Finding hidden beauty in Pumalín Park

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Text and photos by Ignacio Palma
At the entrance to Pichicolo (15 kilometers north of Hornopirén), there is a large sign, almost worn away by the Patagonian wind and the dust from the rugged Carretera Austral, which reads: “He who does not know the Chilean forest, does not know the planet.” This iconic line, written by the Nobel Prize-winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in his memoir “I Confess That I Have Lived,” welcomes visitors to this small cove on the obscure coast of Hualaihué.
Almost as if it were a symbol of resistance that promotes conservation projects in this part of the world, this sign is still standing in spite of its obvious wear. Some letters are no longer legible, but a careful reader will understand the message.
One person who understood it is the late conservationist Douglas Tompkins. His belief in protecting wild nature in Patagonia more than once brought him into conflict with diverse threats to the ecosystems of this region, such as hydroelectric dam projects, salmon farms, road building and more. Although the fight to protect the environment is a never-ending cause, Tompkins is responsible for major victories for future generations, the results of which can be seen today in the many parks he created in Chile and Argentina. Several national parks have already been created due to his efforts, and his non-profit group Tompkins Conservation is working to hand over his remaining private conservation areas to their respective countries to form future national parks.
The Pumalín Park is one of those parks. Located in the Palena Province in the Los Lagos region of Chile, it contains 300,000 hectares of protected land. The Carretera Austral passes through part of the park.
One of the several trails in the park which have the Carretera Austral as their starting point is the Volcán Michinmahuida trail, 28.5 kilometers to the south of Caleta Gonzalo. Walking this trail, which has a medium to high level of difficulty, takes between 8 to 10 hours, and the return journey is 24 kilometers. After ascending to an elevation of around 700 meters from the start of the trail, hikers can reach the base of the icy mountain range.
Yet, one of the most impressive parts of the trail is at the beginning. Under the morning sun, glistening with early morning dew, the forest guards beautiful details that make it almost impossible not to stop and admire. Four-meter tall Chilean rhubarb plants with thorny stalks, colorful barberry and luzuriaga radicans plants, and flowers such as Philesia magellanica and Chilean mitre are just some of the species which can be seen among the shadows cast by alerce trees in the bright and humid early hours of the day.
This is where Neruda’s words ring true. Even though humanity’s ambition for development often brings with it the destruction of beautiful forest areas like this one, there are still some entirely unspoiled corners of our planet to explore. Below, a photo gallery with some of this trails’ hidden treasures.
Special thanks to José Suárez of Pumalín Park, who described each species.