A conservation oasis: hiking in Tagua Tagua Park

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Photo: Caterinna del Rio GiovanniniPhoto: Caterinna del Rio Giovannini
By Caterinna del Río Giovannini
If I told you that there is a park in Chile with a hidden entrance, so difficult to find that only those who know it can take you to it, and that even being a couple of meters away you wouldn't be able to distinguish it, would you believe me?
To find the entrance to Tagua Tagua Park in the Lake District you must first take a ferry that crosses the lake of the same name and head still further south toward the Andean mountains. Once you arrive, you will take a boat along the Puelo River where you will be let off near El Salto, a 40-meter waterfall, and at the foot of large rocks where there appears to be nothing more than a rope to help you get up a hill and into the forest.
This is the route that every visitor must take to enter the park, and the only way to arrive. The Tagua Tagua Park, a private conservation area that was formally launched in 2013, has 3,000 hectares of protected ancient forest. Chile’s Universidad Mayor has been granted a concession for managing the park while also conducting ongoing research on the flora and fauna in the park, such as the alerce and coihue trees and lichens that serve as a refuge for pudu deer, pumas, monitos del monte and other species increasingly threatened by development in southern Chile. 
Photo: Benjamin GoluboffPhoto: Benjamin Goluboff
Their sustainable tourism policies are remarkable and a veritable model for other parks. For instance, as soon as you arrive the park ranger will ask you to rinse the soles of your shoes to avoid the spread of the Didymo algae, an invasive species that if not controlled can become a plague covering the bottom of rivers, lakes and streams and choking off the diet of fish. Their admirable focus is on doing whatever possible to minimize your impact on the ecosystem, also instructing visitors to carry out their trash and recycle cooking oil. 
Moreover, with an eye on carrying capacity, which considers among other factors how many visitors can hike through the fragile ecosystem and use existing park infrastructure, only 42 people are allowed into the park each day, which has currently been lowered to 25 persons due to the covid-19 pandemic. These fortunate few can appreciate the fascinating nature that abounds here, like a kingfisher calmly gobbling up his catch along a river, and the many waterfalls, which added to the loud sound of a river descending along the side of the main trail are a constant reminder of how lucky this part of Chile is to have places like this one.
      Photo: Caterinna del Rio GiovanniniPhoto: Caterinna del Rio Giovannini    
  Photo: Claudio FuicaPhoto: Claudio Fuica
Occasionally, you'll come upon small wooden walkways that make your journey easier, followed by clearings where the dense vegetation dissipates leaving you surrounded by granite peaks and hanging glaciers that seem as if they are just steps away. 
I went for a day hike, and followed the main trail for 6.5 kilometers, about 4 hours of walking, where I arrived at the biggest prize: a mesmerizing lagoon of dead alerces. Viewed from the rustic terrace at Refugio Alerces, it was created by a landslide approximately 200 years ago, where the vestiges of what was once an alerce forest remain. The endangered alerce tree is the world’s second-oldest living species and can live more than 3,500 years, and here what’s left of the trees remain flooded but upright like long petrified poles thanks to their wood that does not rot. Now, without branches or leaves, it is really a memorable sight. 
Photo: Benjamin GoluboffPhoto: Benjamin Goluboff
A stay at Refugio Alerces can be arranged through the park's website. This is basic lodging, though. The refugio is equipped with mattresses, bathrooms, showers, a wood stove and dining area but you need to bring a sleeping bag and your own food. About 4 kilometers up a steep trail there is also Refugio Quetrus, situated next to a high Andean lake it has a different kind of view but nonetheless spectacular. Due to the high demand for overnight stays in the refugios this year the park is opening a small campground at the entrance of the park for up to 15 people.
The recommended time to get to know Tagua Tagua Park in a relaxed and complete way is three days, although it is also possible to do a visit for the day, as I did, and return in time to take the boat back. 
How to go: Located about 3 hours from Puerto Montt o Puerto Varas, to make your reservations, for more information, visit www.parquetagua.cl