Ker & Downey’s Elizabeth Frels takes a Patagonia safari in search of their elusive puma.
It’s early, and I’m exhausted.
I should be thankful that it’s not the height of Patagonia summer, when the sun rises much earlier than my body would be able to handle.
Fortunately, I am in Torres del Paine on the verge of winter, in April when the chill has returned to the winds, the days have become shorter, and the tourists have begun their general exodus from the region.
In other words: it’s prime puma sighting time.
That’s my main objective for today – to spot the elusive puma. I know it won’t be easy, as these fierce felines tend to avoid any interaction with people, but I know that I am in the hands of some of the very best trackers, who know and respect the movements of these Big Cats as if they were they were family.
Our puma playground is along the wind-swept Lake Sarmiento, where we have been granted special permissions to track. We are the only ones within miles. It’s just the pumas and us.
After meeting up with my trackers – a genial and knowledgeable husband and wife team – we decide to start the morning by dividing and conquering the terrain by foot. The hope is to catch a glimpse of the pumas as they make their descent from the hills to the lakeside caves, where they tend to spend the majority of their day sleeping and sunbathing. It’s essential to catch them during this morning movement, as it might be evening until we have a chance to see them again.
On this particular day, we are in search of a female puma and her two eight-month old cubs who claim this slice of land as their own. So I set out with my guide to an area where they are known to kill guanacos (Patagonian llamas) while the trackers sweep the shorelines.
Every sense is heightened as we feel the early morning winds on our faces and trudge through the Patagonia steppe. We listen intently for the warning cries of guanacos in the distance – the best indicator that a puma is nearby – and we keep our eyes peeled on the horizon for anything out of the ordinary. We pass by multiple pockets that could certainly be described as “guanaco graveyards”, a telltale sign that this is puma territory, but all is quiet in our search.
Minutes are quickly passing by and diminishing our hopes of finding the pride easily. But all is not lost as I spot many other members of the Patagonia Big Five: the Guanaco, the Ñandú (Lesser Rhea), and the Andean Condor among them. There is certainly never a dull moment during this Patagonia safari!
Finally, it’s time reunite with our trackers after several hours of searching. We agree to meet back up after a break and some lunch. We aren’t but 10 minutes away when we receive the call by radio: “We found them!”
We hurry back, full of anticipation. Yet our excitement would be for naught. Despite having found a set of puma ears through the binoculars, the pumas seem to have taken cover in the bushes, where we would essentially need to stumble into their lair in order to find them.
My trackers were obviously frustrated, but I was still hopeful. We still had an entire afternoon ahead of us, after all…
Sure enough, after a leisurely lunch and quick rest, we receive the final call: “We have eyes on them and are not letting them out of our sight!”
We rushed back and hiked a ways to meet up with our trackers. Once there, they brought us within safe distance of the puma’s hiding place, where we could just barely see a pair of ears sticking up from the brush. How they found her, I will never know. A fresh guanaco kill was nearby – their first clue – but I would have never spotted such a hidden figure, being the novice I am.
I could have spent hours reveling in those pair of ears and her few facial profiles, content to just have finally found her and to have laid eyes on such a beautiful Big Cat.
Then the radio came on: “I’ve spotted another one.”
Together with the other tracker, we hustled toward the next location only to discover a beautiful male puma, relaxing in full view. The problem, however, is that our trackers didn’t know this puma. He was an outsider, so it was important to keep our distance should he not be familiar with humans or the territory.
Suddenly, a gnarled cry cut through the wind. It was the momma puma, calling to her cubs to join her for an early dinner. Within two minutes, both sand-colored cubs began making the journey from the lake to their mother, gracefully prancing along the ridgeline in excitement.
The only problem? The outsider heard the call too and decided to join in on the feast.
What followed was one of the most riveting displays of Mother Nature in my lifetime: the mother puma dragging her freshly killed guanaco carcass down to her hiding spot, an altercation between mother and outsider when the outsider wanted a taste, the outsider being relegated to the kill site to chew on muscle and blood, both cubs delighting in the guanaco flesh alongside mother, a lone fox calculating the risk of stealing some of the puma’s meal (and ultimately deciding against it), the female puma cub coming out of hiding to show off for our cameras, and one final bone-chilling confrontation as the outsider drove out the puma family to finally claim the carcass as his own.
We spent the entire afternoon and early evening with them, constantly in awe of the fact that our discouraging morning of tracking had transformed into a magical display of wildlife and a once-in-a-lifetime encounter with not just one, but FOUR, Patagonia pumas.
Contributing to this soul-lifting safari was the intimacy afforded by being on foot, amidst the action but at a respectful distance. This is their land, after all. I was simply a visitor, and it was my privilege to stand among them.
I cannot describe the breathless bond formed between the pumas and myself that day. On this Patagonia Walking Safari, I not only learned the difference between fear and alertness, but also exploitation and respect. Much like a luxury game drive or walking safari in Africa, there is a transformation that takes place: the humbling sense of being alive as you stand in the presence of the Big Cats and Big Five before you.
It’s a moment forever sealed on your soul. Even in Patagonia.
A Ker & Downey Patagonia Safari can be catered to any taste or preference. Safaris can be conducted by vehicle or by foot and can be altered to accommodate professional photographers, wildlife fanatics, and even enthusiastic novices. Ker & Downey recommends setting aside at least two days for puma tracking activities.