Back in December, I wrote the first part of this story, about how Tompkins Conservation invited me to South America to join them in starting a conservation revolution. They are planning to reintroduce the jaguar to the immense Iberá Wetlands in Argentina and I was invited to explain &Beyond’s proven conservation model, as well as share my 25 years’ worth of game capture and translocation experience with them.
Continuing on where we left off in Part 1…
An early morning wake-up in Buenos Aires presented us with a miserable, wet day with low clouds and perfect weather for ducks. We had to fly in the Turbine Cessna 207 for six hours to the city of Neuquén, which is considered to be the start of the Argentinian Patagonia.
The trip took us across the tightly-packed patchwork of agriculture on the wetland basins of Buenos Aires
to the increasingly dry areas of the northern reaches of Patagonia
. Our overnight stop in Neuquén had the Tompkins crew spoiling me with a visit to an authentic Argentinian steak house. This was a wonderful experience and one I can highly recommend.
The next morning I was really excited about the fact that we would be flying over the snow-capped Andes mountain range, which literally forms the spine of South America. I certainly wasn’t disappointed as we soared high over the Andes and over its many volcanoes to the town of Puerto Montt, Chile. We quickly cleared customs and walked back to our trusty aircraft with two majestic volcanoes forming the perfect backdrop.
The Puerto Montt region, with its volcanoes, lakes and fjords, is absolutely spectacular. We took off in the rain and flew below the clouds though the most breathtaking fjords with waterfalls cascading down into the sea before landing in the picturesque little hamlet of Caleta Gonzalo.
This scenic little town is beautifully maintained and superbly situated for the start of any trip to the Pumalín Park. There are some great day hikes and boat rides available here, and the food experience was really authentic, as we all dined around the stove with the chefs and staff. The scattering of handcrafted leiite chalets were very comfortable and I was fortunate to have one overlooking the sea and could watch sea lions hunting through the bay as the last of the evening light was fading – a remarkable experience.
Like any mountain park, Pumalín Park is best explored on foot. I set off along some of the very well-maintained paths and bridges to some of the inland waterfalls. The fresh mountain air and periodic bouts of rain and sunshine meant that you just had to be patient to get good photographs, as the sun was always only a rain shower away. I wasn’t patient, as you can see from my pictures, but even though we were working and had keep moving, we got some really bright moments to record this special place with a picture or two.
The Tompkins Conservation staff all have an incredible eye for detail and these must be some of the best-maintained, soon-to-be national parks in the world.
During our drive around the park, we really get to see the splendour of the Patagonian Andes. The mountain sides are so steep that every river or stream has numerous cascades or waterfalls, some of them flowing straight into the lakes and some of them crashing straight into the sea. The streams and rivers all have their origin in the snow caps and glaciers, thus making the water crystal clear.
The incredible drive from Caletta Gonzalo through Pumalín Park takes you past the coastal town of Chaitén. This town was completely destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 2008 and was rebuilt on the same site. On to the Pumalín Park headquarters at the town of El Amirillo. Douglass Tompkins helped every household rebuild and repaint their homes and fences, thus creating a charming little town with real character. It is great for tourism, as everyone you meet is really proud of the town and the park. The glacier grumbled in the distance as we continued our walk through the beautifully manicured campsite and pathways. We overnighted in the guest house at El Amirillo.
The day drive from Chile
over the Andes is as surprising as it is spectacular. Beautiful lakes and steep-sided gorges are regular sights and the continued attention to detail on the road signs and information boards was obvious.
The border town of Futaleufú was our last stop in Chile before we crossed the quaint little border with friendly border officials into Argentina. The Argentinian side of the Andes gave way to sweeping valleys and rolling pastures with livestock being a big part of the local economy. It wasn’t long before we arrived at Esquel Airport to catch our scheduled flight back to Buenos Aires.
The snow-capped Andes were watching over the airport of Esquel and the alpine nature of the region was reinforced by all the snowboards and skis coming in with the guests on the flight. This remains one of the most beautiful and striking places to visit on the planet. I feel truly privileged to have been invited to experience this mountain wonderland.