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gatoratlarge

Prowling Pumas, Snoring Whales and Penguin Royalty: Chilean Patagonia

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gatoratlarge

I just returned a couple weeks ago from Chilean Patagonia with my niece and thought I'd share my trip report: I loved it!  Wild, raw, beautiful, uncrowded country with varied wildlife, and although I don't consider myself a birder, a paradise for feathered fowl!

 

The itinerary:

 

Day 1:  Landed mid-day in Punta Arenas, a town on the Straights of Magellan at the southern tip of the South American continent---Stayed at the Hotel Diego de Almagro (an alright hotel on the waterfront of PA, good food at dinner, very average to poor at breakfast) most of town is walk-able from here so I would encourage you to explore other meal options.  We had a great dinner at La Marmita a few blocks away.  There were some protests  ongoing while we were in town.  One of our fellow tourists was walking too close to the protest area and got tear gassed but was fine five minutes later.  An actual building was burned down one of the nights we were there but honestly, at no time did we feel unsafe.  Just stay away from protests which I've heard is good advice no matter where you travel around the globe.

Day 2

We took a leisurely drive up to Torres del Paine NP stopping regularly along the way to spot rheas, flamingos, Andean condors and so many different waterfowl.  The drive is probably four or five hours.  We had lunch along the way in Puerto Natales, a town set upon a glacial lagoon that reaches the sea.  Not too long after we entered the National Park we spotted our first prowling puma! Overnight at Hotel Las Torres, a nice lodge set at the foot of the mountains

Day 3-5

We were on the road by 5A each morning, our puma tracking guide already in the field locating pumas.  Some at close distance, 10 (by accident), 20, 30 yards; others through scopes scouring the cliffs and rocks along the ridges.  Overall we had 10 encounters, some while hunting guanacos and hares, others napping on rocks or inside caves, under a bush or alongside a glacial lake, some with young cubs, others in disputed territory.  Tracking pumas on foot was a great thrill!  We would return for lunch and be back out by 5P and could stay out as late as 10P as it stays light until then --- the summer months, the days are long...

 

During mid-day we also explored other areas of the park---the scenery is breathtakingly spectacular---some of the most beautiful mountains I've ever laid eyes on...we also had time to spot other mammal species including the guanaco, the local Andean Deer, Patagonian Hog-nosed Skunk and Chilla/gray foxes.

Day 6

This day was a return drive to Punta Arenas on the Patagonian Steppe, rolling plains with occasion windswept beech forests.  Birding along the way (many endemics) at the many lagoons.   Large traffic jams of gauchos herding sheep and sheep dogs provided a lot of entertainment for the journey home.

Day 7

A drive eastward to a short ferry (30 minutes) across the Magellan Straights to Tierra del Fuego, again, birding along the way.   We spot the black and white Commerson's dolphins on the ferry over to TDF.  When we reached Tierra del Fuego we explored a coastal area with cliffs, many sea birds congregated below.  We drove through the barren rolling glacier fields of Tierra del Fuego. Overnight at Yendegaia House in Porvenir, a charming little bay side town in Tierra del Fuego.

Day 8

Drove to Useless Bay to see the colony of King Penguins, the only colony of King penguins on the continent.  The other colonies are located on the South Georgia Islands, the Falklands, etc...the gale force winds didn't seem to bother the penguins at all, in fact, they seemed to love it.  We ate lunch atop a hill which showed signs of human occupation for 11,000 years!  We drove back to Porvenir to catch the ferry---two hours to Punta Arenas from here.  Overnight at Hotel Diego de Almagro.

Day 9

My niece departs for home.  I stay on for a boat to Carlos III Island in the western Magellan Straights.  The boat ride is choppy at times.  It is an eight hour journey.  When we get to whalesound, it is not long till we see our first humpback whale(s)...more than a hundred humpbacks migrate here each year from the warmer waters up near Columbia.  We had many sightings, some close encounters.  There were some jumps but far away.  I think this behavior is more common during the breeding and mating season.  A sei whale was spotted (I didn't see it) but we were pretty far away.  Over night at Eco Camp on Carlos III.  Dome tents with wood burning furnaces made them quite cozy with bay views below.  

Day 10

Exploring the sounds and waters around Carlos III.  The Santa Ines glacier was an incredible sight.  Sea lions and fur seals, albotrosses, skuas and petrels...and whales, sometimes three at a time.  ANother night at the Eco Camp -- we could hear a whale snoring in the bay below our tents!

Day 11

The journey back to Punta Arenas via the Magellan Straights -- 8 hours.  Overnight at Hotel Diego de Almagro.

Day 12

Depart PA via Santiago via Miami home...

 

I'll try to include some of the better pictures day by day in the coming posts --- hope it's useful.  I used International Expeditions and they in turn used Far South Expeditions based in Punta Arenas to handle all the logistics and coordination:

 

Tracking pumas is done just outside the park on large estancias or sheep ranches.  Formerly hunted, many of the surrounding farms and ranches have discovered that eco-tourism is lucrative and have ended the practice of killing pumas.  Pumas I was told eat primarily hares which were introduced by Europeans long ago.  Seventy percent of their diet may be hares, the rest guanacos.

 

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Royalty:  King Penguins are 2nd in size to Emperor Penguins -- they incubate their egg by balancing it on their feet and covering it with their belly or brood pouch.  The parents alternate protecting the baby chick and the other feeding at sea, hiding the baby at first on their feet like the egg.

 

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And Humpback Whales in the Magellan Straights:

 

 

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Towlersonsafari

What wonderful sightings @gatoratlarge looking forward to the rest of your report

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Botswanadreams

What a fantastic trip @gatoratlarge. Looking forward with big interest to the more detailed report. Thanks for sheering the information. 

Edited by Botswanadreams

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Zim Girl

Great stuff - looking forward to reading and seeing more.

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janzin

Ahhh I was hoping you'd start a trip report soon...saw some of your amazing photos on Facebook :)  Can't wait for the details as I'll be following in your footsteps--along with @michael-ibk next fall! Although not going to Carlos III island...I think we'd be there the wrong time of year for whales anyway.

 

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jeffb

@gatoratlarge I am doing exactly the same trip with my family in April, booked directly with Far South. I'm looking forward to the rest of your trip report, and hope to get a few photos as nice as yours!

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gatoratlarge

 

 

Thanks safaritalkers for your encouragement!  So glad to see so many folks doing this journey in the near future---I'll look very much forward to the trip reports and to follow the progress of the pumas I almost feel like I "know" now.  Like some of the camps in Africa where the guides get to know the lion prides or leopards, the Patagonian guides know the territories of the various pumas and know the story of their lives and the lives of their cubs.  I'm excited for you!  And I thought Far South had top notch guides...

 

So this may be a bit haphazard in it's delivery as I have photos in two separate places but maybe it would be good to come back to the "bird" day later on and get right to the reason we went to begin with---to track pumas!

 

We had no sooner entered Torres del Paine's park boundaries when our driver and guide began scouring the hills for signs of pumas.  We encountered a herd of guanacos, lagoons filled with waterfowl but within 30 minutes or so, a braying or neighing guanaco (their alarm call) signaled that perhaps a puma was near.  Sure enough, they spotted a young female named Bonita making her rounds.  She casually passed by the hysterical guanaco as if saying "I didn't want to eat YOU anyhow" and proceeded much like an overgrown house cat.  Unfortunately, our attention caught several other passing cars attention and set off a bit of a frenzy.

 

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This was the beauty of the puma tracking itinerary.  The tracking occurs outside the park on private Estancias and unlike the popular hikes inside the park, you are mostly alone with the guides surrounded by the same beauty, the glacial lakes, the green hills, the towers of Paine (when not enshrouded in clouds) crowning the hills of the Patagonian Steppe.  The best of the puma sightings happen away from the roads in my opinion.

 

The puma crossed the road and hid in the brush for a while till things calmed down a bit.  She visited a dense patch of tree and bush and as she departed called back as if to say "you stay there"...the guides felt she likely had cubs hidden in the brush.  So we hadn't even hit the lodge before seeing our first puma!

 

The lodge, Hotel Las Torres Patagonia, was much to our liking....great food, comfortable room.  We had a great dinner in the dining room surrounded by windows in the round.  The days are long in January so it didn't get dark until 10P.  Our Lead Puma Tracker was Jorge, a Cuban American obsessed with pumas.  He gets up each morning and leaves by 4:30A to find the pumas.  We departed at 5A to catch up to him and see if he'd found any.

 

 

Our first morning heading out in the dark we spotted Ama, a female puma that frequently hunts for hares in the fields surrounding the hotel.  We saw her two of the mornings and one of the evenings, the dining hall emptied when she appeared during dinner.  Her concentration was quite intense and she continued the hunt while we briefly spot lighted.  A young horse had been taken the previous week by a puma at the hotel but it was hard to imagine this female undertaking that task...it seems a big jump from a hare to a colt...

 

Ama hunting hares:

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Our first morning of puma tracking we spotted a patrolling puma, then another.  Seems a smaller female Princessa was crossing or visiting the territory of a larger female Hermalita.  Hermalita followed Princessa and they both plopped down for a rest on the shoreline next to a  glacial lake.  It was a bit of a standoff and tension was in the air.  When Princessa moved on quickly and scaled an outcropping of rocks, Hermalita followed briskly.  We thought there may be some fireworks, but Princessa showed enough submissive behavior to avoid a fight and Hermalita marked territory around the rocks and moved off for an afternoon nap.

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We caught up with Hermalita later that afternoon and spent the remainder of the day observing her.  She rested under a bush for a while.  For some reason she had never had cubs but called out for a mate as the guide said she was in heat.  She scaled a cliff and checked out each small cave to see if she could surprise something for dinner.  She slipped between to rocks and after we had scaled the same cliff, found her resting behind a bush.  What a privilege to sit 30 yards away, eating our bag dinner and watching her in the late day sun.  The only thing missing was a bottle of wine! :D

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jeffb

Wonderful! How great to be that close, and for so long a time.

 

Mind sharing what camera and lenses you used the most?

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Botswanadreams

I'm speechless about what you show us. Unbelievable beautiful. 

Would you please be as kind and tell me a bit about how long you have to walk per day. How fit you have to be? Thanks in advance. Chile is very high on my list of world wide destinations. A place I want to see ones in my life but at the moment I struggle a bit what we would be able to do or what would be not anymore possible with our older getting bones.    

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pomkiwi

@gatoratlarge Beautiful pictures. although I have been to TdP twice I have yet to go with the aim of tracking puma - I must review this! Lokking forward to the rest.

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Chakra

I thought Pumas were elusive creatures. You seem to be a Puma magnet ! 

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Towlersonsafari

I'm full of puma humour after seeing those photos  @gatoratlarge

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gatoratlarge

@jeffb certainly---I just have a "bridge" camera---a Sony Cybershot---I decided a long time ago I wouldn't fool with those huge boom lenses.  It takes photography to a level of sophistication I don't have and fear I never will :D I have to keep things relatively simple.  So it's finding a bridge camera with as good a zoom as I can )I bet there are plenty that have surpassed mine by now) and I use that.  I also want to spend some of the time not looking through a lens but with my own eyes...but I've been mostly pleased with what I've gotten.  The video is admittedly rough with little to no editing but it captures some moments and I'm OK with them...

 

@Botswanadreams I'm 54 and in average shape.  At times it was a bit of a struggle for me.  My niece didn't seem to have much of an issue.  I come from very flat country and so some of the hills were a bit challenging.  I do think that the guides would adjust to the fitness level of the guests.  At times I would cuss under my breath thinking how in the world am I supposed to keep up with a puma on the move---it is effortless for them.  Meanwhile, the Patagonian Steppe is covered in scrub bush and you're not on a proper trail just picking your way through the brush.  But the movements of most of the pumas was to move and patrol a bit, plop down and wait/rest.  Then move again.  I think it was to disappear for a while and let the guanacos get back to grazing...A puma might be stationary for a long time so we had some great views as they rested.  Often we could get the vehicle relatively close to where we needed to be to start (where Jorge had staked out a resting puma) then hike over a hill and watch for a while.  Kind of like the guanacos, we often waited on the ridge line and watched them make their way, then we would follow.  It was not hours and hours of strenuous walking though.  My favorite times were not so much following them on a hunt (although that is cool) but sitting a safe distance and watching as they too waited and watched...surrounded by the beauty of the Patagonian Steppe.  The altitude was no issue as it's very near sea level but sometimes the hill climbs were more difficult than I had expected.

 

@Chakra I think they are quite elusive but here it is the best place in the world to observe them.  Maybe its the open scrub where they do most of their hunting...The BBC is doing a documentary on a mother and four nearly adult cubs for their Dynasty series and my one regret is that we had a miscommunication on our last evening of tracking and our guide came across the mother and four cubs but we could not get in touch with him---now that would have been one heckuva finale---five pumas, four sub adults and the mother but alas it wasn't to be.  One of the "kids" blew the hunt for guanacos for the mother...

 

 

 

 

Edited by gatoratlarge

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gatoratlarge

Day Two of Puma Tracking started a bit rockier...our guide found one but she was pretty well hidden so he set off to find others.  How he sees them from such distances is pretty remarkable but he found two napping on the rock ledges atop a cliff and one in a small cave below.  We could only see these well through high powered scopes.  They were a ways off but still humorous to see their paws hanging over the ledge sleeping through the warmest part of the day.  Our guide said it was time to try to find more pumas and as if by clock work, one emerged on the left side of the road and crossed over!  This caused a small traffic jam!  I can't recall the name of this puma but I think it translated as "flask" in English...we followed her as she hunted for guanacos.  Our guide said she was not the most successful or secretive of hunters but she was still alive so therefore getting enough to eat somehow...

 

Again, we could follow on foot while others from their cars could not....

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On the hunt:

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Few Videos:

That "nervous laugh" sound is the alarm call of the guanacos -- a puma had set it's focus on a young guanaco and we watched it scale a nearby hill with its mother and circle back around to avoid the puma...

 

 

 

 

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janzin

Wow and more wow! Simply incredible sightings, and great that you had the presence of mind to take so many videos.

 

We too will be puma tracking with Far South and I'm glad that they worked out so well for you. I am getting SO excited for this trip!

 

I'm curious, you said you booked through International Expeditions, so this was a custom trip for just the two of you? I guess I always thought of IE as a group touring company, I didn't know they booked custom tours.

 

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gatoratlarge

@janzin They (IE) are and we did sign up for a group departure :D there could have been as many as six (maybe eight?) but my dad and I were the only two that signed up---I think some of the social unrest in Chile scared folks away but as I said earlier, everything sure seemed safe.  Dad took a spill about two weeks before departure (hes OK) and decided against making the trip (he's 85 -- and was not going to do the puma tracking portion) so my niece happily filled in!

 

Yes I am excited for you!  My niece keeps pining she wants to go back...I can't wait to hear how your trip goes!

 

 

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janzin

wow that's pretty amazing that IE ran the trip with only two participants...most companies would cancel if they didn't get enough people. Do you think that's the norm with IE?

 

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gatoratlarge

@janzin good question---I don't know...we did get the full treatment for sure.  But I'm sure there's enough profit even with two -- we had the puma tracker (Jorge the American) that's permanent at Torres del Paine ---then we had a guide that accompanied us the whole trip (Jorge out of Santiago) and a driver David who was with us most the time except the whale portion...

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jeffb

@gatoratlarge Was your trip Jan. 22-Feb. 1? Far South had a trip scheduled for those dates, for 3-7 participants, but when I contacted them they said the trip had already been fully booked by a private party, so I took the April dates instead. I wonder if IE was the private party?

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Botswanadreams

Many, many thanks @gatoratlarge . It was very helpful. 

 

CHILE'S BEST WILDLIFE TRIP from Far South Expeditions sounds very interesting to me too. They say this trip would be possible as privat trip to. So we could have our own speed. I have very much to think about after we are back from Alaska in August this year. 

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Zubbie15

Really great start @gatoratlarge, loving all the sightings. Like @pomkiwi, we've been to TdP  but didn't look seriously for pumas. Something to rectify, sooner than later! 

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Atravelynn

It seems you were exceptionally fortunate.  Did your guide indicate you were very lucky or is this abundance of pumas normal?  What were your dates?  Looks like weather cooperated.  Did it seem the cats were aware of you but ignored you if you kept your distance or were they a bit shy?   Phenomenal! 

 

Far South knows where to take you, that is for sure.

 

Thanks for this amazing account.

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gatoratlarge

@jeffb and @Atravelynn Jan 22 through Feb 1 were the exact dates.  I bet IE was the "private party" and we were the only two that signed up.  I did inquire with IE about a private tour and it was about twice the cost so of course we went with the group.  Some of the publicity of civil unrest may have scared off others from signing up but at least the eyeball test says it's plenty safe for tourists...

 

I just watched BBC's Seven World's episode on South America last night and it featured the mother and THREE not four almost adult cubs from the areas we trekked...the cool thing is that is exactly where we were.  I recognize the hills, lakes, views.  I really wasn't told that we were particularly lucky...there really seems an abundance of pumas and their knowledge of their territories is really good.  Besides Ama the "resident" Puma at the Lodge hunting hares that we saw three times, we saw on three different occasions pumas crossing the roads....I think the cats had to be aware of us and they simply ignored us...I wouldn't say they were particularly shy.  If one crossed the road and a bunch of cars pulled over and tourists piled out with a lot of shouting--- that's when they seemed more nervous...but there's a lot of open space for them to move off if they want.

 

Largely this takes place on a large Estancia or sheep farm adjacent to the park.  And only a few folks/outfitters have permission to track on foot.  So the experience is really good.  I weighed it against some of the hikes in the park with so many hundreds of hikers and I think it's the best of all worlds...the views are spectacular with the Patagonian Steppe, the glacial lakes and lagoons, and the Torres del Paine towers in view when they aren't cloud covered...

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gatoratlarge

My days sort of blend together but on one of the mornings we went to see Blinka -- a puma with one eye---that had cubs one month ago.  She was in fairly dense brush.  we watched her through binocs licking and cleaning her cubs and one of the more adventurous/rambunctious cubs bounded off to the side where we got a decent look at him.  We wanted to be especially careful and give plenty of distance as she lost her last cubs perhaps because she got too much attention.  We stayed about a half hour and left.  The next morning we caught up with Blinka, her cubs safely stashed as she was on the hunt.  Just a beautiful sight!

 

On our final day we used the time to visit some of the spectacular sights inside the park.  It was some of the most beautiful scenery I'd ever laid eyes on....but when we got back to position, we were unable to reach Jorge via walkie talkie and waited an hour on the road side.  Having seen so many pumas we said we were fine with going back if we couldn't reach him --- it my only regret of the trip as when he got back to the hotel that night, he said as he was coming back to find us, he ran across the BBC family of pumas on the hunt...a rainbow hovered over the lake in the background as he showed us the video...we saw the same rainbow so we had to have been close!  Rainbows don't linger for long!  Apparently, the mother was closing in on some guanacos when one of the cubs, too anxious to help, blew the approach!  I would have loved to see that but I'm grateful for what we got that's for certain.

 

Some from the park itself: at times the wind was astounding!

Skunk!

 

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pault

You did it again @gatoratlarge… just kind of "aw shucks, took my niece down to Chile and stumbled on these pumas and a couple of other things". You make me feel so dull. Always there a year or so before the crowds too. What a fantastic place this is - of course I knew of it vaguely but had no idea there was still this much to see. Thanks (and hi from Nam Wan, who has been waiting for this report).

 

I now wish I had pushed you harder in Zakouma about where you get the ideas for these things, but Michael was in charge of interrogation. Don't tell me it is a National Geographic subscription or watching Animal Planet - although come to think of it I did get more than a few ideas from the more obscure "filler" shows on Animal Planet in the distant past. :D

 

 

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