Puma Pursuits

Leaving behind the buzzing streets of Santiago, Jan Masters ventures into the wilds of Patagonia in search of elusive big cats, and finds a salve for the soul amid empty landscapes and jagged mountains.
February 2023

When I try to pinpoint Patagonia on a giant globe, I’m reminded just how far south it is, because I have to lie on the floor to locate it. It really is a case of next stop Antarctica. An untamed wilderness, geographically isolated by the Andes, ice fields and oceans, it lies at the southern end of Chile, extending into Argentina to the east. For me, it has always conjured a sense of romantic drama. Of electric blue glaciers and gauchos galloping across windswept grasslands. Of condors wheeling over jagged peaks, and empty roads that pursue endless horizons. So, when it comes to taking a holiday that offers a truly meaningful break from urban stress, it is to Patagonia I decide to head — or more specifically, the Torres del Paine National Park, which has been a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1978.

Chile has recently created five new national parks, preserving vast tracts of Patagonia and representing the culmination of 25 years of work by the late US philanthropist Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face and Esprit brands, and his wife, Kristine McDivitt Tompkins, CEO of Tompkins Conservation. Her recent handover of over 400,000 hectares is considered to be the largest donation of private land to a government. With the Chilean president pledging another three and a half million hectares, the country is cementing its place as one of the global leaders in conservation. And as the country marches into its third century since independence, it’s attracting tourist attention like never before.

Any trip to Chilean Patagonia is likely to be bookended with a stopover in the increasingly cosmopolitan capital of Santiago, so I spend a couple of days exploring. Each barrio (district) has its own character and there are museums, markets, buzzing bars, restaurants and grand buildings aplenty, all lying in a valley with the Andes as a towering backdrop.

Casa Bueras Hotel (formerly Hotel Lastarria) is my base, a boutique hotel in the bohemian neighbourhood of Lastarria with easy access to the city’s attractions. Built in 1927, its air of classical elegance is offset with contemporary interiors. And with only 14 rooms, this refurbished mansion still feels homely. The Deli Lounge serves breakfast, tasty plates and snacks, and delicious wines, and overlooks a quaint courtyard with a small pool. A shout out here to the staff, who go the extra mile to make sure you’re well looked after.

One of my favourite excursions is a tour of street art with a Chilean artist. Forget random graffiti, the San Miguel barrio is home to the Museo a Cielo Abierto (the Open Air Museum) where artists are selected to create murals that not only enhance the neighbourhood’s buildings but help with the ongoing rejuvenation of the area. Another district well worth checking out is Barrio Yungay, which is awash with historic and eclectically painted houses and shops.

For a day out of the city, the impressive Santa Rita Winery, only a 45-minute drive away, has plenty to offer beyond its award-winning wines. The old estate house is now the grand Casa Real Hotel and you can take a carriage ride around its manicured gardens. There’s also an Andean Museum and the Doña Paula Restaurant on site, and no trip is complete without a wine tasting in the atmospheric cellars.

After my short stay, the call of the wild can no longer be silenced, so I board my plane south to Punta Arenas, a three-and-a-half-hour flight that skims the snaking Andes. There follows another four and a half hours by vehicle to my ultimate destination in the heart of the Torres del Paine, Explora Patagonia.

Here, it’s all about luxury served up in the heart of the wilderness, and the lodge offers everything from great food and wines to an indoor pool and open-air Jacuzzis. But it’s the setting that’s a revelation.

Lying on Lake Pehoé, picture windows frame the Salto Chico waterfall and the Paine Massif’s soaring torres — three granite towers that give the park its name. Sustainably managed, this is a hotel that minimises your eco footprint while maximising the ‘ahhh’ factor after a long day’s exploring.

Let the adventures commence. I’m here in winter, which runs from June to early September. Summer is predictably more popular but all seasons have their charm — and changeable weather. There’s a saying in Patagonia: “If you don’t like the weather, just wait ten minutes.” I wrap up well for my first morning trek around Nordenskjold Lake to see the Cuernos del Paine, jagged columns of rock resembling horns.

The water is so glassy, it reflects the surrounding spectacular peaks perfectly. All around are guanaco, an animal so synonymous with Patagonia, it’s become the poster-child of the region. Related to the camel, it has a long fluffy neck and lashes straight out of a mascara ad.

The sheer number of guanaco tells us one thing. There are no puma in the vicinity. Good news for the guanaco, less so for me, because part of my mission is to spot these big cats that venture further down the mountains in winter. I am told by the guides that we could be lucky and see one anywhere on our travels, and that in said moment, we should remain calm, keep a respectful distance and listen to our guides for safe instruction. Fingers crossed, then.

Explora offers more than 40 daily excursion options that meet differing fitness and experience levels, with some following parts of the W circuit, a renowned trail that requires at least five days of trekking if you were to go the whole 80 kilometres. Horse riding with the gauchos is also a must, no matter your level of experience. Once kitted out with a must-wear helmet, you can take a gentle amble among skipping hare and strutting flamingo or gallop flat chat over the pampas.

A great hike is to Lago Grey. Crossing the hanging bridge over the Pingo River and traversing a lenga forest, we reach the shores of Lake Grey, where too-blue-to-be-true icebergs break off from the Grey Glacier in the distance. Another is around Lake Sarmiento, a picturesque panorama of tranquillity. But as inspiring as all this is, I still want to see a puma, and so far, nada.

The guides tell me a great chance to see one is on the Aonikenk trek in the eastern part of the park, so I optimistically trudge through early morning snow. Halfway through the hike, we stop to view a cave with 4,000-year-old paintings left by the indigenous Aonikenk people. Fascinating, but puma count: zero.

Back in the van, returning to Explora, I scour the mountains one last time. I want to see a puma so badly that I think I must be imagining things when suddenly, I catch a glimpse of a sandy-coloured animal way up high. A flash and he’s gone. We stop the van and stay put, to wait. And wait. Then he comes back into view, zig-zagging down the rock face. Muscular and powerful, he picks his way over rocks and pads across the road ahead, looking back at us with piercing eyes. I return to the hotel, suitably jubilant. Now if that doesn’t call for a pisco sour in Explora’s cool bar, I don’t know what does.

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