The Chacabuco Valley, the heart of the future Patagonia National Park, is located in a transitional zone between the semi-arid Patagonian steppe and temperate beech forests, thereby boasting a wide range of habitats from grasslands to wetlands to high alpine peaks, and amazing scenery, including the world-renowned Baker River. Unique within Chile and Patagonia in terms of its diversity, this area supports a wide array of native wildlife and plant species. Among its more prominent residents are endangered huemul deer, guanaco, Andean condor, lesser or Darwin’s rhea, puma, armadillos and vizcacha (a threatened, alpine-dwelling large rodent).
In 2012, Round River began working with Conservación Patagónica (CP) in efforts to protect and restore biodiversity in Patagonia through the formation of National Parks. In 2004 the “future Patagonia National Park” project was initiated with the purchase of the 173,000-acre Estancia Valle Chacabuco (Chacabuco Valley Ranch). Since then, CP has focused on habitat restoration, baseline biodiversity inventories, and the development of infrastructure for future park visitors. In December 2014, Conservación Patagónica opened “Patagonia Park” to the public. They plan to hand over the park to Chilean government in 5-10 years, when it will open as “Patagonia National Park” and connect two existing reserves (Jeinimeni and Tamango).
Over the past two years, Round River instructors and students have assisted CP with biodiversity studies within the future national park, under the guidance of CP’s research staff. These studies have included vegetation sampling, bird surveys, and vizcacha surveys. Recent research has expanded to include monitoring guanaco populations within the park.
In 2014, while continuing to conduct fieldwork with CP in the Chacabuco Valley, Round River also began collaborating with CONAF, a division of Chile’s Ministry of Forests responsible for administering Chile’s National Parks. Working at the western edge of the Southern Patagonian Ice Field in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park, students spend time trekking through the forests and bogs of “the fjords,” a remote area of the park accessed only by boat. Here, among the Magellanic moorlands and rainforests, our students study the endangered huemul deer, birds, and plants. Fieldwork in Bernardo O’Higgins National Park is done with the guidance of CONAF’s “guardaparques” (park guards), providing students with an intimate cultural experience as well as a chance to learn more about the region from the people who know it best.
Round River’s field house is located in the outskirts of the cozy town of Cochrane, and is well situated to support our ongoing work with CP and our new endeavors with CONAF. Our base provides students with a comfortable place to cook, gather for lectures and meals, store gear, and enjoy amenities such as hot showers and electricity. Students sleep in tents on a field above a bright blue river, and enjoy interacting with the local landowners.
Round River students can expect to spend many days hiking – from day trips into Valle Chacabuco to nine day bushwhacking adventures through the fjords of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park with a heavy pack. Students should be physically and mentally prepared for backpacking and hiking over rough terrain, along and through rivers, up and over mountains, and around alpine lakes in a never-ending quest to conduct research and observe the natural history of this incredible region. Students should know that this is not a semester-long backpacking trip; this is an accredited program and priority is placed on academics, experiential learning, and research. Remember that some days will be spent traveling to field sites, some days will be spent in Cochrane covering academics, and other days will be spent working on assignments and research reports.
Students can also expect to be immersed in local culture, and will have opportunities to meet and interact with local people in Cochrane, Villa O’Higgins, Tortel, and other villages. Students visiting Puerto Edén (a remote village within the fjords of Bernardo O’Higgins National Park) will have the chance to interact with the indigenous population living there, and conduct interviews on the community’s use of natural resources. Working with CONAF guardaparques also provides ample opportunities for learning about Chilean culture. Finally, Round River staff will arrange 3-4 day home stays for students in rural farming areas near Cochrane.
Spanish language skills are strongly encouraged, though not required; all lectures and field activities are conducted in English. Having even a basic understanding of Spanish will allow students to interact with the locals (including the CONAF guardaparques), thereby enabling a stronger cultural experience.