How to spot Puma in the Chilean Patagonia (Phoebe Smith)
Article Words : Phoebe Smith | 07 May 2019

Ghosts of the Steppe: Puma-spotting and wildlife watching in the Chilean Patagonia

For most travellers, Patagonia’s Torres del Paine is all about the hiking. But as efforts to preserve its native puma bear fruit, you can now join altogether toothier companions in the wild…

She came like a ghost in the darkness, her striking silhouette speeding out across the road merely metres from where we were driving.

“Puma!” I tried to call, but being overcome with a mix of emotions – shock, exhilaration, disbelief – it took several seconds for me to form the word in my throat.

EcoCamp Patagonia makes for the perfect place to sleep, surrounded by the rocky behemoths of the park (Phoebe Smith)

EcoCamp Patagonia makes for the perfect place to sleep, surrounded by the rocky behemoths of the park (Phoebe Smith)

“Where? I didn’t see anything,” said the driver.

“It was right there – running across the road,” I replied, gesturing wildly to the bushes that we’d just passed. “Go back.”

He began to reverse, while the eight other passengers on the small bus murmured excitedly. We wound down our windows and listened. All was quiet. Then, the distinct alarm cry of the puma’s prime prey – a guanaco – reverberated near to our vehicle, shrill and repetitive.

My eyes searched frantically in the undergrowth. We waited for ten long minutes but saw nothing, then the driver dismissed my sighting as “probably just a fox” and we moved on. I sat back and sighed, frustrated that I had been the only one to have seen it and that, despite having my camera clasped tightly in my hand and a telephoto lens attached, I was so incredulous at what I’d witnessed that I failed to take a single shot.

As we wound along the chicaning road back to EcoCamp Patagonia – a plush collection of heated domes situated on the steppe – people began chatting as though nothing remarkable had happened. I started to doubt I’d even seen it myself.

I had journeyed to Torres del Paine, deep in the southern reaches of Chile and five hours from regional capital Punta Arenas, not to go hiking as most visitors do, but to discover the wildlife inside (and on the edge of) the country’s most famous triple-towered national park.

Here, amid the sprawling desert steppe, replete with tufts of hardy grass and yellow-flowering calafate evergreen shrubs, wanders a very elusive mammal. But as this cat’s reputation suggested, photographing one wasn’t going to be easy.

 

A cat by any other name 

The famous three towers of Torres del Paine — come for the mountains, stay for the wildlife (Phoebe Smith)

The famous three towers of Torres del Paine — come for the mountains, stay for the wildlife (Phoebe Smith)

Victor brews some much-needed coffee — puma spotting is for early risers (Phoebe Smith)

Victor brews some much-needed coffee — puma spotting is for early risers (Phoebe Smith)

The puma is known by over 40 appellations in English alone (it actually holds the record for having the greatest number of recognised names for any animal). In Patagonia they are often called ‘ghost cats’ by locals, due to their ability to sneak onto farmland, undetected, and take out handfuls of livestock at a time. Hence the reason why, despite these animals being protected by law, there are frequent reports of puma being illegally shot by gauchos.

My mind may have been on big cats when I set off, but I wasn’t actually headed out on their trail that day; instead I was about to track another distinctly Patagonian free-roaming animal.

"Baguales,” said Victor ‘Pito’ Moraga as he poured coffee into a cluster of enamel mugs, causing steam to rise around his face as though he were a celebrity making a dramatic arrival through a smoke machine. “They are what we call our wild horses – and today we will be tracking a herd of 120.”

Our small group was huddled inside a puesto (small mountain hut) that, fittingly, was once used by the gauchos as they patrolled the landscape, rounding up the equines. In one corner a wood-burning stove roared, making this a heated haven against the thick mist outside. We gripped our mugs tightly and hungrily ate the chocolate offered to us as Victor explained just how the horses got here.

“You’ve likely heard of other wild horses – mustangs in the USA, brumbies in Australia, Przewalski’s horses in Mongolia,” he said. “They are all different breeds, having escaped from farms hundreds of years ago. The ones here date back to around the 1600s and are not found anywhere else in the world.”

In Patagonia, when it came to the baguales (bagual means feral), it used to be a bit of a free-for-all. Gauchos were allowed to come and ‘capture’ a wild horse whenever they liked but, under pressure from people like Victor, the government in Chile shut the park to these horsemen, finally making the herd inside the fences safe.

At first there was opposition and concern that their numbers would explode. So, since 2007, Victor and his colleagues at Patagonia Bagual have taken an ongoing census of the herd within a private 50 sq km area at Laguna Azul – off-limits to most visitors to the park – where we were now stood.

“We’ve so far shown that by being left alone by humans, the population number is naturally kept in check,” explained Victor as we made our way across the long grass and into a pocket of trees.

“The reason?” he asked pointedly, letting his words hang in the air as we reached a camera trap secured to one of the branches. Then, rather than say another word, he scanned the images it had caught as we gathered around, intrigued.

First came a fox – black, small and grainy – then a bird, which had likely triggered the sensor while darting into the frame. Finally, there came a series of shots of horses, one behind the other, running through the woodland. Just when I was about to ask Victor how that had answered the question, I saw for myself. Large, slinking, graceful, silvery-white – it was the ghost-like form of a big cat, hot on the heels of the horses.

This Puesto may not look like much but it makes a welcoming sanctuary in a storm

This Puesto may not look like much but it makes a welcoming sanctuary in a storm

“The survival rate for foals is about 20 percent,” said Victor as we stared, mesmerised by the photograph.

“The puma is a natural predator and a vital part of the ecosystem here, keeping the numbers of the herd in check and ensuring that only the strongest survive. Its presence means the stock is kept healthy.”

As my fellow horse trackers eagerly snapped shots of the back of the camera, I noted the time – just an hour ahead of us. The thought that not only wild horses but also puma were nearby made the hairs on my neck stand to attention.

The mane event

Hikers watch the wild horses (Phoebe Smith)

Hikers watch the wild horses (Phoebe Smith)

There were five possible locations we might find the horses we were seeking, and after reaching number four, following several hours spent wandering pathless tussock grass up and down a steep incline, we began to worry the only sighting would be by a blurred infra-red photograph. Then we smelt something.

Horses,” declared Victor. As the smell grew stronger, we began to ‘Nowhere else in the world is there a herd of baguales horses this big living together’ notice fresh hoof prints in the softer dirt on the ridge’s plateau.

 

“Over here,” whispered one of our party, who had wandered slightly down the slope to look at a bird he’d spotted. One by one we edged near to him – any movement can scare off the herd, so silence and stealth was key.

Suddenly, above the flame-red flowers of the so-called ‘guanaco bushes’ (named thanks to their resemblance to the native camelids that roam the pampas plains), I spotted one, then two, then ten, then a whole herd of baguales grazing ever so quietly on the grass. We sat and watched them for at least an hour, taking turns to look through the spotting scope, eating our sandwiches and being utterly enchanted by the sheer number of them found amid this majestic Patagonian landscape.

Nowhere else in the world is there a herd this big living together,” said Victor in a proud but soft tone. “We think it’s because of the puma that they tolerate other males in the group, knowing instinctively that a larger number means a greater chance of survival.”

When it comes to wildlife, numbers are particularly important – in a whole host of ways. That’s why Victor started these small tours a couple of years ago: both to allow visitors to see the baguales and to show the government and local farmers that they are worth protecting as they bring in valuable tourist dollars to the region.

It’s a tactic another guide, called Diego Araya, who I met several days later, had employed 15 years ago, to protect not the horses but their predator – the much maligned puma. After spending a few days undertaking several wildlife walks myself, spying woodpeckers, Patagonian skunks, grey foxes, condors, South Andean deer and hares, I did wonder if there was any need to work quite so hard to protect the puma, as this legendary cat was a definite no show.

The beautiful baguales or wild horses, make an appearance below the guanaco bushes (Phoebe Smith)

The beautiful baguales or wild horses, make an appearance below the guanaco bushes (Phoebe Smith)

Guanaco tensely stand watch, on high alert for pumas (Phoebe Smith)

Guanaco tensely stand watch, on high alert for pumas (Phoebe Smith)

“They are watching you, you just don’t know it,” said Diego in a thick Spanish accent, scanning the terrain in the muted light of dusk. I stifled a yawn, having had to get up and be ready to leave the EcoCamp by 4:30am. Puma are primarily nocturnal animals, so to have the best chance of seeing them, you have to head out before the light comes, then take a nap in the middle of the day and come back early in the evening to look again before the sun sets.

Being in a quiet corner on the edge of the national park that early, it felt like the whole world was holding its breath. Save for the occasional sound of the waves on Sarmiento Lake lapping the pebble-strewn shoreline some metres below us. Diego explained that he wasn’t looking for puma – “You’ll never spot them!” – but instead watching the behaviour of their favourite delicacy, the llama-like guanaco. The herd handily employs a sort of lookout: “Watch where he looks and that’s where you’ll find your cat,” explained Diego. We watched. We waited.

The hot tip

Sarmiento nuzzles with her three cubs by the lake that shares her name (Phoebe Smith)

Sarmiento nuzzles with her three cubs by the lake that shares her name (Phoebe Smith)

Diego’s radio crackled, breaking the stillness. I didn’t understand the Spanish words emitting from it, but from his face I knew what was happening. We ran to the car and sped down the road to arrive at a pull-in where his tracker was waiting, gesturing up at the hillside.

There, before my eyes, after ten days of frantic searching. I spotted an orange-furred puma and gasped.
“You see them?” asked Diego.

“Them?” I queried. And as if someone had suddenly given me night vision in the darkness, I picked out a further three cats – all a more yellow shade than the first, which they were following behind.

“She is Sarmiento – named after the lake,” said Diego in hushed tones. “And they are her three cubs, almost a year old now.”

During the last week I’d lamented at not being able to see one of these sleek felines in the flesh, and now here I was, gazing at four just metres from where I was standing.

This time, I thought, I’m definitely going to get a photograph. But then something unfortunate happened: having been up late the previous night practising my star photography, the camera was set up all wrong and I fell to pieces. All I could do was watch as one of the cubs leapt over a stream and came to within less than a metre of where I stood, before slinking off to join his siblings.

“Why did you not take the picture?” said Diego. I simply stood there, rooted to the spot, still in shock. “Well, come on…”

As he said the words, I was already following him as we tracked the gang of puma over the road and towards the lake.

Sarmiento attempts to catch breakfast in an early-mroning work out with a local hare (Phoebe Smith)

Sarmiento attempts to catch breakfast in an early-mroning work out with a local hare (Phoebe Smith)

Two cubs refresh themselves with a drink from the water's edge (Phoebe Smith)

Two cubs refresh themselves with a drink from the water's edge (Phoebe Smith)

“Look,” Diego said, a wide beam on his face, “you’re walking with puma…”

I felt my eyes well up with emotion; the four of them seemed to be moving in tandem with us as we travelled across the grassland.

Watching the puma that morning seemed completely unreal. Diego had warned me that all I might get to see were “ears in the long grass”, which I would have gladly accepted, but instead I was treated to three hours of interaction, watching the cubs play and seeing the mother hunt a hare that only just managed to escape her determined clutches, before seeing them all drink from the lake then nestle under a rock together, cleaning and nuzzling each other tenderly.

Life through a lens

Sarmiento cleans herself as the sun begins to rise over the park (Phoebe Smith)

Sarmiento cleans herself as the sun begins to rise over the park (Phoebe Smith)

As the puma began to fall asleep, we left them in peace and headed back to feast on a lunch of locally grown vegetables, purple potatoes and Altiplano stew. I scanned through the photos on my camera, and though I had seen them with my own eyes – and captured them, too – it still seemed as though I was looking at phantom photographs; as if I’d merely watched some elaborate David Attenborough-narrated documentary.

Following a rest, we headed out for one last glimpse of our pumas. Along the way we passed a large ostrich-like rhea bird with chicks – which identified it as a male. As Diego informed me, among this ornithological species, it’s the men who raise the kids while the women engage in promiscuous love lives. While we watched, we talked about the region’s other wonders, such as the Magellanic penguins found on Magdalena Island (one of the best places to see such large colonies outside of Antarctica), off Punta Arenas, and why Diego had chosen a life guiding, tracking and, above all, protecting the Patagonian puma – to which he simply replied: “Ask them.”

But it wasn’t long before we found them again, this time high on the side of a mountain slope. Sarmiento was yawning and stretching as she woke up. Before long, with just a quiet whimper, she indicated to the cubs to keep their distance; she was about to hunt for dinner.

Four hours. That’s how long we stood amid the pampas grass, watching as she stalked guanaco, after guanaco, waiting for her perfect moment. Sometimes she even fell asleep mid-hunt, such was the pace of this game. As the sun began to set, her fur coat blazed almost auburn. The temperature began to plummet and Diego indicated that we would need to leave soon so that we weren’t out here in the darkness.

But before we did, in the last of the dimming light, she finally made her dramatic move. And, despite having a clear view and a camera sat on a tripod, I chose not to watch her through a lens. It no longer mattered to me whether or not I got the shot. To see her out here, utterly free, completely wild and unconcerned by our presence, moving like an apparition, was something that I intended to take in with my own eyes.

Photographing puma in Patagonia is an incredible experience. But seeing the great ‘ghost cat’ moving softly through the steppe is something more precious than any picture. No matter how good the photographer, they could never truly be captured on film.

Sarmiento yawns at dusk as she prepares to go on the hunt (Phoebe Smith)

Sarmiento yawns at dusk as she prepares to go on the hunt (Phoebe Smith)

About the trip 

 

The author travelled with Journey Latin America (020 3553 9647) which offers tailor-made trips to Chilean Patagonia. A similar ten-day trip staying two nights in Punta Arenas, two nights in Santiago and five nights at the EcoCamp Patagonia in Torres del Paine, taking part on a wildlife safari that includes wild horse and puma tracking is available. This includes full board at the EcoCamp and B&B basis elsewhere, domestic transfers and return flights from Santiago to Punta Arenas, as well as a trip to the penguin colony at Magdelena Island.

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