Most people go to Torres Del Paine National Park to see its spectacular throne like spires. As world class as these mountains are, there is more for wilderness adventurers.
Patagonia’s Big Five wildlife list while not as spectacular as Africa’s is also special.
The Andean Condor and puma are the most sought after, but don’t overlook the Lesser Rhea, guanaco and South Andean Deer. All five are hardy survivors in this evolutionary wind-swept cradle of lakes, peaks and grasslands.
Lord of the Andes
Like many ecosystems, big cats are at the top of Torres Del Paine’s food chain where the puma is master. This solitary brown feline is hard to spot and the park employs trackers who go out at dawn to pick up their tracks. Pack a good pair of binoculars on your Patagonia trek and keep them handy especially at day break and late afternoon.
When you see a herd of guanaco check the bushes on the periphery. There could be a puma lurking intently plotting his surge. Pumas here are the largest in the Americas and your chances of seeing one are greater here than anywhere else. Their numbers are on the rise as they are well protected and feed off an ample meat supply.
In your excitement, don’t make the Patagonia tourist mistake identifying the red fox for a puma. Pumas are at least five times as big so focus those binocs and find one.
Flight of the condor
Of Torres Del Paine’s 118 bird species, the Andean Condor is the quest bird for anyone with an interest in ornithology. At nine feet it boasts the largest wingspan of any bird in the world and is also among the heaviest. The best place to see them is about half way through Tusker’s trek in the park where there are condor nests, according to Andrew Springsteel, Tusker’s South American guide. Andrew says his clients often see condors on this leg of the trek. Another spot is four hours south of the park on the drive back to Punta Arenas. They often sour high so those good binocs pay another wildlife dividend. Look skyward while on the W circuit and if you spot high flying large birds near the peaks chances these are condors.
The Nandu or Lesser Rhea or Darwin’s Rhea is a birder’s bird. It’s flightless, ostrich like and can outrun the wind. It took Darwin months of combing Patagonia’s high grassland altiplano before he made the distinction between the Greater and Lesser Rhea in the 1850s. It should be easier for you as Torres Del Paine is known for its nandu population. The nandu may be flightless, but when it opens its thick brown wings it can run up to 35 mph. That happens when a Puma is giving chase for a 65 pound meal.
Glamor girls, combative guys
Herds of guanaco are most often associated with Patagonia and you are sure to see them and photograph them on your trip. A guanaco herd often comprises ten females and one dominant male. Battles between alpha males and their challenges are epic with spitting, biting and chest bumping. Sometimes the loser ends up a eunuchs as there are no rules in guanaco combat. Yet these are glamorous animals with a red brown coat, long eyelashes and a big heart. A guanaco’s heart is 15 percent larger than other mammals its size and can be found up to 12,000 feet. The ultimate survivor, this relative of the camel is found from the ultra-arid Atacama Desert to Torres Del Paine’s wet steppes.
Rare and endangered
Deer often get a bad rap. They are numerous and often overlooked, but South Andean Deer are rare with only 15,000 left. They are so revered that they are Colombia’s coat of arms. There are around 20 in Torres Del Paine and if you see one it could be the best wildlife sighting of your trip. Look for them in the remote highlands; they have short legs, stocky build and a tan coat.
Work at it
Unlike Africa’s Big Five that are often readily available it takes work to find Patagonia’s Big Five. Don’t be lazy and solely rely on your guides to do all the work. Get up at day break before the trails get busy and do your own reconnaissance. Ask park guides what animals are around and look for telltale signs. Grass that lays flat is likely a sign that guanaco or huemul have been sleeping there. If they are around chances are puma are too. Keep your head up and skyward. Condors are aloft!
If seeing Torres Del Paine’s Big Five are a priority make the effort and you will likely be rewarded.