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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 ...

Adams could be building a model for saving other beautiful places – say, in rural Newfoundland, New Zealand or Africa. The old model was based on government-funded parks or non-profit groups wringing donations out of philanthropists. But Adams says there is only so much money available to non-profits – and governments are stretched.

There is, however, a vast supply of profit-seeking investors – and adventure-seeking tourists. He has enlisted about 50 such investors, who have injected $23-million so far in his $30-million fund. This is not raw capitalism masquerading as do-goodism, he asserts. “Our capitalism-conservation is absolutely protecting places that wouldn't be protected otherwise,” he says.

At Melimoyu and its sister resort, Valle California, an Andean river-valley site about an hour by helicopter to the northeast, it's as if Charles Darwin conspired with Ralph Lauren to create a vacation spot.

After energetic walks through lush jungles and horseback rides along rugged buttes, we retire in tastefully appointed lodges with milk-washed walls and earth-toned decor accented with antique trunks and seashells. The iPod decks play Alison Krauss and Van Morrison as you indulge in a hot-tub soak and a constant stream of pisco sours, the tart South American libation.

Over at Valle California, guests stay in cozy circular yurts with a comfort level not found in Mongolia. The roof point of each yurt is topped by a transparent covering that permits guests to lie back and catch a piece of the spectacular star show – although it is much better to step outside to get the full glory.

The resorts, which at this point can each accommodate about a dozen people in total, also sport professional chefs and gourmet dining (think fresh-caught lightly seasoned abalone, platters of fresh fruit and vegetables, filet mignon, hearty caldo de congrio – the local eel soup delicacy, and, of course, fine Chilean wines), as well as helicopter rides to glaciers to drink scotch splashed over 3,000-year-old ice. I was looking around for the 3,000-year-old scotch, as well, but Johnny Walker filled the bill.

Earlier this month, when I visited, Patagonia Sur stood at a turning point in its evolution. In its first three years, the business focused on selling lifetime club memberships to perennial visitors. Next year, sensing where the big demand lies, it will tilt toward vacationers who plan perhaps one lifetime visit to Patagonia, and fly under the name Patagonia Sur Wilderness Lodges.

Though volatile weather is always a factor in these mountain and ocean settings, my voyage to Melimoyu was relatively easy – a two-hour flight from Santiago to Puerto Montt, a bustling salmon-fishing centre. I cooled my heels for a couple of hours before our pilot got the go-ahead for the final hour's flight into Melimoyu. The Cessna cleared the clouds, providing stunning glimpses of Patagonian inlets and islands before alighting at an airstrip near the resort.

After a couple of days of exploring the lush greenery in search of Darwin's Frog and various bird species, I was whisked by helicopter up to Valle California, where I grasped the full potential of Patagonia Sur to deliver diverse ecosystems. I was soon riding high astride Matungo, a placid brown horse with a disconcerting habit of gobbling clumps of grass at every stop in the action. On a short ride across the pampas, we stopped at a vacant gaucho cabin that looked frozen in time, with dusty saddles, narrow cots and spectacular mountain views.

At both Melimoyu and Valle California, the helicopter transported me high above the trees and rivers to massive glaciers nearby. The contrast with the rain forest below couldn't be more pronounced than it is at Melimoyu's volcanic peak, but nothing prepared me for the sheer wonder of the glacier near Valle California – the perfect turquoise lake below and the amazing moonscape above, with the glacier's eerie crevices and giant folds of marshmallow ice.

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