lundi 26 janvier 2009

The Torres del Paine National Park (11/12/2008 - 18/12/2008)

Back from Rio Turbio, we return to Puerto Natales, Chile, where we prepare to go to the National Park of Torres del Paine. The program is attractive: a breathtaking landscape protected and classified by UNESCO, decorated with an exceptional geology. Puerto Natales is about 120 kilometers of the park and we want to get there by bike and then go on with a five days trekking to explore the mountains. We then want to leave directly to Argentina without returning to Puerto Natales.

The first mission is to find backpacks rental. By explaining that we do not plan to return to Puerto Natales, we only suffer refusals. Disillusioned and at the edge of giving up, we met Lydia at 20:30, a woman we chatted with the previous day and explained our popular sciencet project. By explaining our problem for renting equipment, she exclaimed: "But this is not a problem anymore." In fact, she is the manager of a travel agency and rents backpacks. We ask her if it is not a problem if we do not return to Puerto Natales, she replied: "There are tourists and tourists. You just have to drop the bags to a bus driver who do the daily shuttle between the park and city, and it will bring us the bags back." The backpack problem was solved.

The following day, we happily pedal to the park. We ride on a dirt road that follows a beautiful valley protected from the wind. In the evening, we spent the night next to a small river before going on the next morning. In the far north, we have a glimpse of the Paine massif. We keep in sight our goal until our final destination. The road curves between the hills and lakes with exceptional colours. As we go on, the summits of Paine seems rising in the sky. At the end of the day, we finally arrive at the foot of these mythical mountains, immense vertical towers, from 1500 to 2000 meters high.

The colours of the mountain are the most fascinating. They essentially consist of a very dark black rock, crossed by a huge horizontal band of white rocks that draw a huge lens. We're intrigued by this special geometry, and we go to the park administration to get further information. We will find a park guardian, Gonzalo Cisternas. He gave an exciting and very educational interview, in which he explains the origin of the Paine. "The black rocks," he says, "are sedimentary rocks that were deposited at the bottom of an ancient ocean long ago. About 15 million years ago, magma, i.e. molten rock, rose from the depths of the earth, like under a volcano. Then, the magma was trapped into the sediments and accumulated in a large almost horizontal lens. By cooling, the magma solidified to give the white granite." Then he adds that over the last million years, glaciers covered the entire region and have eroded the granite in deep valleys. The glacier retreat exhumed this fantastic scenery.

Gonzalo says that today, the National Park attracts more than 120 000 tourists per year, and thus feeds the economy of the entire region of Puerto Natales. Without this park, there would be nothing else than virgin mountains. After these exciting explanations, we look forward to exploring these so promising mountains.
After loading our backpacks, we leave late that day to start the five days trek. The sun pierces through the dark clouds. In the background, we see the Patagonian icecap, the third icecap in the world after that of Antarctica and Greenland. The towers of Paine dominate us all along the trek.
The followng day, we really begin the hike, but it is a great disappointment to us. Hordes of tourists, freshly landed from the catamaran invade the only available path. Tour operators have hired young Chileans to carry super heavy backpacks of wealthy tourists. Large comfortable permanent tents accommodate groups of agitated and noisy walkers excited by champagne opened at the top of the trek. While many birds sing in the wilderness, many hikers proudly display their iPod headphones. One feeling comes in our mind: we arrived at Disney Land Torres del Paine. The charm of the place and the spirit of Patagonia is definitely lost. While we expected to live an extraordinary experience, we end up in the heart of a tourist factory. We will keep this feeling throughout the trek. By talking with other bikers who also did the trek, we realize that we all share the same disappointing feeling.

After two weeks of thoughts, we wonder if this feeling is not due to selfishness or arrogance of travellers towards the tourists. We still do not have the answer. The only truth is that this massive tourism fuels the economy of an entire region. In addition, this remarkable site attracts so much that the rest of the region is free of visitors, and thus preserved. But still, selling wilderness to mass tourism, isn’t it shooting a bullet in the foot? With an expected 30% growth of number of visitors in the coming years, the future will tell us.