My 3-month visit to Chile and Argentina in 2004 left a permanent mark on my life. It was the first time my wife and I ever left the country, it’s what got me interested in Spanish and languages in general, and it was a hell of a good time.
We arrived in Santiago, Chile with a pair of backpacks, round trip tickets that would return us home 3 months later, and a 2-week intensive Spanish course/homestay arranged in Santiago. We had no plans for what we would do after the first two weeks.
When we left Santiago, we took buses, trains and hitched rides in cars around Chile, and eventually through Argentina. We slept in our tent at least half the time, and did several extended backpacking trips in Patagonia.
One of the most memorable parts of that trip was our visit to Parque Pumalín. It’s been a long time since I thought about this trip, but hearing about the death of the park’s founder, Douglas Tompkins, reminded me of it. I’m actually not sure if “founder” is the right word for Tompkins in the context of the park. He was the founder of both The North Face and Esprit clothing companies, and used his money to create The Conservation Land Trust, which, under Tompkins leadership, bought the 1,255 sq. mi. of land that became Parque Pumalín. Although privately owned, it is operated as a public park.
The park contains some of the last stands of Alerce trees anywhere. These are huge trees, similar to redwoods, and are some of the oldest tree species on earth. The park also has an incredible network of trails, a beautiful campground/organic farm, amazing views, mountains and wetlands. I remember being amazed by the low clouds that churned over the ocean inlet at Caleta Gonzalo, the enormous and ancient alerce trees, and the hand built wood bridges. One of my first extended Spanish conversations happened there — I believe I was explaining to a Chilean woman why I thought John Kerry would beat George Bush in that year’s elections.
It’s crazy to think that Tomkins was willing and able to put together this huge park, and that this was just one of his many accomplishments, including a few other parks. In 2004 I didn’t realize who he was then and what he’d done, despite having a North Face sleeping bag and several other pieces of gear made by his company with me on that trip. I keep fantasizing about what it could have been like if I’d known who he was, and had tried to meet him when I was there — he apparently lived in the region near the park. In my dreams he would have gladly invited a couple of grubby American backpackers to coffee and regaled us with the many stories he must have had from an unusual life.
In the end, I’m grateful for the real memories that the trip to his park left me with. Someday we hope to make it back there with our children and show them this wonderful place. I hope you’ll have the chance to visit it too.
You can read more about our eventful 2004 trip here. I hope to have more stories about this visit up soon.