Chile’s environmental conservation can create inspiration

The railings of a bridge by the sea are covering in multi-colored ribbons. A Chilean flag is blowing in the wind in the background.

The Bridge of Dreams in Horcón, Chile. (Carter Weinhofer)

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Chile stands out geographically for many reasons, first of which being its nearly 4000 miles of coastline. The country, specifically the central coast, has a long history of nautical commerce, thus bringing the people closer to the water by necessity. Within the country, however, you can find a stark contrast of desert and untouched wilderness. This January, I had the opportunity to study abroad in Chile, living in the coastal city of Viña del Mar, studying in Valparaíso, and exploring the wild Patagonia for several days. During my three and a half week trip in Chile, my interest in environmentalism caused me to notice various contrasts between the industrialized coasts, the pristine Patagonia, and the places that lay somewhere in between. 

While it can be difficult to reverse what’s already been done to the environment, preserved areas like Patagonia show us a model for serious conservation that is possible and inspiring.

Coastal Chile

Slideshow by Carter Weinhofer

The first two pictures depict just a small aspect of life by the water in the cities of Valparaíso and Viña del Mar. Cargo ships are nonstop, the waves of the Pacific Ocean crash violently against the rocky coast and the scent of fish markets are recognizable every time you pass them in a “micro,” or bus. Further north, the beach town of Horcón attracts tourists to the Bridge of Dreams (slide 3), where visitors can write their wishes on a piece of biodegradable fabric and tie them to a colorful bridge by the coast.

Even further north, you can find the upscale beach of Zapallar (slide 4), popular during this time of summer and home to the upper-class. Without a doubt, anywhere along the central to northern coast of Chile you can notice the impact humans have on the environment, whether it’s through the litter on the streets or graffiti on the walls.

The “in-between”

Slideshow by Carter Weinhofer

While not always geographically “in-between,” these locations are heavily influenced by humans but also demonstrate the beauty of Chile’s diverse environment. First, the Dunes of Concon (slides 1 and 2) attract locals and tourists alike for their uniqueness. You can find people sandboarding down the massive dunes, while also taking in the views of the cities around it. But, immediately surrounding the dunes are skyscrapers creeping up. While the site was named a National Sanctuary in 1993, the protected part of the dunes was restricted to only 12 of the 45 hectares in 1994.

This allowed for large buildings to be constructed all round the dunes, appealing to a more touristy feel. As you get deeper into the country going East, the true hidden beauty begins to show itself. Another popular tourist attraction, Cajon del Maipo (slides 3-5) allows for ziplining, rafting and hiking through the well-preserved land. Hiking and nature walks connect people with the environment, facilitating sightings of native and non-native Chilean species, like the California Quail in slide 4.

During the summer months, you can admire the waterfalls shown in slide 9. Throughout this destination, recycling bins and environmentally-conscious signage indicate that respect for the environment is a mutually held value, shared by tourists, workers and locals.

La Patagonia

Slideshow by Carter Weinhofer

Take a plane to Punta Arenas in the deep south of Chile, then go by rental van or bus through Puerto Natales into one of the main destinations of Patagonia: Torres del Paine National Park. It’s difficult to encapsulate the true feeling of being in a place like this, and photos barely do it justice. Aside from a few lodges and eating spots scattered around the whole park, the area remains in great environmental condition, allowing for the flourishing of wild fauna, such as the Chilean flamingo (slide 5). 

Designated as a Biosphere Reserve by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, the park is known around the world and attracts more than 250,000 visitors every year. Even with the common principles of “Leave no Trace,” the mass amount of visitors to the national park takes its toll, mainly in the form of erosion to the trails and surrounding areas. To combat this, non-profit organizations such as the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund strive to support the longevity of the park.

The organization spearheads projects focused on ecosystem restoration and improving the infrastructure throughout the park, such as trails and bridges. The work of nonprofits such as the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund can make huge impacts, but is only one piece of the puzzle in total conservation – luckily, the National Forest Corporation (CONAF), overseen by Chile’s Ministry of Agriculture, works closely with nonprofit organizations such as this to promote conservation. 

One of the main hikes completed by visitors is to the viewpoint looking out at the famous Torres del Paine. This is a somewhat challenging hike and is nearly 13 miles roundtrip. The last hour of the hike is almost all uphill and, without a smooth path, hikers need to climb on rocks while simultaneously trying to stand steady against the heavy wind. But, the view (slide 3) makes it all worth it. Even with the viewpoint relatively crowded on the day I made the journey, the sentiment shared among people was unlike anything I had ever experienced. After such a journey, everyone just looked on at the famous Torres and admired it for what it was. 

At one point, a wind gust took papers from a person’s bag and scattered them throughout the clear blue lake. Some hikers close to the water rushed to get there, sharing hiking sticks to grab the trash that had been accidentally taken into the water. And that’s the amazing thing – with no trash cans anywhere on the hiking trail or throughout the park at all, really, the area remains well taken care of with rarely a speck of trash in sight. The level of respect for the environment I experienced in Patagonia was truly unique.

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