In 1990, the West Coast millionaire
Doug Tompkins landed his small plane in a remote fjord in the
Palena region, at the northern limit of Chilean Patagonia.
He had visited this 'quaint tail of the South American continent'
ever since dropping out of high school in the '60s and going
on to become the millionaire entrepreneur of the Esprit clothing
giant. This time however, he wasn't shooting rapids or scaling
peaks. He came to buy, buy, buy.
The ranch he acquired, and later transformed into his home,
was the first piece of a multi-million dollar puzzle which today
encompasses a thousand square miles of land Darwin described
as a green desert: remote, inaccessible and near-pristine. Tompkins
owns every fjord, glacier, volcano and tree in an area larger
than Snowdonia. From Chile's jagged, piece-meal coastline to
the Argentine border to the east, he owns the lot - bar one
missing piece in the middle. The bill? A cool fifteen million
His land harbours some of the last remaining temperate rainforest
in the world. Not the sweaty, bug-ridden forest of the Amazon,
but primeval, dense-as-history, cold forest, the most species
diverse of all. It is also the wettest. "Patagonia of infinite
Land and Water, riven by a torrent of love, navigating a single
miracle-swollen river," eulogised the Patagonian poet Mario
Miranda Soussi. In Patagonia, it rains menageries. Tompkins's
avowed intention is to leave his slice of cold wet jungle just
the way it is. Or nearly.
Caleta Gonzalo was once little more than a wharf. It still
retains its old status during the summer months, when road users
board ferries to continue their journey along the Carretera
Austral Augusto Pinochet. The builders of the General's dream
of colonising the south took one look at the rugged, wild land
ahead, and decided there was nothing wrong with the ferry. The
road only begins again in earnest over one hundred miles to
the north, where Tompkins's reach is finally exhausted.
Caleta is now the showpiece of the millionaire's Pumalin Park.
On the southern shore of Reñihue Fjord, half an hour's
boat ride from his house, he has set about building an ecotourist
complex replete with restaurant, information centre, organic
farm, trails, lodges and camping grounds. Although tourism is
by no means the only industry he intends to develop in his dream
park, he recognises its potential. He has poured vast sums and
much of his seemingly limitless energy and creativity into the
project at Caleta.
The result is impressive. Caleta is a Chelsea Flower Show
of landscaped gardens, channelled brooks and wooden walkways.
Shingled paths lead to swingbridges and hidden campsites, while
all around sweeps of mist and cloud swirl over the steep hills.
A large panel by the ferry wharf welcomes visitors to the park
and explains its objectives. Access to the private lands is
granted, it states, on the understanding that none of the natural
environment will be altered, damaged or removed. All along the
Carretera Austral, completed as recently as 1988, the ashen
trunks of dead trees haunt the road like cenotaphs. Colonisers
lost control of fires in the 1930s and '40s, and for mile upon
mile whole hillsides resemble matchsticks scattered by a malevolent
giant. In a country where logging, fishing and mining are the
chief engines of development, Pumalin sticks out like a green
Overlooking the fjord, seven delightful, Hansel and Gretel
cabañas huddle against the hillside. Their interiors
owe much to the en vogue utilitarian Shaker style. Walls painted
matt blues, greens and ivories combine with wholemeal-coloured,
locally woven bedspreads and cushions. Latticed windows frame
picture postcard views, while attention to detail is acute.
Carved otters, puma, deer and birds process along the bed bases,
floral designs wrap around mirrors and intricate wooden latches
replace metal wherever possible. Each cabaña bares the
name of a local animal, depicted by the front door and on its
key-ring. The cabins are ideal for families, sleeping up to
six, with stepladders leading to split-level platforms in the
eves. Tompkins was responsible for most of their design, and
he and his wife Kris' tastes are apparent everywhere you look.
Kris busies herself with the arts and crafts kiosk in the
restaurant. An information and artesania centre opens in the
summer, but meanwhile there are woolly jumpers to fold, jars
of honey to dust and knitted dolls with indifferent smiles to
arrange. While refreshing the small vases on the tables with
wild flowers, she chats with the Chilean staff in fluent Spanish.
"I take care of the shop and Doug does just about everything
else," she tells me, before scurrying back upstairs to fetch
more stock. Lively and petite, she comes to Caleta most days
to see how work is progressing, and seems imbued with the same
creative, effervescent spirit which drives her husband.
Through the criss-cross of exposed beams, copper lampshades
illuminate beautiful blond hardwood tables.
"That's manio wood," she explains. "Every bit is salvaged.
We're not into cutting down forests."
In one corner, a fire blazes under a large copper chimney-piece.
When visitors arrive, the hearth becomes the focal point of
the room and is transformed into a patchwork of brightly-coloured
clothes pegged to every vantage point by their damp owners.
You can immediately tell the restaurant was built by North Americans,
with their countrymen in mind. In the entrance porch, a discreet
notice asks the clientele not to smoke.
Virtually all the food for the restaurant comes from the organic
farms nearby. Fresh salmon is caught every day and lamb barbecues
arranged for larger groups. The aroma of freshly baked bread
pervades the airy space, and its warm, earthy feel comes as
a welcome contrast to the near-constant drizzle outside. Large,
imposing black and white prints of soaring trees and flowing
rivers adorn two walls, as if to remind visitors of Pumalin's
Chile's Nobel Prize-winning poet, Pablo Neruda, once claimed
"Anyone who hasn't been in the Chilean forest doesn't know this
planet." The gringo eco-warrior's solution to this state of
ignorance is simple. Create a Chilean Yosemite, and encourage
people to discover its "fragrant, silent and tangled" forest.
Four trails have been cut around Caleta with this in mind.
The most accessible starts from next to the restaurant. After
an hour and a half's healthy climb through dense native forest
and across one river, the trail enters a gully. Walkways and
stepladders guide you along the dripping rock walls until, via
a somewhat perilous knotted rope, you emerge at the foot of
a forty-metre waterfall. Though enticing, the temptation to
dive in is in the region of you must be joking.
Nine miles back up the road which leads to Caleta, three more
trails can be walked. The most developed is the Alerce which
guides visitors on a circular tour of an hour. Swingbridges
ford milky turquoise rivers and crazypaving cross-sections of
trunks hop, skip and jump over murky bogs. The alerce is a cousin
of the North American sequoia. Both are impossibly old and increasingly
rare. Some were saplings when the Sphinx first punctured the
desert horizon. At the end of this century however, Pumalin
possesses some of the last undisturbed alerce forests in the
Woods of alerce, Fitzroya cupressoides (named after Captain
Fitzroy of the Beagle), are Nature's cathedral forests. Their
trunks, draped in epiphytes, rise in rectilinear lines, spidery
masses of foliage knitting tangled green vaults eighty feet
high. Water courses in rivulets down the bark's troughs, while
thickets and bamboo buttress the trees in a thick understory.
Darwin, who explored the surrounding area in the Beagle, remarked
"within the forest, the number of species, and great abundance
of mosses, lichens, and small ferns, is quite extraordinary."
Two thirds of Patagonian forests' native plants are found nowhere
else, and many are considered rare or endangered. The age of
the trees and the biomass of the rainforest make the jungle
one of the most successful biomes ever studied. They accumulate
as much as two hundred times more organic material than their
Amazonian neighbours. Despite this, Chile's temperate forests
remain alarmingly poorly protected.
Tompkins is well aware of this. The alerce trail is more akin
to an ambulant lecture than a walk in the woods. Didactic wooden
noticeboards stand at strategic points ready to inform visitors
of the trees' unique qualities and global significance. Handrails
ring many of the older trees while others are singled out to
show damage inflicted by loggers. The alerce is a protected
'natural monument' and its logging banned. However, illegal
felling of these Jurassic giants continues. It is thought between
15 and 20 million hectares of Chile's native forests have been
lost since colonisation began.
Further up the road lies the Hidden Waterfall trail and another
campsite with excellent amenities. In Pumalin, even the watertanks
are disguised so as not to offend the eye. There is also a fourth
trail, Tronador, the most spectacular and wild of all. At the
end of an hour-long walk, a small lake cupped by a natural amphitheatre
appears as if by magic, bordered by grass verges perfect for
camping. Although all the trails are easily accessible on foot,
the regular minibus traffic along the road also provides a less
strenuous means of exploring the park.
Christian is one of the young park wardens at Pumalin. He
worked for CONAF, the Chilean forestry service, before moving
to Caleta early last year. His job is to maintain the trails
and inform visitors about rules and regulations. Occasionally,
he acts as a guide.
"It's a very exciting project to be involved with," he enthuses.
"You feel like you're in at the start of something which will
just keep growing. It's also a beacon of hope here in Chile.
You look at the destruction all around in Patagonia, even in
national parks, and you despair. Here at least is an example
of what can be done. With money, of course!"
Tompkins and his park-dreams are still controversial in Chile.
Much to his chagrin, he became a bogeyman for the Chilean Right
and the military when the extent of his purchases was made public.
The missing piece of his giant puzzle, which he had sought to
acquire, was sold to, of all people, the state electricity company
right in front of his nose. There is little philanthropic tradition
in the country, and rumours and fantasies about what a gringo
could want with so much land have been rife. No-one can believe
he simply wants, in his words, "to put my money where my mouth
"That's all calmed down now," claims Christian. "I think people
realise his good intentions. As more visitors come to the park,
so the message will spread that Doug is sincere and, hopefully,
more Chileans will follow his example."
Tompkins has moved to quell opposition to his park by handing
over its management to a Chilean-based organisation, the Pumalin
Foundation. He is also seeking 'Nature Sanctuary' status for
his lands, achieving a compromise between the state national
parks system and privately owned land. With sustainable management
its grail, the project has already begun a programme of incentives
and infrastructure to encourage tenants inside the park and
its borders to adopt greener production techniques. Organic
pesci- and horticulture, honey production and knitted wool handicrafts
are all being developed. Scientific research is also high on
the foundation's agenda.
Hundreds of tourists are expected to pass through Caleta Gonzalo.
A small hydroelectric plant diverts part of a fast-flowing river
providing power for the complex. All the wood used in the construction
work comes from reclaimed sources. After initially using landfills
inside the park, rubbish is now transported to the town of Chaiten,
forty miles away. Problem solved. Doubts about tourism's sustainability
can't be disposed of so easily however.
Catering for hordes of dayglow-clad daytrippers seems at odds
with Tompkins's philosophy. He is a fervent deep ecologist,
advocating a shift to a more bio-centric view of the world -
despite owning three planes. Although probably less than 5%
of the park will be affected by tourism, mitigating its insidious
influence and impact will be Tompkins's greatest challenge.
His philanthropic millions should preclude the Pumalin project
falling foul of over-development.
At present only four more tourism nodes are being developed.
All of them are small in scale and impact. They will eventually
enable visitors to discover more of the park's wonders, though
they remain bound to the coastline and it is unlikely trails
will be cut further inland. The rest of the park will remain
as it is, a sanctuary from the twentieth century.
In the hardback visitors' book in the restaurant, well-wishers
have filled page upon page with thank yous, words of encouragement
and praise for the homey cooking. Some left the park 'feeling
rejuvenated after their time communing with Nature'. Others
'loved the houses and the food'. There is the odd nationalist
"Chile for Chileans" comment. The most striking note however,
was penned by a little girl, aged 9. "Thank you for letting
me stay," she wrote. "When I have children of my own I'll bring
them to see the forest too."
Pumalin is a long-term project. Its ultimate goal is a change
in consciousness on a global level. By allowing visitors into
the park, and facilitating their contact with the wilds, Tompkins
hopes to contribute to that cultural sea-change. It's a tall
order, but one which Tompkins obviously has no fears of taking.
"If you would see his monument, look around," reads the inscription
above the North Door of St. Paul's Cathedral. When a little
nine-year old returns as a mother, it would be fitting if, deep
in the tangled undergrowth of one of Pumalin's cathedral forests,
a new panel with the same inscription had appeared. On salvaged
wood, of course.