Puerto Natales limped into the New Year, still in shock from the devastation of the wildfire in nearby Torres del Paine (read our report from yesterday). The city is the main stopping point for the 200,000 yearly visitors to the National Park, but as we left this morning, it was a windy, cold and grey ghost town. The owner of our near-empty hostel has been barely capable of more than a grunt over the last few days, moping around the building when he has not been watching TV for updates. We had to climb over his suitcases on the way out – he was leaving too.
On Thursday, rumours reached the town that a group of Israelis could have been responsible for starting the fire and this was subsequently confirmed, with one of them now being questioned. He denies that he previously admitted responsibility, but even if found guilty the expected 60-day sentence and fine seem small change compared to the damage caused to the local community.
Unlike the rest of the country, people from this province (ironically called the Ultima Esperanza, or ‘last hope’) are not proud Chileans. The regional flag which depicts mountains and stars is more prominent in Puerto Natales than the national colours of blue, red and white. Although there are few signs of absolute poverty, life here is tough. We found out yesterday that desperate local businesses had come together to ask the Government to rethink its 30-day closure of the park.
No one can predict exactly what the impact on the tourism trade - and subsequently the local community - will be but there are worrying similarities with the effects of the Puyehueon volcano, which has devastated cities in the west of neighbouring Argentina.