Hunting pumas at the end of the world

Oct 11, 2015

I had been up and travelling since 4am when I arrived, dusty and tired, in the Torres del Paine National Park in Chile’s Patagonia region. The last part of my journey from the Atacama Desert via Santiago had involved being driven for several hours in an eight-seater minivan along the Ruta del Fin del Mundo – literally, the route to the end of the world.

It was now mid-afternoon and my first chance to unpack since arriving in Chile four days earlier.

But as I admired the mountain view from my room in the Tierra Patagonia Hotel, the phone rang: ‘We’re tracking pumas this evening – be in reception at five,’ said the voice at the other end of the line.

I almost replied: ‘No, please, I need sleep!’ But then I thought: ‘What if they do see pumas?’

Not wanting to miss such an experience, I duly reported at 5pm. And I’m so glad that I did – the two trackers with us excelled themselves.

We began by going to see the gruesome remains of a guanaco, a docile animal related to the llama that is fairly common in South America. This one had been killed by a puma the day before, then abandoned. Condors circled menacingly overhead, impatient to resume their carrion feast once we’d gone.

After a short drive to an even more remote area, we scrambled up a rugged ridge, our binoculars trained on a languid puma two or three hundred yards distant on a scrubby hillside.

The animal was joined by another puma, one that had lost her tail at some point. The first one stretched out, rigid with concentration, on a rocky ledge. We wondered what she was looking at. It turned out to be a guanaco ambling along the ground, oblivious to the threat. Then, just when it seemed as if the guanaco was about to become supper, it disappeared from view and, almost like a scene from a cartoon, somehow re-emerged behind the puma before fleeing.

I was spoilt that first night in Patagonia – to have such luck in spotting pumas was incredible, but it didn’t detract from the other wonders of the Torres del Paine National Park, and some jaw-dropping moments were still to come. Back, though, to the Atacama Desert where my Chile trip had begun.

From Santiago, I flew to the tiny regional airport of Calama, which is the gateway to the spectacular desert region of northern Chile. I was going to Tierra Patagonia’s sister hotel, Tierra Atacama, a lovely complex with views from many rooms of the Licancabur volcano (fortunately it’s dormant). I immediately mapped out two days’ of activities from an impressive list of options. As I did so, a group of guests were gathering for a trip to the petroglyphs – images of animals including llamas, foxes and flamingos delicately carved into the reddish rocks in a desolate region, some 50 minutes away.

It’s difficult to imagine humans ever living there, but in fact the area was once full of trade routes, and these carvings are, in effect, thousand-year-old signatures of travellers and merchants.

The next day, one of Tierra’s minivans took six of us to Moon Valley. I stood on a jagged outcrop of rock and marvelled at people sandboarding down dunes in the distance while simultaneously taking in the ethereal beauty of the landscape.

We travelled a little further to see ‘the Three Marias’ – million-year-old apparitions in the middle of nowhere looking like hunched figures and made of gravel, clay, salt and quartz.

Then there was bare, bleak Death Valley, with its reddish hues and system of dunes and small caves, and later that day, the Atacama Salt Flats, where our arrival coincided immaculately with the sunset. As our guide produced drinks and a selection of cheeses and crackers, we trained our binoculars on the flamingos, posing like pink ballerinas in the middle distance.

I learnt that the sparkling grey/white chunks of the salt rocks and boulders which stretch as far as the eye can see are formed by salts and minerals originally washed down from the Andes and then crystallised on the surface of the land. The effect is startling. It was an all-too-brief 48 hours in the Atacama Desert – I was reluctant to leave but then, of course, I didn’t know what a treat was in store with the Patagonian pumas.

On my second day in the Torres del Paine National Park and still buzzing from seeing the pumas, I went on a gentle horse-ride with my own personal guide and gaucho in the Lenga forest.

We watched in awe as a falcon attempted to attack a much bigger eagle. On the ground, a skunk, or chingue, appeared unexpectedly but scuttled back into the safety of foliage when it saw us.

This was lucky, apparently, because if you mess with a chingue and get a dose of its ‘olor’, everyone will know for weeks to come – no matter how much you wash!

An expedition to the Grey Glacier provided a superb finale to my Chile adventure – but it nearly didn’t happen. A film crew from Santiago, who were with me and two wildlife experts, spotted a huemul, a South Andean deer, and her baby in the bushes at the side of the road. There was much excitement because huemuls are relatively rare. We spent so much time admiring them that we missed the boat that takes visitors to the glacier. Fortunately, there was one more trip that day and we managed to scamper on board.

It’s a three-hour round trip costing about £60 per person, but it’s worth it to see part of the Southern Ice Field of Patagonia. Before I went to Chile, my knowledge of the country was limited to recognising those regions that produce great wine, so I was astonished to find how beautiful it is with such incredibly diverse landscapes and climates.

All eyes have been on Brazil more recently, but give Chile a chance and you won’t be disappointed.

Reef and Rainforest Tours offers an 11-night trip from £5,245pp.

This includes return KLM flights from Heathrow, internal flights on LanChile, transfers, three nights each at Tierra Atacama, Tierra Patagonia, and the Lastarria Boutique Hotel in Santiago, most meals and drinks and guided excursions.