In the middle of Patagonia, lying between popular destinations like Chiloé in the north and Torres del Paine in the south, is an enormous swath of untouched and untouchable land. The 9 million acres (3.65 million ha.) of Parque O’Higgins are impassable by road and have no trails or paths. The park is so immense and so unexplored, in fact, that even experts at Chile’s National Forestry Commission (CONAF) who are responsible for its maintenance can’t be certain how many species of plant and animal might be found there.
The bitter cold and searing winds that blow through this section of the Chilean south are tempered by rain or snow nearly every day of the year, which nurtures the rich forests of native evergreens of Chile’s largest national park. These forests are dominated by the Coïgue, one of Chile’s most important indigenous trees, which grows from the slopes of the Andes in central Chile all the way to the south. The Güaiteca Cypress grows solely in this region and has some of its largest concentrations here.
Little is known of the wildlife here. The Huemul, a species of deer endemic to the region along the border with Argentina, is endangered but is believed to have its healthiest population within the park’s borders.
Hector Galaz has worked with CONAF for 35 years, the last nine spent working in Park O’Higgins from the tiny village of Puerto Eden, the only settlement within the Park’s boundaries with a population of 120. Among the CONAF projects currently underway, Galaz says, is a regional census of the Huemul to ascertain the extent and health of its population.
“We’re principally concerned with conservation,” Galaz says, particularly of endemic species like the güaiteca and the huemul. Much of the research for this particular project takes place at a research base near the Tempano Glacier, inland from Puerto Williams and with a permanent staff of two.
From within Puerto Eden, Galaz and his team have another set of conservation goals. “We control removal of timber and shellfish,” the village’s primary sources of income, “and I teach an ecology course at the school,” Galaz says.
The total lack of land transportation through Park O’Higgins does not mean it is entirely off limits for tourism. Along its Western edge, the Park shatters into a cluster of mountainous islands traversed by a labyrinthine network of canals and fjords.
Travelling from Puerto Montt to Puerto Natales and back, the Navimag Ferry Evangelistas is the only mode of transport for tourists along this route. As they pass through the Patagonian fjords of Park O’Higgins, tourists have the opportunity to see windswept native forests clinging to granite cliffs rising to sudden, snow-capped peaks from frigid, slate-grey waters.
These untouched waterways remain amongst Chile’s purest landscapes, a tantalizing glimpse of the country’s largest and most mysterious national park.