Ecotourism in Patagonia
Jennifer Tehraud

Nowadays, more and more people are starting to attach importance to the issues of climate change, respecting other species, earth-friendly diets, reducing our carbon footprint, waste management and the use of renewable resources. It is clear, that humans are headed in a direction where they will not be depriving the planet of its natural resources but they will learn to protect them and use them in a sustainable way. The protection of the environment is becoming just as important as the growth of markets, financial success, technological progress and new ways of entertainment. 

What does ecotourism mean?
The principles of ecotourism include the prevention of actions that harm or destroy the environment, the creation of environmental and cultural awareness, the support of local communities at the tourist destination, the financial support of companies which actively promote and implement ecotourism and conservational measures and the respect of the political, environmental and social situation of the country of destination. The International Ecotourism Society (TES) defines ecotourism as follows:
Ecotourism is a responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and improves the well-being of local people”.

Charles Darwin in Patagonia

   When Charles Darwin traveled around the world abord the HMS Beagle together with his captain Fitz-Roy between 1832 and 1834, Darwin wandered the coasts, steppes and mountains of Patagonia and was able to make great discoveries in the fields of anthropology, geology, zoology and paleontology. In Puerto Deseado, he studied the South American guanaco, made a geological analysis of Patagonia in 
Puerto San Julián and collected fossils of great extinct animals. He also studied the climate of the Strait of Magellan, a navigable sea route south of the mainland of South America and north of Tierra de Fuego. The waterway is an important connection between the Pacific and Atlantic Ocean but considered difficult to navigate through due to violent winds and currents and the narrowness of the channel. Darwin studied edible mushrooms, the native woodlands and marine plants. Afterwards, he would use these findings to derive the evolution theory.  

The extreme environmental conditions in Patagonia

Patagonia is a region in the south of South America, shared by Chile and Argentina. As Patagonia is located on the southern hemisphere, seasons are the opposite from those of the northern hemisphere. The warmest months are from December to February and the coldest from June to August. Fall and spring are short and winters are long. Usually, there are significant temperature alterations from night to day. The climate and precipitation change depending on the region. To the west of the Andes, the climate is humid and cold with abundant rainfall between 3000 and 7000mm annually, while the east features a semi-arid cold steppe climate with precipitations between 300 and 350mm annually. The east provides vast stretches of semi deserts, shrub steppes and grass steppes. The area is characterized by low precipitations, a cold and harsh climate, long drought periods, fierce winds and skeletal soils. Due to these extreme conditions, sheep and goat breeding has been the only way humans were able to use these lands.

Overgrazing and desertification
There was a lot of pressure put on the Patagonian environment. Before European settlers came, two different indigenous people, the Argentine Tehuelches and the Chilean Mapuches, inhabited the Patagonian lands for thousands of years. The Tehuelches hunted guanacos and ostriches, while the Mapuches were farmers and hunters who possessed weaving and pottery skills.
As European settlers came, estancias were set up and sheep were raised which, due to their numbers, destroyed or changed the natural vegetation, displacing a variety of natural species home to South America. In 1952, the quantity of sheep reached a maximum of over 21 million. With this number, the carrying capacity of the lands was greatly exceeded. The land was not able to support this quantity of sheep as the Patagonian grasslands only offer sparse vegetation. Over the years, raising sheep in Patagonia became less profitable due to the degradation of soils as a consequence of overgrazing. The process of overgrazing led to desertification of which 70% of Patagonia is affected. Desertification has serious consequences for native species. Their food is reduced, they are forced to migrate and in the worst case they face death.  

The Patagonia National Park
Currently, the Patagonia National Park is being built with which is a step towards reversing the damage done by European settlers and aiming at restoring ecosystems, recovering threatened species, establishing a renewable energy system and offering eco-education to tourists and the community. Through the creation of this park, which will extend across 650,000 acres, it will serve as a good example that shows that ranching can be replaced by ecotourism without harming profits and employment. The park plans to offer future tourists the possibility to spend time hiking and camping in the park, take boat trips on Lake General Carrera, go horseback-riding in the mountains and go on adventure trips. The size of the accommodations inside the park will be limited and tourists will be incited to stay in the close-by communities where they can financially support the locals. The park is and will be providing employment to people from the region. Gauchos that were working as farmers are now filling the positions of park rangers and wildlife trackers. Trainings were and will be offered in this process to assist the transition from ranching to conservation. The park was pre-opened in December 2011 and visitors can find assistance on the website www.conservacionpatagonica.org on how to reach the park and plan their visit. After the completion of the park, it will be donated to the Chilean state with strong ecosystems, flourishing wildlife populations and outstanding accommodations. 

The Orca Project
1975, the Orca project was initiated in Puerto Madryn, a city at the Atlantic coast of the Argentinean Patagonia. Within the framework of this project, orcas sighted in Punta Norte of Valdés Peninsula were identified, named and coded and their behavior was studied and observed in the wild. Later, the project was named the ORCA FOUNDATION OF PATAGONIA-ANTARCTICA. The aim of this foundation is to gather knowledge of wild orcas and to prevent their capturing and slaughtering. The project offers educational programs about wild orcas and the problems arising with their captivity through television, radio and articles in magazines and newspapers. Information is gathered through photographs and videos, censuses of each species, the studying of environmental problems now and in the future and the proposal of actions to improve the situation. More information on this project can be found on the website www.fundorca.org.ar

Whale Watching
Since 1986, after whale hunting was outlawed worldwide, the population of whales is slowly increasing. However, various factors such as urbanization along the coasts, the activity of ships and changes of the marine ecosystems pose a major problem. Noises caused by ships, for instance, can seriously disrupt the natural behaviors of whales. According to new research published in the Royal Society Biology Letters, noises created by humans might force whales to call louder which makes them spend more energy and cause stress for them. If these artificial noises are too extreme, whales might give up communicating with each other which has consequences for their reproduction, feeding and general behavior. As long as noise can be kept to a minimum, whales are still able to raise the volume of their calls. However, if the noise level reaches a specific level, they might not have these abilities anymore, especially because human-induced sounds are usually louder and more persistent than any naturally-produced sound like earthquakes, waves breaking or the communication of other marine life. A study carried out by the Pennsylvania State University, in the framework of which artificial human-produced sounds and whale calls were studied, revealed that under moderate noise pollution conditions, whales are already forced to change the loudness of their calls and with increasing intensity, whales might be forced to stop their calls completely. Human marine activities thus have a tremendous influence on whales’ behaviors and in view of the much depleted whale populations might hinder the recovery of their numbers. The question whether whale watching contributes to the conservation and protection of whales is controversial.  

The advantages of whale watching tours:

1. People who see the whales from up close will learn to understand, appreciate and respect these creatures and their behaviors.
2. Whale watching is an income-source for people and local businesses.
3. Some whales are curious and even come closer to the boats to observe them. Some of them show their heads or flippers for people to touch them.  

The disadvantages of whale watching tours:
1. At many locations, just like at the coasts of Puerto Madryn and Valdés Peninsula, whales can be watched from a distance. Getting too close by boat might disturb or distract the whales and even attract predators to them.
2. Some companies may approach the whales too closely to give tourists a thrill and make more money.
3. Whale watching might influence the behavior of whales in yet unknown ways.
At present, whale watching is legal in all countries but it is recommendable to be informed about the company and its contribution to the protection of whales before booking a tour.

Whale watching in Chubut
Whale watching is popular among tourists visiting Patagonia. In May, the Southern Right Whale arrives in Peninsula Valdes to mate. Gestation will take a year and females come back the following year, between August and October to give birth and raise their calves. Whales can be watched from the shores of Chubut or from Peninsula Valdes or one can opt for a whale watching boat tour with one of the six authorized companies from Puerto Piramides. Tours of one and a half hours are offered between May and December with the best months for whale watching in September and October. The companies have to adhere to strict regulations; boat engines need to be turned off and the protection of the whales as well as the passengers has the highest priority.  

 Ecotourists might be interested in staying at an eco-lodge. An interesting eco-lodge is ECOCAMP® Patagonia which offers modern camp tents offering comfort, while keeping the environmental influence to a minimum.
Source: EcoCamp Patagonia
The ecocamp follows the nomadic spirit of the indigenous population called Kawesqar, who lived in harmony with nature in igloo-type domes, built in accordance with the dwellings of the Kawesqar.  At the ecocamp, a maximum of 56 guests are permitted to stay. The limitation of the number of tourists is one of the things that distinguish ecotourism from mass tourism. The energy at the camp is supplied through solar power and currently, experiments with wind energy are performed. Lighting is kept to a minimum as domes are constructed with panoramic windows that allow a lot of daylight from outside to come in. The ecocamp has received the ISO 14001 Environmental Management System Certification. The certification is awarded every year depending on the progress, environmental initiatives and commitment of the camp. The camp joined the CarbonFree program by www.carbonfund.org on the basis of which it is obliged to offset all of its carbon emissions that are produced through its activity. The Carbon Offset Certificate 2009 was presented to this ecocamp for offsetting 135.07 tons of CO2 emissions. The ecocamp has partnered up with The International Ecotourism Society (TIES) which promotes responsible tourism and the conservation of the environment as well as the well-being of locals. Other partners are EPLERWOOD INTERNATIONAL, a consulting company specialized in EcoTourism and Sustainable Travel International (STI), an organization that promotes eco-friendly tourism. 

It becomes apparent that as in so many other paradisiac places, Patagonia has suffered from the influence of humans for many years. Since the 70s, initiatives have been taken to protect and study wildlife and help animals recover from displacements and near extinctions. New enterprises such as the ecocamps and the Patagonia National Park certainly set a good example and give hope for an eco-friendlier future on a planet that we share with so many wonderful creatures.


  1. wow, what a great content. I`ve always done ecotourism as I`m part of the environment and I see it as the responsibility of every human. For five years, now, I`ve always wanted to go to Patagonia. But we keep living life and don`t realize that the clock is running nonstop. But this article really gave me the last motivation I needed to finally actually start to make my dream become reality. I`m working independently now so I just realized that it is the perfect time for this trip. So thank you for your great content, congrats, and in couple of months I will be back here telling you about my own personal experience.

  2. Thanks for your comment, Tiago. You definitely won't regret going to Patagonia, it is a natural paradise with lots of unique flora and fauna. Try eco-lodging; I have stayed at an eco-lodge myself and I found it spectacular to experience nature in such a pure and eco-friendly way.