At the Southern tip of the Andes in Chile lies Torres del Paine National Park, one of the most impressive sights in the Southern Hemisphere and home to some of the world’s most classic trekking routes. The park is located in Chile’s southernmost and largest region, Magellanes and Chilean Antarctica, where the main economic activities are sheep farming, oil extraction and tourism. The population density is sparse at 1.1 per km² but the region’s main city Punta Arenas is home to a sizable 120,000 people.
The park encompasses ancient forests, glaciers, lakes, rivers and fjords, and fauna including guanacos, foxes, pumas and a diverse array of birds. The park draws in approximately 100,000 tourists each year who visit the main attractions - Paine Towers, Los Cuernos, French Valley and Grey Glacier. The ‘W’ trek and the ‘O’ circuit are popular routes. The park’s coordinates are 50°S latitude and 73°W longitude.
The history of inhabitants in Torres del Paine dates back to over a thousand years ago, when the first indigenous groups arrived in the region. EcoCamp’s design is a tribute to the Kaweskar tribe’s dome-style dwellings and nomadic life in Torres del Paine. Europeans had set up camp by the late 19th century and this marked the end of the indigenous era and the start of Chilean ‘Baqueano’ exploration and tourism, with tourists ranging from British aristocrats to scientists and missionaries. In 1959 the National Park was created, and in 1970 it was given the name Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Today the park is managed by Chile’s National Forestry Service (CONAF)
The history of inhabitants in Torres del Paine dates back to over a thousand years ago, when the first indigenous groups arrived in the region. EcoCamp’s design is a tribute to the Kaweskar tribe’s dome-style dwellings and nomadic life in Torres del Paine. Europeans had set up camp by the late 19th century and this marked the end of the indigenous era and the start of Chilean ‘Baqueano’ exploration and tourism, with tourists ranging from British aristocrats to scientists and missionaries. In 1959 the National Park was created, and in 1970 it was given the name Parque Nacional Torres del Paine. Today the park is managed by Chile’s National Forestry Service (CONAF).
In the latter half of the first millennium the Tehuelche (Aonikenk) people arrived in Patagonia. They were nomadic hunter-gatherers and as they migrated north through Patagonia they saw the silhouette of a incredible rock formation in the distance and called it ‘Paine’, meaning ‘blue’ in their language (the predominant colour they saw in the distance). Other ancient indigenous inhabitants include the nomadic hunters Selk’nam (Ona) and the Yaghan (Yamana) people, who canoed between islands to collect food. The Yaghan were originally referred to as Fuegians, due to their presence in Tierra del Fuego, but nowadays the term Fuegian can refer to any indigenous group who lived in the region.
The Kaweskars (Alacalufes) were another group of nomadic Patagonian inhabitants whose presence in Torres del Paine is documented. They arrived by canoe in the 15th century and made no demands on natural resources as they travelled from place to place, setting up and dismantling their semi-circular huts built from simple materials, leaving no trace behind. To keep warm they lit fires inside the domes. The name Kaweskar means 'human being' in their native language. Kaweskar communities had no hierarchy and were formed by self-sufficient, independent families who married for love and practiced monogamy. They had an established moral and ethical code which involved a deep, spiritual relationship with God. Happiness wasn't determined by material goods but the freedom of movement and nature's well-being.
Their first contact with European explorers came in the 16th century and, in a tale repeated across much of Latin America, by 1880 Europeans had settled in Patagonia in their quest for gold, furs and wool and had displaced, slaughtered and brought disease to the Kaweskars who became almost completely extinct by the 1920’s. In the 1930s the few remaining Kaweskars settled on Wellington Island in the Magellanes region of Chile. Today the small tribe of Kaweskers still live on the island in a hamlet named Villa Puerto Eden. The remote, road-less hamlet is only accessible by boat from towns Puerto Montt and Puerto Natales and coastal village Caleta Tortel. In 2002 the population census was 176, with just twenty native Kaweskar speakers remaining. EcoCamp is a tribute to the ancient Kaweskar dwellings and way of life and the essence of their dome homes has been kept by maintaining a simple nomadic design in the midst of natural surroundings. Just like the Kaweskars, EcoCamp respects nature’s well-being and aims to leaves no footprint behind in the wilderness.
Towards the end of the 19th century, Torres del Paine started being explored by ‘Baqueanos’ (horsemen from southern Chile, commonly translated as Chilean cowboys). The Baqueanos were based around Punta Arenas and began exploring the region more extensively in the 1870s on hunting quests, selling animals skins and feathers to the colonial market. One of the most famous Baqueanos was Santiago Zamora, known simply as ‘el baqueano Zamora’. Originally from central Chile, Zamora arrived in Punta Arenas in 1868 and integrated himself with colonists in the region. He spent his life exploring the region north of Punta Arenas, including Torres del Paine, acting as a guide for travellers and explorers. Other notable Baqueanos who guided and explored the region include Francisco Poivre and Augusto Guillaume (both French), Guillermo Greenwood (English) and Avelino Arias, Luis Navarro and Juan Alvarado (all Chilean).
The first tourist to come to Torres del Paine was British Aristocrat Lady Florence Dixie, who arrived with her group in 1879. Led by Avelino Arias and other Baqueanos, Lady Dixie explored the park and published a book in 1880 called ‘Across Patagonia’, detailing her adventures in the region. Her observations of the native people are fascinating, as is her vivid description of her first sight of Torres del Paine “...now, as if by magic, from the bowels of the earth, a grand and glorious landscape had sprung up around us. . . . jagged peaks were cleft in the most fantastic fashion...” (Lady Florence Dixie, Across Patagonia, 1880).
Lady Dixie’s reasons for leaving London related to her boredom and desire to escape from mundane high society. “...nowhere else are you so completely alone. Nowhere else is there an area of 10,000 square miles which you may gallop over, and where…you are safe from the persecutions of fevers, friends…telegrams, letters and every other nuisance you are elsewhere liable to be exposed to”. (Lady Florence Dixie, Across Patagonia, 1880). Her thoughts still resonate today and are comparable to many people’s reasons for coming to Patagonia - to disconnect at the end of the world, switch of from the everyday busy routine and be completely immersed in nature.
Following Lady Dixie’s publication, a steady flow of explorers and scientists came to explore the region, interested in the geography and geology. Scientists Otto Nordenskjold, after whom Lake Nordenskjold is named, and Carl Skottberg, after whom Lake Skottberg is named, both visited the region at the turn of the century and made notable discoveries. This era also saw the arrival of missionaries in the region such as the Italian Alberto Maria de Agostini, a passionate explorer and mountaineer who had a very good relationship with the native Fuegians.
The area continued to be owned by the various landlords of the ‘estancias’ (cattle ranches) until 1959 when the need for land conservation was acknowledged, leading to the creation of Grey Lake National Park. In 1961 its borders were extended and in 1970 the 242,242 hectare park was declared a protected area and given the name Torres del Paine National Park. In 1975 the park administration was taken over by Chile’s National Forestry Service (CONAF) who manage the park today and run its visitor information centres.
An unfortunate incident resulted in 2005 when a Czech camper’s stove got knocked over in the wind in a non-camping zone and the surrounding area quickly caught on fire. The blaze went on for weeks and was only stopped because of heavy rainfall, after having destroyed 160 km² of the park. The tourist was made to pay a small fine and the Czech government have been donating money to the park since the incident.