Chile Photo Tour

This is a Photo Tour. The goal of the tour is to get great photos of certain species. Sometimes a lot of time is spent trying to get a great shot of a single species (e.g. Puma, King Penguin). The size of the trip list is not a priority. If you are a birder as much as you are a photographer, you are likely to be more suited to a birding tour or Birding With A Camera tour.

Chile is South America’s most prosperous country, with an excellent road network and facilities for even the fussiest international traveler. it is also an achingly beautiful country, with superb scenic areas, and photogenic wildlife; this tour focuses on getting pictures not only of the iconic landscapes of Torres del Paine, but also the park’s most celebrated resident, the Puma. The fabled Tierra del Fuego will also be visited to photograph King Penguins and Magellanic Horned Owls, among others. This is an extremely comfortable tour, with excellent accommodations, jaw-dropping countryside, and regular offerings of a good selection of those world-famous merlot and cabernet sauvignon wines that Chile is rightly famous for.

Please note: Due to the popularity of the Puma Estate, we may need to run this tour in a slightly different order in some years.


Day 1: Arrival in Punta Arenas. The tour starts this evening in Punta Arenas, and you will be transferred to a local hotel for the night, where the group will first meet for dinner.Anyone who arrives early can walk down to the seafront to admire and photograph the local nesting Imperial Cormorants, which use the old wooden piers as attractive nesting grounds during this season. There are no photo activities planned on this day.

Commerson's Dolphin may follow the ferry to Tierra del Fuego
Commerson's Dolphin may follow the ferry to Tierra del Fuego (Sam Woods)

Day 2: Magdalena and Marta Island Boat Trip; to Tierra del Fuego. Our first morning will be a spectacular opening to the tour. We will take a half-day boat trip from Punta Arenas to see the incredible nesting colony of Magellanic Penguins on the island of Magdalena, just 45-minutes boat ride away. This colony, now the closest one to mainland Chile, numbers up to 150,000 birds in some years and can always be seen up close. If we are lucky, on the ride over we made get to photograph striking black-and-white Commerson’s Dolphins riding the behind the stern of the boat. After arriving back in Punta Arenas at midday, we will travel to the fabled Tierra del Fuego (the “Land of Fire”), staying on the north of island, after crossing over by car ferry, where we will have our second shot of the day at seeing Commerson’s Dolphins hugging the wake. A single night will be spent in the tiny town of Cerro Sombrero.

Please note: The weather in this part of the world is famously temperamental, and it is possible that on some tours the boat trip to Magdalena and Marta Islands may be canceled by the boat operator. If this happens, we will make an extra visit to Pali Aike National Park to photograph the many birds on offer there.

Magellanic Horned Owl is the southern relative of the Great Horned Owl
Magellanic Horned Owl is the southern relative of the Great Horned Owl (Sam Woods)

Day 3: Tierra del Fuego. A full day will be spent shooting birds on Tierra del Fuego, an island at the bottom of the world. Vast areas of the island are uninhabited, with pockets of people only here and there, and much of the land left to sheep and native wildlife. Much of the photography is on the fly on this day, but that is not to say it will boring; there are many common waterbirds that are readily photographed on the island, like the uber-abundant Upland Geese, Ashy-headed Goose, Crested Ducks, and Magellanic Oystercatchers, the latter often seen in comical and animated display dances during this southern breeding season. We will slowly make our way south on Tierra del Fuego towards the port town of Porvenir. The ride takes us largely through flat moorland like country studded with bird-filled lakes. However, here and there isolated cliffs jut prominently from the landscape, and are home to nesting Magellanic Horned Owls, which will be a target for our lenses, as will other common species like Gray-hooded Sierra-Finches and scarlet-breasted Long-tailed Meadowlarks. Some of the scarcer species we could also photograph include Least Seedsnipe, and Rufous-chested and Tawny-throated Dotterels. For the next two nights we will stay in the quiet town of Porvenir, which overlooks the Straits of Magellan.

We'll drive up to a very accessible King Penguin colony on Tierra del Fuego
We'll drive up to a very accessible King Penguin colony on Tierra del Fuego (Sam Woods)

Day 4: King Penguins of Tierra del Fuego. There is just one colony of King Penguins that are easily accessible from mainland South America (the next closest being hundreds of miles away on the Falklands), a few hours south of Porvenir. We will set out in the morning and spend most of our day there, making sure we get shots of this iconic and immaculate bird in a colony numbering about one hundred birds. Other species that may feature on this day included Fire-eyed Diucons, Black-chinned Siskins, and Austral Negritos, abundant species that often pose for photos too. Another night will be spent in Porvenir on the land of fire.

The tour is timed for the Austral summer, breeding time for White-tufted Grebes
The tour is timed for the Austral summer, breeding time for White-tufted Grebes (Sam Woods)

Day 5: Tierra del Fuego to Punta Arenas via Pali Aike NP. We will set off early, backtracking to northern Tierra del Fuego, stopping for shots along the way. After the return ferry ride (just 20 minutes) to mainland Chile, we’ll visit nearby Pali Aike NP, where scenery and wildlife collide, as volcanic craters and fields make up part of the park. One of the most conspicuous resident animals will be the Guanaco, a wild relative of the camel. They are abundant and photogenic as they roam the park in small groups and family herds. The park is also home to South American Gray Foxes, which at this time may have kits to photograph too, if we are lucky. Birdwise, we’ll be on the lookout for Two-banded Plovers, which can gather in substantial numbers in the wetter areas of the park, and make for excellent photo opportunities. In some years dozens of Chilean Flamingos descend on the park and spend the Austral summer brightening up the larger lakes in Pali Aike. We will depart the park in the afternoon traveling back west to the Brunswick Peninsula, and the Patagonian city of Punta Arenas for another night.

A group of newly emerged South American Gray Fox kits
A group of newly emerged South American Gray Fox kits (Sam Woods)

Day 6: Punta Arenas to Torres del Paine. Today, we’ll set out for one of the most iconic destinations in all of South America, Torres del Paine National Park. Iconic for its landscapes that are often, rightly, touted as comprising of the most spectacular scenery on the continent. The vistas are not the only thing we will be heading towards the park for, as it is also home to the most reliable Pumas in the World, and plenty more Guanacos, their principal prey species. We will stay on a private estate just outside Torres del Paine for the following five nights; the estate has been set up for the conservation of pumas and is one of the best places on Earth to photograph them. On the journey to the park we may get photo opps for more waterbirds that may include White-tufted and Silvery Grebes, and Red Shovelers. In the afternoon, we will make our first drive searching the private estate and its surrounds for pumas before sunset, a time of day with not only beautiful light, but also high puma activity.

We'll be out when Pumas become most active
We'll be out when Pumas become most active (Sam Woods)

Days 7-9: Puma Tracking near Torres del Paine NP. These three days will be dedicated to getting excellent shots of Pumas, and much of the time will be spent on a private ranch, which is set up as a Puma reserve, just outside the park to do this. We will be aided by the invaluable, expert local trackers, whose full-time job is to track these pumas daily, and who know these animals better than anyone else on Earth. As these animals are most active at night, our main searches will focus on the ends of the days, when they are most likely to be on the move. However, during other parts of the day, Pumas are often tracked down sleeping and resting for the day, when family group shots are also often possible too.

Every bend in the road has a story in Torres del Paine
Every bend in the road has a story in Torres del Paine (Sam Woods)

Day 10: Torres del Paine NP (landscape and birds). On this day we will go inside the famous park itself, Torres del Paine to both shoot birds wherever we find them, with ducks often found peppering the lakes and songbirds found in the woods; and also to view some of the most iconic scenery the park has on offer. At the end of the day we will return for one final night just outside this famous park.

Day 11: Torres del Paine NP to Punta Arenas. After five nights on the edge of Torres del Paine, we will depart back for Punta Arenas. A final night will be spent in the capital of the Magellan province, Punta Arenas, where we’ll celebrate having experienced an abundance of photos of dramatic scenery, plentiful waterbirds, pumas and penguins! One more night will be spent in Punta Arenas.

Rufous-tailed Plantcutters can be extremely confiding around campsites in Torres del Paine
Rufous-tailed Plantcutters can be extremely confiding around campsites in Torres del Paine (Sam Woods)

Day 12: Departure from Punta Arenas. An airport transfer will be provided to connect with flights home. There are no photo activities planned on this day.

Gray-hooded Sierra-Finches are colorful and tame inhabitants of Patagonia
Gray-hooded Sierra-Finches are colorful and tame inhabitants of Patagonia (Sam Woods)

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

PACE: Relaxed to moderate. Early breakfasts (i.e. 5-5:30am) will be required on some days to ensure we arrival on site for the most active times for some animals (e.g. when Puma tracking around Torres del Paine). This can also be of benefit to get those iconic shots of Torres del Paine as the sun rises.

Almost all of the driving is on good paved roads and highways, with some long drives (e.g. the drives between Punta Arenas and Torres del Paine are around 4hrs 30mins, but are broken up with photo stops).Around Torres del Paine, while searching for birds and Pumas we may drive for several hours at a time to cover more ground searching for the animals. The roads are good in this area though, like almost everywhere in Chile!

PHYSICAL DIFFICULTY: Easy to moderate. Generally, the walking on this tour is easy going with only short walks required. The only exception to this, may be when tracking pumas around Torres del Paine. On some occasions we may need to walk into an area if Pumas are way off the road; there is simply no way of knowing this until we get there. Pumas are often close to roads in this area, but you never know!

There are no very high altitudes covered on this tour; altitudes vary within Torres del Paine NP (the highest place visited on the tour), but are generally up to around 1200m/3940ft at the high end.

CLIMATE: We will be visiting Patagonia during the the Austral summer. Although this is the warmest time of year, it is still far south in the Southern Hemisphere and so cold and wet weather should be prepared for, especially in mountain areas, like Torres del Paine, which can have a weather all of their own. On of the most prominent features of Patagonia is the string winds; as many of the habitats being visited are open country (making for good bird photography) there is often little shelter from these too. Warm clothing and rain gear are essential on this tour, and a good sturdy tripod for your camera can also be good too (although good images can be acquired handheld if you have decent image stabilisation on your lens).

ACCOMMODATION: Very good to excellent everywhere. Chile is a modern, successful and well-developed country, with excellent facilities on this tour. There is electricity throughout, en suite bathrooms, and Internet available at all of the hotels. Laundry is also frequently available, although as there are some one night stays then the most convenient place to do this is at Torres del Paine, where it can be quite expensive.

WHEN TO GO: This tour is best timed for the Austral summer (i.e. November to March); this can be a very cold and barren region in the Austral winter with few birds then, as many of them are only present during the southern summer. Puma tours can be done a little later in the year than this (i.e. April can be good for them too), but you would obviously see fewer birds at that time.

PHOTO PHILOSOPHY: There are no feeders on this tour, but the birds of Patagonia (and some animals like Guanacos) are readily photographed, being abundant and often approachable. Although some forest will be visited, the open nature of most of Patagonia makes light less of an issue than other photo tours and more accessible photography than on some mostly forest based tours. Thus the bird photography will largely be on the fly, shooting at spots we are aware of where waterfowl gather, shooting the penguins at designated breeding sites, and tracking pumas specifically to photograph them.

GEAR: A good 300mm lens (or high end zoom that covers 300mm) and a full-frame camera can work for Pumas, but a longer lens is better for some other birds. A 500mm with a 1.4x or 600mm are the best options, but a 300mm with 1.4x and 2x teleconverters also usually does a great job. A smaller/landscape lens is highly recommended for scenery shots in Torres del Paine, one of the most beautiful parts of South America.

OTHER INFO:

TRAVEL REQUIREMENTS: A valid passport is required; the passport must be valid for at least six months past your intended stay. Tourist visas are currently not required for citizens of the US, Canada, UK, Australia and most European countries for stays under 90 days. Travel requirements are subject to change; if you are unsure, please check with the nearest embassy or consulate, or ask our office staff for help.

WHAT’S INCLUDED?: Tips to drivers, local guides, and lodge staff (but not Tropical Birding tour leader); accommodation from the night of day 1 to the night of day 11; meals from dinner on day 1 (unless you arrive too late for dinner service) to breakfast on day 12; boat trip to Magdalena and Marta Islands on day 2 (this is a public boat shared with other paying customers, not private-on some trips bad weather may cause the cancelation of this trip); safe drinking water throughout; one of our photo guides with camera and audio playback gear from the evening of day 1 to the evening of day 11; ground transport for the group to all sites in the itinerary from day 2 to day 11 in a suitable vehicle (Tropical Birding tour leader normally drives this tour); airport transfers (by hotel shuttle) to and from the Punta Arenas airport; a printed and bound checklist to help keep track of what you have photographed (given to you at the start of the tour – only electronic copies can be provided in advance).

WHAT’S NOT INCLUDED?: Optional tips to the Tropical Birding tour leader; tips for luggage porters in any hotels (if you require their services); flights (no domestic flights are required during the tour); snacks; additional drinks apart from those included; alcoholic beverages; travel insurance; excursions not included in the tour itinerary; extras in hotels such as laundry service, minibar, room service, telephone calls, and personal items; medical fees; excess luggage charges; other items or services not specifically mentioned as being included.