Surrounded by a natural arena of sunset-tinged and snow-capped peaks, it’s impossible to imagine a more wild and spectacular location than Lago Pehoé in southern Chile’s improbably scenic Torres del Paine National Park. Another distinctly Patagonian bonus is sharing the jaw-dropping scenery with the local wildlife. Between bouts of trekking, river rafting and horseriding, ticking off most of the park’s iconic fauna comes remarkably easily to the curious traveller.
Just a few decades ago the llama’s close cousin the guanaco was endangered, but there are now more than 3000 of the camelids (also close relatives of the camel) living in the Torres del Paine National Park. They’re a deceptively compact animal - just over one metre-high at the shoulder - but still easily spotted on the grassy tundra punctuating Torres del Paine’s dramatic combo of alpine lakes, soaring peaks and turquoise-tinged glaciers. Count on being greeted with a look that’s a quizzical cross between “Can I help you?” and “What are you staring at?”
More than 3000 guanacos are apparently more than enough to sustain a growing population of pumas. The Patagonian puma is the southernmost of all mountain lions, and also one of the largest. Like any cat they’re solitary and independent creatures, so any sightings are likely to be restricted to bigger than expected paw prints in the snow. Keep your eyes peeled for the more delicate prints of puma cubs, padding along beside their graceful, but powerful, mothers.
- Andean grey fox
In the brutally pragmatic Patagonian eco-system, it’s not just pumas targeting the guanacos. Getting close to a sleek Andean grey fox is surprisingly straight forward, especially if they’re hungry and preoccupied with eating. They prefer target hares and rodents, but will happily chow down on any guanacos that have already been killed by pumas.
- Andean condor
The surging and swirling thermals of Patagonia’s cliffs, peaks and valleys are the perfect environment for the mighty Andean condor. A wing-span of more than three metres – the largest of any land bird – enables these impressive scavengers to stay aloft with minimal effort. Explorer and naturalist Charles Darwin actually noted watching one soar for half an hour without moving its wings. Pack good binoculars for the best views of these magnificent birds.
- South Andean deer
There’s only around 2000 of the endangered South Andean deer or huemul alive, and together with the Andean condor, it features on Chile’s National Coat of Arms. Like the guanaco, the huemul is a relatively compact animal, standing around one metre high. Keep an eye out on the stunning lakeside trek from Lago Pehoé to Glaciar Grey and you might be lucky. Hey, it’s happened before.