Close Encounters

Mountian Lion in Torres del Paine National ParkPhoto by David Valdés

It was day seven of our eight-day trek through Torres del Paine National Park in southern Chile. My whole body hurt as I dragged myself slowly up the hill. We had been walking for several hours and I needed to rest. As we came over a steep ridge, I found the perfect place, a rocky ledge overlooking Lake Nordernskjöld and the green glacial valley before us. Unfortunately, two girls were sitting in our spot. Silently cursing them, I moved on while Tony suddenly stopped in his tracks.

“Thomas, look!” he whispered hysterically pointing at the rolling hills down by the water. I had no idea what he was pointing at, but I instinctively grabbed my binoculars dangling from my neck. “A mountain lion!” Tony blurted out. I almost started laughing.

“Yeah, right! Look again, that’s a tree trunk, anybody can see that,” I replied snarkily as I raised the binoculars to my eyes. Then I saw it, too. The light-brown cat just sat there, calmly staring at something in the distance… perhaps a delicious hiker. We were freaking out. FREAKING OUT! Our second Andean puma within a few months? We couldn’t believe it! During our Salkantay trek in Peru, we had seen the rear end of a puma disappearing into the bushes. But this, this was something else. Although the cat was quite a distance away, we had the perfect view through our binoculars.

Andean puma, Torres del Paine National Park, ChileCan you see the puma, right in the center?

It was great as long as it lasted. After about five minutes, the mountain lion got up and started walking. Where was it headed? Was it going toward the trail ahead of us? Most people would have run the other way, but we quickly hurried along the path wondering if we could catch another glimpse. Adrenaline pumping, we stumbled down the hill along the narrowest of paths. Dense foliage pulled on our heavy backpacks slowing us down. We stopped for a moment to listen. I couldn’t hear or see a thing, not even another hiker. Clearly, we hadn’t really thought this through.

Huddled together, we moved on in a slow shuffle eyes darting in every direction. Just as I thought the walls of vegetation along the narrow path were closing in on us, we popped out into a clearing. A couple of hikers sat underneath a wooden sign indicating a shortcut to Chileno campground. When they saw us, they got up to leave.

I was just thinking about warning them when Tony blurted out, “Be careful guys, there’s a puma around here; we just saw it a few minutes ago from a viewpoint up there.”

“A puma? What?” they exclaimed in unison. We excitedly told them our story while scanning the landscape around us for any movement. We discovered the Chilean couple Helen and David were visiting from Santiago. Although they had done a lot of hiking in Chile, they had never seen a puma.

“I’m so envious,” Helen said, “or maybe not, it’s kind of scary,” she continued as the three of us sat down. Tony got up and walked off towards a giant rock in the distance, “I’m gonna climb up there, maybe I can see something.”

“Seriously? Be careful!” I yelled after him.

Andean puma, Torres del Paine National Park, Chile

We sat talking as Tony climbed up on the rock in the distance. “Anything?” I hollered in his general direction. He shook his head. Suddenly, a look of shock and fear appeared on his face, he struggled to keep his balance as he stared behind us.

At that precise moment, ancient protective instincts caused Helen to spin around and gasp. Worried that Tony was about to fall off the rock, it took me a second before I turned to discover the puma approaching us from behind. It was only ten feet away. We all jumped up and faced the cat. It stopped and stared directly into our eyes. The moment seemed to last forever. The dark markings under its eyes were beautiful. It was large, but thinner than the mountain lions I had seen in captivity. Three or four seconds went by. Damn, where was Tony? Fearing that the cat might pounce, I raised my hiking poles like spears. It understood the gesture and continued past us down the path disappearing from view.

“Oh my god, where is it, are you okay, what happened?” Tony came running back completely out of breath. “Oh, you guys are so lucky, I can’t believe how close you were. Oh man, I’m so jealous!!!”

“Did you get a photo?” I asked.

“No! I’m not going to shoot photos of you guys getting attacked by a mountain lion! Are you crazy?”

“I got one,” announced David as he presented us with his trophy shot, the lead picture in this post. 🙂

Tony, Helen, David and ThomasOur little group totally hyped after our puma viewing

Our next post on trekking Torres del Paine National Park is going to include a video, with clips of the puma. Make sure you come back to check it out.

10 responses to “Close Encounters”

  1. avatar SebandJen says:

    Insane!

  2. avatar greeneyes says:

    Thomas, Smart move raising the poles.
    They always say if you see a mountain lion that you should not try to out run them since that will only provoke them to go after you.
    This best thing if always to try to stand your ground and raise clothing or anything else you have above your head to make yourself appear much larger, so the poles most likely prevented at least one of you from being pounced on.
    Love you guys,
    Mom

  3. Scary stuff – but amazing at the same time! I am happy to hear that you are ok and it is definitely an experience you will never forget…

    • avatar Thomas says:

      @Anne, at the moment it happened I definitely felt more excitement than anything else. It was really later when I started thinking about all that could’ve been… 😉

  4. avatar Mary S - Houston says:

    Wow – so much more exciting than what we saw in Peru!!! I am so jealous but so happy for you. We are off to Japan in 11 days and are looking forward to it. Take care, guys.

    • avatar Thomas says:

      @Mary, it was quite exciting! But it was also great to know there was a mountain lion so close to us during our Salkantay trek! Can’t wait to hear about your trip as Japan has been at the top of our list for a long time.

  5. avatar Gina says:

    That sounds pretty intense. It’s a good thing you turned around. I saw a mountain lion in Colorado years ago walking down the road but I was in a car.

  6. avatar Param says:

    Wow. What an amazing experience. Been following your blog and live what you guys do!

    • avatar Thomas says:

      Thanks, Param! From what I can see on your travel blog, you and Shikha have been covering quite a few exciting destinations. Reading through your posts makes me miss India; we spent almost a year and a half there and had such an amazing experience (or a million).

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