Patagonia has a reputation for being one of the last truly wild places on Earth. Vast swathes of steppe, mountain and forest are near-untouched by the creeping influence of man (with an average of 1.9 people per km2, versus the 256 per km2 found in the United Kingdom), and even the populated coastlines of Chile and Argentina play-host to a striking array of birds and marine life. If you are remotely interested in Patagonian wildlife and beautiful, scenic places, Patagonia is a must-visit destination.
Given its popularity amongst nature-lovers, there are a number of travel firms that offer special Patagonian wildlife trips catered around experiencing the wild parts of Patagonia. As pictured below, such adventures can entail coastal tours along the coast and beyond the frozen southernmost tip of South America.
Other options are an Antarctic cruise which would include fly-overs and guided trekking tours, and can be tailored to fit the needs of the traveling party.
Every journey needs a beginning, and we recommend starting your Patagonian tour on the East-coast of Argentina, around Buenos Aires. The reason for this is simply that the Argentine capital region can offer a whole host of services for you in the run-up to your trip. The obvious ones are airports and docking services for cruise ships. However, should you require equipment or even a base-of-operations from which to strike-out, then a city makes an excellent gateway to the Patagonian region.
Argentina’s various bays and islets are home to a hugely diverse swathe of marine life, including the raucous, powerfully built Elephant Seals. These extraordinary creatures enjoy basking on beaches and flat rocks, but their apparent slothfulness is vanquished when swimming. Elephant Seals can outswim many of their would-be predators, and can hold their breath longer than any other non-cetacean (whale and dolphin like) mammal. Also found in this area is the ever-popular Orca, or Killer Whale. This magnificent beast can be seen in the waters surrounding the Valdés Peninsula (a protected area) from September to April, and is always a crowd-pleaser. Other species found around the Argentinian part of Patagonia include Sea Lions, Rhea, and Patagonian Hares.
Moving west, you’ll find yourself entering what many consider to be the most diverse and gorgeous part of South America. The steppes and mountains of Patagonia create a unique ecosystem, and boast everything from the relatively docile Guanaco (a Llama-like herbivore), all the way to wild Pumas (Mountain Lions). Such creatures rarely pose a threat to humans, and are actually very timid around people, but are a joy to watch go-about their lives, hunting amidst the foothills of the Andean mountains, and the surrounding plains. Also found in the foothills of the mountains is the Huemul, or South Andean deer. This beautiful, but highly endangered animal is a majestic sight indeed, and is a part of South American heritage. It is even found on the Chilean coat of arms, and is treated, for the most part, with dignity and respect.
Upon arrival on Chile’s coast, you should follow the curvature of the coastline, southwards. Along the way, you may have the good fortune of seeing the Andean Condor. It, like the Huemul, appears on the Chilean coat of arms, and has been a part of South American culture and superstition since long before the arrival of European settlers. It has been credited with playing a vital role in the local ecosystem, too. As a scavenger, much of its diet comes from fallen animals. Given the harsh winters, without its ravenous appetite allowing for the disposal of post-winter dead, disease would likely run rampant through the local animal population. The Condor makes its nest amidst the mountains and cliffs, and its three-metre wingspan makes it a truly awesome thing to behold. If you should feel so-inclined, there is a small islet in the middle of Estrecho de Magallanes, which is home to Magallanic Penguins.
Arrival on the southern tip of Patagonia is an experience like no other. This truly is the final frontier of the South American continent and it boasts one of the southernmost cities on the face of the planet, Ushuaia. This area maintains an eerie, bleak beauty: pinned between the ocean, and a veritable sea of snow-capped mountains. It is, nonetheless, a bustling place, popular with trekkers, to whom the mountain-paths and coastal cliffs must seem like heaven. The final leg of your journey should be to gain transport from this area, either by aircraft or small antarctic cruise ship, further south. Amidst the surreal, frozen world of Antarctica, you will have the opportunity to walk atop icebergs and even get-close to penguin nests.
The fact that nature prevails even there, at what is literally the end of the Earth, is a testament to its adaptability. Also, pseudo-profound statements aside, you will have experienced a truly once-in-a-lifetime adventure, the memories of which (one would hope) will stay with you for the rest of your days.
Written by Steven Shorter, a Patagonian wildlife enthusiast, on behalf of Swoop Patagonia, who have a wealth of information and guides to the region which can be found at www.swoop-patagonia.co.uk.