“Getting to see a puma is a matter of luck,” says Pía Vergara as our van drives through a dusty road in Torres del Paine National Park, a million acres of wild Patagonian land at the southern tip of Chile. “Most park rangers have been living here for many years and have never encountered one, yet there is the case of a family of tourists who came here for one day only and they could not believe their eyes when a cougar and her cubs walked right in front of their car… They are really no guarantees, no formulas. We will be very lucky if we actually encounter one,” Pía continues.
She’s being modest. After all, she is one of Chile’s most experienced photographers when it comes to Patagonia’s many wonders. From estancias and gauchos, glaciers and steppes, huemules and condors, and even the mythical wild horses known as baguales… she’s seen it all – and she’s captured them all through her lens, too. Even the elusive puma, the ‘Patagonian king’, which she knows how to track down in these southernmost lands. Yes, that’s right: Pía is a puma tracker and, after seeing some of her pictures, she truly deserves that impressive title in her CV. And now she’s our guide in Tierra Patagonia Hotel’s photo safari.
For four days, we will be taken to the most outstanding sites in the park, learning how to shoot (with the camera, that is) both landscapes and animals. It’s a full, exquisite menu of options that we get to sample: snow peaks and glaciers, rivers and valleys, lakes and rocks; sheep, foxes, crows, cows, condors, guanacos, huemules, armadillos, rheas, owls, flamingos, swans… However, all of our expectations are focused on the enigmatic mountain lion. Historically persecuted and killed by both estancieros and gauchos – despite the laws that should prevent this from happening – during the last decade tourism has brought a new, cleaner reputation to this outstanding specimen, the second-biggest cat in the continent after the jaguar.
It’s too early to know if we will actually have a chance with the puma at Torres del Paine, but luck surely has been on our side when it comes to accommodation. Located inside the park – on the shore of Lake Sarmiento, with a privileged view of the Paine massif – Tierra Patagonia Hotel opened in 2010. Combining world-class service with sustainability, the building’s design concept is remarkable. “The form seeks to merge with the metaphysical landscape, not to interrupt it. The building is as though born out of the land, like a fold in the terrain that the wind has carved in the sand…”: this is one of those rare occasions in which a brochure is telling the truth. Tierra Patagonia’s chameleonic structure, made out of stone slopes and lenga wood panels, is almost impossible to spot from a fair distance. Once inside, it is cosy and homely, yet luxurious.
Despite the temptation, we won’t be spending too much time at the hotel. The real beauty is outside, Pía reminds us. And so day one starts at dawn with a short hike to a cliff close to Lago Sarmiento, where we will have our first photography incursion. Sunrise is the perfect moment to explore the ever changing light, and learn how to use it to our favour with our cameras.
The awakening of the Torres del Paine, the park’s top attraction, is a spectacle not to be missed. These granite towers are not part of the Andes: while the famous South American range is 65m years old, the Paine mountains are only 12 (million), which makes them the youngest in the world. Looking at their silver, clean cut peaks, it is impossible not to feel the rock is alive, with a sheer determination to stab the sky. It’s an overwhelming statement of nature’s creative process, unbeatable both in beauty and power.
After breakfast back at the hotel, a van takes us to Estancia Lazo, the starting point for a six hour trek through Laguna Verde and the Magellanic forest, with its hypnotic native trees, the ñire and the lenga, and frozen lagoons. The climate does not look encouraging for such a journey, as the tranquil dawn has turned into a wet and windy morning. “In Patagonia, betting on the weather is the worst possible deal,” asserts Pía. However, bad conditions won’t intimidate us. With our cameras at hand, we are ready to go, all senses alert to discover any sign that could lead us to the puma.
I admit I am starting to have second thoughts about the whole expedition. A close encounter with a cougar right now seems nothing but terrifying. Even Pía admits her face-to-face experiences were as unnerving as magical: “I got to be only two metres away from one. My impulse was to run away, but I knew I had to stand still: if you try to escape, the animal will regard you as prey. So we both stared at each other for some seconds and eventually, the puma walked away. It was incredible,” she recounts.
The trek is tough but rewarding. We do not meet a puma, but we do get spectacular sights of the Paine Horns and we practise zooming in and out with our cameras thanks to a magnificent owl up in a distant tree. Looking at us with its poignant and stern eyes, he is the judge and jury of the forest, and witness to the many secrets of the wildlife within it.
Day two is another brisk one, and the excursion planned only reminds us to bring our warmest clothes: a boat ride to Glacier Grey. The road to the lake boasts a picturesque guanaco parade. Along with the estancia‘s sheep, guanacos are the puma’s main meal; they may also get a hare occasionally but, as Pía reminds us, these jackrabbits are only a snack for a 60kg beast.
Pumas hunt at night since, like all felines, they have enhanced vision in the dark. Moreover, it is sleepy time for guanacos, and so they are easier to catch. One guanaco means three days of food, and so the pumas bury and hide the leftovers each day in order to come back the next night – at the same time keeping their treasure away from foxes and condors.
After crossing the Weber Bridge, we finally get to the port at Grey Lake. The intense mist and the raindrops that cling to the tree branches make a fabulous setting for what is about to come: a white, silver and blue ice extravaganza floating away in the most surreal shapes. In what could be a moving Dalí painting, Pía takes shot after shot, encouraging us to do the same. She’s been coming to this same glacier for almost ten years, and says she’s never seen ice floes like today.
We then take a different road back to the hotel. The general excitement fades away when we get to one of the areas that was burnt by an Israeli tourist in 2011: because of a (forbidden) bonfire, 45,000 acres of native trees are now ashen skeletons, exposing their pain with atrocious nudity. In 2005, a Czech tourist accidentally burnt another 37,000 acres while trying to cook. Imagining such extensions of land under fire and black with smoke gives me goosebumps. This tree cemetery is the saddest, bluntest punishment; we make the rest of the journey in silence.
At last, day three begins with a blue sky. The park’s colours are more vibrant and spectacular than ever, as is the wildlife on show. Already heading to Laguna Azul, our plan changes abruptly when we get good news from the park guides: with the rain over, condors are drying up their wings with a flight so graceful that it could surely qualify as bird ballet. And so we turn our direction to Estancia Las Cornisas, at Cerro Guido, which has the most similar scenery to The Lion King’s opening scene I have ever seen. This is the home of “las condoreras”, the condors’ nests. At one point, we have over 13 black birds flying in circles above our heads at the same time. The click click click of our cameras is nonstop.
However, condors are not the only birds to give us a photographic feast: laicos, ducks, Coscorova swans and many more group around the puddles and ponds that the rain has left behind, as water mirrors that will soon evaporate, in the Sierra Bagual area. When asked about the name of the hill, Pía unfolds the incredible story of the baguales. These are herds of wild horses that live throughout Patagonia, hidden in remote steppes or inaccessible forests. They were once owned by estancieros, but for different reasons were set free and now they are almost a legend. “But I have seen them. The first time I did, I could not help to cry. I had travelled so many times searching for them, putting so much effort on my quest,” Pía explains. Baguales have no contact with humans; as soon as they smell us, they run away, dragging behind them a two-metre tail. To most Chileans, even locals, baguales are nothing but a mysterious legend; forever-moving shadows.
That night, the group is both satisfied and anxious. We have seen many wonderful things, yet no signs of a puma. And so Pía decides to take “extreme measures”. Because our chances to see one are better at night, she invites us on a nocturnal expedition that will start… at 4am. At this point, many of the group decide they have had enough adventures for one more photo safari. It’s just me and two other fellow travellers who decide to join Pía in such an endeavour.
Waking up so early and leaving the comfy five-star hotel bed is the difficult part, and it does not help that is freezing outside, or that we have to keep the 4WD’s windows down in order to sweep the terrain with huge lamps. All animals have their eyes reflected in our light beams – the foxes’ are orange or red, guanacos’ are green – but alas, we are looking for a pair of yellowish eyes. After an hour, we stop to have some hot coffee while Sergio, our driver, tells us stories about UFO activity and the fabled ‘luz mala’ (evil light). Back on the road, I get to use one of the lamps. I instantly become a different person: my desire to sleep is replaced with a rigid alertness. I am focused. With half of my body out of the vehicle, my senses are fully aware. Not even a little bit of rain can discourage me from my task.
Suddenly, a pair of eyes in the distance. Are they red or yellow? Sergio stops the car. The eyes disappear. Then reappear, some metres away from the first spot. With every blink, the wait becomes more desperate until we are able to see them again. It is impossible to find out what is behind those two dots of light; all the space around them is pure, infinite darkness. We spend at least half an hour following these eyes. Many times, we believe we have lost them, but then a short twinkle reignites our faith. We barely talk. All dialogue becomes whispers. Even Pía is puzzled: is it a fox or a puma? The colour looks more greenish than orange, and yet the movements seem so feline…
It’s been several minutes now since we last saw those intriguing eyes blink, so Pía makes the tough call to move on. Just a few metres later, she screams: “Puma!!!” Was it a coincidence or her instinct? Either way, there it is: the mountain lion in all its splendour, walking seductively just 30 metres away from our car. It is still too dark to get a good picture, and the flash could scare it away, so we just stare at what seems a vision. It is a strange one. It seems as if the puma is staring at us, but truly he is not: there is not one hint of curiosity in his eyes. I then realise that the animal is actually piercing us with his gaze, as if we were transparent, as if there was nothing he could learn or gain from us. Here in the wild steppe, he is a superior being and he could not be less interested in a bunch of nosy humans.
The car engine stops. The cougar startles and walks faster until reaching the shore of the lake, where we can’t see it anymore. We then wait until sunrise to get out of the car and go look for it on foot. I am not scared this time, only thrilled. Totally mesmerised. Under a red, drowsy sky, we look for fresh paw prints, but soon they vanish and we can’t find any other trace. Everything suddenly looks so different in daylight. The encounter now feels like a dream, distant and wondrous.
The morning cold seeps into our bodies and eventually it is time to go back to the hotel for breakfast. During the journey, I reflect upon this particular kind of safari. It has nothing to do with the traditional hunting style. This time, man humbly puts himself under the animal’s will, to its movements and times of being. You can let minutes (even hours) go by for that one click that makes it all worthwhile. However, there is something else behind that one-off instant shot, more than just an image printed onto the lens. There is the animal’s soul, its character and its very being that is imprinted into the photographer’s soul. That is a feeling no camera can capture, but stays with us forever. Even if the mystery behind the very same creature remains unveiled.
Tierra Patagonia Hotel & Spa’s photo safari offers a six-day programme with Pía Vergara as exclusive guide. It includes transfers, all gourmet meals and open bar, use of the spa, and all photo safari services. From US$4,160 per person, based on a shared standard room. Next available dates: 7-12th February, 11-16th March, 18th-23rd April. More details at www.tierrapatagonia.com and firstname.lastname@example.org