Beasts of the Southern Wild

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A puma-tracking trip in Chilean Patagonia reveals the hidden life in one of the world’s most extreme and extraordinary landscapes.  

Pía Vergara is looking for volunteers. The Chilean photographer is seated at the head of a long wooden table, where much lamb stew and Carménère has been consumed over the course of dinner. The wine has bolstered my Spanish skills, or at least my confidence in such, and emboldens me to raise my hand. My confidence wanes, however, when the prudence of Vergara’s mission comes into question: No one else in the group—a dozen aspiring wildlife photographers who have gathered outside Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park—accepts her invitation to track the elusive Patagonian puma.

Vergara, an expert on Patagonian wildlife who has published two books of photography on the region, is leading our group on a multiday journey in and around Torres del Paine. The trip is based at Tierra Patagonia Hotel and Spa, a 42-room adventure lodge set on the desolate shores of Sarmiento Lake, less than a half hour’s drive from the park’s entrance. A sweeping structure of lenga wood and glass, the 3-year-old lodge looks across the lake to Torres del Paine’s namesake massif. Last year the property debuted a series of wildlife-photography trips (available in September, October, March, and April) hosted by Vergara, who offers an insider’s perspective on this southernmost stretch of South America.  

“I want to show people my way of seeing Patagonia,” she says. “We visit all the typical places in Torres del Paine—and other lesser-known places—but with a different angle. We stay more time in each place and wait for nature to surprise us.”

“Typical” places in Torres del Paine are anything but. The 598,000-acre park is one of the world’s most visually striking, with soaring peaks, thundering waterfalls, teal rivers and lakes, and Windex-colored icebergs and glaciers. The park is also home to an array of wildlife, including Andean condors, guanacos (close relatives of the llama), swans, South Andean deer, South American foxes, and, of course, pumas. 

When I first arrived in Patagonia, my driver on the 4-hour ride from the airport to the lodge declared that the region’s pumas are larger than their North American counterparts. Factual or not, the claim seems credible in Patagonia, where everything is bigger. Jagged 9,000-foot-high mountains rise straight from low valleys to their snowy peaks. Condors with 10-foot wingspans nest in sheer cliff walls, while ostrich-like rheas sprint through estancias that stretch for miles to the horizon. The sprawling terrain is an ideal habitat for the puma, which requires a massive territory—more than 100 square miles for a single male—to accommodate its solitary way of life. 

Introverted as it is, the puma goes by many names. Mountain lion to many, cougar or panther to others, the cat actually holds a Guinness World Records mark as the mammal with the most monikers—40 in the English language alone, including deer tiger and ghost cat. It is known by its most common name in Patagonia, where it is not unusual to encounter travelers on a puma pilgrimage.

Sergio Echeverria, the head guide at Tierra Patagonia, recalls one American client of his who came to Patagonia to check a puma off his list. “He had been around the world and seen every other big cat—tiger, lion, cheetah, leopard, jaguar, even a snow leopard—in the wild,” Echeverria says. “He spent a week hiking through Torres del Paine and never saw a puma.” 

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