As you look out over the expansive landscapes of the Chacabuco Valley, imagine a time, thousands of years ago, when primitive peoples roamed these immense Patagonian grasslands looking for shelter and food. These nomadic hunter-gatherers left us clues about their movements and habits, including cave paintings under rocky eaves where they were protected from the cold and wind. There have been more than 300 archaeological sites identified so far in this valley!
Centuries passed until in 1915, a man named Lucas Bridges moved thousands of sheep into the Valley from the Argentina steppe, establishing “Estancia Valle Chacabuco”, which soon became one of the largest sheep ranches in Chile. During most of the twentieth century, ranching was the dominant activity in the Chacabuco Valley. Like most large ranchers of his generation, Bridges was armed with great determination, but little ecological awareness; his actions left devastating impacts on the local environment, the scope of which are only now being understood.
To protect the Estancia’s investments (30,000+ sheep), employees hunted the native puma that frequently preyed on flocks. Hunting eventually put this animal in danger of extinction. To keep their livestock contained and organized, they constructed an elaborate maze of fencing, using more than 6,000 strands of wire. Unfortunately, this maze was a significant hurdle for native species like huemul and guanaco, which thrived on free range. Encroachment forced native fauna into ever smaller areas, pressuring their populations. Stresses were further accentuated by hunting and the dogs that worked the ranch.
Then, when increasing wool production in Australia began to lower international prices for wool, Patagonia ranching became increasingly less profitable. Strategies for recovering losses were based on the accumulation of yet more sheep; thus, improving the efficiency of the lands in producing wool. Unfortunately, this practice resulted in overgrazing and further degradation of the soils and ecosystems. By the late 1990s, the Estancia was no longer a viable proposition.
In 2004, a new legacy began for the Chacabuco Valley.
Conservación Patagónica, an international non-profit conservation organization, purchased the Valley Chacabuco Estancia with the vision of restoring these lands to their natural state. They gradually sold off the livestock and began to tear down the fences, restore the soils, native plants and wildlife. Their vision is to eventually link the Chacabuco Valley with two adjoining National Reserves, Tamango and Jeinimeni, so that together, these three Protected Areas can form one enormous Patagonia National Park. To support this vision, they are creating critical park infrastructure, including camping areas, a restaurant, lodges, and hiking trails.
Conservación Patagónica has completed three official hiking routes, which provide visitors the opportunity to experience a variety of areas within Patagonia Park. Hiking off-trail is also permitted. Check-in with the Administration team to share your plans and obtain permission. The landscape of the Valley includes vast expanses of Patagonian Grasslands, magnificent Austral Steppe, dense beech forests and high Andean peaks. There are countless rivers and streams, wetlands, lagoons and lakes. Bird life abounds in the valley and the varied natural features offer a safe haven for a vast diversity of fauna, ranging from the nearly extinct huemul, a prolific guanaco population, puma, fox, and all kinds of smaller creatures including the viscacha and the large four-eyed frog.
The Cemetery Circuit is a beautiful and easy six kilometer, two hour walk. This route begins at the Conservación Patagónica Visitor Center where you can get information about the project and learn about their sustainable constructions. During the walk you’ll pass the Estancia’s original cemetery, which commemorates the era in which the Estancia functioned as a small town. The trail continues to the Westwinds Camping Area, which has space for up to 60 tents, showers with hot water, and cooking sites. From the campsite the trail follows the road along the base of cerro Tamanguito, returning you to the Visitor Center.
Another great option is the hike to Laguna Cisnes. It’s a great seven kilometer hike that will take around 2 - 3 hours and provide you with the opportunity to view lots of native fauna and bird life. From the Visitor Center, follow the main road, passing along the airstrip. After crossing the field, the road starts to climb slightly and on the left side, you will see a low rock wall. As you climb, the road passes through wetlands and lagoons until you reach a small unnamed lagoon. From the shores of this lagoon, you’ll have a great view of the Cisnes Lagoon, where you can always spot birds. We recommend you bring along binoculars, a field guide and patience! On the way back, you’ll pass the area where the lagoon drains into a brook, and follow alongside for a while, before heading across the grassy field, to the Visitor Center.
If you’re looking for a challenge, try the 23 kilometer trail to the Lagunas Altas sector. You’ll be rewarded with the best panoramic views of the valley. The route climbs the northern slope of the Cerro Tamanguito, passes between lagoons, wetlands, prairies, forests and huge blocks of rock, and then descends back down to the road between the Westwinds Camping Area and the Visitor Center. Keep alert because the chances are good for encountering guanacos, huemules and condors. You can download a detailed map and trail description for this hike at: www.conservacionpatagonica.org