6 mins

Condor moments in Chile

Grant Hutchison goes in search of the condor from Lake Llanquihue to Torres del Paine

Lake Llanquihue (Raul Diaz)

As our plane dropped beneath the Puerto Montt clouds, Marion and I peered out of the window and chorused one word: “Scotland!” It looked like a damp day in Speyside down there – the rolling landscape was covered with little green fields and bright yellow patches of broom and gorse, and the long arm of the sea beneath us was dotted with rectangular salmon farms.

The next morning, as we drove north with our guide Edda, it was still easy to forget that we were in Chile. The fields were full of grazing sheep and brown-and-white cows, and to my jet-lagged brain the red spring flowers on the roadside notro trees made them look for all the world like the autumnal red-berried rowans we had just left behind at home.

But then I would catch a glimpse of a plump little tuique hawk perched on a fence-post, or a wooden church painted a distinctive mayonnaise-yellow, or a solitary llama moping in the corner of a field, and I’d remember where we were.

Then Edda said, “The sky’s clearing. You can see Osorno.”

Sure enough, Lake Llanquihue was now sparkling in the sunlight, but its far shore was still hidden beneath a bank of cloud. We peered in that direction, trying to catch a glimpse of the Osorno volcano, and then realised that a beautiful, symmetrical white cone was clearly visible above the clouds, ice-fields glinting in the sunlight. No, on second thoughts, this really wasn’t very like Scotland at all.

In the afternoon, as we drove back towards Puerto Varas, I noticed that the restaurants and hotels along the lakeside were displaying wooden signs that read ‘Onces’. I knew from my feeble efforts to learn a little Spanish that once meant ‘eleven’, so I asked Edda, “You eat elevenses in Chile?”

“Oh yes. Tea and cakes. At five o’clock.”

Elevenses at five? Edda explained: the name started off as a euphemistic reference to the eleven letters of aguardiente, the local cheap brandy. Men going for a drink after work said they were going for ‘elevens’. Only later did the name come to mean something other than purely alcoholic intake.

The next morning found us slipping and sliding through dense undergrowth, 800 metres up in the hills south of Puerto Montt. We had got there in the back of a jeep belonging to Adrian Turner, owner of the local tour agency, Travellers, who had sponsored my prize trip.

Adrian had promised us “something special” for the day. So now we were having a pre-lunch stroll in virgin alerce forest. Alerces are southern relatives of the Californian redwood – they can reach heights of 45m, with trunks four metres across, but only after growing for more than 3,000 years.

So this was the primeval forest, thick with ferns and lurid orange parasitic fungi, and noisy with bird calls. Our guide, Eduardo, bounced cheerfully along a completely invisible trail, and we tried our best to scramble after him over fallen tree-trunks and dodgy stepping stones.

“Do you have condors here?” I asked, when we paused in a clearing to gaze up at the alerces that flourished improbably on a near-vertical, mist-shrouded slope above us.

“Sure,” said Eduardo. “Often.” He scanned the sky. “But there are none now.” (Shame. I really wanted to see a condor.)

“And pumas?”

“Oh yes. In the night we hear them...” He made a noise halfway between a cough and a growl that I wish I could write down.

We walked across a wood-and-wire suspension bridge, climbed a steep path, and arrived at the Alerce Mountain Lodge – a big timber guesthouse set on the shore of a salmon-stocked lake. Inside, we took off our wet gear and boots, slipped on comfy woollen slippers, and scooted through to the huge open-plan lounge, where something tinkly by Bach was playing and a waiter was standing by to offer us tall, cool, minty and mildly alcoholic aperitifs before lunch.

Adrian eyed us expectantly. “Okay,” we agreed. “This is something special.”

Next day, we flew south to Punta Arenas, on the Magellan Strait. There’s a simple rule for Chilean internal flights, similar to the old POSH (port out, starboard home) reservation for Indian Ocean liners. Just remember SANF (southbound seat A, northbound seat F) and you’ll be in a perfect position for a view of the Andes from the window of your plane.

In windy Punta Arenas we headed straight for the main square and the statue of Ferdinand Magellan in its middle. Magellan is flanked by statues of two native Patagonians, and it’s apparently important to kiss one Patagonian’s big toe in order to ensure that you will return to Punta Arenas. That task out of the way, we slipped into a hotel for a couple of pisco sours to fend off any risk of infection, and then strolled down to the docks to join our cruise ship, the MV Terra Australis.

During our six days aboard ship, we would travel down the Magellan Strait and then around the long western peninsula of the big island of Tierra del Fuego, dropping in at various scenic fjords and glaciers on the way. Then we would sail east along the Beagle Channel, which separates Tierra del Fuego from the southern Chilean islands of Hoste and Navarino.

There, we would stop off at Puerto Williams, which the Chileans call ‘The Southernmost Town in the World’, and at Ushuaia, which the Argentinians call ‘The Southernmost Town in the World’. (Puerto Williams is undoubtedly further south – the debate seems to centre on what constitutes a town.) After that we would head back the way we came, to eventually end up at Punta Arenas again. Assuming, presumably, that the statue-kissing thing had worked properly.

Life aboard the Terra Australis was full of contrasts. Mealtimes were grand, five-course, fine-linen affairs with constantly replenished wine glasses. But between meals the back doors of the dining room were opened on to the narrow, chilly rear deck, and passengers clad in yellow sou’westers and orange life jackets queued among the tables before getting into the ship’s Zodiac inflatables to be taken ashore in various wild, beautiful and uninhabited parts of western Tierra del Fuego.

As we sailed down the Magdalena Channel in a 20-knot headwind, I stood on the rear deck and watched a black-browed albatross glide effortlessly behind the ship. A sudden gust blew me a few staggering steps towards the rear rail and then, a second later, the albatross was caught by the same gust – it shot straight up in the air, performed a panicky hammerhead turn and then flopped clumsily onto the sea surface. I swear it looked embarrassed.

In Desolation Bay sleet battered against the cabin window and the ship developed an interesting corkscrew roll. It was easy to imagine the horrors suffered by starving, shipwrecked mariners in these waters. But then: “Bing-bong,” went the ship’s tannoy. “Passengers are now kindly invited to a demonstration of napkin-folding, by Jorge, in the Patagonia Lounge.”

At Puerto Williams we boarded a little Twin Otter aeroplane and flew the 100km south to Cape Horn. There were 40-knot winds at the Cape, and the sea below was a mass of wind-torn white-caps, with spray bursting high against dark 400m cliffs.

We made four turbulent, juddering passes at clifftop level. Someone in the back of the plane vomited in an admirably restrained sort of way, and everyone else fretted and cursed as camera lenses banged against window frames and automatic focuses zeroed in on scratched window glass instead of scenery. None of the photographs had the slightest chance of coming out, but that didn’t make the Cape any less beautiful, or any less fearsome.

Taking a trip from Ushuaia into the Tierra del Fuego National Park, we climbed a hill clothed in beautiful sunlit beech forest. Amazingly, there were beaver dams everywhere. The beavers were introduced from North America in the 1950s with the intention of farming them for fur – but beavers are not easy animals to pen in, and now they have spread right across the forested mountains of Tierra del Fuego and the surrounding islands.

On the bald summit of the hill, we stood and looked towards the snow-capped Darwin Range. “Are there condors here?” I asked our guide, plaintively.

He scratched his chin and frowned reflectively at the sky. “Yes, but not today, for some reason.” (Damn. I really wanted to see a condor.)

Back in Punta Arenas, we boarded a bus for the three-hour journey north to Puerto Natales. I like Chilean buses. Or, more precisely, I like Buses Fernández. They have a proper luggage compartment, reclining seats, a toilet at the back, and they leave on time.

I liked the journey, too, with its endless views across the brown windswept Patagonian plain towards the distant white sawtooth of the Andes. We passed occasional little herds of guanacos, wild relatives of the llama. Presumably they share the llama’s predisposition to spitting: police water cannons in Santiago are nicknamed ‘guanacos’. Every now and then a shallow lake would come into view, dotted with unexpected pink flamingos.

In Puerto Natales we stayed at the splendidly named Hostal Lady Florence Dixie. Florence Dixie was an English noblewoman who rode across Patagonia in 1879 with her brother the Marquis of Queensberry. She subsequently wrote a book entitled Across Patagonia, but I can only recommend it to those with an interest in hunting, killing and eating Patagonian wildlife.

From Puerto Natales we jolted along gravel roads in a mini-van to the Torres del Paine National Park. The park is an hour or so’s drive north of Puerto Natales, through beautiful countryside – blue lakes, rolling hills, ice-clad mountains rising abruptly from the plain. It was all the more disturbing, then, to encounter a reminder that we were close to the disputed Argentine/Chilean border – a little area between Lake Figueroa and the road was fenced off and signposted, ‘Danger – Mines’.

The Torres del Paine massif is an astonishing thing. A huge granite pluton has pushed up and fractured the overlying layers of rock, and these fractures have then been scoured by water and glaciers, leaving behind a bizarre landscape that would do credit to Narnia or Middle Earth.

The ‘Towers of Paine’ are well-known and often photographed, but I was hypnotised by a more southerly formation called the Cuernos del (‘Horns of’) Paine. These are fluted masses of eroded yellow-grey granite topped with a tilted layer of chocolate-brown sedimentary rock, towering 2,500m above the beautiful, pale blue Lake Nordenskjöld. I was so distracted by their looming presence that I kept falling over my own feet on the rough trails.

At midday we stopped for a packed lunch on the shores of Lake Pehoé, with a scenic view of the whole massif. There were parakeets in the trees, and beautiful little rufous-collared sparrows came and ate fragments of crisps from the palm of my hand. I scanned the sky regularly, but didn’t see a single condor.

In the afternoon we moved on to visit Lake Grey, a ten-kilometre-long body of water with a glacier at its northern end. The glacier calves continually into the lake, turning the water milky with fine dust dropped by the melting ice. In the south, the water laps against a long, narrow gravel spit, the remnant of some ancient moraine. All along this southern shore sit massive blue icebergs, aground in the shallows and melting slowly, looking like the bath crystals of the gods. It’s a place of surreal, distracting beauty, and it even took my attention off the Horns of Paine for a while.

We turned and headed for home. As the van bounced along the winding road above Lake Pehoé, Marion peered upwards out of her side window.

“There’s a big black and white bird up here,” she said. “I think it’s a condor.”

I craned across her and glimpsed a tiny, distant pair of wings. “It’s very small,” I said, unconvinced. “I don’t know... ”

She looked at me incredulously. “It’s huge,” she said, pointing urgently upwards, out of my line of sight. “And it’s right above the van.”

By this time someone else had spotted the same bird, and there was a growing clamour inside the mini-van. The driver trod hard on the brakes, and we had the side door open before the van had come to a complete halt. There was a brief human traffic-jam in the doorway, and then I was stumbling out on to the gravel with someone shoving me vigorously from behind.

A shadow passed over us, and I looked up. The bird was astonishingly close, jaw-droppingly huge – a broad black rectangle of wings three metres across. It slid downwind over our heads, then gathered speed as it descended into the valley below us.

For five long seconds we were able to look down at the white markings on the upper surface of its wings. Then it turned to catch the wind and soared again, coming back to take another look at us – all without flapping its wings once. It turned in lazy circles overhead, low enough for me to see its head shifting from side to side as it eyed us dubiously.

Beside me, Marion’s camera went click-whirr, click-whirr, click-whirr. I gazed upwards, entranced. “Oh my,” I said weakly. “Oh my.”

I had found my condor at last.

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