Patagonia’s controversial new national park

The creation of the Parque Patagonia conservation area – the brainchild of a billionaire US couple – is a step to creating one of the world’s largest national parks. But what’s the hiking like?

“Pain?” asks Jorge Molina, my hiking guide. Yes, there is a little pain, but it’s too late for cold feet. Or, more accurately, it’s too late not to get cold feet, because we’re already shin-deep in a swift icy river.

“We’ll cross 20 of these rivers today,” Jorge warns. I won’t complain. These cold rivers, flowing down from the glaciers and mountains of Lago Jeinimeni national reserve in Chile’s Aysén region, will supply drinking water on our four-day trek into Parque Patagonia. And things could be far worse. “Sometimes these rivers come up to the waist,” says Jorge. Parts of my body are thankful the water isn’t that high now.

There has also been a little pain in the birth of this new park – which opened fully this year, and may soon become a major new national park. American billionaire Doug Tompkins (founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing brands) and his wife Kristine (former CEO of clothing company Patagonia) have been working on it for years. The ambitious plan was to unite land they bought in the Chacabuco valley in 2004 with the neighbouring Jeinimeni and Tamango national reserves, to create a 650,000-acre public access park. They hope it will get national park status in 2016, though it could take longer.

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