Updated: Aug 23
August 1, 2023 || virtuoso.com
Sightings of mountain lions are becoming more common in and around Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia.
What to know before embarking on a big-cat adventure in southern Chile.
While mountain lions are notoriously elusive, they’ve been stepping out into the public eye around Patagonia’s Torres del Paine National Park. This popular tourist destination has one of the planet’s highest densities of pumas, thanks to a thriving population of its prey, the llamalike guanaco. After years of gradual habituation to the people who visit this part of southern Chile, the area’s big cats have become increasingly comfortable around humans, making sightings even more frequent. Though Patagonia’s puma tourism remains largely unregulated, conservation-focused tour operators lead local efforts to protect the animals and their visitors.
On a tour with andBeyond, for example, guests visit Estancia Cerro Guido, an expansive working sheep farm just beyond Torres del Paine and part of a growing network of puma reserves that protect the wild cats outside the park. “Puma tourism is a very powerful tool to support conservation,” says Pia Vergara, creator and executive director of the Cerro Guido Conservation Foundation. “There’s no better ambassador than a person who has lived a real puma experience and then communicates it.”
Puma-spotting can be educational and fun – just like a safari. We asked experts in the region how travelers can take part in puma tourism, become better wildlife ambassadors, and keep this experience safe for everyone, especially the animals. Take note of their tips when travelling to Patagonia and Torres del Paine to catch a glimpse of these spectacular creatures.
Explora Torres del Paine is situated on Lake Pehoé inside the national park.
Travel with empathy.
“Never forget that we’re in the home of the puma. By being aware of this, we can put ourselves in the puma's place, which ultimately shapes our philosophy of how to observe and admire nature.” – Sergio Gaete, head of cultural and natural heritage for Explora, which operates a lodge in Torres del Paine
Choose a responsible tour operator.
“Travelers should ask questions such as, ‘How many guests will be on the tour? Does your puma-tracking program support local conservation? Is the puma tracking done in the national park or on private estancias? How many years have you been working as a puma tracker?’ ” Then, choose your guide based on years of experience and relationships with local conservation groups. Pick smaller tours that are located around the national park, but not in it. – Pedro Barraza, managing director of South American operations for andBeyond
Keep your distance.
“Pumas in Torres del Paine are so habituated to people that you can get quite close to them, which makes visitors feel that they’re not interfering with the species’ normal behavior. But it’s very important to stay at least 50 meters (160 feet) away from pumas in order to avoid altering their behavior.” – Nicolás Lagos, Patagonia project coordinator for Panthera and author of On the Edge: Puma. Torres del Paine
Don’t force a photo opp.
“If you don't have the right camera equipment to get a close-up shot, just enjoy the experience of seeing a puma. The photo isn’t worth moving too close.” – Matias Schilling von Dessauer, freelance puma guide
“Don’t call out to a puma to try and get its attention, as calling or gesturing to animals can cause their behavior to change, and not for the better. And sudden movements can distract pumas when you’re viewing them, so always keep movement to a minimum.” – P.B.
Remember that pumas are predators.
“Pumas are wild animals, and therefore there’s always risk, especially if they feel disturbed by our behavior.” – Gonzalo Cisternas Lopez, ranger technical coordinator at Torres del Paine National Park