Exploring exotic wildlife spots has been a passion for me for years now. I hope to bring one new destination to the table every year at Toehold and a couple of years ago I learnt the nuances of how to find the Puma or the Mountain Lion in the Patagonia region in Chile. In 2017-2018 I led two trips out of which one was spectacular and another just about average. The second trip wasn’t great because we went in November, as an addon to the Antarctica expedition and it wasn’t like how puma sightings usually are in Feb / March.
So without a doubt, I knew March is my month. I think Puma tourism from India is in its nascent stages and we had a group of 5 this February. Most of them from Bengaluru and one from Delhi. We fly to the Chilean capital of Santiago and then reach the southern city of Punta Arenas which is a hub for many commercial activities. My guide drives a car with a couple of us in it and I drive another SUV with 3 of us in it and we reached the southern border of the famous Torres-del-Paine National Park on day 1. I remember it was drizzling and the feeling was we may have come at the wrong time of the year. Day 1 wasn’t productive and we had to learn the movements of the animals so we failed to find any Pumas that evening. I remember on day 2 we went up some usual spots in our SUVs and started scanning the area using our binoculars. I also have a couple of resident guides who literally live there and help us track the cats. It was the windiest day of the trip and we again failed to find any animals. By the end of day 2, we were really starting to be a bit unsure and one of our patrons asked me if there was a better time to come.
I started feeling the pressure, but I knew optimism and working hard was the only option we had for the next few days. Thankfully, we found pumas sleeping near the road on day 3. But the whole morning they did nothing and it was even more frustrating. That evening thankfully they delighted us and gave us ample photo-opportunities. Our hope was alive and we went to bed that night with a lot of dreams for the days to come.
We came back to base and ended the day hoping the next couple days would be rewarding. This day after the break was perhaps an important one and we really needed luck to be favouring us. We reached a spot near the lake Sarmiento and started scanning the hills to find some clues. The pumas we had found the day before this were not to be seen and we continued our search.
Within minutes, our guide Mauricio came running down the hill after he had heard some guanaco calls up the mountain. We jumped into our cars and drove up the hill and we stopped our car to be amazed to see not one or two or three, but four pumas sitting up against the ridge. Hurray! It looked like jackpot that morning. We quickly pulled the tripods and backpacks and without even locking the car we started walking towards these beautiful cats.
By now I realised they were the same individuals we spotted the day before and they were going further up the hill. The next couple of hours were just drama, magic and fabulous sights. The pumas played with each other, tried to stalk a guanaco, sat at spectacular spots while we made amazing images of them. All of us were spread across the valley while we were on foot.
Keeping up with the mountain lions in the mountain was an above average fitness requirement and all of us did well to bring our physical best to be walking parallel with these cats.
The highlight of the trip was one moment where a puma was sitting on a mound and I realised it was time for us to race ahead and align the puma with the mountain in the background. In three trips, I hadn’t gotten lucky with this kind of a set-up. I quickly composed a shot of the Torres-del-Paine in the background of the Puma and then started looking around for all of us in the group who were scattered. Since the puma was sitting there for a bit, most of us managed this spectacular shot. I tried my best to bring everyone to the same view and I also remember urging one of the members of the group who was away to come near me and capture this view. I’m glad he enjoyed photographing this sight.
By the end of these two hours, we were exhausted. I don’t remember anything else that morning apart from the lovely light on the puma and the foreground while the overcast clouds were covering the Towers of Paine.
That afternoon, we thought it couldn’t get better. We went back to the area and after hours of looking around, we spotted Blinca one of the 4 pumas we had spotted in the morning. Blinca was on a rock looking at a direction where her mother the Sarmiento female was approaching.
The Sermiento female and Blinca were almost of the same size though I had seen Blinca as a cub in the previous year. They both seemed to interact with each other on a balcony seat that they had before the mother again disappeared in search of food perhaps.
Blinca got down from the rock and walked right into us. These were the tensest moments of the trip while we were on foot photographing her while she walked a few meters towards us and started drinking water from a small puddle. After this, she walked even closer to us and I think she was less than 9 feet away before we huddled up and she walked away to another hill.
We surely had no energy to follow her. We were emotionally, physically and mentally exhausted and completely satisfied with this day that is hard to be bettered. The next couple of days we saw more pumas, some photographically interesting, some just sightings before the trip was over and we had to head back to Punta Arenas.
The coming year I hope to relive the magic.