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Hiking near a glacier in Melimoyu, in southern Chile. (Francisca Ureta/Francisca Ureta)
Hiking near a glacier in Melimoyu, in southern Chile. (Francisca Ureta/Francisca Ureta)

Cutting edge eco-tourism in Chile's last lonely wilderness Add to ...

On the return trip from Valle California to Puerto Montt, there was a change of plans – related, I was told, to weather uncertainty. A journey that might have taken about three hours was expanded to almost six hours, including four hours by car. But even the hitches were interesting – in this case, a drive through the town of Chaiten, still rebuilding after being devastated by a volcano in 2008. The volcano, in fact, is still fuming on the horizon.

Patagonia Sur's challenge is to stand out in a crowded market where more accessible resorts are offering horseback riding and fly-fishing. At one point, someone asks why fly-fishing aficionados would come here instead of Western Canada or the U.S. Daniel Mesa, the Valle California land manager, who is also a crack fishing guide, ponders a moment and says: “Because you see no one else on the rivers.”

That is what Warren Adams is offering – access to one of the last lonely wildernesses. If he has his way, it will become a little less lonely, but never so much to spoil the view.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Fly to Santiago, then take a local flight, typically two hours, to Puerto Montt. There, you board a plane chartered by Patagonia Sur for the hour flight – either to Melimoyu or Valle California. The package includes a helicopter or flight between the two locations, although it is possible to spend your holiday in one spot. But that would detract from the diversity of the experience.

Where to stay: Each resort offers six ensuite bedrooms. Melimoyu has a hot tub with a fine view. Valle California has cushy yurts. The central dining lodge looks out on a breathtaking view.

When to go: Patagonia Sur operates from early November to the end of April, with January to March as the peak time. That's the high summer period when the blue whales can usually be viewed around Melimoyu Bay. April is also a nice time, as the trees turn red and yellow on the foothills and plains at Valle California – although the nights can be long and cool. The weeklong vacation package costs $7,725 (U.S.) a person (double occupancy), and includes charter flights to and from (as well as between) both luxury properties out of Puerto Montt, an hour-long helicopter trip to your desired remote location, meals and lodging.

ENVIRO-VISIONS: A DIFFERENT APPROACH

The Warren Adams concept of capitalist conservation is not the only model of sustainability showcased in Patagonia.

Contrast the Adams approach with the vision of another U.S. entrepreneur Doug Tompkins, the founder of the North Face and Esprit clothing lines, and his wife, Kris, who once headed the outdoor apparel company called, yes, Patagonia.

Over the past two decades, they have leveraged their fortunes, and those of allies, to develop nature preserves in Argentina and Chile that reflect pure conservation and pure philanthropy.

“It is a different vision,” says Hernan Mladinic Alonso, executive director of the Tompkins's Parque Pumalin foundation based in Puerto Varas, Chile. The Tompkins's holdings consists of about 850,000 hectares in Chile and Argentina, including the 300,000-hectare Pumalin Park, the largest private land reserve in the world, a short distance from various Patagonia Sur properties.

The virtue of the two models can be debated endlessly, but the winner is the traveller, who gets the choice of the purist Pumalin experience, with $3-a-night camping amid the Andes, and Patagonia Sur with its weeklong $7,725-a-person vacations that combine fine dining and nature walks.

While ecotourism and real estate lie at the heart of the

Patagonia Sur model, capitalism is purely incidental to what the Tompkins are trying to do. They expect much of the business activity for their parks will reside in the towns around them. Instead, Alonso says, Pumalin is “an environmental activism project,” with the goal of creating nature parks that will last forever

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