It’s a recurring joke that I often hear in Chile. Sandwiched between the Andes and the Pacific Ocean, this long, narrow and wildly beautiful country in South America lived up to its promise and allowed me to experience a diversity of seasons and landscapes in a short period of two months. .
But as I hiked and snorkeled in the remote Juan Fernández Archipelago (about 400 miles off the Pacific coast of Chile) and hunted waterfalls and glaciers in the Patagonia of another world, I learned that even for Chile, the weather was becoming increasingly unpredictable, leaving the country vulnerable to prolonged wildfires, loss of endemic species, and permanent damage to local ecosystems. Chile’s glaciers are melting at a record rate; its ancient forests are threatened by hotter, drier summers; and even species brought back from the brink of extinction face an uncertain future. Traveling through Chile gives visitors a real-time lesson in how climate change is changing the places we love.
Contrary to popular belief, Chili does not have this name because its shape resembles that of a chili pepper. One theory is that the word chile is derived from the language of the indigenous Aymara people, in which “chili” refers to where the earth ends. Experiencing its profound beauty – intertwined with the reality of climate change – indeed made me feel like I was at the end of the world, geographically and metaphorically. I could almost feel the future of our planet hovering uneasily on the horizon.
Here are some of the places in Chile that have taught a powerful lesson in the importance of sustainability.
Torres del Paine National Park
The breathtaking mountainous landscapes, stunning blue lakes, vast glaciers and “blue towers” (the greyish-blue granite peaks from which Torres del Paine National Park takes its name) of Chilean Patagonia have long part of bucket lists – and rightly so. But as I walked through one of the world’s most spectacular biosphere reserves with a guide from Patagonia Camp, I was surprised to see acre after acre of native forest scorched, started by an act of irresponsible, accelerated travel. by the warmer and drier storm. summers topics that have become common in Patagonia over the past 50 years.
In 2011, a traveler wild-camped at an unauthorized site on the shores of Lake Gray in the national park, without a guide or permission from park authorities. While trying to burn toilet paper, he ended up starting a fire in the dry, windy terrain that Patagonia is famous for. Strong winds allowed the fire to spread quickly and the inaccessible mountainous terrain made firefighting efforts nearly impossible.
The fire raged for 58 days and burned around 42,000 acres of native, old-growth, slow-growing Lenga forest. Some of these trees can be over 200 years old. The blaze roasted thousands of animals to death, baked fertile soil and damaged swaths of wildlife habitat. With the park closed for several weeks and travelers evacuated, the fire cost tourism businesses around $2 million.
Eleven years later, the scorched and ash expanses of Lenga Forest, devoid of life, remind us that our travel choices matter, sometimes more than we can imagine. Climate models predict that Chile will only get drier and hotter, leaving its forests and wildlife even more vulnerable to human neglect.
An exciting conversation with my hostesses at Refugio Macales in Villa Mañihuales led me to Queulat National Park in the Aysén region of Patagonia, where I hiked and took a boat to witness the spectacular “suspended” Queulat Glacier. (Ventisquero Colgante). The glacier straddles the ridge between two mountains, creating a gushing waterfall with a steep drop into the lagoon below.
In the language of the nomadic Chono people, who once canoed and lived off this land, queulat means “the sound of falling water” – and indeed queulat followed me all over the national park. But speaking to a park ranger, I learned that this deeply soothing sound could be soothed in the not-too-distant future.
Since it was first measured by a Chilean explorer in 1875, Queulat Glacier has retreated about five miles, following the path of other Patagonian glaciers that are retreating at some of the fastest rates on the planet in due to global warming. This heralds a perilous future not only for Patagonian cities dependent on glacial water and the nature-based tourism upon which their economy relies, but also for local and global ecosystems.
To put the timelines into perspective, human activity only took a few decades to destroy what began to form about 2.6 million years ago during the last ice age.
As part of a remote work initiative by Island Conservation and Lenovo, I spent five weeks living with the local community on beautiful Robinson Crusoe Island, part of the Juan Fernández Archipelago. While there, I had the rare opportunity to join the conservation-focused dive shop Marenostrum Expediciones to snorkel with the Juan Fernández fur seals, endemic to the archipelago. Some of the most graceful swimmers in the ocean, they hung upside down in the water and investigated my presence. Although they are the second smallest of the fur seals, they have an impressive ability to undertake long foraging trips in the Pacific Ocean, lasting around 12 days on average.
Due to the intensive hunting for their sealskin, these seals had been declared extinct by the beginning of the 20th century. However, in 1965, a Chilean scientist found around 200 baby seals in a cave off Alejandro Selkirk Island (also part of the archipelago) – sparking a strong sense of conservation among islanders and compelling the Chilean government to declare their hunting illegal for the next 60 years. (This protected status is due to expire soon, but the islanders are hoping for its renewal.)
According to the latest census by the National Forestry Society of Chile, their population has increased by more than 800% between 1999 and 2018, reaching 84,827 individuals, attracting marine wildlife enthusiasts to the archipelago for the chance to swim. at a responsible distance from them, strengthening the link between conservation and tourism-driven livelihoods. Although listed as least concern on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List, seals remain vulnerable to entanglement in fishing nets and plastic debris, overfishing, poisoning mercury and oil spills. With climate change, warming waters and changes to the marine ecosystem of the Pacific Ocean will likely also affect their ability to feed over long distances.
During my travels in Chile, the beauty I was lucky enough to discover was always laced with concern for a climate-ravaged future, which inspired me to do more to advocate for climate action and sustainable tourism. If travel is the best teacher, Chile is the classroom we need.
Nath is a digital nomad. Find it on Twitter and instagram: @shivya.