Category Archives: Volunteering

A New Season in Torres del Paine

After closing last year’s tourism season with a devastating wildfire, Torres del Paine National Park is gearing up for another high season. The thousands of tourists that will be arriving should expect changes.


The wildfire began at the end of December 2011, and raged for nearly two months. By the end of February 2012, an estimated 17,606 hectares (43,505 acres) of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine had been destroyed, according to Conaf, the national forest service. The entire park was forced closed until the blaze could be contained. Eventually the northern sector reopened.


The Puerto Natales hostel, erratic rock, informs V!VA Travel Guides that burned areas include along the trails in the Las Carretas, Paine Grande Italiano and Paine Grande Grey sectors. Ruth, an erratic rock volunteer says, “There is already new green grass growing, which makes the black even darker, so it is pretty impressive.”


Reforestation of the burnt areas of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine has been slow. Thus far, only 10,000 native lenga beech (Nothofagus pumilio) have been planted. Conaf takes national and international volunteers in a variety of positions.


The high season opened on October 1. Since then, regular bus service has begun and most refuges opened. The ones at Los Cuernos and Chileno are slated to open October 15, and Refugio Dikson, which forms part of the circuit, will be online November 1. Catamaran service also has begun once daily; at the end of October, it will run twice daily, and as of November 5, three times per day.


Prices for the 2012-2013 season are:

* Park entry: 18,000 Chilean pesos (CLP) or $36 USD

* Public bus from Puerto Natales: 15,000 CLP ($30 USD) round trip

* Lago Pehoe catamaran: 12,000 CLP ($24 USD) one way; 22,000 CLP ($44 USD) round trip

* Refuges: 22,500 CLP ($45 USD) per bed, without sheets or meals

* Meals: breakfast 5,500 CLP ($11 USD), lunch 8,000 CLP ($16 USD), dinner 11,000 CLP ($22 USD)


Tourists will face many more regulations, especially concerning camping, and more education about park rules. Also, many more patrols will be on the lookout for people who camp in non-designated areas. Drop by erratic rock’s free daily information sessions at 3 p.m. to learn about new changes and about all the challenges you’ll face in Torres del Paine National Park.



A big thank you to the staff of erratic rock for the above information. Pack along your V!VA Travel Guides Chile for the most complete coverage of Parque Nacional Torres del Paine and the other wonder destinations of the region than any other guidebook on the market.

Torres del Paine National Park Reopens

Wednesday morning, just a week after a devastating wildfire broke out in Southern Chile’s Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, the government announced the reopening of the park.


Torres del Paine National Park, showing open sectors. Map by:


The northern part of Torres del Paine, which is unaffected by the fire, is now open to tourists. These include these sectors: Laguna Sur and Amerga, Valle Ascencio, Hotel Las Torres, Campamentos Cuernos and Cerón, and the Los Perros and Dichoso rivers. For complete details, visit the website of the national tourism board, Sernatur. Click here for a map of the open areas.


Local guides, hostels and other businesses are joining efforts to give informative talks at the park entrance, to instruct visitors on safety and environmental issues. They also are forming protection patrols to walk the trails, looking for campfires, illegal camping and other park rule violations.


Ecologists, however, are not happy with the government’s decision. They fear that the patrolling of the park will draw necessary manpower from the tasks of fighting the wildfire and reforestation efforts.


The fire has consumed 14,504 hectares (35,840 acres) of the nature reserve, as well as about 1,000 hectares of Estancia Lazo, a ranch neighboring the park. Grey Glacier was in danger of partial melting from the intense heat. As of Wednesday afternoon, only one hotspot of the fire remained out of control.


Over 700 firefighters from four countries have battled the blaze. Water is still being collected for the crews.


Already four Israeli experts have arrived to lend their expertise in reforestation. Volunteers are also being enlisted to help with recovery efforts (see UPDATE: Torres del Paine National Park Wildfire for details). The extent of environmental damage is severe. Experts estimate it will take up to 80 years for the park to fully recover.


La Prensa Austral has several stunning photo gallery showing the fire’s aftermath.

Torres del Paine: Before the fire


Forest fires are burning in other parts of Chile, including in the Maule and Bío-Bío regions. In Pichiqueime, over 22,500 hectares (55,600 acres) of forest, 100 homes and a cellulose refining plant have been destroyed, and one death has resulted.  The Catholic Church has begun an aid drive to help the affected in these areas.


Chile’s President Sebastián Piñera is proposing a new law to replace the present one, passed in the 1930s. The forest fire reform act would reorganize emergency response mechanisms, and increase fines and jail time for individuals that cause forest fires.

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 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.


Chile’s Carretera Austral: Ten Adventures to Get Your Adrenaline Fix

Taking a rest.

South America’s summer officially begins tonight, but already travelers have been hitting Chile’s Carretera Austral (Ruta 7), which extends 1,247 kilometers (775 miles) from Puerto Montt to Villa O’Higgins. Bicyclists are battling the infamous Patagonian wind as gravel kicks up around their tires. Some backpackers stand by the roadsides, thumb outstretched, to explore the road that way. Very few travelers take the public buses or rent a car. This is a highway where dreams can be made reality.

If the adventure of biking or hitching the Carretera Austral isn’t enough for you, V!VA Travel Guides Chile presents you  with a cornucopia of high-adrenaline activities to keep you pumped going down the highway. This region has many legs of the national hiking trail network, the Sendero de Chile ( Local families provide homestay and guiding services for not only trekking, but also birdwatching, horseback riding, fly fishing, rock climbing and other sports.

So dig out the hiking boots and pack in the provisions because it’s time to hit the open road.


1 – Parque Nacional Horniporén

Parque Nacional Horniporén, near the start of the Carretera Austral, protects important transition zones of flora, fauna and geology. Over 13 kilometers (8 miles) of hiking trails wind through this fascinating landscape. The nearby village of Río Puelo is the starting point for an even more challenging trek: four nights, five days across the Paso Río Puelo border to El Bolsón, Argentina.

Kayaking on the Futaleufú River.

2 – Futaleufú

Rafters and kayakers, get your gear ready to shoot through the rapids of the Futa, one of the world’s three most challenging rivers. The toughest stretches are the “Infierno” (22 kilometers / 14 miles, Class III-IV) and the “Terminator” (7 kilometers / 4.2 miles, Class V). The Espolón River is renowned for its fly fishing. Dry land adventures are horseback riding and hiking near town and in Reserva Natural Futaleufú.

Further down the highway you can get another whitewater  fix on the Río Baker’s Class III rapids at Puerto Bertrand.


3 – Palena

Reserva Nacional Lago Palena offers horseback riding, fly fishing and a half-dozen hiking trails ranging from four kilometers (2.4 miles) to 13 kilometers (8 miles) in distance. It is also the staging ground for a 65-kilometer (39-mile) stretch of the Sendero de Chile, from Palena to Lago Verde (near La Junta).


A waterfall in Queulat National Park.

4 – Puyuhuapi

The delights around Puyuhuapi, a small German settlement on a fiord, never ceases to amaze travelers. After hiking to the hanging glaciers and waterfalls in Parque Nacional Queulat, soak your tired muscles in one of two hot springs near the village.


5 – Coyhaique

While you’re restocking on money and other necessary supplies in the Northern Patagonia’s major city, take some time out to explore the three national reserves near town: Monumento Nacional Dos Lagunas, Reserva Nacional Río Simpson and Reserva Nacional Coyhaique. On the coast is Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael, most known for its boat tours to the glaciers. But it also has several hiking trails, ice climbing (for the experienced and equipped) and camping.

Coyahique is also home to Escuela de Guías de la Patagonia, a school that trains the region’s guides. During the summer, it also teaches travelers camping, rock climbing and other skills to survive Patagonian rigors.


Cerro Castillo.

6 – Cerro Castillo

With geological features much like Torres del Paine, Reserva Nacional Cerro Castillo has a distinct advantage: It is virtually unvisited. The challenging 45-kilometer (28 mile) Valle de la Lima-Villa Cerro Castillo trek, which takes three to four days, wraps around the base of the mountain, with stunning views of icy lagoons and glaciers. If time is short, you can visit the park on horseback from the village.


7 – Bahía Exploradores

The boat tour of Río Tranquilo’s marble caves provides a respite from Chile’s Northern Patagonia’s trekking opportunities. But it’s now time for the next challenge: Hiking out the 59-kilometer (37-mile) road towards Bahía Exploradores, and ice trekking Glaciar Exploradores.

Capilla de Marmól, near Río Capilla.

8 – Cochrane

Besides being the last place along the highway where you can pick up on money and basic supplies, Cochrane has the Reserva Nacional Tamango. Also near town is Laguna Esmeralda with swimming, kayaking and great trout fishing. If you’re ready to roll up the ol’ sleeves and help restore natural habitats for huemul and puma, then volunteer at Valle Chacabuco nature reserve.


Caleta Tortel.

9 – Caleta Tortel

The entire village of Caleta Tortel is a hiking experience, with over seven kilometers (4.2 miles) of cypress-wood boardwalks. This is also where the southern sector of Parque Nacional San Rafael and Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins are accessed.  Both have hikes to glaciers. Caleta Tortel is also a prime kayaking destination.


10 – Villa O’Higgins

Villa O’Higgins is the last town on Chile’s Carretera Austral. From here, you’ll have to backtrack north to Cochrane or Lago General Carrera to cross over into Argentina. Or you can boat across Lago O’Higgins and hike to El Chaltén, Argentina—what has been called one of the world’s most beautiful border crossings (Paso Dos Lagunas). Before you leave this end-of-the-road town, though, take some time to hike or horseback ride one of the seven trails in the area, including two in the northern sector of Parque Nacional Bernardo O’Higgins.

The highway’s end.


Traversing the Carretera Austral once the snows swirl in late autumn provides other ways to get the old adrenaline pumping. The road becomes impassable and many of towns remain isolated for weeks at a time. The best place to use as a base is Coyhaique. You can snowshoe and cross country ski in the three national reserves near that city or in Cerro Castillo just to the south. Coyhaique also has a downhill ski center, Centro de Ski el Fraile.

The Carretera Austral can be accessed by several border crossings from Argentina, or by boats arriving at Chaitén, Puerto Chacabuco (near Coyhaique) and other villages.

There are many other towns along the Carretera Austral that provide many other delights. Pack along your V!VA Travel Guides Chile for the most complete coverage of the region than any other guidebook on the market.

V!VA Interviews an SAE Volunteer

By Emma Mueller

For those who don’t know, the South American Explorers Club—affectionately known as the SAE—is an organization that provides travelers in South America with extensive insider’s information and valuable trip planning advice. Ex-pats and travelers passing through South America should definitely stop by one of the clubhouses to meet fellow travelers and participate in organized events like weekend hikes, pub quizzes, parties and lectures given by local experts. Clubhouses can be found in Quito, Ecuador; Cuzco, Peru; Lima, Peru; and Buenos Aires Argentina. Sign up as a member and you’ll receive local discounts and access to helpful information online!

This week V!VA interviewed Marion Baier, who spent around two months volunteering at the SAE clubhouse in Quito, Ecuador. Prospective travelers looking to volunteer in South America should definitely read on to learn more about this unique and fun volunteer opportunity. For more information, visit the Volunteer and Work Page of the SAE website.

To start, tell us a little about yourself.

My name is Marion, I’m 23 and I’m from Cologne, Germany. I study translation in Hildsheim, a small town in the northern part of Germany with the languages English and Spanish. I really enjoy traveling throughout the world and whenever I’m on vacation from my clases, I try to do a trip somewhere. Besides that, I like to do sports, to read, I love music and to hang out with my friends.

What brought you to Ecuador? Who did you come with (if anyone), and was it your first time here?

The first time I came to Ecuador was in January 2009, because I wanted to visit my friend Gabriela who lives in Quito and who I met in the United Stated a few years ago. I fell in love with the city and the country right away, so I HAD to come back to explore more of Ecuador. I decided to do an internship here to improve my Spanish and I stayed seven weeks, which was definitely too short.

How did you hear about the SAE?

Because of my studies I need to do internships that have to do with languages. I looked on the internet and found a Spanish school in Quito that offered to help with internships. I wrote them and they offered me to work at the SAE. After I found out who they are and what they do, I accepted right away because it sounded really interesting and fun.

Why did you choose to volunteer at the SAE?

I chose to volunteer at the SAE because I really enjoy meeting new people and speaking different languages. It just sounded more fun then any other internship I have done before.

Describe a day in the life of an SAE volunteer. What exactly do you do?

I usually arrived at 9:30 in the morning and then started to write on the Quito package, which was started by another German volunteer who worked at the SAE before me. I had to collect information on Quito, on the museums, hotels, places of interests etc. and write small summaries about the different places in and around Quito. Whenever somebody entered the SAE clubhouse, I tried to help them with their questions, talked to them or showed them the house and where they can find what kind of information. There was always somebody around in the house to talk to.

What was your favorite part of being a volunteer? Were there any special perks?

I really enjoyed talking to people and finding out about their trips, where they had been before, where they were going next, etc.

And what would you say was the hardest part about being a volunteer?

The hardest part was probably the beginning. I came to Quito and didn’t really know the city. Because of that it was hard for me to answer peoples’ questions, because I didn’t really know a lot of things either, but they were expecting it from me. But at the end of my volunteering time, I knew more and also had been to some places, which made everything a lot easier.

While volunteering can certainly be a fun and rewarding experience, it can sometimes be difficult to make ends meet financially. How do you manage to get by living here in Quito without receiving a salary? Any tips/advice for the rest of us?

Before I came to Quito, I worked a lot Germany so I could finance my stay. I also received a scholarship, which was a great help. Because I only had a tourist visa, I wasn’t officially allowed to work, but if I had had a different visa, I would have worked in some place to get some extra money.

Would you recommend the SAE volunteer program to a friend?

Yes, definitely. Compared to other internships we have to do during our studies, it is a refreshing alternative.

What’s next for you?

Finish my studies and then come back to South America to explore all the other countries I haven’t been before.

Volunteering Abroad: How to Pay for it

By: Emma Mueller

Volunteering abroad is a great way to see the world, broaden your horizons and, most importantly, to lend a helping hand to people or places that really need it. And as you begin searching for the right program for you, you’ll find that there is no shortage of organizations out there ready and willing to set you up on your next adventure. Perhaps you’re passionate about protecting turtle nesting grounds in Costa Rica. Or maybe you want to help bring potable water to a rural community in Nigeria. No matter what you want to do, there is certainly a program out there for you. But finding the right program isn’t the issue. The real problem is that once you’ve stumbled upon your ideal volunteer opportunity, you’re likely to find that your dream job comes with a hefty price tag…


Yes, it’s true.  Some of the best, most reputable volunteer organizations ask that you pay a fee to participate in their programs, and unfortunately, this is no small fee; typical costs can amount to thousands of dollars! This is not to say, however, that there aren’t a wide variety of low cost volunteer organizations out there. You may have to dig a little deeper, but there are many cheaper options available. Volunteer South America, for example, provides a list of not only low cost, but FREE, volunteer opportunities throughout South America.

But you know better.  Is anything ever really free anymore? Not really. The difference between these low cost options and those that charge a seemingly excessive amount of dough lies in what they are willing (or unwilling) to provide. While the more expensive programs will usually include accommodation, meals and travel expenses, the smaller, less expensive volunteer organizations leave it to you to find and pay for such things. So really, if you want to volunteer abroad, you’re going to have to shell out some cash.


You’re not going on vacation, you’re volunteering—remember? The goal here is to do some good in the world, and to make a difference that will positively impact a struggling community or environment. If you’re really passionate about your cause, no price tag should dissuade you from doing what you want to do. And guess what? Other people—your friends, family and coworkers—may also think that your cause is pretty cool, so stop sulking about the money and get out there are start fundraising!


The first thing you need to do is get the word out. Contact local newspapers, post on Twitter or create a Facebook group to spread awareness about your cause, and petition for donations to make your dream happen. To begin, you need tell a compelling story.  Let others know why your cause is important, what you personally hope to do and how you are qualified and equipped to make a significant impact. The idea is to spread your own passions onto others, so that they too will feel inspired to make a contribution in any way they can.


Get in contact with local businesses and organizations to see if they’d be willing to help you out. As you solicit, be sure to provide ample information regarding your program and personal goals in order to assure them that what you are doing is legitimate and well founded. Be creative and try to see if you can set up an agreement from which both you and the company you’ve contacted can benefit. Perhaps an organization  will be willing to set up a partnership where some of their proceeds are contributed to your cause—they benefit because people are often willing to pay more if they know their money’s doing some good, and you, of course, get a donation.

Asking for money can be uncomfortable, but the worst thing that can happen is that they’ll say no. That’s it. You need to consistently remind yourself that you are not asking them to pay you; you’re asking them to make a donation to a cause.


Lastly, fundraising doesn’t have to be all about writing letters and making phone calls.  It can also be a lot of fun! A great way to raise money is to set up an event with a small entry fee. The following are just a few events and money raising activities that are both productive and fun:

  • Set up an Auction selling crafts and goods from the community in which you hope to work
  • Have a Garage Sale and get rid of those CDs you never listen to
  • Organize a Trivia Night at a local bar or club
  • Utilize Grandma’s incredible baking skills and hold a Bake Sale
  • Put your daughter to work and set up a Lemonade Stand
  • Create and sell a Book of Recipes
  • Host an Open Mic Night or Poetry Reading
  • Get some friends together and hold a Car Wash

Just make sure that you give yourself enough time (fundraising can be time consuming and exhausting) and try to stay positive. Sometimes it may seem like you’ll never reach your goal, which is why it’s important to choose a cause that you really, genuinely care about. If you’re just looking to get a paid vacation, you won’t get past the $100 mark.

Have you volunteered abroad?  How were you able to cover the expenses? Share fundraising and money saving tips below!