The initial outline plans for puma tracking etc had been looked at with Trogon Tours (www.trogontours.com), but then we looked at various South American specialists for the final plans. We plumped for Real World (http://www.realworldholidays.co.uk/) who provide an excellent tailor made planning service, and provide good communications for tweaking details. For a lot of the travel within South America, they use more than one locally based agents who tend to the day to day dynamics. Since we visited different distant locations, this often involved various combinations of travel, including internal flights, public buses, private taxis, and even ferries. There were also some trips we booked which had accompanying English speaking guide, such as to Chiloe (private guide) and the Perito Moreno glacier (local bus trip). Public buses were more like tourist buses in style (some but not all with toilets on board), with the tickets or travel vouchers already provided by the local agency, and someone to meet us at the other end of the journey.
We flew from the UK (Newcastle) and either Buenos Aires or Santiago can be used as the international destination, using one of the European airports as a hub. Both are very similar, so we went for Buenos Aires due to slightly lower cost and better flight times. Both would then need internal flights to Patagonia. It’s worth noting that the luggage allowance for the transatlantic flights are now quite generous (we had 23kg with KLM/Air France), but that there may be a baggage excess to pay for internal flights (of our three, only the Argentinian Sky Airlines required this on the flight from Buenos Aires to El Calafate, and it was only about $US12 each).
Argentinian / Chilean border was an interesting experience, which naturally had
to be completed twice. The first time was on the journey from El Calafate to
Torres del Paine. This was by public bus. The border crossing was within
spitting distance of the mountains, and was a very slow affair. First the
Argentinian side, which was in little more than a hut with no toilet
facilities. There were separate slow moving queues snaking out of each of the
two doors into the open air for those either entering of leaving Argentina. A
10 minute drive then found the Chilean entry point, which was a more modern
affair with sniffer dogs for disallowed food and X-ray machines, and still took
a while to pass through. Entry back from Chile was in the centre of the Andes,
at one of the highest points in the road crossing between the two on our
bus/boat trip from Puerto Varas to Bariloche. This was very much quicker and
with what seemed a lot less fuss.
is late Spring in Patagonia, which meant a preponderance of flowers, and
hopefully many singing birds and/or young (including the return of the penguins
to the colony on Chiloe). Weather conditions are interesting here. Apart from
El Calafate, which is on the lee side of the Andes, and so receives very little
rain, we had fully expected a good possibility of wet weather some of the time
with very cool to moderate temperatures. Even the weather forecast checked
before leaving showed this to be the expectation. There are also reputed to be
very strong winds in Torres del Paine. Our reality was that we experienced the
sort of weather expected at the height of Summer in the Spring. So much for the
base layers and warm weather over garments (which, however, would still be the
usual choice to take)! We had a minimal amount of rain in one period in each of
Torres del Paine and Puerto Varas, with day time temperatures anywhere between
low 20’s°C to almost 30°C one day in Bariloche.
Buenos Aires. We stayed in the Spanish quarter for 2 nights at the start of the trip and one night at the end. Even within this very large city, there are numerous parks which all seem to teem with common birds (thrushes, doves, etc) as well as people, and can even turn up one or two surprises, such as Rufous Hornero and Cattle Tyrant.
El Calafate. The main objective for tourists here is the Poreto Moreno glacier, which is hugely impressive in itself. The boat trip to view the edge of the ice is impressive, although barely any birds are seen from here. However, back on dry land, there is a descent along boardwalks to view the glacier from above, and a few birds can also be picked up. At the cafe and car park at the bottom, it is worth scanning the cliff faces above for Andean Condor, which had also been picked up earlier on the bus ride from El Calafate. El Calafate itself is very good for birds, with particular focus on the bay of the lake. The western end holds large numbers of waterfowl, flamingos, and waders. At the eastern end is the small nature reserve, which is not only good for getting closer to some of the same birds in smaller numbers, but also a rewarding mix of passerines. A small dry looking marsh on the landward side of the reserve held displaying Cinereous Harriers.
Torres del Paine. The trip to here from El Calafate on the public bus is the best opportunity to see good numbers of Lesser Rhea, and also the most numerous collections of Guanaco. The park itself is stunning, with plenty of walking opportunities with tracks around and even between the mountains (I would recommend the “Ascencio Valley Hike” from just outside the Los Torres Hotel which ascends alongside a river North-west between the peaks). Andean Condor and Black-chested Buzzard Eagle are quite regular, and the fast flowing river provides ideal opportunity for Torrent Duck. The trees encountered further up the walk (from the cafe at 3 miles) was our only site for Magellanic Woodpecker and fairly regular Thorn-tailed Rayadito).
Puerto Natales. Following Torres del Paine, we took two public buses to reach the airport at Punta Arenas. The two were split by an overnight stop at Puerto Natales. The inlet from the sea here not only has a good view of the distant Andes, but is also a good spot for various water birds not seen elsewhere. A main road starts at the ferry dock to the South end of the town, and although this is reasonably busy, a footpath follows it on the shore side, which is very productive. Amongst the numerous Black-necked Swans, the small numbers of Ducks, Gulls and Terns are worth checking. The pier near the ferry depot produced Chilean Skua, and a wrecked pier further North had numerous Imperial Shag.
Puerto Varas. This rather comfortable small town is at the western end of the Chilean lake district. We used it as a base for a trip to Chiloe, and also then to enter and cross the Chilean lakes and Andes to Bariloche on the Argentinian side of the mountains. There is a promenade which stretches for around 2 miles along the lake shore, which doesn’t have too much of bird interest apart from regular Dark-bellied Cinclodes, and a park above our hotel (Cabanas del Lagos Hotel) at the North end of the town also seemed fairly quiet (although this was where there were the first Green-backed Firecrowns and Tufted Tit-tyrants). Outside of this the town is fairly quiet for birds (save for the noisy and regular Black-faced Ibis and Southern Lapwings). Chiloe is well worth a visit. We did it for the penguin colony at Puñihuil, which is a trip worthwhile in itself, with the potential of seabirds on the 2 half hour ferry crossings added in for extra interest. The west coast of the island is likely to be good for more sea-watching, and more time in the interior may be productive (including for possible Darwin’s Fox)
While there is a potentially good lakefront with ample views of the Andes from
this busy town, there isn’t much to be had on the birding front unless the town
boundary is reached and the suburban sprawl left behind. Chimango Caracaras
seem to be everywhere, and Dark-bellied Cinclodes frequent, with additions of a
small group of Tufted Tit-tyrants and a pair of Great Grebes and Flying Steamer
Ducks on the lake, but the best part of Bariloche is getting there from Puerto
Varas. The scenic/touristy route is by 3 boats/lake crossings, and bus links
between (along with the border control high in the Andes). The strength of this
passage is not so much the birds, but the wonderful scenery encountered,
including both turquoise and emerald coloured lakes, and 4 close volcanos of
various shapes. Half way stop is at the Hotel Natural just on the Chilean side
of the border, where lunch can be bought in the hotel restaurant, and the
surroundings checked for both Green-backed Firecrown and Yellow-winged
Blackbirds which were both present