A big cat safari in Chile and Argentina
Thanks to a conservation drive in the Ibera Wetlands, there are ample pumas, cougars and jaguars to spot in this dramatic patch of South America
When shifting clouds provide the only snatches of shade in a sun-scorched land, it takes until nightfall for most life to wake up. After a day dozing in the shadows, marsh deer rustle through reeds, rheas dust off their tail feathers and tiger herons ripple through lagoons bleeding sunset red.
Twenty-five years ago, this vast, water-logged section of northern Argentina was denuded of wildlife. But, slowly, birdsong has grown louder and paw prints increasingly pattern trails.
The most distinctive of all belongs to the jaguar, a native big cat only recently returned to Corrientes province after 70 years’ absence.
“My grandparents were very scared of jaguars,” says Mingo, a local gaucho leading me on a horseback ride through rewilded swamps. But in less than two generations, attitudes have softened. “My 11-year-old daughter is crazy about nature,” he says, laughing. “She talks about animals all the time.”
None of this has happened by accident.
The Ibera Wetlands — a pancake-flat, largely inaccessible area riddled with waterways and drifting islands — has become the focus of an ambitious conservation project launched by the American conservationists Kris Tompkins and her late husband, Doug.
Formerly chief executives of the adventure clothing companies Patagonia and The North Face respectively, the couple spent several decades working to protect more than 14 million acres of land in Argentina and Chile. Their vision was to restore wild spaces, which would eventually be managed by the state and sustained in part by ecotourism.
Purchased in the late 1990s, Rincon del Socorro is a renovated cattle farm, and a gateway to Ibera for visitors. Reached by a seven-hour drive or 90-minute flight on a light aircraft from Posadas, the gateway city linking flights from Buenos Aires to the far north, the resort has six rooms and three bungalows that open onto lawns teeming with wildlife. Capybara, the largest rodents, are daily visitors; at night the silhouettes of snooping foxes and snuffling armadillos are illuminated by campfire flames.
“The last time I came here I spent five hours looking for white-collared peccary,” Les Carlisle, my guide, says of the stumpy, boar-like creatures now regularly seen trooping through the gardens.
The South African conservationist, who has been employed by &Beyond for 30 years, is a pioneer of game-management techniques. His achievements range from transporting 30 white rhinos to Rwanda in a jumbo jet to repopulating the parks of his home country with cheetah cubs. Like the Tompkinses, Carlisle is a member of conservation royalty. Now officially retired, he is nevertheless leading an exciting new journey through Chile and Argentina — part of a portfolio of Impact tours launched by &Beyond that promise to take guests behind the scenes of pioneering projects expanding our planet’s wild spaces.
Although by his own admission South America is 30 years behind Africa in terms of conservation and ecotourism, Carlisle believes that the potential is enormous. Pumas and jaguars deservedly steal most of the limelight.
Nine species — including giant anteaters and red macaws — have been reintroduced to Ibera National Park and adjoining land donated by the Tompkins Foundation; this is now managed by Rewilding Argentina, the foundation’s affiliate NGO. But here, the jaguar is the villain turned superstar.
In January last year the first female and cubs were released on the island of San Alonso, a short flight from Rincon del Socorro but, crucially, far enough from other human communities. A year later the first male, Jatobazinho, was released, paving the way for breeding in the wild.
“January 6 last year was the best day of my life,” Tompkins says when I meet her on San Alonso, where a farmhouse has been transformed into a research centre. “I never imagined it could happen. But when that jaguar walked out the gate I thought, ‘I could die tomorrow.’ Now everything else is icing on the cake.”
Locked down in California during Covid, the 71-year-old has returned to Ibera for the first time in two years. A day earlier she was declared an honorary citizen of Corrientes province by the mayor in a surprise ceremony — testimony to the impact her work has had on the community.
As we walk around the high-security enclosures where a new generation of jaguars were conceived, she admits that she was terrified of the predators in the beginning and would travel across the island in a golf cart fitted with a cage. “That’s the arc of going from not knowing to knowing,” she says with a smile.
She shows me an enclosure for giant otters, where they rip into fat, shiny fish with the ease of tearing through tissue paper. Then we set out on horseback to search for a collared jaguar; riding through grass so long it reaches the base of our saddles as a researcher holds aloft a telemetry device.
Dodging wriggling snakes and potholes dug by armadillos, we canter through a bleached, lemony haze of morning sun. But despite our efforts all we uncover is the carcass of a capybara swarming with flies. Still, it’s evidence that jaguars are nearby.
Carlisle, who has known Tompkins for several years, recalls the moment she almost ended her involvement in the project after the death of her husband in a 2015 kayak accident. She shares her story with us over lunch at a table set beneath acacia trees at San Alonso’s main house.
Comparing Doug’s death to “an amputation”, she says that there were times when she wanted to disappear. “Grief became my third language; sometimes it was deep and dark blue, like swimming through an ink well,” she says.
Eventually reaching the conclusion that she should continue doing the things they loved doing together, she chose to “turn up the heat, go bigger, go faster”. “The worst thing that could happen to me just had,” she says. “In a way it was liberating.”
Conversation and debate are key to an Impact tour. Although Tompkins’s visit was a surprise and there’s no promise that she’ll join future tours, Sofia Heinonen, the director of Rewilding Argentina, will be around. As we sit by the campfire at Socorro, Carlisle gives presentations about relocating game and shares anecdotes from Africa. We discuss the value of hunting to conservation and debate whether animals should be named or numbered — fuelled by scientific fact, fierce emotion and lots of red wine.
While the wheels are fully in motion at Ibera, on the other side of the Andes conservationists are only starting to break ground. Swapping vast open plains for the sharp folds of sawtooth mountains, we cross the border into Chile and head south to Torres del Paine, the best place in the Americas to see pumas.
Next to Patagonia’s premier national park, Cerro Guido is the area’s largest estancia — an area so wild and inhospitable that full-size dinosaur fossils have survived untouched.
As recently as a decade ago gauchos were regularly shooting pumas to protect their sheep, even though it was illegal. But attitudes are slowly changing, thanks to an increase in tourism and improved education. Having converted part of their working cattle farm into a lodge — dressed with heavy wooden furnishings and floral upholstery that pay homage to the 1920s pioneer lifestyle — the Simunovic and Matetic families chose to embrace ecotourism by inviting the photographer Pia Vergara to establish a foundation here, focused on preserving Patagonia’s precious wildlife and habitat. Foundation Cerro Guido, which was featured in the opening episode of the second series of David Attenborough’s Dynasties documentaries, is working to reduce conflict between humans and wildlife by introducing maremma sheepdogs to protect the grazing flocks.
Early one morning, before dawn’s pink fingers have stretched above the horizon, we drive to Condoreras, a steep, corrugated ridge sliding into a valley of granite where condors glide and pumas skulk.
“Everything the light touches is our kingdom,” Vergara says, laughing, as she scans the landscape, soon setting eyes on Hector, a hulking male puma in pursuit of a female. Using a combination of camera traps and observations, she hopes to build a detailed picture of pumas on the estancia.
Our exclusive tour gives us access to areas that are usually off limits to tourists; we creep along rocky corridors and walk into lichen-draped forests, step- ping over a turmeric carpet of autumn leaves. Sitting silently on a fallen tree trunk, we listen to the rhythmic tapping of a Magellanic woodpecker and the swoosh of a horned owl’s wings, all the time imagining how many pumas may be watching us.
Not everyone, however, shares our enthusiasm for the species. During a sheep-shearing demonstration at the estancia, a gaucho named Viktor Sharp refuses to discuss pumas — although his sentiments are very clear. Angered by what he perceives to be a threat to his livelihood, he warns against “thinking they can change reality in a place like this”.
In Patagonia, distances are enormous, making our fast-paced itinerary as ambitious in scale as it is in scope. A few final days at Vira Vira, &Beyond’s only lodge in South America, presents a welcome opportunity for us to relax in Chile’s Lake District. We row along a river running alongside the luxury lodge, hike through forests of ancient monkey puzzle trees in the nearby national park and take a helicopter ride above the smoking Villarrica volcano, the last eruption of which was as recent as 2015.
Although there are no big cats prowling through these parts, conservation projects have been established to support another vital but often-overlooked living element of Chilean culture: the indigenous Mapuche people.
In the lively village of Quelhue, a 20-minute drive from Vira Vira, Fernando Esparparza explains how a rainwatercollection system that was funded by tourism has helped him to irrigate his crops and orchard. As an expression of thanks, he presents me with a freshly dug potato. “Since birth, Mapuche people understand the importance of the land,” he explains. “If you plant a seed, it grows.”
Although it’s early days for conservation in South America, it’s exciting to be part of the process. From small beginnings, there’s a sense that something great will soon emerge.
Sarah Marshall was a guest of &Beyond, which has an eight-night full-board tour of Argentina and Chile from £6,800pp, and a 13-night tour from £12,150pp, including transfers, conservation donations and guiding with Les Carlisle, departing on October 16 (andbeyond. com). Fly to Buenos Aires and back from Santiago
Three more big cat adventures
1. Cheetahs in Tanzania
Originally set aside for cheetah research, the sprawling savannahs of the eastern Serengeti are playing fields for the world’s fastest mammal. Asilia’s Namiri Plains is the only camp in the area, far enough from the chaos of vehicles circling the central region of Tanzania’s most popular park. Built from rock and canvas, ten safari villas thread through the marshlands here; they have outdoor bathtubs within gazing distance of passing elephant herds. Described as a “house of cats” by local guides, the area is also ideal for spotting muscular, red-maned lions enthroned on kopjes, as well as rare melanistic servals in the long grasses.
Details Five nights’ full board from £7,500pp, including flights and transfers (abercrombiekent.co.uk)
2. Snow leopards and tigers in India
Despite being one of the most densely populated countries, India still has enough forests and mountains for feline roaming. Focusing on spots and stripes, a new escorted tour takes travellers to prime locations for seeing snow leopards and Bengal tigers, both highly endangered species. Improved infrastructure has made it possible to combine the Himalayan Ulley Valley and Kanha National Park in a three-week tour, with a chance to also see red pandas, sloth bears and dhole.
Details Twenty nights from £4,995pp, including flights, transfers and most meals (wildlifeworldwide.com)
3. Iberian lynx in Spain
Admittedly, Europe has very little megafauna, but it does have its own charismatic, whiskered species: the Iberian lynx. And the Sierra de Andujar National Park in Andalusia is one of only two locations where it can be seen in the wild. Join an expert for a five-day immersion into the semi-mountainous park, weaving through ancient oak and cork forests while learning about efforts to protect this animal, once near extinction. The birdlife is exceptional in spring, but you’ll need to brave autumn and winter for the best chances of seeing lynx and wolves.
Details Four nights’ full board from £1,785pp (ganeandmarshall.com). Fly to Malaga
Source: The times UK