UPDATE: Torres del Paine National Park Wildfire

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine: Before the fire

Last Friday evening, Chilean President Sebastián Piñera announced that Parque Nacional Torres del Paine will remain closed through January 2012.

 

As of this morning (Monday), the fire has consumed almost 13,000 hectares (32,423 acres) of the national park. Seven hundred and fifty firefighters from all over Chile, as well as from Argentina, Uruguay and the US, have joined efforts to bring the blaze under control. The entire area has been declared a disaster area.

 

Winds as high as 120 kilometers per hour (73 mph) hampered efforts on Friday. Saturday, a light rain began falling and winds calmed, allowing six helicopters to join in the fight. Three of the six foci of the wildfire were extinguished.

 

Also on Saturday, Israeli citizen Rotem Singer was arrested on charges for starting the blaze. News reports stated he confessed to authorities, which Singer now denies, blaming bad translations. He is on conditional freedom for 41-61 days until investigations are completed.

 

The government has been criticized for its slow response to the unfolding disaster. In the national legislature, Representative Carlos Recondo of X Región de los Lagos is proposing to privatize the park, which he believes will improve its administration.

 

Patagon Journal posts that volunteers for the recovery of Torres del Paine may now sign up. Send your name, age, profession, city and dates available to voluntarios@torresdelpaine.com. The program, which start date is yet to be set, is being organized by Conaf (national park service) and local operators.

 

The park closure is expected to have a tremendous impact on Puerto Natales’ economy. In one season, the tourism sector generates $200 million dollars, as well as 8,000 direct and 24,000 associated jobs.

 

Puerto Natales, though, has much more to offer tourists than just Torres del Paine. For those needing to get out into nature, another reserve may be accessed from this coastal village: Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins. This is Chile’s largest national park, covering 3,525,091 hectares (8,710,689 acres). A boat treads across Seno de Última Esperanza to the foot of Glaciar Balmaceda to the ranger station at Sector Balmaceda. During the voyage, dolphins, sea lions, fur seals and a variety of waterfowl can be spotted, as well as. Although this park doesn’t offer multi-day treks like Torres del Paine, it does have several short hikes into the stunningly beautiful landscape. From the ranger post, trails lead to the foot of the glacier and to a lookout point. Other activities in this part of the park are rappelling and kayaking, though the paddle down the Río Serrano from PN Torres del Paine not possible at this time.

 

Another nature reserve you can visit from Puerto Natales is Monumento Nacional Cueva del Milodón, a massive cave where the remains of a three meter ground sloth were discovered. Posada Hostería Río Verde on Skyring Fiord is not only a lodge at a working ranch, but also offers day packages that includes horseback riding, sailing and trout fishing. Río Verde village also has a small historical museum. Río Rubens is another place with terrific trout fishing.

 

The Museo Histórico Municipal in Puerto Natales.

When the much-needed rains arrive, you can seek refuge in one of Puerto Natales’ museums. The Museo Histórico Municipal features archaeological artifacts and historical photographs, as well as an exhibit on the 19th century European settlement of the town. The Museo de Fauna Patagónica has a collection of over 350 taxidermied animals from around the area.  Just five kilometers (3 miles) north of town, Museo Frigorífico Puerto Bories offers interesting guided tours of the old meatpacking factory, which was awarded Monument status by the Chilean government. Out in Puerto Bories, you can also go horseback riding.

 

Puerto Natales is also the southern port for the Navemag ferry to Puerto Montt. The five-day north-bound journey goes through fiords, and past glaciers of the Southern and Northern ice fields (Campos del Hielo).

 

Turismo Aónikenk, a Punta Arenas-based tour operator, lists other things to see and do in the Puerto Natales area.

 

The famous Navimag ferry.

 

The US Embassy in Santiago has issued a travel advisory for its citizens planning to go to the region. If you are planning to visit the area, keep up-to-date with the news. Check the websites of the various national agencies: Conaf (park service), Onemi (emergency management) and Sernatur (tourism board). These media outlets are also dependable: Prensa Austral, Radio Polar and Cooperativa. Another excellent source is erratic rock in Puerto Natales.

 

Stay tuned to V!VA’s blog and facebook page for more developments.

 

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