Day 1: Arrival in Buenos Aires, Argentina
Our Patagonia wildlife safari tour begins in Buenos Aires where we will meet in the afternoon for a walk in an urban nature reserve followed by a hearty dinner. Costanera Sur is a renowned birding destination within the city where we can stretch our legs and look for species such as Horned Screamer, Masked Gnatcatcher and Wattled Jacana. We can see these subtropical birds while the tango scene unfolds on the waterfront promenade, and a myriad of restaurants beckon. We can discuss the upcoming trip over a bottle of malbec.
Days 2 – 4: Peninsula Valdes
A morning flight brings us to Trelew and our introduction to Patagonia. As the plane lands, it is possible to view clouds of pink in a turquoise lake near the airport—these are Chilean Flamingoes. Once we land we’ll head for a closer look. Here, we can also see three species of coot, Lake Duck, Red Shoveler, White-tufted Grebe and other wetland birds including migrant shorebirds. Next we relocate to Puerto Madryn to relax and sample some local cuisine within walking distance of our hotel. En route we’ll stop by a life-sized monument to the largest dinosaur on earth, the Patagotitan, discovered in this area.
Peninsula Valdes is one of the world’s most significant marine sanctuaries and a UNESCO world heritage site. The highlight during this season is the large numbers of Southern Right Whales that appear in the bays of the peninsula. We’ll embark on a short boat trip to view the whales and their calves up close. During this navigation we’ll also see sheathbills, terns, cormorants, sea lions and other marine life, but the whales steal the show. In fact, they can be so plentiful that the boat moves between individuals simply to encounter different behaviours and backdrops.
Amid the seemingly barren shrub-steppe a myriad of bird species can be found such as the endemic Carbonated Sierra-Finch and Patagonian Canastero. Others include Burrowing Parakeet, Chiguango Thrush, Elegant-crested Tinamou, Blue-and-yellow Tanager, Southern Martin and various earthcreepers, monjitas and more.
Southern Elephant Seals lounge on the beaches around the peninsula, while camel-like guanacos, over-friendly armadillos, and the rabbit-like Patagonian mara inhabit the uplands. This is just the beginning of the wildlife spectacle yet to come. Nights in Puerto Madryn.
Days 5 – 6: Ushuaia
Today we end our northern Patagonia segment and transfer to the south. Ushuaia, famously known as the world’s most southerly city, is located on the island of Tierra del Fuego and is the sending-off point for most Antarctic cruises. We won’t have to go that far to see exciting wildlife, as up to three species of penguins can be found regularly within a short distance of town. We’ll spend two days in Ushuaia and visit an island penguin rookery that features hundreds of Magellanic Penguins and a small number of Gentoos—the only South American colony of this species. King Penguins often hang out here and Leopard Seals have started recolonizing the area. On other excursions in Ushuaia we’ll seek out a variety of birds such as Dolphin Gull, Flightless Steamer-duck, Correndera Pipit and Black-browed Albatross. With luck we’ll find an elusive Striated Caracara at the penguin colony, or Blackish Cinclodes on one particular island in the Beagle Channel. The Glacier Martial area is a chance for us to get above treeline and search for White-bellied Seedsnipe and both Dark-faced and Ochre-naped Ground-Tyrants. There will be a chance to shop for crafts made by local artisans and sample some more Argentine foods. Two nights in Ushuaia.
Day 7: Rio Grande
We have a relatively short drive today, traversing a mountainous section of Tierra del Fuego into the flatlands, showing us the vast scale of Patagonia. We might stop in some forests to look for Patagonian Tyrant, Austral Pygmy-Owl and Bicolored (“Chilean”) Hawk. Our destination is Rio Grande—the mouth of the largest river on the island and the area where a large percentage of North America's Red Knots and Hudsonian Godwits spend the winter. We’ll time it right for the best tides when we visit a special reserve dedicated to these and other long-distant migrants. Some of the knots even have colour bands and can be followed on the internet! Night in Rio Grande.
Day 8: Onward to Chile
Today we say goodbye to Argentina but not before we explore some interesting salt lakes. In these areas we hope to find the Magellanic Plover, a Patagonian endemic in its own family (Pluvianellidae) most closely related to the sheathbills. Other birds that we’ll encounter on the windswept ponds are Chilean Flamingo, Two-banded Plover, many Baird’s Sandpipers and plenty of ducks.
After we cross into Chile we encounter one of our highlights: the country’s only King Penguin colony. Hosting around one hundred adults and a few fuzzy adolescents, the site is a great example of a well-managed tourism and conservation initiative, and it always brings smiles. Night in Cerro Sombrero.
Day 9: Pali Aike National Park
We’ll cross the windy Magellan Straight on a car ferry, staying on the lookout for Commerson’s and Dusky Dolphins, cormorants galore and, often, a diving petrel. The main focus of today’s efforts however, is to venture into the remote Pali Aike National Park where terrestrial wildlife abounds. This is the guanaco’s domain, where herds roam freely and frequently on the slow-going roads within the park. We’ll literally rub shoulders with dozens of them. Where there are guanacos, there are pumas, and we’ll be on the lookout for these elusive cats. Several caves in the park present interesting archaeological history and we can enter one of them. On the roads in Pali Aike we can see some magnificent birds such as Coscoroba Swan, Chocolate-vented Tyrant, White-bridled Finch and Tawny-throated Dotterel. Other mammals may include both South American Gray Fox and Culpeo Fox, and Humboldt’s Hog-nosed Skunk. Another species we’d like to see is the endemic Ruddy-headed Goose. After a steady drive we spend the night in Puerto Natales on the shores of the Pacific, our second ocean of the day. Night in Puerto Natales.
Day 10 – 12: Torres del Paine
A restful morning could involve a walk on the promenade near the hotel to see Black-necked Swans, or to catch up on sleep or photo editing. Next up is the spectacular Torres del Paine National Park. Arguably the single most scenic location in all of South America, this large and wild reserve is a nature lover’s dream and on the landscape photographer’s bucket list. Based at a cozy lodge, we’ll work hard to track down a puma, or mountain lion. On previous trips we’ve seen up to four cats in several hours. This is the best place in the world to see them and with luck we’ll find them hunting among the herds of guanacos. Nothing is guaranteed but we have seen point-blank views of pumas eating their prey. Other highlights include Andean condors soaring overhead looking for scraps, and both Southern and Chimango Caracaras. The ostrich-like Darwin’s Rhea is another favourite denizen of the pampas as is the Huemul, a deer that is known as one of the rarest mammals in South America. Spectacled and Torrent Ducks, Magellanic Woodpecker, White-throated Treerunner and Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle are just some of the exciting birds that round up the park’s list. Horseback riding is an optional excursion while here. Nights in Torres del Paine.
Day 13: Punta Arenas
We spend the day making our way south to Punta Arenas, stopping to visit the Mylodon Cave, a massive cavern where these now-extinct mammals lived over 5,000 years ago. We’ll stop wherever possible for some more roadside birding to clean up on anything we haven’t seen. Night in Punta Arenas.
Day 14: Departure
Our Patagonia wildlife safari tour ends this morning in Punta Arenas. Regular flights leave for the north to Santiago and beyond.