Visiting Chile’s Parque Pumalín

Moss grows on a bulging knot along the trunk of a larch tree.

An alerce (larch) tree in Parque Pumalin, a rainforest. Photo © skopal/123rf.

In 1991, U.S. businessman Douglas Tompkins and his wife, Kris McDivitt Tompkins, cashed out their equity from the Esprit and Patagonia clothing empires to purchase blocks of temperate rainforest to create the region’s largest destination—literally so—in Parque Pumalín, a 317,000-hectare private nature reserve straddling the highway north of Chaitén. Since then, says the New York Times, only General Pinochet’s name has appeared more in the Chilean press than Tompkins, who’s even received death threats from ultranationalists who accuse him of trying to split the country in half. Tompkins has many Chilean supporters, though, and most criticisms are far less extreme.

Tompkins has allayed much of that criticism by building trails, cabins, campgrounds, and a restaurant and visitors center that have lured visitors from Chaitén to the summer ferry port of Caleta Gonzalo, on the Reñihué fjord, and other points along the highway and the park’s extensive shoreline. In late 2004, at a ceremony in Santiago, Pumalín finally received formal legal recognition from President Ricardo Lagos’s government. A few years ago, a plan to reroute the Carretera Austral and run a 2,300-kilometer power line from a proposed hydroelectric project in southern Aisén to Puerto Montt and farther north threatened Pumalín’s ecological integrity, but, ironically, the 2008 eruption of Volcán Chaitén has complicated those plans.

Geography and Climate

Pumalín stretches from 42° south latitude, where it’s contiguous with Parque Nacional Hornopirén, to nearly 43° south, east of Chaitén in the south. Most visitors, though, see the areas along both sides of the Carretera Austral between Chaitén and Caleta Gonzalo.

Elevations range from sea level to snowcapped 2,404-meter Volcán Michinmahuida, in the southernmost sector, but even these statistics are misleading. The topography rises so steeply in some areas that trails require ladders rather than switchbacks.

Pumalín wouldn’t look like it does without rain—lots of rain. While there are no reliable statistics, probably more than 4,000 millimeters of rain falls every year. At higher elevations, of course, it accumulates as snow.

Flora and Fauna

Pumalín takes its name from the puma or mountain lion, but the main reason for its creation was to protect the temperate southern rainforest, whose single most significant species is the alerce (false larch). There are also several species of southern beech, not to mention numerous other rainforest species common to southern Chile.

In addition to the puma, the pudú inhabits the sopping woodlands, while foxes prowl along the shoreline and other open areas. Southern sea lions inhabit headlands and rookeries, stealing salmon from the fish farms that float just beyond the park boundaries and placing themselves at risk from the powerful companies that bring in much of the region’s income. Hikers here and in other parts of the southern rainforests should watch for tiny sanguijuelas (leeches), which can work their way into boots and trousers (some leeches are used for medical purposes in Chile).

Sights and Recreation in Parque Pumalín

From a trailhead near Café Caleta Gonzalo, the Sendero Cascadas climbs and winds through thick rainforest to a high falls; figure about 1.5 hours each way. At the Centro de Información, it’s possible to arrange a tour of the apiaries at Fundo Pillán, across the Fiordo de Reñihué, and to obtain fishing licenses.

From a trailhead about 12 kilometers south of Caleta Gonzalo, west of the highway, the Sendero Laguna Tronador crosses a pasarela (hanging bridge) before ascending a string of slippery stepladders to the Mirador Michinmahuida, a platform where, on clear days, there are astounding views of the volcano’s wintry summit. The trail continues through nearly pristine forest, dropping gradually to the amphitheater lake where Tompkins’s staff built a stylish two-site campground with picnic tables, a deck, and an outhouse. It’s about 1.5 hours to or from the trailhead.

A short distance farther south, on the highway’s east side, the mostly boardwalk Sendero los Alerces crosses the Río Blanco to a large alerce grove. Just a little farther south on the west side, the Sendero Cascadas Escondidas is longer and more strenuous than the signposted three hours might suggest. It’s mostly boardwalk—through the swampy, soggy forest—and catwalk along precipitous rock walls, with some steep stepladders as well. The hardest part, though, is boulder-hopping the river on slippery granite or, better and perhaps safer, wading across. On the other side, the trail climbs steeply another 15–20 minutes, then drops into a narrow canyon where, on a dangerous-looking stepladder anchored by a rope, the bravest hikers can continue around the rock to get the best view of the “hidden” falls.

Seventeen kilometers south of Caleta Gonzalo, at its namesake campground, Sendero Lago Negro leads 800 meters through dense forest to reed-lined Lago Negro. Just north of the park entrance on the Chaitén–Caleta Gonzalo road, the Sendero Interpretativo is a 1.8-kilometer walk in the woods starting from the Volcán ranger station, which provides an explanatory map.

From Chaitén, it’s possible to reach the southern Sendero Ventisquero Amarillo, via a northbound road at the highway’s junction of the turnoff to Termas El Amarillo. Since the eruption damaged part of the trail, though, it’s being rerouted, and information here is subject to change.

Organized Tours

Al Sur Expediciones (Aconcagua 8, Puerto Varas, tel./fax 065/232300) arranges activity-oriented excursions—hiking, sea kayaking, and sailing— throughout the park.

Chiloé-based Austral Adventures (Av. Costanera 904, Ancud, tel./fax 065/625977) offers customized cruises on the 15-meter motor vessel Cahuella.


At Caleta Gonzalo, Pumalín’s Centro de Visitantes distributes brochures, provides information, and displays informational panels with large black-and-white photographs of the park; it also sells books, maps, film, park products like organic honey and jam, and local crafts. If it’s not open, café personnel can unlock it on request.

Pumalín maintains additional information offices in Puerto Varas (Klenner 299, tel. 065/250079, and in the United States (The Conservation Land Trust, Building 1062, Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito, CA 94965, tel. 415/229-9339).

Pumalín also has a detailed website (in Spanish and English).

Getting There

In January and February only, Naviera Austral’s Mailén sails Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday to Hornopirén (passengers US$21, bicycles US$34, motorcycles US$46, cars and light trucks US$140, larger vehicles pay by linear meter; six hours) at 3:30 p.m.; vehicle reservations are advisable. This service is subject to major changes.

Since the northbound road reopened, Chaitur (O’Higgins 67, Chaitén, cell tel. 09/7468-5608) has resumed service to Caleta Gonzalo (US$16, two hours), linking up with the Hornopirén ferry. Rates can rise or fall, though, depending on the number of passengers.

Excerpted from the Fourth Edition of Moon Chile.

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