Conservation areas are scattered throughout Chile’s 4,000 mile terrain and protect an incredible diversity of landscapes and wildlife. The National Forestry Corporation (Conaf) alone is responsible for 33 national parks (unaltered areas of natural and biological diversity), 48 national reserves (areas protecting wildlife populations or natural resources) and 15 national monuments (specific sites defined by animal populations, or locations of geological interest). These 96 combined conservation areas cover nearly 35 million acres and account for 19 percent of all national territory.
More than 500 additional private environmental protection initiatives cover more than 4 million acres, and UNESCO has singled out eight areas of Chile for inclusion in its World Network of Biosphere Reserves.
Here we have highlighted some of these areas, pin-pointing 12 major parks, reserves or monuments throughout Chile that represent only a fraction of the parks waiting to be explored. For information on other conservation areas, visit www.conaf.cl.
North: Lauca National Park: The Altiplano landscapes in Chile’s northernmost park are among the most spectacular of any in the region. This park combined with the Las Vicuñas reserve and Salar (salt flat) de Surire monument makes up one of UNESCO’s eight biosphere reserves.
Humboldt Penguin Reserve: Located on an island near about 100 km north of La Serena, the reserve is not only an important breeding ground for the Humboldt penguin, but also hosts large populations of dolphins and sea lions.
Center: El Morado National Monument: A marvelous high Andean landscape under two hours from Chile’s capital, Santiago, El Morado sits on the northern side of the Cajón del Maipo, the deep river valley that runs from the Andes toward the Pacific just south of Santiago. This is probably the easiest Conaf conservation area to reach from the capital.
Radal Siete Tazas National Reserve: The “Seven Cups” of this reserve’s name are a series of seven waterfalls, overflowing into a series of terraced pools. Though the earthquake in 2010 temporarily stopped the flow of water through these falls, it has since returned, returning this wonderful site to its full, natural glory.
Islands: Juan Fernandez National Park: The Juan Fernandez Archipelago, whose central island is often known as Robinson Crusoe island, is located nearly 500 miles (800 km) off the central Chilean coast. A great diversity of marine life and dramatic volcanic geology make and a fascinating history make this a highlight of Chile’s park system. This is another of UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves.
Rapa Nui National Park: Easter Island, or Rapa Nui, is both Chile’s most distant territory and one of its most famous. The iconic maoi – the mysterious statues that dot the island – are the primary site on this isolated Polynesian island, but the park also offers marvelous views of the sea and a glimpse of the unique volcanic terrain.
Lakes District: Vincente Peréz Rosales National Park: Founded in 1926, Chile’s oldest park surrounds Lago Todos los Santos (All Saints Lake) in the north and runs as far south as the Cochamó Fjord. The landscape takes in conical and sharp-peaked volcanoes, pristine lakes and rivers, and untouched temperate rainforest.
Pumalín Park: The best known of Chile’s privately owned nature reserves, Pumalín Park was formed by North American Douglas Tompkins in 1991 when he purchased 42,000 acres of land along the continental side of the Gulf of Ancud, where the Lakes District borders the sparsely populated district of Aysén. Hiking trails, camp sights and cabins offer access to some of the region’s stunning forest scenery.
Aysén and Fjords: Parque Nacional Laguna San Rafael: The centerpiece of this large coastal park is the San Rafael Glacier, a spectacular, neon blue ice shelf continuously calving into a deep lagoon at the end of a long Patagonian fjord. Visitors to the region can board small zodiac boats to approach the face of the glacier in one of the region’s most popular tourist activities. Laguna San Rafael is also included among UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves.
Bernardo O’Higgins National Park: The largest of Chile’s national parks covers 9 million acres and is so vast that crossing it by vehicle is impossible. The only way to visit this immense and pristine park is along its seaside edge by ferry. The park preserves one of the great undiscovered reaches of the world.
Southern Patagonia: Parque Nacional Torres del Paine: The best known of Chile’s parks, and another of UNESCO’s Biosphere Reserves, Torres del Paine includes the fields, lakes, glaciers and rivers that surround its central massif, an iconic group of striated granite spires. The park’s popularity means it has some of the best infrastructure of any of Chile’s conservation areas.
Cabo de Hornos National Park: The sheer cliffs of the island at the end of the Americas are the centerpiece of this small park, which includes the entire Cabo de Hornos, or Cape Horn, Archipelago. Rounding the cape was once among the most dreaded task for any ship passing from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Today the Cape is most often visited by boat, often on cruises headed for Antarctica.