The Pumalín Park Project, the world's largest private nature reserve, spans roughly 300,000 hectares (742,000 acres) and incorporates temperate rainforest, glaciers, fjords, thundering waterfalls and rivers, and stands of ancient alerce trees. It's a marvelous place, a park that exists thanks to U.S. millionaire and philanthropist Douglas Tompkins, who bought his first chunk of land here in 1991.
The project has generated considerable controversy and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future. At its narrowest point, just 15km (9 miles) separate the Pacific from the Argentine border, and Chile has no shortage of politicians on all sides of the political spectrum to openly worry about a foreign citizen owning strategic lands. Many also question the idea of protecting an area on this scale rather than exploiting its resources in what is still an underdeveloped country.
Over 15 years since Tompkins started accumulating the properties, he continues in the spotlight. Major energy companies Endesa Chile and Colbún seek to develop the Aysén region's vast hydrology resources to supply power to central Chile, and the power lines would run through the park. The government, meanwhile, wants to complete the Carretera Austral by slicing through the park, an idea Tompkins criticizes as expensive and unnecessarily destructive, arguing for a road along the coast. He and his wife meanwhile have continued to buy land in Patagonia.
At the same time, the Pumalín Park has largely won acceptance, and was officially declared a nature sanctuary in 2005, run by Tompkins's foundation, the Conservation Land Trust. In May 2008, however, problems came from a new angle. The eruption of the Chiatén volcano almost completely destroyed the infrastructure of the entire southern end of the park, which was the main entrance and had some of the finest facilities in all of Chile. At press time, this meant closure for the entire 2008-09 season, perhaps longer. Major reconstruction is needed, including the road to the park from Chiatén. To top it off, this has been paired with the latest efforts of the Chilean government to build a road right through the center of the park, connecting the Carretera Austral with the rest of the mainland.
It is imperative that you get up-to-date information before visiting Pumalín Park. Most likely the majority of facilities should be in order by December 2009 for the start of the summer, though a number of factors are at play here, including how quickly the government will repair the roads. An alternative is to visit the region's fjords and the Cahuelmó hot springs in the northern sector of the park, which can done by rented boat, kayak, or tour only.