Walking with pumas changed me

Jun 12, 2024

Bears are my favorite and always will be, but my recent experience with the pumas in Patagonia comes remarkable close.

Back in February, I was fortunate enough to embark on a family journey to Patagonia, where I finally had the chance to witness these awe-inspiring cats up close.

Patagonia itself is breathtaking. Rugged mountain peaks, sweeping landscapes, and glistening glaciers. Yet, it was the vibrant array of wildlife that truly stole the show, captivating me in a way I never expected.

My day began before dawn with the gracious accompaniment of my wife and two children, who willingly roused themselves early for the hour-long journey to drop me off at the starting point. There, I rendezvoused with my guide and now good friend, Javiera, near the entrance to Laguna Amarga—a private ranch and the only place in the world where you can walk with the pumas.

Now, a quick aside: While it is possible to catch glimpses of pumas within Torres del Paine National Park, a significant policy shift in 2013 effectively curbed off-trail hiking, which meant an end to most up-close puma viewing. It is still possible to sight a puma from the road, or with a guide along the fence trail, but it is not the intimate experience that was possible before.

Enter Laguna Amarga—a former sheep ranch that swiftly pivoted to become the premier hub for puma observation post-2013. The seasoned guides of this enclave have dedicated years to forging a unique rapport with these enigmatic creatures. Now, a decade on, many pumas have grown accustomed to human presence while remaining resolutely wild at heart.

After bidding my family farewell for the day, Javiera and I embarked in the SUV, eager for what lay ahead. In mere minutes, our headlights pierced the darkness, revealing the majestic form of a puma. But this wasn’t just any puma—it was Peteka who was a mother to two precious young kits. With dawn still a whisper on the horizon, a gentle glow began to paint the sky, promising a sunrise of unparalleled beauty.

I’ll forever cherish the moment when Javiera uttered these unforgettable words: “Alright, let’s step out of the vehicle.” I had to think about it for a moment and let it sink in. Where else on Earth can one walk alongside big cats like this? Nowhere, as far as I knew. And so, we stepped out into the dimly lit landscape, straining our senses to locate the elusive kits. Suddenly, their faint chirps echoed from below the road, nearer to the tranquil embrace of the lake, yet shrouded from our view.

Then, as if choreographed by fate itself, Peteka performed an act of pure magic. With the backdrop of the tangerine sky ablaze behind her, she jumped up on a giant rock as though guided by some unseen cue, casting herself in silhouette against one of the most breathtaking sunrises I have ever seen

It was undeniably one of the most amazing wildlife scenes that I have ever witnessed. As Peteka’s kits frolicked by her side (you can view the video capturing this moment here), the sun ascended, casting its golden rays upon her, and then a rainbow graced the sky.

I captured her beauty from a variety of perspectives, each shot a testament to the incredible magic of that morning. She walked past me several times, completely at ease, as if we were inconsequential objects within the vast landscape.

As the morning unfolded, we followed to the tranquil shoreline of the lake. There, against the backdrop of fossilized rocks, she once again crossed right in front of us.

Later that morning, we received word of a subadult puma feasting on a guanaco carcass nearby, prompting us to say goodbye to Peteka. Upon our arrival, we found another guide already present, who asked if I could spot the elusive predator. Normally I am pretty good at spotted wildlife, but I couldn’t discern anything in the distance. With a smile, he redirected my gaze to a puma merely 50 yards away, prompting me to recalibrate my spotting instincts!

As the morning session neared its end—you are only allowed four hours with the pumas in the morning and then four more hours in the afternoon/evening—we set off towards lunch at the charming El Ovejero Patagónico hotel. During the picturesque 40-minute drive back, I spotted an armadillo on the roadside. Assuming it to be a common occurrence, I pointed it out to Javiera. Little did I realize, armadillos are not only elusive but witnessing one feasting on a guanaco roadkill carcass was exceptionally rare.

After a delicious and hearty lunch, we enjoyed a brief rest before venturing back to the realm of the pumas. Not long into our afternoon excursion, we encountered our fifth puma of the day: the alpha male named Dark! Javiera remarked that she could spend every day of the month searching for him and still come up empty-handed. Clearly, the puma gods were smiling upon us that day.

We watched Dark for a while, mesmerized by his presence, before allowing him to continue his journey. As the sun began to set, the landscape was bathed in a golden light, enhancing the already stunning scenery.

Walking with pumas encompasses all the elements of a perfect wildlife experience:

  • Iconic wildlife
  • Majestic scenery
  • The chance to be on foot and observe them up close in a respectful manner
  • The potential to witness an epic chase as they hunt guanacos (although we didn’t see a chase, we did see pumas feeding on a carcass)

The experience was a remarkable blend of adventure, beauty, and the raw power of nature.

At the end of our day, Javiera turned to me with a beaming smile and said it was the best day of her life. Her words encapsulated the magic and wonder of our experience, and I couldn’t help but smile in return. The day had been an extraordinary journey, one that exceeded all our expectations and left us both in awe of the majestic pumas and the breathtaking landscapes of Patagonia.

Reflecting on the trip, the greatest irony is that pumas also inhabit the Canadian Rockies near my home, yet it’s highly unlikely I’ll ever see one there. Despite being widespread, pumas are elusive here and avoid human contact.

The serene and thrilling encounters with the Patagonian pumas have given me a profound appreciation for these magnificent animals, almost rivaling my long-held admiration for bears. Although bears will always hold a special place in my heart, the pumas have carved out a unique space of their own.

I’m excited to return at the end of February 2025 for an 8-day puma adventure, including 5 full days of puma viewing in Laguna Amarga and a day dedicated to landscape and wildlife photography on each side.

I can’t wait to once again dive into the thrilling world of pumas, where every moment is a heart-pounding adventure waiting to be captured! This is your chance to join me on an unforgettable journey that will inspire and resonate for a lifetime. Don’t miss out on this once-in-a-lifetime experience — email team@thewildlifecollective.com and let’s embark on this wild adventure together!