June 29, 2017

Tracking elusive pumas in Patagonia, Summer 2016

Typically when traveling overseas I like to stay a while. But when an editor emailed and asked if I’d be willilng to travel to Patagonia to track pumas for a week in the dead of the southern hemisphere’s winter, I leapt at the chance even though I couldn’t extend my stay. The journey involved an overnight flight to Santiago, Chile, another flight south to almost polar town Punta Arenas and then a four-hour drive north to Torres del Paine, the national park in Chilean Patagonia. It was a long way to go but well worth it to see the park’s legendary mountains, cobalt lakes, ubiquitous guanaco, and to wake before dawn in hopes of sighting a puma.

Here’s the link to the PDF of my story in Private Clubs magazine, which goes to members of country clubs. The text, with a couple of paragraphs that were cut from the published story, follows below:

Private Clubs-Patagonia

 

The author on horseback in Patagonia's Torres del Paine national park.

The author on horseback in Patagonia’s Torres del Paine national park.

Story and photos by Michael Shapiro

Well before dawn our Jeep crawls over the deserted roads that traverse southern Chile’s Torres del Paine national park, searching for pumas. The day before, my guide and I had spotted puma tracks and scat while hiking, lending support to another guide’s comment that “puma are everywhere” in this park, the jewel of Chile’s Patagonia region.

Even after downing a cup of yerba mate, the popular South American tea, I’m still groggy as our Jeep cuts between a pair of lakes known as Las Mellizas (The Twins) in the predawn darkness.

“Keep your eyes open,” guide Beatriz Castro, from an outfitter called Quasar Expeditions, says to me and two other guests as she shines the Jeep’s headlights into the hills. “Eight eyes are better than two.” She drives slowly as we round a bend, and I glimpse a flash of orange. “Slow down!” I say. “I saw something.” Probably just a gray fox or a reflector, I think, worried I’d sounded a false alarm.

Then I see the twin orbs shine in our headlights. The outline of the cat’s face comes into view, its ears pricked up in keen attention. It regards us for several seconds, scampers a few steps up the dusty hillside, then turns sideways. We can see the full outline of its muscle-bound body: its broad shoulders, thick paws and sinewy torso. I’d wondered how a two-foot high puma could take down a much larger guanaco (a relative of the llama and camel that thrives in Patagonia) but in that thrilling moment it all became clear.

Pumas are fierce, highly elusive creatures, and I’d traveled many thousands of miles to see one. Though I’d come to Torres del Paine, last August in the depth of the southern hemisphere’s winter, to see puma, it was the park itself that left the deepest impression.

Pink flamingos soar above a lake in Torres del Paine.

Pink flamingos soar above a lake in Torres del Paine.

Torres del Paine is best known for its soaring granite towers that rise thousands of feet above the valley below. The park — a World Heritage Site, with its luminescent cobalt rivers (paine means blue in the indigenous Tehuelche language), otherworldly rock formations, gargantuan glaciers, turquoise lakes and crashing waterfalls — remains wild and vibrantly alive. Moderate day hikes lead to the base of the Torres and the Cuernos, as well as to iceberg-filled lakes and spirit-lifting waterfalls such as Salto Grande, a riverwide series of cascades.

Torres del Paine receives 150,000 visitors a year (a small fraction of those who enter major U.S. parks such as Great Smoky Mountains, which had more than 10 million in 2014), but most of those come during summer. So the Chilean winter (June-September) can be the best time to experience Torres del Paine and soak up its 935 square miles of untamed beauty, a season when you can hike for miles without seeing another soul.

Getting to the park isn’t easy: it’s a 10-hour flight from New York to Santiago, Chile’s capital, then a three-and-a-half-hour flight to Punta Arenas in southern Chile, followed by a five-hour drive to the park. The good news: the small airport in Puerto Natales, just 90 minutes from Torres del Paine, is expanding and projected to start receiving flights from Santiago in late July, 2016, according to Chile’s tourism bureau.

Several hotels offer lodging within the park, but there are few luxury options. We stay at the Explora Patagonia where the cuisine is exquisite, the well-stocked bar is hosted, and every room has a jaw-dropping view of Los Cuernos (The Horns), one of the parks signature rock formations. Located in the heart of the park, the hotel is a 5-minute walk from the Salta Chico waterfall, and Explora drivers meet all guests at the airport.

After the predawn puma sighting we drive slowly looking for more big cats but reach a ranger station without seeing any. We watch Torres del Paine’s towers turn orange in the day’s first light, then learn we’ll continue our safari on foot.

guanaco

Guanacos, related to camels, are plentiful within the park’s borders.

Isn’t that dangerous? Castro assures us we’ll be fine. We’ll be accompanied by a veteran tracker, Jose Vargas, who tells us the cats are more scared of us than we are of them. For good reason: Ranchers shoot pumas to protect their sheep and other livestock, or contract hired guns called leoneros to take down the big cats for them.

We walk uphill along a fence line on the park’s boundary, past frozen puddles and the frost-crusted skeletal remains of downed guanacos. The pumas are expert killers, with the ability to sprint at speeds up to 50mph, Vargas says, and they’re smart. The cats run guanaco into the wire fence, where they pounce on the overmatched prey and sink their razor-sharp teeth into the guanacos’ necks. After the cats have had their fill, Andean condors, with bodies as big as wild turkeys and a 10-foot wingspan, consume the scraps.

Two guests in our group move at a glacial pace, photographing seemingly every guanaco bone, puddle and vista. “Don’t worry,” Vargas says with a laugh. “The puma always eat the slow ones.” Though evidence of puma is everywhere, we don’t see another cat, and by late morning we quit searching, knowing they’re bedding down for the day.

The weather is remarkably fair: mostly sunny and relatively mild (highs around 40F), though one night we get a light dusting of snow, adding luster to the landscape. It’s not windy, unlike in summer when hikers are buffeted by full-force gales.

Ranger Juan Toro at his home in Torres del Paine in August, 2015.

Ranger Juan Toro at his home in Torres del Paine in August, 2015.

The following evening we combine searching for puma with a visit to the home of 63-year-old ranger Juan Toro, who’s been patrolling the park, on foot and horseback, for 41 years. The park, says its longest-serving ranger, “es como mi casa” (is like my house). He extols the virtues of visiting Torres del Paine in winter: “You have the park to yourself – that’s the big difference.” The he offers me a gourd of mate (pronounced mah-tay), the stimulating tea that fuels Patagonians.

This is the last of my four nights in the park and I ask the gregarious gaucho what he wants visitors to remember: “All this landscape,” Toro says with a sweep of his arm. “All this beauty.” I tell him I will and that my only regret is I didn’t have more time in this primeval paradise. “You really need to 10 days to explore this park,” he says. “A lot of people regret that they’re on a set schedule and have to leave. Everyone says, ‘Oh we should have stayed longer.’ ”

I didn’t encounter another puma, but there were other wildlife sightings: the armadillo on the trail to the base of Los Cuernos, a pair of ostrich-like rhea in a mating dance, two condors on the ground inspecting a carcass, and countless inquisitive guanacos on hillsides and atop ridges. Naturally, I would have enjoyed seeing more pumas, but it was enough to be in the big cats’ presence, knowing they’re out patrolling this sublime landscape, atop the food chain, keeping the ecosystem in balance.

Explora Patagonia: explora.com

Quasar Expeditions: quasarex.com

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