Peerless Patagonia is striking in grandeur, yet humble in character. As Andean spires rise to the sky, glaciers wind their way down to turquoise lakes dotted with floating icebergs. Condors, guanacos and elusive pumas live unhindered in Torres del Paine National Park, while king penguins waddle freely in a private reserve. A place this staggering in its mountain landscapes and so rich in wildlife could surely boast, but Patagonia quietly woos nature and animal lovers from afar.
Today we’ll meet some of the almost 500 animal species that inhabit this mountainous region. From the soaring Andean condor to the lesser rhea, get to know the creatures that call this majestic landscape home. You’ll find it illuminating, whether you’re departing soon on our Patagonia Wilderness & Wildlife Explorer trip or simply have a fascination with this rugged jewel at the bottom of South America.
Where Exactly Is Patagonia?
Part Chile and part Argentina, Patagonia covers approximately 400,000 square miles. Most tourism centers around the northern lake districts, Los Glaciares National Park (Argentina) and Torres del Paine National Park (Chile). While no one would call these areas tamed, they see considerably more visitors than the expansive ranching country of Argentina and the islands and inlets comprising Chilean Patagonia.
Argentinian Patagonia extends south of the Rio Negro. Chilean Patagonia extends more than 1,000 miles north to south over the regions of Araucania, Los Rios, Los Lagos, Aisen and Magallanes. On a Nat Hab journey to the area, we introduce you to both of Patagonia’s major national parks, as well as Tierra del Fuego and Francisco Coloane Marine Park.
Wildlife lovers are in their element in Patagonia. Known particularly for pumas, penguins and whales, you’ll also find the world’s smallest deer, ROUS (rodents of unusual size), flightless rheas, massive Andean condors, armadillos, fox and slender guanacos. So, yes, if you’re into animals, put Patagonia on your bucket list!
Now for our favorite part: showing off a little for a region that may not care to toot its own horn. We’ll introduce you to the “Big 7” of Patagonia wildlife, plus a few more besides.
Also known as cougars or mountain lions, pumas are one of the largest subspecies of the Felidae family. They’re also the largest predators in Patagonia.
On a Nat Hab trip to Patagonia, you’ll spend three full days searching for pumas from our base at EcoCamp Patagonia, backdropped by the sheer spires of Chile’s Torres del Paine National Park. Follow the sendero de la fauna (the animals’ trail), which was named for the guanacos often seen here. These llama-like animals also happen to be ideal prey for pumas. Look up as we explore, perhaps glimpsing one of the stealthy cats high on a rocky crag. Our knowledgeable Expedition Leaders will clue you in on how to look for signs of the big cats, which are found in shrubby steppe ecoregions, dense woodlands and mountains from Arica to Magellanes near the tip of Chile.
Soaring Andean Condors
It’s tough to miss the Andean condor. the males are one of the largest flying birds on the planet and the largest vultures in South America, weighing between 18 and 33 pounds and boasting a wingspan anywhere from 8.1 to 10.6 feet. Watch for them soaring over open grasslands and mountainous alpine regions, as well as foraging in beech forests, as we make our way through Torres del Paine National Park. The range of the Andean condor used to stretch from Venezuela to the Tierra del Fuego at the southern tip of the continent but hunting and habitat loss has led to a sharp population decline.
While once they consumed guanaco and vicuña carcasses, the condors must now scavenge livestock remains and introduced species such as the European hare and red deer. During our Nat Hab Patagonia tour, you’ll have the opportunity to see the Andean condor up close at one of the biggest condor colonies in the region. Observe and photograph Chile’s national bird without intruding on their habitat.
You’re bound to see a good number of guanacos as we explore Patagonia. There are more than 1,500 of them in Torres del Paine alone! But, as with all wildlife, don’t get too close. They’re very protective of their young, so watch from afar as they chase each other energetically and playfully. Don’t be fooled by the slender limbs and long neck—these camelids, endemic to South America, are one of the continent’s largest mammals, weighing between 200 and 300 pounds and standing approximately 3.5 feet at the shoulder. We’ll find them in the forests, grasslands, deserts and shrublands of the Andean foothills, in areas ranging from sea level to 13,000 feet.
Fun fact: The guanaco can run nearly 35 miles per hour—faster than any other Patagonian animal except the puma!
P.S. Like the guanaco, the vicuña (another member of the camelid family) has pale cinnamon fur and a white belly. They’re shyer than the guanaco but can also zip along when necessary, running up to 29 miles per hour at high elevations. They’re able to reach such speeds because their hearts are twice the size of similar-sized mammals!
Elusive and currently under threat due to changes in their natural habitat and predation by puma, the short, stocky huemul may show itself as we hike through Torres del Paine, especially near Lago Grey. They’re adept climbers, living on rocky terrain and traversing mountain passes easily. Also known as the south Andean deer or southern guemal, you may recognize them as one of the two animals found on Chile’s coat of arms, alongside an Andean condor.
Remember when we mentioned the world’s smallest deer? Meet the Southern pudu. Listen for the soft “moo” sound of a female as she calls to her young, or the more bleating call of a male.
When the pudu senses danger, its hair rises, its body trembles and its eyes fill with tears (actually, its lacrimal glands open). Doesn’t that make your heart melt? The Southern pudu is currently a protected species but continues to be hunted for its hide and meat.
Little Lesser Rheas
Also known as Darwin’s rhea, the lesser rhea may have the largest wings in proportion to its body of all ratites (flightless birds with a flat breastbone without a keel), but they’re quite diminutive in height and weight. The rhea has the appearance of a small ostrich (often referred to as the South American ostrich), with brown plumage flecked with white. Juveniles don’t obtain the flecks until they’re 3 to 4 years of age. They’re found in the open scrublands of Patagonia, the Altiplano of Southern America, and across the steppes and Puna grasslands of the Andean plateau.
Now, for the cutie you’ve been waiting for: the giggle-inducing, addictively adorable penguin. During our Patagonia Wilderness & Wildlife Explorer nature tour, you’ll meet both Magellanic and king penguins, the latter in the most northerly king penguin colony in the world.
King Penguin Park is a private conservation reserve on Inutil Bay. From elevated boardwalks and in strategic hides, you’ll observe the entertaining antics of the world’s second-largest penguin species. Take your time and enjoy; this is the only place in the world to see this species outside Antarctica and the Falkland Islands. While we’re here, we also hike to Swan Lagoon to see black-necked swans, white-necked swans, flamingos, caiquens and various duck species.
Moving on, we wake early for a full day of whale watching and marine life encounters on Bahia Carrera in the Strait of Magellan. As we cruise past Froward Cape (the southernmost point on the mainland of the Americas), look for sea lions and elephant seals lounging on the rocks. As we enter Francisco Coloane Marine Park, Keep your eyes “peeled” for Peale’s dolphins, humpback whales, orcas, petrels, cormorants, skuas, albatrosses and Magellanic penguins at close range.
Ready to meet the wildlife of Patagonia? Learn more about our Patagonia Wilderness & Wildlife Explorer.