Torres del Paine National Park in the Chilean Patagonia is one of the World’s top wildlife destinations. Located between rich subpolar forests and the vast Patagonian steppes, the backbone of the park is the Paine mountain range, with the famous and much-photographed Cuernos (horns) del Paine as its centerpiece. This 2,100 m massive granite formation rises abruptly over the surrounding plains, providing a unique and extremely photogenic backdrop. The strong winds and changeable weather often produce dramatic cloud formations and stunning skies, a delight for landscape photographers.
From a wildlife and bird photography perspective, the park is a veritable goldmine: many extremely attractive species are abundant and approachable, in a mostly open landscape that makes photography a joy. In this regard, Torres del Paine is in the same league as Yellowstone and the great Eastern and Southern African reserves.
One of the main targets for wildlife photographers visiting the reserve is the Puma (Puma concolor): few places in the world offer such good chances of watching and photographing a great wild feline in full daylight. Pumas are relatively common in the park and surrounding areas, supported by the large population of guanacos and the extremely abundant introduced European hare, which form the bulk of their diet.
Being ambush hunters, pumas favor areas with lots of cover, and they are never easy to find. However, as the top predator in the region they are relatively bold, and with the help of an experienced local guide they can be spotted when resting or patrolling their territory. Also, guides are always on the lookout for recent kills: pumas often return several times to feed on a large kill, which they cache in bushes or thickets to avoid scavengers. Waiting by such spots during your Patagonia photo tour can sometimes be very rewarding.
My first visit to Torres del Paine was mainly planned to finding and photographing pumas: I spent all of my early mornings and late afternoons actively searching for the great cat, and found several adult and young specimens that provided great photo opportunities. And yet I found lots of time for many other fascinating animals, including two species of fox, Patagonian skunks, the endemic and often elusive Huemul deer, and of course the ever-present guanacos.
The birdlife of the park is extremely rich, and would justify a dedicated photo tour on its own: beautiful species like Upland Geese, Black-faced Ibis and Southern Lapwing are found all over the place, and are often quite tame. Patagonian Pigmy-owl, Short-tailed Meadowlark, Austral Negrito, Darwin’s Rhea, Grey-hooded Sierra-finch are just a few of the many Patagonian specialties frequently found when driving and hiking the park.
The lakes within the park are brightly colored due to the flour rock suspended in their water, and create some incredibly scenic landscapes, home to such attractive waterfowl as Black-necked and Coscoroba swans. The shores of Lake Sarmiento, with its characteristic calcium rock formations, are frequently used as a resting area by pumas.
One of the main advantages offered by Torres del Paine is the relative freedom to walk and hike the park’s wilderness, as opposed to the strict regulations found in many of the world’s other big wildlife reserves. Finding a wild puma in such wonderful surroundings, on foot, with no physical barrier between you and the cat, is one of the most exhilarating experiences to be had anywhere in the World.
However, rules in the park seem to be getting more restrictive; although there are practically no documented cases of puma attacks on humans within its boundaries, the number of visitors is growing every year and the Park’s authorities have expressed concern about its sustainability, and the possibility of wildlife-human conflict; also, reckless behavior by campers have caused some of the worst fires in recent years. Camping and trekking restrictions are being implemented, and in the future it may become more difficult to explore the park’s trails as freely during Patagonia photo tours.