(Bloomberg) -- El Chaltén is in the middle of a plumbing crisis. On any given day, the Argentinean resort village—set deep within Los Glaciares National Park and known for high-end mountain lodges and stunning Patagonian peaks—taxes its sewer system to the point that dangerous bacteria overflow into the pristine ecosystem that draws visitors.
At the heart of the matter is the Las Vueltas river cutting through the glacial region. Its water, a lifeline for locals and the source of rafting and kayaking adventures for visitors, is being polluted by sewage, according to samples taken in recent months.
The problem? Too many tourists are relying on too little infrastructure.
According to Marie Anière Martínez, co-founder of Boana, a local environmental nongovernmental organization, El Chaltén’s sewage treatment plant was built to serve 4,300 people. Yet up to 10,000 may dwell in the village at season’s peak, which runs from November to March.
Visits to Argentina’s Patagonia have soared in recent years. Roughly 61,000 nonresidents went to Los Glaciares in December 2023 alone, according to government figures—a 47% increase from the same period the previous year.
The data represents traffic to the park through two main points. Although El Chaltén, the more remote location, is excluded from regional visitation tallies, Martinez believes that those swells of tourism in the broader area indicate how much growth is occurring in the village and place too much pressure on El Chaltén’s infrastructure. “We have this clean water that comes into the village, and we use it, and then we fill it with fecal bacteria,” Martínez says.
The sewage problem is just one of the effects of tourism. El Chaltén also faces a housing crisis, staffing shortages and growing concerns about visitor safety.
Paz Fiorito, president of Amigos del Parque Nacional Los Glaciares (Friends of Los Glaciares National Park), a nonprofit, says there are just three full-time park rangers and 16 seasonal contract workers to ensure that trails are properly maintained, supervise fire-prevention measures and conduct rescues as needed.
“Today, we are receiving a type of tourist that is not used to managing themselves in wild areas and does not know how to behave here,” she explains. Just a decade ago, she explains, most visitors were experienced at outdoor living, as opposed to today’s luxury-oriented adventure seekers.
Martínez cites an “emergency loop” wherein emergencies come one after another with no improvement in the region’s ability to deal with them. “Right now, there just isn’t a clear long-term vision for this territory.”
Argentina’s Trekking Capital
El Chaltén, the northern gateway to Los Glaciares National Park, is one of Argentina’s youngest villages. Founded in the mid-1980s, it quickly became a go-to destination for global mountaineers. The 11,073-foot Monte Fitz Roy—a spiky massif that looms above the village—inspired the logo for outdoor clothing brand Patagonia Inc.
At first, El Chaltén’s visitors consisted mostly of backpackers. In the past decade it started to get paved roads and comfortable amenities that help tourism take off. Now, well-heeled jet-setters come to enjoy the village’s wine bars, craft breweries and steakhouses. Luxurious adventure lodges such as Explora El Chaltén, which has 20 modular rooms with panoramic windows facing a huge hunk of the Marconi Glacier, opened in 2021 and charge some $3,000 nightlyfor an all-inclusive stay with guided adventures, in contrast to the more typical $300-per-night bed-and-breakfast fee.
Because El Chaltén is in a national park, it can’t legally expand beyond its original 135 hectares (335 acres). Four decades after its founding, hardly any open land remains to build on. Argentina’s 200% inflation, a pandemic-era village population boom, and properties taken off the market for short-term rentals on sites like Airbnb add up to a housing shortage and an affordability crisis afflicting both permanent and seasonal residents.
Hotel staff, guides and park rangers number among the locals living in mobile homes dotting the village’s periphery. From about 60 in 2018, there are now more than 400. (The figures are drawn from data shared with Bloomberg by Encuentro Vecinal, a local political party.) In 2022 squatters took over the village soccer field—just blocks from many high-end hotels—to protest the lack of housing.
El Chaltén now markets itself as “Argentina’s trekking capital,” as popular with domestic tourists as it is with foreigners. Just beyond its limits lies an unspoiled landscape of toothy mountains and wind-warped ñirre trees accessible by public trails that cover 70 miles. Hikes range from moderate, half-day forest explorations to challenging full-day ascents into highland areas, sometimes with hurricane-force winds.
During the 2022-23 summer season, five tourists died while engaging in high-risk mountaineering pursuits in Los Glaciares. In December, a solo American hiker died of hypothermia after apparently veering off the trail.
“Unfortunately, accidents are quite common because the profile of visitor has changed,” says Fiorito.
Building a More Sustainable Future
Given the current infrastructure problems, Fiorito says it’s nearly impossible to evaluate future needs without reliable figures regarding how many tourists are visiting today. Government officials for Santa Cruz province, the big, sparsely populated region that includes El Chaltén, publish monthly tourism reports that routinely exclude figures for the village; they did not respond to repeated requests for specific data on El Chaltén.
Nonprofits advocating for local solutions were similarly unable to produce visitation figures, so anyone trying to address the key issues must indulge in guesswork.
Fiorito’s back-of-the-envelope arithmetic nearly matches the figures provided by Boana’s Martínez. She says that El Chaltén has roughly 2,500 permanent residents that swell by about 3,000 seasonal workers during high season, and she estimates that as many as 6,000 visitors are present per day in the summer months.
Still, there is reason for hope. Several grassroots organizations backed by international funding began operating after the Covid-19 pandemic to support the national park via trail restoration, traveler education, water monitoring and volunteer fire and rescue.
These include Boana and Amigos del Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The latter is now developing a project with park administrators to properly count visitors and is deploying educational safety videos on social media, aiming to help visitors learn to navigate the area’s fragile, sometimes dangerous terrain.
Certain high-end hotels are adapting, too. Nicolas Gonella, Explora’s local destination manager, says 50% of its explorations—given by highly trained, mostly female mountain guides—take place outside the national park, diverting hikers to less-traveled areas. They usher hotel guests to high Andean lagoons or take them climbing up granite walls as part of the brand’s ethos of sustainable ecotourism.
Explora’s 75 employees live onsite, taking pressure off local housing needs—a formula that other private businesses could replicate to help establish sustainable tourism growth. It falls on private businesses to find innovative workarounds and chart a way forward “when public investment is so far below what has proven to be the threshold for conservation,” says Gonella.
Meanwhile, the provincial government recently approved a plan to finance and build 108 low-impact compact homes.
The sewage system, however, remains an open question. “El Chaltén is a really small village, so you can witness all the changes,” says Boana’s Martínez. Alongside 16 other residents, she filed a lawsuit against the local government in November to demand greater transparency regarding water pollution. The federal judge in the case has asked the area’s sanitation department to prove through published scientific data that it’s not contaminating the Las Vueltas river. Results are expected this month.
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