Have you ever heard someone describe a trip as a “religious experience”? Before I left for Argentina, that’s how Patagonia was explained to me – a religious experience. I thought about this a lot on my way down to one of the southernmost parts of the world. Was snorkeling with an abundance of sea turtles in the Galapagos a religious experience? Did watching a polar bear navigate the tundra qualify? While I wasn’t in doubt that I had encountered beautiful scenes of wildlife in my years of travel, I anticipated something deep and moving in this part of the world, unparalleled to anything I’d experienced.

perito moreno glacier

Perito Moreno Glacier in the springtime  © Courtney Nachlas

The difficulty in describing the magic of Patagonia cannot be overstated. You’re surrounded by peaks you can’t comprehend, listening to a song of cascading glaciers and wild winds. The fresh air is still, empty, as if you are exploring this empty landscape for the first time. It is, I suspect, the very reason Doug and Kristine Tompkins felt such a deep desire to protect Patagonia.

My trip ended the way all great trips end, with gratitude and satisfaction. We had hiked through enchanted forests to reach Fitz Roy, we listened as woodpeckers knocked on trees, we watched a small puma sleep through a scope, and we spent time with herds of guanacos.

Torres del paine

A quiet moment after hiking to Los Cuernos in Torres del Paine. © Courtney Nachlas

Our guide joined us for dinner as my fellow travelers recounted their favorite moments and clinked glasses with Chilean wine. I excused myself to use the restroom, which was a few blocks from the dining dome at EcoCamp Patagonia. As I walked with my head down along the wooden path, I could hear the joy and chatter radiating from the dining hall. As the noise faded in the background, I approached my dome to find a puma staring back at me.

A wild puma in Patagonia

The moment our group encountered a wild puma. © Cassiano (Zapa) Zaparoli

Just me, a puma, and the quiet wilderness of Torres del Paine. The moment only lasted seconds and, yet, it felt like forever. I froze. I couldn’t think to grab a camera or to look around for other people. Instead, I just looked at the puma who stared deep into my eyes with an unwavering glance.

After what felt like an eternity, the puma walked away into the bushes and shadows, hidden from the world. I quickly got back to my group to interrupt dinner with news of a puma sighting. Things moved quickly as my fellow travelers hustled to get their cameras. We waited outside until the puma made another quick appearance. She walked right in front of us again, as my guide jumped up and down with excitement. In all the years of guiding at this trip, Zapa said, he’s never seen a puma this close to EcoCamp.

wild puma in patagonia

Our group quickly grabbed their cameras to photograph the puma. © Cassiano (Zapa) Zaparoli

Still feeling dizzy from the whole experience, we sat back down to dinner, sharing photos of the incredible moment we had just witnessed. That was when I realized that seeing wildlife is amazing, but seeing unexpected wildlife is breathtaking. You never know what a trip to a new land will bring. You never know when a puma will block your way to the bathroom.

As I replayed that moment over and over again in my head that night, I decided that I wasn’t exactly sure what happened to me. Call it a religious experience if you will, but seeing that puma made my heart stop. Not because of the possible danger that an encounter with a wild puma holds, that didn’t even cross my mind. In that moment, all I felt was nature, the silence, my breath and my surroundings all reflected back at me in a puma’s eyes.