The Big Five found on an African safari make up some of the most coveted wildlife sightings on the planet. Lion, leopard, buffalo, rhino, and elephant provide unforgettable “wow” moments to anyone lucky enough to encounter them.
But true wildlife enthusiasts will be thrilled to know of an altogether different Big Five, the Patagonia Big Five, roaming the southern Patagonian terrain of South America.
Almost 500 species of animals inhabit Patagonia, including 60 mammals, 400 birds, and a variety of fish, amphibians, and reptiles. Of all of them, the Patagonia Big Five—the puma, guanaco, huemul, Andean condor, and ñandú—represent the most sought-after wildlife encounters in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.
Spotting an elusive puma is perhaps the ultimate wildlife prize in Torres del Paine. Also referred to as the cougar or mountain lion, these beautiful big cats are the southernmost of the 27 puma subspecies. Experts think there are only about 50 of these solitary predators inside Torres del Paine, so coming across one of them can be particularly challenging. The best time to catch sight of them is during the winter and shoulder season months when there are fewer visitors in the park. Dawn and dusk are also the optimal safari times, when the pumas begin their morning or nightly hunts.
With a population of about 3,000 inside Torres del Paine, the guanaco population is fairly large and gives visitors much better odds of a close encounter. One of four members of the camel family in South America, guanaco graze in herds comprised of around 10 females and their offspring, guarded by a dominant male. Guanaco were once hunted by both pumas and local indigenous people, who relied on them for food and hides. With protection inside the Patagonia park, their numbers are now increasing and it’s always exciting to spot them along the plains of Torres del Paine.
The huemul or south Andean deer—Chile’s national symbol—lives high in mountain forests. They are quite difficult to spot for those not willing to make the more strenuous treks into the depths of the Patagonia park. They are adept at negotiating the steep and rocky terrain, but are critically endangered due to hunting and loss of their natural habitat.
Andean Condor of The Patagonia Big Five
The Big Five’s only air-born animal, the Andean condor boasts the largest wingspan of any of the world’s land birds: some 10.5 feet in length. These giant predatory birds float ominously overhead at heights of up to 15,000 feet. Birders know them by their black feathers and white tipped wings, which will rarely flap. Condors are known to soar and glide for long periods of time rather than fly like a smaller bird.
The ñandú (or lesser rhea), is the largest bird in Southern Patagonia and resembles its distant cousins, the ostrich and emu. They live mainly in the pampas on the eastern side of Torres del Paine, but can also be seen frolicking quite close to the many hotels in and around the park. They make up for not flying by spreading their wings like sails and running very fast, clocking speeds of over 35 miles per hour.
The Patagonia Big Five are fascinating creatures to behold, but if our Patagonia wildlife experiences have taught us anything, it is that several other species may try to take the spotlight as well. Caracaras, Patagonian hare (or mara), armadillos, foxes, Magellanic woodpeckers, Chilean flamingoes, and pygmy owls are just a few additional scene-stealers you can expect to encounter in Torres del Paine.