-guides.

Responsible tourism tips

Patagonia is a land of fixed itinerary vacations. You will find tour after tour with all the usual spots included, but this region is massive. Get off the beaten path. Ask your tour operator or trekking guide where their favourite spots are. You might have to travel for a bit to find them, but you won’t regret it. The beaten paths are still beautiful, but you have a million other worlds just beyond. Support the national parks systems and don’t resent the entry fees. As long as local people, from government to grassroots, can see that conservation equates with burgeoning coffers, they will have another reason to protect the land and the species that live there. Patagonia’s wildlife is phenomenal. It has its own “Big Five”, with the southern right whale, orca, Magellanic penguin, Andean condor and, on the deserted plains, the guanaco – a mammal related to the llama. Many tour operators now offer extended wildlife watching trips, so look out for those, and don’t forget to pack binoculars. Whale watching is now a big pull for Patagonia. There are many issues around whale watching, although Patagonia has a pretty good reputation generally for doing it responsibly. However, there are also good opportunities to do land based whale watching, the Península Valdés being the most popular spot. Here, you can stand on seasickness- and diesel-free dry land and watch southern right whales.
Myer Henderson, Say Hueque, one of our suppliers: "There are amazing wildlife opportunities here which haven’t resonated yet with people outside South America. You have whale watching just off the Valdes Peninsula in the Golfo Nuevo, a protected body of water, while on the Atlantic side of the peninsula, you can see orcas coming up and grabbing a sea lion for lunch off the beach. The penguin colonies here are amazing and one of the coolest, newer activities is snorkeling with sea lions. There is so much more to Patagonia than hiking."
Water can be an issue. Some areas are flush with water, if you’ll forgive the pun, but in others, even Torres del Paine, it can be a problem. So just because you see snow on the peaks doesn’t mean you don’t need to watch your water footprint. Waste disposal is also a big issue, especially in remote areas, where an accommodation owner might have to travel for hours to get rid of waste, so take your rubbish with you if you can. Good eco outlets may support the initiative Travelers against Plastic (TAP) which encourages you to do just that. Use a refillable water bottle, avoid plastic bags and watch your waste. If you have space to bring rubbish in your luggage, then you have space to take it away. There are strict laws now in many parts of Patagonia about fire. For example, you can’t light open fires in Torres del Paine National park, but cigarette smokers can still be careless with their butts. The fire of 2011 burned over 40,000 acres of the park, took weeks to contain, and the destruction of flora and fauna was horrific. The cause? An illegal campfire. And to put a fire out you need, taking into account our last point... water.
Bring planet safe, paraben free soaps and detergents, as well as eco-friendly sun creams, and biodegradable bags and tissue. A good hiking company will provide all of this; ask in advance so that you can see if they are practising what they preach. But most of all: leave no trace.
Written by Catherine Mack
Photo credits: [Page banner: Justin Vidamo] [Patagonia for sale: falco] [Myer Henderson Quote: Leandro Neumann Ciuffo] [Fernando Claude Quote: Cristina Calderón]