The road to Pumalín Park is festooned with dozens of whitewater waterfalls that slip down the steep cliffs into a thick forest overrun by ferns and plants with leaves as big as beach umbrellas. An active volcano threatens to wipe out the sparse human settlements that are scattered like frontier outposts, often holding populations of fewer than 100 residents. The scenery, however, suddenly changes at The Yellow, a town of perfect picket fences, exquisitely designed bridges and hand-lettered wooden signs offering help on camping and trekking.
It is here that a 25-year experiment in environmental conservation is finally coming to fruition. Pumalín Park is a million-acre collection of untrammeled views and valleys that were patched together by a pair of American conservationists whose mission, known as “wildlands philanthropy”, was to keep the lands free from industrial development.
The protected areas are 5,000 times the size of Manhattan’s Central Park and include volcanoes, virgin forests and miles of wild coastline. Even the combined size of Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks would be less than one third of the land preserved by Bachelet.
Standing before glacier-topped mountains and steep granite faces reminiscent of Yosemite, Bachelet praised US philanthropists Doug Tompkins and Kristine McDivitt Tompkins for their decades-long campaign to preserve swaths of wild Patagonia. Doug Tompkins, who died in a kayak accident in December 2015, was singled out by Bachelet as a visionary who battled accusations and attempts to sabotage his conservation dream. “Doug, we did it – and I should say, we finally did it,’” said Bachelet, as she signed an accord to convert Tompkins’ private Parque Pumalín into a Chilean national park. “Today,” she said, “we are bequeathing to the country the greatest creation of protected areas in our history.”