April 18, 2016
Patagonia really is El Fin del Mundo (the end of the world) – further south than even the southern-most reaches of New Zealand and Australia. Its vistas seem to extend forever, both from east to west (despite Chile being a very narrow country, just 150 km or so from the Pacific in the west to its borders on the east) and in terms of multi-layered depths – vast plains, many-hued lakes, rounded foothills, glaciated mountains and jagged peaks topped with snow even in early autumn, after a long summer.
Huge rivers, twisting and turning, offered a geography lesson from the air during the three-hour flight south from Santiago to Punta Arenas, with oxbow lakes forming and glacial lakes trapped in little folds of the mountain peaks, full to the brim with milky glacial waters – sometimes grey, sometimes turquoise.
The five-hour/400 km drive north from Punta Arenas was punctured with sightings of wild guanaco (a relative of the llama) with their young offspring (called chulengo), happily play-fighting with their siblings, plus ostrich-like rhea grazing alongside the herds of sheep and cows. Sturdy horses ran free in small groups, feeding and drinking at will.
The highlights of our stay at the superb Tierra Patagonia hotel included a glacier trip by boat to see the Grey Glacier calving into Lake Grey. Despite its name, the glacier was a vivid blue, as were the ice floes recently broken free of its craggy cliffs. We drank Pisco Sours with huge chunks of glacier ice which the boat’s crew had hauled from the chilly lake waters that morning, and which they proudly told us was 3.5 million years old.
We had spoken to several of the knowledgeable guides at Tierra Patagonia (a stunningly-designed hotel which, built largely of weathered beechwood, and shaped like a sinuous snake, simply melted discreetly into its environment from a distance of a few hundred yards) about our chances of seeing Chile’s big cat, the puma. Having seen a huge gathering of more than 20 condors, Chile’s national bird, circling above a carcass, and having photographed herds of guanaco from every angle, we kept our eyes glued to the hillsides for a sighting of a puma in the wild.
Roberto, our knowledgeable young Patagonian guide two days in succession, talked of his fellow guides having seen a puma recently. The best time for sightings, it seemed, was between 7 and 9 pm, by which time the largely nocturnal puma would have staked out its supper (perhaps an old or weaker animal) and would be ready to pounce and dine.
First, we had a mighty waterfall to view. A 20-minute walk uphill led us, towards the end of a long day, to massive spumes of spray as huge quantities of water (the River Paine, no less – we were in the National Park of Torres del Paine, pronounced “pan-yeh”) thundered over granite rocks and rainbows came and went through the spray – quite beautiful.
We set off back towards Lake Sarmiento, above the shores of which Tierra Patagonia is based. The radio crackled, and Roberto’s eyes gleamed. Maybe we’d be lucky. The people carrier with our group of eight friends pulled to the edge of the road, about 25 yards from the body of a fluffy recently-killed animal, perhaps a young chulengo to judge from its cloven hooves.
Binoculars at the ready, we scoured the hillside. Up on a ridge, maybe some 350 yards above us, we could make out the silhouette of ears – not one animal, but two. “They are juveniles”, breathed Roberto. I managed a shot of them, both watching us intently from their position of power, like a pair of Egyptian Sphinxes. Then Roberto saw their mother, lower down the ridge, equally alert and watching us keenly. After 10 minutes, she got up and strolled out of view, only to reappear nearer to her large offspring. We had sated our appetite for puma watching and decided to return to base to allow the trio to feed on her catch of the day; we couldn’t believe our good fortune – not just one puma, but three!
In the 15-minute drive back to the hotel, we had a final animal treat – a black and white skunk crossed the road in front of us and shimmied up the slope into the undergrowth, visible for a good five minutes.
We repaired to the bar and our welcome G+Ts with many photos from the day’s outing to compare and discuss before another delightful dinner and before the next day’s adventures, which would involve 6,000 year-old cave art …
We didn’t take this video (sadly!), but one of the guides at Tierra Patagonia took it just a few days before we visited. He was amazingly close to the puma, but because they have no natural predators in Patagonia and grow much bigger than elsewhere, the animals are not really worried about puny humans (although I imagine we’d make a tasty morsel…). What a graceful creature!