Guest post written by: Emily Hopcian.
Emily Hopcian is a freelance writer based in Bariloche, Argentina. You can find her on Twitter and Instagram @emilyhopcian or on her website here.
Wandering off the beaten path in national parks is uncommon, and usually prohibited, but if you’re a volunteer with the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund, stepping off the W and O circuits in Parque Nacional Torres del Paine is an everyday occurrence.
You see, volunteers with the Legacy Fund get “backstage access” within this world-renowned national park in southern Patagonia as they create new trails, improve existing ones and get their hands dirty working on other conservation projects within the park. And while the experience is unforgettable for a number of reasons, it’s no cakewalk. If you go to volunteer in Torres del Paine, be prepared to roll up your sleeves and dig in—literally.
What is the Legacy Fund?
The Torres del Paine Legacy Fund exists to keep the Park healthy and the functions within it, sustainable. It was motivated by the fact that around 250,000 people traverse its breadth each year (mainly during the Summer months) - a number expected to increase - causing a variety of strains on the current infrastructure as well as the ecosystem. Of particular concern are the devastating fires which have ravaged 1/5th of the Park since 1985, each one caused by careless tourists.
The Legacy Fund supports and implements local sustainability initiatives that enhance the long-term health of Torres del Paine and its surrounding communities. They do this through collaborations with park authorities, municipalities, residents, visitors, and responsible tourism businesses to mobilize resources to invest in initiatives such as reforestation and the improvement of tourism infrastructure.
Recently, in February, a group of Chilean volunteers with the Legacy Fund came together with U.S. volunteers from the Conservation Volunteers International Program and CONAF (National Forest Association) park rangers to work on a new trail. The yet-to-be-named trail wraps around Lago Sköttsberg between Refugio Paine Grande and Campamento Italiano and, once complete, will be one of the best in the park—not only for the way it’s being constructed but also for the stunning views it affords.
What’s it Like Volunteering in Torres del Paine?
Like most park visitors, your day as a volunteer starts and ends with a hike as you traverse to and from the worksite. Each day that hike becomes a bit longer as you and the group make progress building the trail. Once at the worksite, volunteers work in teams to clear the space around the trail (the trail “corridor”), trimming and cutting away shrubs and branches, digging up roots and plants that lie in the trail with pick mattocks, leveling and smoothing the trail with a rake, and installing rock steps and drainage features to guard against erosion.
It doesn’t take long to realize that building a trail requires strength, teamwork and some engineering know-how. Recognizing the amount of thought, consideration and human power that go into constructing a trail will certainly change the way you hike moving forward.
As for the people element, throughout the day teams mix and mingle, switching jobs every so often. Ages range from early 20s to late 70s. For the most part, everyone gets lost in the task at hand, and the stunning peaks behind. You’re left to experience these moments and Torres del Paine in your own way. Mid-day, the group stops for a lunch break—munching on snacks and sandwiches from Paine Grande, savoring the views that are exclusively yours for the time being, and sharing conversations and moments together. Its a unique experience in a unique place.
Through the Legacy Fund and Conservation VIP, volunteers and park rangers have made great progress within the last year—creating four kilometers of trail with roughly two more to go. Those will be the toughest two kilometers as they cross over wetlands and will require far more than “simply” clearing and opening a path. Responsibly building a trail over wetlands requires different resources, for which the Legacy Fund recently received some great news.
Of 150 projects from around the world, the Legacy Fund was one of 14 finalists nominated to receive funding from the European Outdoor Conservation Association for projects in Torres del Paine—and, via a public vote, they won! The EOCA funding will go toward the construction of boardwalks and interpretive information for the protection of wetland areas of the O circuit.
It is projects like these that help ensure a sustainable future for the park and will allow visitors like you and I to continue enjoying its splendor for years to come.
What Does EcoCamp & Cascada Do to Help?
Each year we contribute volunteers towards the Fund’s projects and spread the word wherever we can. We recently organized and took part in the Women’s Quest lenga tree nursery event in late March - stay tuned for the blog coming soon!
What Can You Do?
To support the work of the Legacy Fund and learn more about volunteer opportunities in Torres del Paine, visit their website here. 100% of donations are put towards conservation and community development projects in and around the Park.