Patagonia is a vast and rugged region in the far south of South America. Shared between Argentina and Chile, this sparsely populated territory may — at first glance — seem barren and bleak. But wildlife spotters flock to Patagonia in the hopes of seeing some of its most iconic and intriguing animals, including both land and marine mammals.
The Patagonian puma is an elusive creature. Once almost hunted to extinction, the population is now beginning to rebound thanks to various protective measures. Still, it remains one of the most sought-after spectacles in Patagonia, and wildlife spotters travel far and wide in search of this shy but stunning feline. The puma is the largest land carnivore in Patagonia; its favored prey are guanacos (see below), but it will also eat smaller mammals and birds. The Aysén Region and Torres del Paine National Park, both in southern Chile, are two of the best areas for spotting the puma.
Patagonia is home to a huge population of guanacos: fast and agile camelids related to the domesticated llama. Guanacos are one of the largest wild land mammals in South America. They roam in herds comprising one dominant male with his females and their young. Bachelors, however, form their own separate herds, often much larger than the mixed groups. You can spot guanacos throughout much of Patagonia. Torres del Paine National Park and Tierra del Fuego are ideal locations, the latter being free from pumas — the guanaco’s main predator — allowing the population to graze in relative safety.
Despite its name, the Patagonian fox is not a true fox, being instead a member of the canid genus with a close resemblance to foxes. This small, large eared, greyish mammal inhabits the frigid and arid Patagonian steppe to either side of the Andes Mountain Range. The Patagonian fox, also known as the South American gray fox, has a varied diet consisting of birds, rodents, lizards, frogs, insects and fruit. Patagonia is home to two other types of fox: the slightly larger culpeo fox, and the endangered Darwin’s fox.
Patagonian Hog-Nosed Skunk
The Patagonian hog-nosed skunk has a most unappealing name. But these small, stocky skunks are actually quite charming — unless you annoy them. They use their little button noses to help root-up plants and forage for insects. Like other skunks, the Patagonian hog-nosed skunk can shoot a foul-smelling and irritating spray from its anal glands. It’s unlikely you’ll get too close to these nocturnal animals, but if you do: you have been warned.
The Patagonian hairy armadillo is one of the largest and most common armadillos in South America. Large populations are found from Magallanes to Aysen in Chile, as well as in Torres del Paine National Park. The hairy armadillo is an incredible digger, and uses all four limbs in a coordinated manner to burrow deep into the ground. It feeds on insects, worms, maggots and plant roots, and is mostly nocturnal. Patagonia is also home to the dwarf armadillo, or pichi, a small armadillo that hibernates during winter months.
The Patagonian mara is often confused with a hare due to its rabbit-like appearance, but is in fact a large rodent. Its long and powerful legs allow the mara to escape predators, running at a maximum speed of about 43 miles per hour. Still, the mara always has to remain alert — and ideally in shrub cover — as it has numerous predators including eagles, pumas and foxes. The mara is a herbivore. It’s also monogamous and has a single mate for life, but more than 25 pairs may share the same warren.
Seals and Sea Lions
You can see elephant seals and fur seals year-round along parts of the Patagonian coastlines of Chile and Argentina. One of the best places to see fur seals is in the Beagle Channel in Ushuaia. Here, hundreds of yowling fur seals sit on rocky islands, often alongside slightly larger sea lions. Colonies of large, blubbery southern elephant seals (recognizable by their funny noses) can be spotted on the Valdes Peninsula near Puerto Madryn in Argentine Patagonia, and further south on the coast of Tierra del Fuego. Male sea lions — proud, loud and potentially aggressive — begin to gather along the Valdes Peninsula in December, where they await the arrival of females. Large sea lion colonies also exist in Tierra del Fuego.
You’ll find plenty of great places to go whale watching in South America, but Patagonia is one of the best. You can see southern right whales, killer whales and orcas from Puerto Madryn and the Valdez Peninsula in Argentine Patagonia. Slow moving, curious and huge, the southern right whale is arguably the most iconic marine mammal in Patagonia. Another excellent place for spotting whales is in the far north of Patagonia on the Chilean island of Chiloé. Here you can spot blue whales and large baleen whales.
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Tony Dunnell is a freelance writer based in Peru since 2009. He’s the owner of New Peruvian and also writes for various magazines and websites. When he’s not walking his dog in the jungle town of Tarapoto, he’s off exploring other parts of Peru and South America.