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Place Category: Trip Reports
I first heard about Chile’s potential for mammal watching through Richard Webb and the Puma tours he pioneered here (see his trip reports at the bottom of this page). Not only does Chile have perhaps the finest Puma watching in the world, but it offers a range of other interesting mammals. I shamelessly copied Richard’s itinerary when I visited in February 2009, and I see that other tour companies are now doing the same.
Chilean people are just about the friendliest people I have ever met. I picked up a few hitchhikers during my trip and all of them were keen to meet for drinks and dinner and converse with me and my 50 words of Spanish. And when I mentioned in a couple of cafés that I was trying to see an armadillo, within minutes the managers would be on the phone to friends and family trying to find out the best places to look. Chileans are also a very cultured bunch, who like to talk about poetry, music and wine. I was able, at least, to weigh in on the latter.
The country is developed and it is safe. It isn’t all that cheap and some of the “tourist” hotels were considerably more expensive than they ought to have been I reckon. The wine is fabulous but otherwise it isn’t a gastronomic paradise: the food is not bad, but the emphasis seemed to be more on quantity than flavour. I saw more Pumas than I had good cups of coffee in my two weeks there.
February 2009 was high summer in Chiloe Island and Patagonia. Shorts and a tee shirt are fine until the wind blew, at which point it got decidedly chilly. I don’t remember the wind not blowing for more than 10 minutes.
Pagua to Chacao Ferry
It takes an hour from Puerto Montt airport to reach the ferry to Chiloe that runs from Pargua to Chacao. The ferries operate continuously and you rarely need to wait more than five minutes to board. The ferry is free to ride as a foot passenger and I took the 30 minute crossing five times and looked for sea life.
South American Sealions are easy to spot and I saw anything from 20 to 200 during each crossing. I also saw Peale’s Dolphins on several trips including one pod that briefly came into the ferry to bow-ride.
Chilean Dolphins (or Toninos) are seen quite often it seems especially when it rains. But I couldn’t find any.
Punihuil, about 45 minutes west of Ancud, is well known for its colony of Humboldt and Magellanic Penguins.
Endangered Marine Otters are common here and the Wild Wings groups saw up to eight during a single trip. During the summer months the local fishermen take tourists out and around the little islands offshore to see the penguins and will often see Marine Otters too.
I arrived at 10 a.m. before anyone else had got there and the fishermen were happy to take me out on my own for 10 euros. Unfortunately by the time the boat was ready, a few other tourists had turned up so my trip was not as otter-focussed as I had wanted. We did see one otter well though and the driver saw a second. I’m sure I would have seen more if I’d been allowed to concentrate on them.
I expect the otters are pretty easy to find at any time, but low tide and a calm day is probably your best bet.
Chepu – about 40 minutes south west of Ancud – is a reliable spot for Southern River Otters, probably the world’s rarest otter. But they are not always easy to find. I visited twice, rocking up in the mid-afternoon and taking a three hour trip which produced several Coypus – my first non feral Coypus in fact – as well as a sunburned nose and a boat load of annoying large wasps. But no otters.
I returned at 7 a.m. the next morning, and after an hour on a different stretch of river – the Rio Puntra this time – saw the first of two otters. I had prolonged and excellent views of both animals, getting to within 3 metres of each.
We saw the first animal at 8.30 a.m. and a second at 9 a.m. about 2km up river. I saw several Coypus on the second day too.
I arranged all this with the first boatman I came across when I drove into Chepu. His name was Javier, his number is 095278719, and his little outfit is called Popeye’s (just after the wooden bridge that takes you into Chepu). He was a good guy, who was keen to find the animals and seemed pretty good at it too. He speaks no English so something along the lines of “Quiero buscar los Gatos del Rio” should do the job…Now I think this means I want to search for River Otters. It might also mean – the way I pronounced it – I would like to sleep with your wife. But whatever I said, Javier didn’t take offence and he found me some otters.
Javier said the animals are pretty common and I’d expect early morning to be the best time to look for them. Richard Webb saw them on both his trips but he struggled a bit and didn’t get long views so you might want to allow a bit of time to search for this species.
In 2010 I was contacted by Fernando Claude at Chepu Adventures. They have just set up an ecotour company in Chepu and run kayak tours to look for the otters among other things. They also have accommodation. Worth checking out I think and I would use them if I go back. Fernando writes in perfect English.
Parque Tepuhueico is a private park about an hour’s drive south west of Castro. It comprises an impressively designed eco-lodge overlooking a lake in the middle of a good patch of temperate rainforest. It is a strong hold for Southern Pudu (the world’s smallest deer) and the Critically Endangered Darwin’s Fox, of which only 250 are thought to remain.
Both species were easy to see here. I saw two Pudus during about three hours spotlighting and three foxes. The Pudus stick to the forest and you should come across them on any of the tracks after dark. Several foxes are at least partially habituated and hang around the lodge area where they are occasionally fed. I saw all three animals within a kilometre of the lodge.
Kodkods (or Guignas) are another good mammal here, but they are rare. Richard Webb found one in 2007, but he was very lucky I think. Monitos Del Monte – a small arboreal opossum closely related to Australia’s marsupials – are occasionally seen crossing the road, but would be hard to pick up in a spotlight.
In the late afternoon I saw what I think was a Sanborn’s Grass Mouse (Abrothrix sanborni) cross the road about half way along the 12 km dirt track into the park (I wouldn’t like to do this drive without a high clearance vehicle). I’m usually pretty reluctant to even try to identify rodents from such a sighting unless I am familiar with all the species in an area. But I saw the mouse well if briefly, and then picked it from the picture in the field guide before reading that it was found on Chiloe and active in the day. So I am pretty confident with this ID.
A walk along the waterfall track in the afternoon was mammal-less but three impressive Magellanic Woodpeckers were a diversion. I took a short spotlight walk along the same track at night. About 100 metres along there is a patch of bamboo that was bursting with Olivaceous Grass Mice (Abrothrix olivaceus). I saw at least six animals in 10 minutes: apparently their populations swell after the bamboo flowers which is what I guess had happened here.
The hotel itself is very nice but expensive if your focus is on the mammals rather than enjoying the amenities. There are some cabanas attached and if you bring your own food these could be a better option.
Quellon, at the very end of the Pan-American Highway is not Chiloe’s most attractive town. It is the starting point however to take pelagic trips to look for Blue Whales (see Richard Webb’s reports). I didn’t bother to go looking for them and I guess it would also have been quite expensive to do so on my own. In fact I was also told that Blue Whales are quite common off the Punihuil penguin colony and closer in to shore. You could probably arrange quite easily an unofficial trip to go looking for them there if you just turn up and talk to the fishermen.
I did shoot down to Quellon for an afternoon to look for the Chilean Dolphins or Toninos. These are common around Chiloe but hard to pin down. One of Richard’s reports mentioned that the bay between Triscao and Yaldad as a well known spot for them. Yaldad is a few km east of Quellon. I couldn’t spot any in the bay when I arrived but after half an hour parked by the boat ramp I scanned the bay again and found a pod of about eight animals in the scope. Their small rounded dorsal fins are quite distinctive and the pod spent at least half an hour wandering around the same small patch of ocean. A couple of animals came close to breaching. The only fishing boat around at the time was busy and couldn’t take me over to see them so although the views were good they were too distant for photographs.
Punta Arenas to Puerto Natales
Punta Arenas is the main airport into Chilean Patagonia. I spent a day travelling from here to Puerto Natales, the gateway to Torres Del Paine National Park. My main aim was to see Commerson’s Dolphins en route so I took a detour to the straits of Magellan, where these dolphins are common.
From what I’ve read they seem commonest on the eastern side of the straits and in the first and second narrows (off Punta Delgada and Punta Sara respectively). I took the 20 minute ferry trip to Tierra Del Fuego from Punta Delgada to look for them. despite the women in the office in Punta Arenas saying they don’t see dolphins from the boat. I saw my first dolphins from the beach and about 50 during the crossing, with many very close to the boat. On the way back three hours later I only saw two, so I guess the tide plays a part in their movements.
If you miss out on the dolphins here then you could scan for them along the eastern shores of the straits. Punta Dungeness – at the northern entrance to the straits and on the mainland – could be another good spot, and Richard Webb saw lots here.
About 30 km north of Punta Arenas I saw the first of many Guanaco. A few kilometres further on I saw a Patagonian (Humboldt’s) Skunk in the scope.
Somewhat surprisingly, after reading Richard Webb’s reports, I only saw one Chilla during the 600 km drive, near the junction of Route 255 and Route 9.
I was also keeping an eye open for Hairy Armadillos on the windswept plains. The owner of the café on Tierra Del Fuego where I had lunch said that they weren’t common in the north of the island but Laguna Blanca, in the southern part of the island, had muchos muchos. But that would have meant another five hours of travelling, and the day’s drive took 11 hours as it was. Maybe next time.
Torres Del Paine National Park
There may be more beautiful places on the planet than Torres Del Paine National Park, though I have yet to hear about them. Imagine a cross between Yosemite Valley and the high arctic, with just a suggestion in places of the Australian Pilbara and you will get an idea. But who cares about the scenery: this is probably the best place in the world to see Pumas.
Richard recommended I try to hook up with Jose Vargos Sandoval (or find him on Facebook). Jose is a ranger and occasionally a private guide. He has worked with films crews and others to find Pumas and has shot his own documentary movie. His skill was outstanding: he had some Puma sixth sense thing happening.
Torres is very busy in the summer and the hotels are expensive. Hostelria Las Torres is the biggest accommodation in the park. On the plus side a Puma lives just above the hotel and is often seen from the restaurant window at night (it was seen twice in the evening and once in the morning during the four dayse I was there). On the minus side the hotel, though quite nice, is overpriced and the surrounding area is very busy and adjacent to a popular campsite. I would stay somewhere else.
But if you do stay at Las Torres then beware the bridge at the Laguna Amerga entrance, which was about 20 cm wider than my pick up. The first time I crossed it too fast and too preoccupied with the thought of it collapsing. Judging by the amount of multicoloured paint on the bridge sides I wasn’t the first to scrath his car. But hey, I took out extra rental insurance, so it was important I used it: rental cars and I have an uneasy relationship at the best of times.
Pumas: Jose has been searching for Pumas for 20 years and has an uncanny ability to find them. Without him it would have been a struggle to find them or at least get such good views. That said, the night I arrived I saw what was probably the eyeshine of a Puma about 2 km before the Hostelria Las Torres at 12.30 a.m. My first day with Jose began the next morning at 6 a.m. when I picked him up from his house in Pudeto.
Jose’s strategy is to drive around scanning for animals and occasionally walking up to good vantage points. The Pumas tend to be where the Guanacos are. And the Guanacos are concentrated along the loop that runs from Laguna Amerga to the junction that takes you back to Puerto Natales (just past Lago Nordenskjold) and then to the Lago Samiento gate.
We couldn’t find any Pumas along there in the morning, nor in the rock pile behind the Hostelria Las Torres where one sleeps often. In the afternoon we spent time sitting on the top of a hill just past Laguna de los Cisnes and scanning the big slab of country around us. Still no animals. So we moved onto another couple of kilometres and walked around a hill to the south of the road.
“Puma” said Jose. “Shit” said I, setting my binoculars on a cat sitting on the rocks about 500 metres from us. But it wasn’t alone: there were at least two cubs. We moved closer, and as we approached, the mother moved to the west, leaving the cubs on the rock. We set off after her to intercept her. Jose judged our route so well that we were within 40 metres of her before she looked up and noticed.
She ran off, so we turned back to try to get closer to the cubs. We climbed up the back of the hill immediately above where we thought they were. When we first saw them we were about 50 metres away. As I was lifting my camera Jose pointed below him to another three Pumas sitting on the rocks just 30 metres below us. Of course they spotted me and all of a sudden there were Pumas everywhere, with all five animals charging off to the south.
So a group of six animals in total. Jose has been tracking Pumas for 20 years and he told me this was the first time he had ever encountered a group of more than five Pumas. It is conceivable that there were five, and the mother we first saw had doubled back to rejoin the group before we arrived. But Jose didn’t think that had happened and I’m not one to doubt him in anything Puma-related.
Huemel: the road to Lago Grey is good for these deer. I couldn’t find any along it during two evening drives but it seems they might be easier to find in the middle of the day. We saw a very tame individual by the roadside just past the turn off to Salto Chico (a kilometre or two past the Pehoe campsite and hotel) at 1 p.m.
Guanacos: were throughout the east of the park in their hundreds each day (there are 13,000 in the park).
Chilla: commonest around hotels and camping areas but I saw a few each day throughout the park and during the drive in from Puerto Natales.
The road to Cerro Guido (about 30 km after Cerro Castillo is particularly good – I saw at least 10 in one hour here at night). There was also a tame animal at Lago Samiento.
Culpeo (Argentinian Red Fox): although apparently not uncommon in the park I didn’t find them easy to come across. They are also, I discovered, quite difficult to tell apart from Chillas. Some Chillas look like Chillas. Some Chillas look like Culpeos
I photographed a couple of foxes on the way into the park from Puerto Natales that I thought were this species but after Jose inspected the photos he said they were Chillas. The best chance to see a Culpeo is around campsites or hotels: they are regular at the Lago Grey Hotel and at the Lake Pehoe Campsite for instance. We saw animals in both places during one evening.
Patagonian (Humboldt’s) Hog-nosed Skunk: I saw a few every day. The road from Hostelria Las Torres to Laguna Amerga was particularly good for this species after dark, though they are also active in the early morning.
European Hares: common throughout the park and in plague proportions around Hostelria Las Torres.
Olivaceous Mouse (Abrothrix olivaceaus): I heard then saw one of these at the picnic area at the end of the road to Lago Grey at about 7 p.m.
Long-haired Grass Mouse (Abrothrix longipeles): I trapped one at the back of Jose’s place at Pudeto.
Stuff I Missed
Big Hairy Armadillo: I tried hard to find this species. Judging by the number of burrows along sandy roadside banks they are not uncommon. But they are quite difficult to see. The burrows were most numerous along the Laguna Azul loop road and there were a great deal of armadillo diggings close to the cascades along the same road: when you get to the car park by the waterfall follow the road that took you into the car park (the track is pretty overgrown) upriver for about 100 metres. It drops into a slight depression and as it veers towards the river there is an even more overgrown track continuing on. There was a lot of digging around here.
Armadillo burrows are – unsurprisingly –armadillo-sized and armadillo-shaped in cross section (an arch with a flat bottom). The animals have got to be more active at night but might be easier to find on foot when the wind isn’t blowing as they can be quite noisy but don’t have any eyeshine.
Geoffroy’s Cat: not uncommon and occasionally reported throughout the park. The Laguna Azul road is supposed to be quite good as is the area around Hostelria Las Torres. They prefer woodland.
Cavy: If I understood Jose correctly he has some living around his house.
There’s also a very slim chance for Grisons, Patagonian Weasels and Pampas Cats. But you’d have to be very lucky.
1. Olive Grass Mouse Akodon olivaceus
2. Long-haired Grass Mouse Abrothrix longipilis
3. Sanborn’s Grass Mouse Abrothrix sanborni
4. Coypu (Nutria) Myocastor coypus
5. Puma Felis concolor
6. Culpeo Pseudalopex culpaeus
7. Chilla Pseudalopex griseus
8. Darwin’s Fox Pseudalopex fulvipes
9. South American Sea-Lion Otaria flavescens
10. Marine Otter Lutra felina
11. Southern River Otter Lutra provocax
12. Patagonian (Humboldt’s) Hog-nosed Skunk Conepatus humboldtii
13. Peale’s Dolphin Lagenorhynchus australis
14. Commerson’s Dolphin Cephalorhynchus commersonii
15. Chilean Dolphin Cephalorhynchus eutropia
16. Guanaco Lama guanicoe
17. Southern Pudu Pudu puda
18. Chilean Guemal Hippocamelus bisulcus
19. European Hare Lepus europeaus