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PHOTO SAFARI - LANDSCAPES & WILDLIFE (6D/5N)
RATES PER PERSON
  • 2-3 passengers USD$ 3.595
  • 4-5 passengers USD$ 3.295
  • 6-8 passengers USD$ 3.095
  • Single Supplement USD$ 580
DEPARTURE DATES
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TRIP LEVEL
Easy
TRIP LENGTH
6 Days/ 5 Nights
START / FINISH
Punta Arenas (PUQ), Chile 
ACTIVITIES
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EXTENSIONS
WHALE WATCHING (3D-2N) (WW)

DISCOVERING ATACAMA DESERT (5D-4N)

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During your trip you’ll have the opportunity for shooting magnificent vistas and an up close visit to the Glacier Grey part of the southern Patagonian ice field. Chances are we’ll view a brilliant display of ice calving from the glacier. Other highlights include the majestic Andean Condor with its wing span of up to ten feet or a Chilean flamingo, a contrast in this harsh landscape. We lodge at the Hosteria Pehoe, the most centrally located hotel in the park and with spectacular views of the Paine massif just a step or short walk outside your bedroom door.

Wildlife: Spring in Patagonia offers long days of sunlight, vast landscapes of steppe (pampa) and a world of native flowers and plants springing alive. This is the time when the young are born of the wildlife unique to the area, guanacos (Llama family), foxes, hares, ñandu (ostrich family) and pumas (mountain lions) in addition to many more varieties of birds.

Landscapes: Patagonia in the fall is a unique opportunity to capture the explosion of colors as the leaves on the native Nothofagus trees change to bright red against the back drop of the snow capped peaks of the Paine Massif. It’s a time to take advantage of the sunlight that has softened and changed angles since the summer, creating magnificent shadows over the pampas and the rolling hills.



Itinerary


Day 1: We recommend you take the early flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas (4 hours); ask for a window seat on the left aisle and make sure to bring your camera with plenty of film or memory storage space. If the skies are clear, you will enjoy amazing views of the Andes Mountain range, the Patagonian fjords and forests, the Southern Ice Fields and the Pacific Ocean. Upon your arrival at Punta Arenas, the most southerly city of the continent, a private transfer will take you to Torres del Paine National Park.
Our 5-hour drive will take us through open pampas and huge ranches (estancias) and chances are we will be able to observe one of the most typical animals in this area, the ñandu, (similar to ostrich). We then arrive at Puerto Natales, located on the Sound of Last Hope, a typical fishing town surrounded by mountains. From here we will follow an unpaved road to Torres Del Paine National Park.
(5 hours by transfer) (D) (Night at Hosteria Pehoe)

Day 2: Sunrise shoot of the Torres Del Paine from the hotel location. After breakfast in the hotel we will head to Grey Lake so we can sail up to the Grey Glacier. In order to reach the boat we must walk through a mature beech forest where we might see woodpeckers. We will sail for about an hour amongst the icebergs and up to Grey Glacier, where we will stay for a while in front of the glacier in the hope of seeing icebergs calve (break off). Our return journey offers great views of Paine Grande with its impressive ice mushroom (icy peaks/plateaus). We will have a picnic lunch before continuing with a walk along the beach to observe the stranded icebergs.
(B-BL-D) (Night at Hosteria Pehoe)

Day 3: Sunrise shoot from our hotel of the western face of the Torres Del Paine. After breakfast in the hotel we will head towards Sarmiento Lake, with its incredible dark blue waters and strange, calcareous (lime) formations. This sector provides excellent opportunities to see guanacos, grey foxes and the Andean Condor. On the way back to the hotel we will stop at the Salto Grande waterfall, one of the best areas for photographing flowers, where depending on the season, we may see orchids, calceolarias, and neneos. After a picnic lunch we will return to the Hostería for a siesta. In the late afternoon (5-6PM) we will head east to film guanacos.
(B-BL-D) (Night at Hosteria Pehoe)

Day 4: Early in the morning we will drive to the eastern side of the park so we can take pictures of the sunrise with the famous Torres (Towers) in the backround. Since we need to leave before sunrise there is the possibility of glimpsing a puma (Mountain lion). After we photograph the sunrise we will drive to Laguna Azul, a lovely lake bordering the park. This area is ideal for observing different kinds of ducks, swans, coots and even woodpeckers, as well as having an incredible view of the Torres. We will picnic in front of the lake and then spend the rest of the afternoon taking photographs of flowers, the wildlife and the wonderful views.
(B-BL-D) (Night spent at Hosteria Pehoe)

Day 5: Today will provide the second chance for a sunrise shoot with the Towers in the background. Once again this time of day offers the best chance of seeing a puma. As this is our last day we will try to take pictures of all the animals found in this area; guanacos, rheas, foxes and condors. This area, in particular, is a good place to photograph the guanacos, silhouetted against the mountains.
We will have an early brunch before returning to the hotel where you will have some afternoon free time. This evening will provide the last opportunity to take the ultimate sunset shoot before we enjoy our farewell dinner together in front of the Paine massif.
(B-BL-D) (Night at Hosteria Pehoe)

Day 6: Private transfer to Punta Arenas Airport.
(5 hours by private transfer) (B)

REGARDING THE SCHEDULE
The schedules indicated above are subject to change due to weather conditions or unexpected circumstances beyond our control, but we will try our best to keep them unaltered

 
Hosteria Pehoe

Located in the heart of Torres del Paine National Park, it offers the visitor the opportunity to enjoy the wonders that the nature gives. In a privileged location on an island of 5 hectares and with a beautiful vista of the Pehoé Lake and the Horns of the Paine mountains, it is our first choice for the photo safaris tours.


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INCLUDED
-All the private transportation indicated in the schedule
-All meals indicated in the schedule (B: breakfast, BL: box lunch, D: dinner)
-Entrance fee to Torres del Paine National Park
-Five nights at Hostería Pehoe in Torres del Paine (double superior rooms)
-Boat ride to Glacier Grey
-Professional Guide (English-Spanish languages) plus a driver for a group over 4 guests.
-Professional guide/driver for groups of 4 guests or less
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NOT INCLUDED
-Flight to Santiago, Chile
-Internal Flight Santiago - Punta Arenas
-Any additional nights
-Medical expenses
-Insurance of any kind
-Personal expenses
-Alcoholic and non alcoholic drinks at the Hosteria
-Lunch on Day 1 & 6
-Gratuities for Guide & Driver
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WEATHER

The weather in Patagonia in an important factor that must b e taken into account. The maximum temperature in summer is 20 C° and it drops to below 0° in winter. The windchill factor sometimes makes the ambient temperature drop 6 or 7 degrees. The temperature of the water is normally between 4 and 5 degrees Celsius.


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Torres del Paine in MayTrek
 
Our Patagonia trip was perfect. The weather was amazing, save a foggy day by Glacier Grey and some blustery wind on our day to visit the king penguins in Tierra del Fuego. Both of our guides were terrific!

Chile Nativo and their guides/drivers did a tremendous job. Gonzalo was very prompt in responding to e-mails and was helpful. Both Ricardo and Armando were extremely knowledgable guides. The itinerary they crafted was perfect for our needs and balanced sightseeing with hiking in the park.

The majority of the group got up-close and personal with a puma on the last day hike. I would say that is something that everyone will remember. Again thank you to everyone for helping us provide this amazing trip for our students.

 
Jeff
Mayo 2014
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Puma Tracking and Adventure Cruise Patagonia
 
It was again fantastic. I can’t recommend our guide Carlos enough. He went out of the way to accommodate us and to make sure we were comfortable at all times. He even woke us up as early as 0430 and brought us back home as late as 2200 just because we were so determined to see Pumas. He carried packed lunch with us on our hikes and put up an extraordinary spread in the middle of nowhere. He was great and so was our driver.

We managed to see Pumas and that was the highlight of the trip. We saw a sub-adult drinking, walking stretching and eating a day old Guanaco carcass, and the next day in the early morning we saw an adult (most likely its mother) walking quickly across the steppe. It’s an incredible feeling seeing a Puma on foot less than 5 meters away from you: all of us were elated and kept replaying every moment again and again. It is a fantastic experience.

 
Kush
March 2014
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Fotografia en Torres del Paine
 
Torres del Paine es un lugar excepcional, pero para que un viaje resulte de verdad unico se requiere un buen guia y en nuestro caso un chofer con conocimiento de la zona. He de decir que con la experiencia y entusiasmo de Diego y la flexibilidad de Mirco, nuestro viaje a Paine fue de verdad especial. Lo que aprendimos con Diego nos sirvio para el resto del viaje por Chile y Argentina. Muchas de sus explicaciones sobre flora y fauna nos sirvieron luego de referencia. Su entusiasmo por Paine es de verdad contagioso! Nos quedan no solo las fotos (por cierto muy buenas gracias a sus consejos) como recuerdo del viaje, sino sus explicaciones y forma de apreciar Torres del Paine.

Chile Nativo ofrece un servicio muy profesional, con un excelente conocimiento de la zona. Torres del Paine es por si mismo un lugar extraordinario, pero Chile Nativo tiene plena conciencia de su valor y nos invita a compartir su entusiasmo, para que de verdad conozcamos no solo el paisaje sino la vida y el pulso de Torres del Paine. Es mas que un tour, es toda una experiencia.

 
Maria Jesus Camara
Noviembre 2008
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Foto safari en Otoño
 
Excelente viaje, con los objetivos fotógraficos plenamente logrados. La comida en Hostería Pehoe con sus acostumbradas deficiencias, pero como para mí son conocidas de antemano las considero de importancia secundaria.
Diego: Nota 7 en todas las evaluaciones solicitadas, además de un gran aporte en su input sobre manejo de las cámaras. Gran entusiasmo, y excelente manejo del tema de wildlife.
Miel sobre Hojuelas

 
Alejandro Furman
Abril, 2008
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Wildlife Photography in Torres Del Paine
 
It was three years in the making but we finally put together our first Torres del Paine Photo Tour, and it was worth the wait. Our trip was timed to coincide with what is, statistically, the best season for weather, with the least likelihood of having rain. Well, you wouldn't know it! We had an unusual amount of rain, and clouds blocked the sweet orange-red angular light of dawn and dusk most days. We had one fair magic color dawn, but it didn't last long and wasn't especially intense. We had one good evening, and one potentially incredible one, but we missed the best light on that one because of a vehicle breakdown. In that respect our shots of Torres del Paine were somewhat disappointing for me, at least for that magic light of dawn and dusk.

That's the bad news. And that, to be sure, was far outweighed by the incredible luck we had with our other shooting subjects. We did get the mountain in several types of weather, getting both the 'horns' and the 'towers' of Torres. Our boat trip to the face of Gray's glacier we were treated to an assortment of ice faces, as the retreating glacier now reveals stony rock fronts at several spots. Gray's lake's terminal moraine can be the trap for incredibly diverse and picturesque icebergs in a good year-or little, and this year it was great. We spent an extremely productive afternoon with wonderful light shooting the 'bergs - a real bonus for we had a chance to do so twice. On our first visit we did a recon of the icebergs but only a few people may the hike, and little shooting was done. This stressed me, because I worried that our only shooting window for the bergs was not exploited. Luck was with us, though, and we had a great shoot later on in the week. Scenics require cooperative weather and if our trip had been based solely on landscape shooting we'd have had a modestly successful trip at best. Fortunately, though, last year on Mary's scouting trip (I'd done the same trip the year before) we met a local Chilean wildlife photographer who befriended us and who then acted as our local guide for our tour group. Our guide had spent nearly 20 days in the park before our tour scouting and leading another photographer so he knew where everything was likely to be. It was, so we wasted no time looking for the birds and mammals we hoped to shoot and only the Patagonian red fox (aka Andean wolf) eluded us. As it turned out, I got the fox the day the photo tour group left for home!

The wildlife of Torres del Paine is no where near as diverse as one finds on an East African photo safari. Southern South America is a land of extremes and species diversity at the end of the world is rather limited (just as it is in Denali - see our Question of the Month). Torres has its own 'Big Seven,' they being Patagonian gray fox, Patagonian red fox, guanaco, huemule, Andean condor, Magellanic woodpecker, and puma. Our group 'nailed' four of these, and I had six with three extra days of shooting. The photo tour was five full days of shooting, theoretically involving some very long hours. The magic light of predawn alpen glow occurs between 5 and 5:30AM, with sunrise at 5:45. Most of us at least woke up to check the light each morning, which is all that's generally needed because one of the best views of the mountains is right from a hilltop adjacent to our hotel. Unfortunately most mornings we could go back to bed for a 7AM breakfast since the mornings were often rainy or cloudy. The wildlife of Torres del Paine is no where near as diverse as one finds on an East African photo safari. Southern South America is a land of extremes and species diversity at the end of the world is rather limited (just as it is in Denali - see our Question of the Month). Torres has its own 'Big Seven,' they being Patagonian gray fox, Patagonian red fox, guanaco, huemule, Andean condor, Magellanic woodpecker, and puma. Our group 'nailed' four of these, and I had six with three extra days of shooting. The photo tour was five full days of shooting, theoretically involving some very long hours. The magic light of predawn alpen glow occurs between 5 and 5:30AM, with sunrise at 5:45. Most of us at least woke up to check the light each morning, which is all that's generally needed because one of the best views of the mountains is right from a hilltop adjacent to our hotel. Unfortunately most mornings we could go back to bed for a 7AM breakfast since the mornings were often rainy or cloudy. The wildlife of Torres del Paine is no where near as diverse as one finds on an East African photo safari. Southern South America is a land of extremes and species diversity at the end of the world is rather limited (just as it is in Denali - see our Question of the Month). Torres has its own 'Big Seven,' they being Patagonian gray fox, Patagonian red fox, guanaco, huemule, Andean condor, Magellanic woodpecker, and puma. Our group 'nailed' four of these, and I had six with three extra days of shooting.

The photo tour was five full days of shooting, theoretically involving some very long hours. The magic light of predawn alpen glow occurs between 5 and 5:30AM, with sunrise at 5:45. Most of us at least woke up to check the light each morning, which is all that's generally needed because one of the best views of the mountains is right from a hilltop adjacent to our hotel. Unfortunately most mornings we could go back to bed for a 7AM breakfast since the mornings were often rainy or cloudy. One morning - the only one with 'marginal' magic light - we left at 4:30AM for a sunrise shoot. On that day, as would occur every day if the light had been cooperative, we returned for a late morning breakfast and a pre-lunch siesta. After a much needed nap we returned to the field where we remained until the 8PM dinner hour. Sunsets could be, and were, shot at the hotel overlook We had one mini-disaster: our driver lost the keys to our vehicle! Fortunately it was at the end of a great day at Gray's glacier and everyone was sated and tired. Our guide arranged for a loaner vehicle to return us to our hotel and, in loading, we packed our gear in less than accessible ways. Consequently, when we drove back and discovered that the mountain was clear we didn't stop and drag out the gear. Instead we continued, hoping that we'd get back to the hotel in time to both unload and shoot. We missed catching the best light by about 5 minutes! This was a disappointment, but the day had been so good - one of the best, that no one really minded.

We arranged for a photo shoot with a trio of gauchos, the Patagonian cowboy, who herded horses across a field and toward us for several passes. The gauchos got into it, and before we finished the horse drive we had the gauchos galloping straight at our cameras, breaking and veering off at the last second. Literally! On the last gallop one of the gauchos almost lost control (I have a shot as he hangs half-off his horse as he swerves hard to the right) as the horses zipped by. Dirt, grass clods, stuff was flying - and with flying hooves zipping passed it was a great, fun shoot. After the horse drive we returned to the stables where the gauchos prepared their mate` -- a traditional hot drink, giving us great chances for portraits as they sipped their mate` and tended the small fire they used to heat their teapot. The three hour session was one of the highlights of the week for 6 of the 7 shooters - it was that good. While some scenics require particular weather conditions most wildlife subjects do not. In fact, many animals are best shot in cloudy-bright conditions. Having a terrific guide who had located subjects beforehand, and having some unbelievable luck with some subjects that can't be pinpointed, we truly maximized our shooting opportunities.

Two years earlier, on my first trip to the area, I found a Magellanic woodpecker nest that I was unable to photograph. Magellanic's are huge, larger than our pileated woodpecker, and they can be incredibly tame. Although it was a thrill to see one, and to discover a nest, I was haunted by the missed opportunity. This year that ghost was laid to rest, as our guide had located a very shootable nest. That shoot was the highlight of the photo tour for me. When you think about this, the shooting opportunities are pretty incredibly unique. Pileated woodpeckers - an analogous species - are found throughout much of North America. I've had one nest near our home at Hoot Hollow which I did not shoot, and I've never photographed one at a nest, and I'm certain no one in our group had either. Here, in Torres del Paine, our group filmed a pair at their nest!

I've never filmed a fox den either, and I'd bet neither had anyone else in our group, but we did on the tour. On three separate occasions we photographed Patagonian gray fox (an entirely different species from the US gray fox), including two shoots with adults and one with two pups at the den. As we filmed these I couldn't help but think - I've never done this in the States! We saw Andean condors almost daily, but usually as distinguishable silhouettes as they soared high overhead. At Gray's glacier we had a nice male fly by low and close enough to see its distinctive white secondary feathers, which was videoed, but these were merely record shots. Things would change. On our last full day in the park (on the tour) we had some of our best weather. Our destination was some of the overlooks where we could photograph the towers of the massif, but en route, at each stop, other subjects popped into view. We had incredible opportunities with young guanacos in fields of flowers and adults framed against the towers themselves. At a scenic cascade - the best waterfall that is easily accessible, we spotted a condor as it landed on the top of a not-too-distant hill. Another bird joined it, and then a third. Other condors appeared, and all seamed to be headed to the same spot.

Sarah Plunkett, who really wanted to see condors, had noticed the activity first, and she was all set to try to get closer. She and I headed uphill, stopping frequently as birds soared and circled by, sometimes more than filling the frame! As more birds gathered I wondered if a puma was guarding a kill so I continued up the hillside, eventually finding a guanaco baby that was half consumed. Examining the carcass we concluded it was a natural death, not a puma kill. Spurred on by our example, and Sarah's frantic waving to join us, the rest of the group scrambled up the hill and everyone got shots of the condors before they eventually soared away. Typically condors do not linger at a kill - they can be shy and after a pass or two they leave. These did not, and for twenty minutes or so we had several birds repeatedly circle our position, sometimes actually flying below our position! Incredible shooting, fantastic viewing, and truly one of the highlights of the trip.

Mary and I stayed on for an extra three days with the intention to search hard for pumas. Had the weather cooperated we would have devoted the last two days of the photo tour to this activity - all the scenics can be done in two or three days of good weather, and even when puma hunting one can pause for the magic of predawn alpen glow landscapes - but with the whacky weather we had too much to squeeze in during the tour. We traveled with the group half-way to the airport, and returned to the park in the late morning. By then the cloudy morning skies had cleared and we experienced the clearest, virtually cloud-free skies of the entire trip! Talk about irony! Nonetheless we didn't shoot a scenic. The Magellanic woodpeckers were close to fledging so my guide and I returned to the nest (Mary needed sleep after a very restless night!) but our luck with the birds was marginal. From there we explored two locations for the Patagonian red fox, and at the second location hit pay dirt. We did quite well, and learned a couple of things that we could use for photographing the fox on our next tour. The following day began cloudy, but for a brief few minutes dawn light struck the swirling clouds around the mountain massif. Mary took some shots, which were the only images we shot all day! The rest of that morning, and all afternoon, we spent hiking the backcountry looking for puma, without success. On my first trip to Torres I got hooked because I saw, close - 20 yards or so, a puma that I was unable to photograph. Last year Mary and I spent virtually the entire week looking for puma, and photographing the other wildlife in our off-hours. While we were there our future guide found and photographed a family of four, so we knew we were close, but unlucky. This year, in three days, I hoped to change that luck. Our guide didn't have much hope - stating we would not see a puma because it takes about a week, on average, to find one. One might, as he did just a week before, find a cat on the first day of a search, but not see another one in six more days of looking. So, chances are, we wouldn't be successful and his assessment would be right.

We started that last day with a 3:30AM wakeup and 4AM departure, scanning the still black landscape for tell-tale green eyeshine. Once we thought we had luck - Mary spotted green eyes, but they belonged to a fox. Our hopes were to spot a puma as it walked back to its day lair and to follow the cat until it eventually came to rest. We didn't spot a cat. At 7AM we went to plan B, where Mary, me, our guide, and a tracker (experienced game-guy, spotter, not really a 'tracker') would split up and begin hiking over likely-looking country. We had covered that same ground the day before, putting in a total of 9 man-hours hiking the hills and cliff edges. Mary thought she had a puma almost immediately (see Tip of the Month-Carry Your Gear), but it was a false alarm. At 8AM, while I sat on a low ridge top scanning the area, I did spot a puma, a speck on the top of a ridge about 200 yards away. I called Mary in via radio but from her position, another 300 yards away, she could not discern the cat. Most of the remaining story can be read under the Tip of the Month so I won't repeat it here. However, I'll simply repeat that I had a wild puma within view for over two hours, was within 60 yards and absolutely frame-filling, full view, completely clear, perched on a photogenic rock ledge, heart-breakingly beautiful, study of the puma for almost a half hour as I cried in my beer waiting for my gear to arrive! I ended up shooting the cat for the first time at a measured distance of 60 feet!, and would had two different shooting sessions before the cat left the ridge. Truly, that was the highlight of the trip for me, the culmination of two trips and the validation of the first. It was bitter-sweet to be sure, as I missed the to-die-for shots because I didn't have my gear, and because Mary arrived too late to get more than a fleeting glimpse of the cat.

Still, it proved to me that photographing the puma in the wild could be done, and that a group could even do it provided they had the time and the energy. Remember, in the two days that we devoted exclusively to the cat I didn't shoot a single picture on the first day and only photographed the puma on the second. Had I had my gear I would have ran out of flash cards, but since I didn't have my gear, I only shot 50 or so images. We hiked a total of about 17 man-hours (I'm counting the hiking time for our guide and tracker who were looking while I was waiting for Mary to meet up with them at the car) and personally I did about 6 miles of walking/searching before I had any luck. And even then, we were lucky. Next year I'm going back, either with a group or alone. At this point I'm hoping to do another photo tour and then add some extra days for puma, that will be offered to the participants provided they understand all that a puma search involves - including disappointment!

If you are interested in our Torres del Paine Photo Tour, contact our office by phone or email.

Contact us by e-mail: hoothollow@acsworld.com Or Call or FAX us at: (717) 543-6423.

**Interested in photographing wild puma? If I do not do a tour, I might take as many as two photographers on a special puma safari. Predawn and early mornings will be devoted to searching for pumas, with the rest of the day available for photographing the area's other wildlife. I'm fairly confident I'll be successful, but this type of trip would be expensive and speculative. If you are interested, contact our office ASAP.**

© Photos by:
Joe and Mary Ann McDonald's
Wildlife Photography
website: www.hoothollow.com

 
Joe & Mary Ann McDonald
December 2004
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It was a great trip!
 
It was a great trip! Everything ran smoothly, the food was good, and the level of energy exhibited by our Chile Nativo guide and our driver was fantastic. We saw and photographed more than I'd have expected, the weather was better than I imagined, and the photography subjects far more diverse and interesting than I'd ever have thought. I really appreciated the fact that our guide had worked in the park previously and was known by much of the park personel we encountered, which gave us valuable inside-information and help as we sought out subjects. I am looking forward to returning again to Torres del Paine next year.

Scouting Trip - Torres del Paine, Chile with a side-trip to Mt. Fitz Roy and Perito Moreno Glacier, Argentina and an incredible 20 minute walk with a wild puma!

Reputed to be one of the most scenic locations in the world, and with some of the most dramatic landscapes and light, Torres del Paine, Chile was long on my list of places to visit. Ironically, Torres del Paine was only a few hours drive from our Chilean point-of-departure to the Falkland Islands, which we've visited several times, but because of pressing schedules Mary and I never had a chance to explore Torres del Paine while in that area.Good friends of our's, Alex and Gustavo Furman, who live in Santiago, Chile, had been inviting us to visit this incredible park for years, but again, because of time constraints, we just couldn't do it. This year's presidential election in Kenya in late December gave us the first opening we had in years, since we wanted to avoid being in Kenya during what might turn out to be a turbulent national election. Accordingly, we were home in mid-November, which freed up a late-November/early December trip to Chile, and I committed myself to doing the trip. Mary stayed home -- after 12 weeks in Africa she needed some valuable office time, and wished to prepare for a family Christmas, so I joined Alex and Gus on an extremely well-planned and thorough tour of the southern Andies and the best those locations have to offer.

I can take no credit for this trip -- Alex and Gus did all of the planning, and everything worked flawlessly. What follows is a brief account of my scouting trip to these areas which concluded in my firm conviction to return with small groups. The hype for Torres del Paine is well founded -- it is a spectacular location, as you'll discover if you read on.

Torres del Paine is reached by a five hour drive from the nearest airport, in Punta Arenas, in southern Chile. This city also served as a departure point for our land-entry into southern Argentina to visit Fitz Roy, Leaving Santiago on an early flight we arrived in Punta Arenas by early afternoon, met our guide and driver, and continued to the Chilean/Argentina border. Passage across the border went smoothly, and by early evening we were in Calafate', Argentina for the night. The next day we continued to El Chitan, a small town that serves as a departure point for trips into the Fitz Roy Mountains, where we met our Argentinean guides and prepared for our hike into the back country to photograph Fitz Roy, one of the most spectacular mountains of the western hemisphere.

We had to travel reasonably lightly since we would be hiking and camping for the following three nights. Horses led by Argentinean cowboys, the gauchos, carried are packs, camp gear, and camera gear to our first base camp, and -- and this was cushy, porters from the town carried our camera equipment while we were in the field. Still, burdened only by a tripod and one lens, the 2 or 3 hour hike uphill into the back country of Fitz Roy was a challenge, and, with the lack of shooting I did en route, I wished I had let the horses carry those minor items. Once in the high country, however, the hiking was easy, with some small hills and a few steep grades, but pretty effortless in total. We arrived at our base camp in the early evening, and immediately sought a location to film Fitz Roy for a pre-dawn, alpine glow sunrise. Mountain photography is always tricky, for bad weather can spoil all your good intentions. When I had my first, half-cloud shrouded view of Fitz Roy, Alex half jokingly suggested I take a few shots since that might be my only view over the next several days. As it turned out, it was not, and we had spectacular weather during our stay. Our campsite was located in a southern beech forest where, I was told, the world's largest woodpecker, the Magellanic woodpecker, could be found. Previously I'd searched for that bird in the Terra del Fuego parks in southern Argentina, but without success. This mountain forest didn't appear too promising, but what did I know?

That evening, on our first shoot (of Fitz Roy in the last light of the day), I had a brief glimpse of a female Magellanic. These birds are huge, bigger than a Pileated woodpecker, and the female Magellanic has a somewhat comical curly-que feather crest that curls over her forehead. My bird suddenly appeared on a small tree about 20 yards away, gave me a few glances, and flew off. While it was definitely the bird I sought, I didn't have binocs with me and it was 'only' a male. I still hoped to see more.

The following day we hiked to a few different shooting locations where, by day's end, I figured I logged in almost 20 miles of walking! In the late afternoon, still searching for another glimpse of a Magellanic woodpecker, I hiked back up to the area I'd seen the female and began a search. To find big, mobile woodpeckers it's best to simply sit and wait, spending several minutes at a location before moving on to another vantage point. Over the course of an hour or so I made several stops, including one where I was certain I had found the nest of the woodpecker. A fresh, slightly oval hole had been hammered out of a beech tree, with fresh wood chips scattered below the nest. No bird appeared while I waited and I wondered if the young had already fledged, or if nesting had even begun. Discouraged, I headed back to camp when the shadow of a passing bird crossed my vision. I spun around, and spotted a MALE Magellanic only 20 yards away. I had my binocs this time and had a great view. Then, perhaps when I looked away for a second, the bird was gone. I didn't see it leave, but it had vanished, although I was sure it had returned to the nest I found.

Later I returned to the nest with Gus and Alex and our two guides (two trips), and while we patiently waited the adult male flew into the nest. The photographic location was spectacular -- the nest was only 12 feet off the ground, but I didn't have a long, fast lens with me nor a tele-flash, so instead of filming the bird we contented ourselves in simply soaking up its beauty. With a crimson red head and shiny black plumage, the bird had a lot to admire, and with my 18X IS binocs we had absolutely unforgettable views.

That evening it rained, and we were certain that we'd miss a second dawn shoot of Fitz Roy but we awoke to a brilliant cloudless sky. Our shooting location included a small water fall and we decided to use the pool-like lagoon at the start of the falls as a framing device. I got into position first, just as the morning light slipped down the stream bed far enough for the pool to be illuminated, and prepared to shoot. Before I could do a shot a TORRENT DUCK, a high mountain species similar in many ways to our NW USA harlequin duck, popped into view, literally feet in front of my camera. It swam rapidly back and forth, crossing my field of view until finally perching on a rock just a few yards before me. Several times over the next two hours the bird changed rocks, presenting new positions and poses, and doing a great job of disrupting our shooting of Fitz Roy from our waterfall position.

While Alex and Gus repeatedly warned me that this trip would not be a wildlife shoot -- strictly landscapes, because wildlife is so scarce here -- my first two days in the field had yielded spectacular photos of a very difficult to see duck, and wonderful views of a woodpecker I've lusted to simply see ever since I made my first trip to Argentina over ten years ago. Alex and Gus were certainly correct about the scenics -- they were spectacular, but the wildlife proved an unexpected bonus for all of us. We spent a third night camping in the Fitz Roy area, staying our last evening at a base camp used by glacier hikers and for climbers of Fitz Roy. Using 18X binocs we could really see the detail, and the difficulty, of climbing Fitz Roy or the Towers, an observation further honed when I looked at a magazine, 'Climbing", that showed closeups of the walls, the handholds, the conditions, required to climb these types of faces. Quite honestly I had a whole new respect for the late Galen Rowell -- I'm fairly certain he's been down here, and I know there's no way I could be in his shoes. You gotta see it to truly appreciate it -- climbing those rocks is an almost superhuman challenge.

For those tempted to visit Fitz Roy, let me provide these cautions. Although some photo tours visit El Chitan, great views of the mountains are not possible unless you hike into the high country. Granted, distant views that show the whole range, or semi-landscape extractions might be possible from the roads leading to El Chitan, there is no substitute for being within a few miles of the mountain, and that requires hiking. We did not have to backpack in -- our gear was hauled by horses, we had a camp staff ready that set up our tents and cooked, and (and this is the best part) we had individual porters that carried our tripods and camera backpacks to each location. I was almost embarrassed at the cushy-ness of this, but I'll tell you, it's easy to be spoiled and I got used to it really quick! Camping in the area is not for the squeamish -- food was pretty simplistic (a lot of cheese sandwiches) and the latrine was a broken-door structure with a hole in the floor. At one campsite, the board that framed the hole was rotted, and there was some concern about it breaking -- and that's not a pretty thought. Bad knees? Good luck!

Leaving Fitz Roy we headed to Calafate for the Perito Moreno glacier. At Calafate we visited a great bird refuge where Chilean flamingos, southern lapwings, Magellanic oystercatchers, and several species of duck and swan were filmed. On our previous trips to Argentina we had visited the glacier, and frankly it's relatively boring after the first hour or two. Alex had arranged with a local guide to drive us to a high mountain overlook via this 4x4 truck -- at some spots our route went up, and down, inclines that were approaching 45 degrees. Our guide has been in road rallies sponsored by Toyota and knew how to drive -- so his almost impossible to believe 45 degree incline was, in fact, true. From the overlook we had an almost aerial view, plus some great opportunities with wild flowers. Again, I'd be cautious of tours going to the glacier -- without the special vantages that we had I'd suggest a day's visit would be more than enough.

At both Fitz Roy and the Perito Moreno Glacier we had spectacular weather, and on every shooting day we had clear weather for the majority of the time to shoot. Consequently we had alpine glow on the mountains, great swirling clouds around the towers, and a variety of lighting angles on the glaciers. I mention this for two reasons: 1. we were lucky and 2. if you go, based upon my images taken over 5 days, you might be disappointed because you may not see Mt. Fitz Roy for an entire month! In that respect Fitz Roy is like Denali in Alaska -- you want to see it, but you may not. And, depending upon the time of year, you very well will not. From Calafate we headed to our final destination, the one the trip was primarily geared for. Torres del Paine National Park is a place of mystique. The mountains -- the 'horns' that form the massive glacier-scraped bulk of the mountain and the almost needle-like 'towers' for which the park is named -- is compelling from any angle, if it is visible. Alex had a brief hour or so shooting session with the mountain six years ago on his last visit, the only time he saw the mountain in two weeks. We had the mountain visible EVERY DAY, and, in fact, the biggest shortcoming of the trip was that we had few days where the weather was so ominous and forbidding that we had relatively few opportunities to shoot the 'stormy side' of the mountain for which it is so well known. But, that's a small complaint!

One of my objectives for this trip was to thoroughly scout out Torres del Paine for possible photo tours to the park in the future. This, I accomplished, as we visited virtually every lookout and vantage point photographers on a tour might wish to see. And some of those lookouts were spectacular. One of our favorite was the late afternoon light falling on the stranded icebergs in Gray's Lagoon, offering a variety of images and angles I've had no where else -- including coastal Alaska or the peninsula of Antarctica. Some 'bergs were only yards away, and by walking the 1/2 mile stone beach, or climbing a small way up a trail to an overlook, we had rolls of film and hour's of shooting of a landscape that continually changed.

 
Joe McDonald
December 2002
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