Some eighteen percent of Chile’s mainland territory is protected by the state under the extensive Sistema Nacional de Areas Silvestres Protegidas (National Protected Wildlife Areas System), which is made up of thirty national parks, thirty-eight national reserves and eleven natural monuments. These inevitably include the country’s most outstanding scenic attractions, but while there are provisions for tourism, the main aim is always to protect and manage native fauna and flora. Given Chile’s great biodiversity, these vary tremendously, and park objectives are as varied as protecting flamingo populations and monitoring glaciers. All protected areas are managed by the Corporación Nacional Forestal, better known as Conaf.
Definitions and terms
National parks (parques nacionales) are generally large areas of unspoilt wilderness, usually featuring fragile endemic ecosystems. They include the most touristy and beautiful of the protected areas, and often offer walking trails and sometimes camping areas too. National reserves (reservas nacionales) are areas of ecological importance that have suffered some degree of natural degradation; there are fewer regulations to protect these areas, and “sustainable” commercial exploitation (such as mineral extraction) is allowed to take place. Natural monuments (monumentos naturales) tend to be important or endangered geological formations, or small areas of biological, anthropological or archeological significance.
In addition to these three main categories, there are a few nature sanctuaries (sanctuarios de la naturaleza) and protected areas (areas de protección), usually earmarked for their scientific or scenic interest. It is not difficult for the government to change the status of these areas, and it has been known for national parks to be downgraded so that their resources could be commercially exploited. In addition to these state-owned parks, there are several important private initiatives, including Parque Pumalín.
The administration of Chile’s protected areas is highly centralized with all important decisions coming from Conaf’s head office in Santiago. This is a good place to visit before heading out of the capital, as you can pick up brochures, books and basic maps. In addition, each regional capital has a Conaf headquarters, which is useful for more practical pre-visit information. The parks and reserves are staffed by guardaparques (park wardens), who live in ranger stations (called guarderías). Most parks are divided into several areas, known as “sectors” (sectores), and the larger ones have a small guardería in each sector.
Visiting the parks
No permit is needed to visit any of Chile’s national parks; you simply turn up and pay your entrance fee (usually CH$1000–4000), though some parks are free. Alternatively, Conaf’s Annual Pass (CH$10,000) allows unlimited access to all of Chile’s national parks and reserves – except Torres del Paine and Easter Island – for a year; it can be purchased from Conaf offices.
Ease of access differs wildly from one park to the next – a few have paved highways running through them, while others are served by dirt tracks that are only passable for a few months of the year. Getting to them often involves renting a vehicle or going on an organized trip, as around two-thirds of Chile’s national parks can’t be reached by public transport.
Arriving at the park boundary, you’ll normally pass a small hut (called the Conaf control) where you pay your entrance fee and pick up a basic map. Some of the larger parks have more than one entrance point. The main ranger station is always separate from the hut; it contains the rangers’ living quarters and administrative office, and often a large map or scale model of the park. The more popular parks also have a Centro de Información Ambiental attached to the station, with displays on the park’s flora and fauna. A few parks now have camping areas. These are often rustic sites with basic facilities, run by Conaf, which charge around CH$5000–10,000 per tent. In other parks, particularly in the south, Conaf gives licences to concessionaires, who operate campsites and cabañas, which tend to be very expensive. Some of the more remote national parks, especially in the north, have small refugios attached to the ranger stations – these are usually rustic, stone-built huts (from CH$5000 per person) containing around eight to ten bunk beds, hot showers and gas stoves. Some of them are in stunning locations, overlooking the Salar de Surire, for example, or with views across Lago Chungará to Volcán Parinacota. Sadly, however, they are increasingly unreliable.