Patagonia, at the far southern tip of Chile, is one of the world’s few remaining truly wild frontiers. Venture into the unspoiled Torres del Paine National Park and you’re sure to see flocks, herds, colonies and packs of animals that you’ve never seen before, but it can be difficult to know exactly what you’re looking at and where to search for the more elusive creatures. That’s why a guided safari of Patagonia’s wildlife is the perfect way to see some of the plants and animals that lend Patagonia its unique feel. A guide knows exactly what to look out for and where to look for it, as well as being a fount of interesting facts on everything flora and fauna related. All of the photos you’ll see below were taken on just one of Cascada Expediciones’ Guided Patagonia Wildlife Safaris at EcoCamp Patagonia, in Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park.
You can see wild guanacos - a cousin of the domesticated llama - in many areas of Chile, but there are few places where you’ll see them as close as in Torres del Paine National Park. Since the national park protects them from hunting, the guanacos here have no fear of humans and will happily wander amongst hikers and nature enthusiasts. This particular guanaco appears to be a little lost in the forest, since they are usually found roaming the open plains.
The attractive upland goose is just one of over 115 species of bird that can be found in Torres del Paine. On this particular Patagonia wildlife safari they were spotted on the shores of a lake, but it’s not unusual to find them roaming far away from water sources. The two white geese in this photo are male whilst the cinnamon-coloured bird is female.
These nothofagus antarctica (southern beech) trees blanket entire swathes of the Torres del Paine landscape. This photo was taken in mid fall as the trees were part way through their evolution from vivid green to burning red. Not all of the leaves turn at exactly the same moment, even on the same tree, so for a short time the land is lit with a whole spectrum of vibrant autumnal tones.
One of the advantages of a guided Patagonia wildlife safari is that the guides are trained to look for all creatures great and small. This tiny alsodes australis frog was nestled in an area of open grasslands and it took a very keen pair of trained eyes to spot it. When animal tracking in Torres del Paine National Park you somehow have to keep your eyes on the sky, on the horizon and on the ground all at the same time so you don’t miss a thing. That takes some skill!
The lesser rhea, known as a ñandu in Spanish, is another of Chilean Patagonia’s iconic animals. Like the guanaco, the rhea in Torres del Paine National Park are fearless of humans, making it easy to get up close and observe these idiosyncratic birds in detail. Keep your eyes open on your journey into the park too, since rhea can often be seen grazing alongside the road.
Patagonian Crested Duck
This duck may appear to be sitting in the middle of a meadow, but it’s actually floating in a plant-clogged, marshy pond, one of its favourite environments. This particular youngster hasn’t yet grown the stylish feather crest sported by fully grown adults, but it’s already developed the unmistakable mottled underparts typical of this duck species.
The condor is the national bird of Chile and can be seen in many places up and down the length of this spindly country, but there’s something about the awe-inspiring landscape of Torres del Paine National Park that makes the perfect backdrop for this gigantic scavenger. Up-close, there’s definitely something quite turkey-like about them, but they’re no less imperial for it.
Old Man’s Beard Lichen
The evocatively named ‘Old Man’s Beard Lichen’ is draped copiously over every spare branch and bough in the enchanting southern beech forests, as if someone let loose with a thousand grey-green party streamers and never got around to clearing up. Along with the green light filtering through the canopy overhead, the abundant lichen lends the forests a magical and secretive flavour.
South American Gray Fox
If at first glance you thought that this handsome hunter more closely resembles a wolf than a fox, then you’d be right. The South American Gray Fox is actually a zorro or “false fox”, a unique canid genus that has more in common with wolves than foxes. Whatever its ancestry, this animal is surprisingly common sight in Torres del Paine National Park and it takes your breath away every time.
The puma is Torres del Paine’s undisputed top predator, but there are only thought to be around 60 in the park and they tend to keep themselves to themselves. Although you'll be lucky to clap eyes on the imposing beast itself, if you keep your eyes open you might well spot signs that they’re around. Here we see some crystal clear tracks found on a beach near Grey Lake.
Red Gartered Coot
This commonplace coot can be found on many of Torres del Paine’s freshwater lakes. Although not visible whilst swimming, the red gartered coot has a bright crimson streak up each leg, from which it takes its name. Coots will dive to feed on plants and aquatic creatures so don’t be surprised if you find that they’ve suddenly disappeared!
Southern Crested Caracara
If you see ten birds of prey on your first day in Torres del Paine, the chances are that at least eight of them are probably caranchos, or southern crested caracaras, and you’ll soon learn to recognise them. They’re easily distinguished from eagles when in flight due to the white patches at the ends of their wings and their more elongated silhouette.
Photo credit: Idriss Hadj-Nacer