Interview with Francisco Vio: Aysen, the outdoors and its future

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If there is anyone who knows the outdoors in Aysen Patagonia it is Francisco Vío, president of the Coyhaique-based Escuela de Guias de la Patagonia, or Patagonia Guide School. He is also the organizer of the now biannual outdoors adventure race Desafio Aysen, which last month held its winter event and in January will host its second annual summer event. Vio, 42, has explored Patagonia since his youth, and begain working in Aysen in the mid-1990s teaching outdoors education and guiding at the National Outdoors Leadership School (NOLS). He has also been involved in environmental education, developing an Aysen-wide project about protected areas in the region and teaching a course for park guards in Aysen. Recently, I spoke with Vio about his ongoing projects, tourism in Aysen, the controversial HydroAysen dam project (he is against), and other topics. Excerpts:
Langman: How did you end up in Aysen?
Vio:  When I was in high school, I went hitchiking with a group of friends on the Carretera Austral. We passed through Coyhaique, and I said to myself: “this place is incredible, when I grow up I want to live here.” In 1994, after finishing university, where I studied physical education, I found my way back here working for the National Outdoors Leadership School (NOLS). This was in the 1990s, when outdoors sports were not as popular. Later, I was invited to help start the Escuela de Guias de la Patagonia, to help train local guides, but after funding for the project finished I wanted to keep it going. It has grown quite a bit. We’re now teaching courses as well in Auraucania and Magallanes.
What does the Escuela de la Guias do? 
The Escuela de la Guias is a program for local youth, between 18 and 50. They participate in a 2-year program where we teach outdoors skills with entreprenuerial skills, like how to run a small business, so that when they return to their farms or rural areas they can make money through sustainable tourism. So far, we have trained more than 60 people as long-term guides, and altogether more than 250 people from around the country have taken part in various courses. The school is a non-governmental organization in which we promote sustainable development, with the understanding that most of our students do not come from an outdoor background in terms of sport, but that they have outdoors experience living in rural or isolated areas. Most of the time, they have skills for living in really bad conditions, and we teach them how to use those skills in a tourist business. 
Are you seeing positive results?
Aysen is such a big region, its like going from Santiago to Osorno in terms of geographical size. Everywhere you go it is beautiful. Its not like Magallanes where everyone goes to one place, Torres del Paine. Here, the tourists get really spread out and we almost never see a large concentration of people. Tourism is growing, but still not enough for our kind of services. Most people are independent travelers, they are not typically hiring guides, or sometimes their guides are people who come from outside of the region to work here for the season. So, we are taking a break on teaching people. This year we have decided not to teach a new generation of guides because its not certain that they will have a job at the end of the progress. 
What can be done to improve the situation? 
I think, first, the price is always a problem. For example, a horse ride in Aysen is usually 2 or 3 times more expensive than it is in Pucon or Puerto Varas. And the reason for that is their living conditions here are expensive -- electricity, water, food, everything -- so when you price a product its really difficult. But there is also not a big volume of tourists. The amount of tourists here is like Pucon was 20 years ago. 
Has Aysen tourism grown though?
Its grown. The statistics from Sernatur say the growth is around 19 percent a year the past decade, which is huge. Last year, the growth was 9.4 percent. But most of those travelers are independent, and they want to save money. The economy is bad in the US and Europe. And the wealthy people who come are mostly here for fly fishing. 
What outdoors trips do you most recommend in Aysen? 
On the Carretera Austral near Puyuhuapi, the Quelat National Park is beautiful. So far, it only has short hiking trails but it has a beautiful campground that you can hike from. Cerro Castillo is good if you like places like Torres del Paine, its similar but much more remote with less infrastructure, which makes it really nice. It has big campgrounds, great trails, and really beautiful views. There is the Exploradores Valley, which is incredible. It all depends on how much time you have and what you do. 
You started Desafio Aysen, which last month held its first winter event. What are your future plans? 
It was something we organized last summer as part of our work with Senderos de Chile. We wanted to show that Senderos de Chile is a new way to travel in Aysen. Its 155 kms, with Aysen hosting the longest extension of the trail in Chile. And with the support of the United Nations, we did a project on that, putting up signs, building better campgrounds, making a map of the area, and then we thought another way to show the area would be to do this adventure race. Last month, we did a different route in Desafio Aysen, going from Coyhaique to Puerto Aisen, and we had 18 teams from Chile, Argentina and the U.S. We expect to keep this going every year, once each summer and winter, to help promote outdoors excursions in Aysen. 
Nowadays, the big issue in Aysen is of course HidroAysen. What’s your view on this project?
As an organization, the Escuela de Guias is against the project. They will destroy our office. For us, our classroom is the wilderness and the mountains, and it’s the source of income for our guides. We understand that all the environmental impacts from the project can be minimized. But it also has a huge social impact, bringing big companies into a place where communities are small will greatly change the way of life here.  If  HidroAysen happens, many tourism companies will close, maybe we as an Escuela de Guias will close, and personally, I will live somewhere else. I chose to live in Aysen because of the type of development it has. We don’t want big roads everywhere, we don’t want big trucks everywhere, we want to live away from all that in a sort of far west. We can have cell phones and Internet but you are still in the far west. 



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