There’s something truly magical about Patagonia – particularly among the spectacular landscapes of Torres del Paine National Park.

With its sheer scale and remoteness, the turquoise lakes, vast glaciers and towering spires, this part of the world has a special hold on the imaginations of its visitors.

And every year, more and more people come to experience it for themselves. Over 250,000 tourists visit Torres del Paine National Park each year, and this number is expected to grow by 10% annually.

While its popularity brings economic benefits, the volume of visitors strains the region’s infrastructure and can put the environment at risk. Since 1985, three forest fires, all started by tourists, have ravaged large swathes of the park. Waste and energy systems designed for a town of 20,000 are beyond capacity.

There’s a lot to be done to protect the area, but public resources alone are insufficient to keep up with such rapidly increasing numbers.

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Sustaining Torres del Paine

During their first visit, Torres del Paine Legacy Fund founders Drew Fink and Daniela Uribe immediately recognised the scale of the challenge and were determined to find a way that they – and other visitors – could give back to the park.

In 2014, together with Sustainable Travel International, Drew and Daniela established the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund to harness tourism as a force for good. With support from individuals and businesses the Legacy Fund works to restore ecosystems, improve infrastructure and support community development.

As the Legacy Fund’s programmes director, I spend my days talking to businesses, travellers, volunteer groups and authorities in an ongoing effort to get everyone involved in our mission.

I even get my hands dirty once in awhile too! I was recently able to spend some time out in the park building new trails along a heavily utilised section of the W trekking route. It was refreshing to get away from my desk and out into the field. We had a great group of volunteers including park rangers, tourism professionals, travellers, local residents, students, and NGO folks. We also couldn’t have done it without the support of local businesses who pitched in for food, lodging, gear and transportation.

Over 16 days we restored 76 meters of boardwalk and 2.25 kilometres of new trail in one of the most visited sections of the park. At the end of each day we would come back to camp, kick off our boots and pass around the maté tea, and I remember thinking “this is what the Legacy Fund is all about.” The effort is a shared labour of love. It’s amazing to see people and organisations come together and work side by side to ensure that this special place continues to thrive.

It’s moments like this that make me optimistic about the future – both for Torres del Paine and other places around the world that face similar challenges. Torres del Paine offers important lessons for other ‘over-loved’ travel hotspots, and we hope that the Legacy Fund can serve as a model to adjust and adapt elsewhere.

I would also love to see a change in the way that individual visitors think about their own footprint. We need to start thinking bigger and broader about the places we visit. Sustainable travel is much more than choosing “green” companies. We need to be thinking about a model of tourism that gives back to communities and helps protect vulnerable places for future generations. We all have a role to play.

There are plenty of ways for visitors to Torres del Paine to help. You can spread the word about the Legacy Fund to your friends and family and to the tour operator you travel with. You can also support our work directly by donating to our reforestation, recycling, or trail improvement projects. Even better: come and get your hands dirty and join us as a volunteer!

Giving back to Torres del Paine

By Emily Green

Emily is program director at the Torres del Paine Legacy Fund, a non-profit organisation dedicated to improving the visitor experience and long-term health of the park and its local communities.

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