Patagonia —

the land at the end of the earth

By Brian Pinkerton

Canadian Llama News Magazine

This article was originally printed
in the February/March 1993 issue of the
Canadian Llama News and then re-printed
in the November/December 1993 issue of
Llamas magazine.

You might recognize the cover photo,
it is on our Question and Answer page.

We were at the edge of a cave on a rocky hillside in Patagonia when I heard the person next to me slowly say “Oh, my Gawd!” and, looking up I saw a puma staring at us from about thirty feet away. Before I got my camera raised it had disappeared but the image remains engraved in my mind.

The events leading up to this encounter were that for a few years we have been receiving, and drooling over, the pamphlets from Dr. William Franklin telling about his Patagonia Research Expeditions. As I had just taken early retirement in June it was finally feasible to sign up for the trip. Dr. Franklin was one of the speakers at the CLA Conference in White Rock in October and his magnificent photos of the guanacos and vicuñas in South America only made me more anxious than ever to travel to Patagonia.

Most llama people could understand this desire to visit what is considered the end of the earth, while non-llama people would usually say “Where?” and wonder why anyone would go all that way for a holiday when Hawaii is much closer. It is actually a working vacation, where the costs, and your time are donated, making it tax deductible.


The equipment list for this trip was impressive. Your mountaineering tent has to be streamlined to be able to withstand incredible winds. I read every book and article I could get my hands on about Patagonia, and the winds were reported to be so ferocious that they would blow tents away with people in them, blow the food off of your plate, scoop the liquid out of cups, and push mountain climbers off of high peaks. Get extra long tent pegs, the list said, and tubes to repair broken tent poles. Take a few books along in case you get confined to your tent for a few days because of rain. Get a sleeping bag that is good to about fifteen degrees Fahrenheit. Take lots of wool socks and heavy clothing for cold weather — you are only about seven hundred and fifty miles from Antarctica.

After digesting all of this information, you tend to get a little apprehensive and wonder if this is really such a good idea after all, but the desire to participate in this adventure was so strong that there was never really any doubt.

This photo of a newly tagged chulengo, which is what the newborn guancos are called, was taken by Pam Porter.

Dr. Franklin takes about twelve volunteers each year on these trips along with two cooks, some scientific staff, and students from the University of Iowa. Five or six of the students stay in a small cabin and camper combination at the edge of Torres del Paine National Park in Patagonia for periods of time varying from six months to several years. The volunteers are usually somehow connected with the llama industry, but a few have had no experience with the animals at all, they may know someone that is going along, and have been invited to accompany them.


As a result, in mid November, there were about eighteen strangers wandering about Miami airport looking for their luggage. We must have looked a little different than the normal tourists and travellers as the participants somehow recognized each other, someone would come up to you and ask if you were going to Patagonia. It was certainly a relief to meet and join up with the others. In a short while there was a tremendous pile of luggage which had to be transported to the Lan Chile desk.

This is a typical guanaco that we were heading off to study.

The flight was overnight to Santiago and we arrived about 9:30 a.m. local time. They are five hours ahead of Pacific Standard Time. We spent the day in Santiago, sightseeing and shopping and then caught the plane south at 10:30 the next morning, arriving in Punta Arenas at the southern tip of South America in the mid afternoon. It was sunny and warm, with not a breath of wind.

Torres del Paine mountains

A small bus picked us up and took us on a four-hour trip north to Puerto Natales where we spent the night at an old sheep station, which has been converted into a hotel. The next day we took a boat trip on an old sloop which took us past condor nesting cliffs, cormorant cliffs and to some glaciers. The trip took most of the day, so by the time the bus picked us up and took us to Torres del Paine it was almost ten o’clock. This time of year it gets dark about ten thirty and is light again around four thirty in the morning.

When the bus has wire mesh covering the windows and headlights, you can expect that there are some gravel roads ahead.

Torres del Paine mountains

The campsite was about a quarter of a mile from the road, well hidden in a little valley. Finding a level spot, not inhabited by spiny plants was the first priority. Setting up a brand new tent is better done in daylight than by flashlight, but we were all soon settled. The students had a huge pot of soup and a pasta salad ready for us and, as we were all hungry by then, it soon disappeared.

These mountains dominated the view from our campsite.

At 6:00 a.m. the next day I looked out the tent door and watched a screaming male guanaco chasing another male across the hill and disappear out of sight. The valley we are camped in belongs to a male group of about thirty guanacos and there quite often seemed to be some screaming and fighting going on. This was a free day, to organize the camp, so I dug out my extra long tent pegs and drove them in on the windward side, feeling lucky that the tent was still there. I didn’t know whether to be disappointed or not that there hadn’t been any wind last night.

Guanacos fighting

After lunch three of us took a walk a couple of miles down the road towards the mountains and saw a few guanacos. The scenery is awesome and our cameras were getting quite a workout. Eventually we decided to climb up a fairly high hill and as we worked our way up we came upon a family group of guanacos. There we saw our first chulengo, which is what the baby guanacos are called. The mother was having a disagreement with one of the others and there was some spitting and chest butting which resulted in some great photo opportunities.

Guancos having a disagreement.

Wandering further up the hill, we spotted a lone female staying fairly close to one spot. When we reached her, we found that the reason she was there was that she was hovering over a dead chulengo. We discussed whether we should take it back to camp as here was a chance for the vets in the camp to do an autopsy on an animal that hadn’t been killed by a puma and hadn’t been eaten by foxes or condors. Eventually we decided that we had better leave it and headed down the other side of the hill. We met up with a couple of the students a little later and told them and of course they wanted to see it so we returned with them.


A few minutes later I looked up and a huge condor, with a wing span of about ten feet, came gliding over the edge of the hill. It swooped over us about twenty feet up and circled over the dead baby for quite a while, eventually landing just the other side of the mother, maybe eighty feet away from us. This was unusual behaviour for a condor as they usually avoid humans. Nobody wanted the condor to get the baby so one of the students went back to the camp to see if they would like to do an autopsy. About an hour and a half later a few people arrived and they took the baby back to camp. I knew by now that I hadn’t brought enough film — I had figured that twelve rolls of slides would be ample. Wrong.

After dinner, one of the vets did a necropsy on the dead chulengo and found milk in the lungs, which he thought might be the probable cause. There was also some trauma on the side of the head and some blood in one ear leading him to suspect that it had been kicked accidentally by the mother, with the milk in the lungs being agonal. The next morning we got down to the real reason that we were there which was to catch and tag the newborn chulengos.

Guanaco with new baby

The area of the park where the guanacos are during the birthing season is on a peninsula between two large lakes. We were divided up into teams of about five people and each group would be assigned an area to cover. During the day you would probably cover the same area twice. Constantly scanning with binoculars, you look for a family group with a female off by herself, indicating that she might be about to give birth or might have a very young chulengo with her. You have to catch them when they are fairly new as by the time they are about thirty minutes old they can easily outrun a human.

weighing chulengo

Around noon we spotted a female giving birth so we watched and then gave them about twenty minutes to bond. It was fairly easy to capture the newborn as it was still a little wobbly on its legs. The procedure then is to first determine its sex and then put tags on the ears, males having odd numbers and females even numbers. Next a radio transmitter on a collar is placed on the neck, blood is drawn, it is weighed and its teeth are checked. One person holds the baby, two people tag the ears and draw the blood, while one person records all the data as it is called out.

Weighing a chulengo.

Guanaco leaving with tagged baby

The fifth person has to keep track of the mother. Usually she stays fairly close, but sometimes she loses sight of the baby in the crowd of people and may run off some distance to check out another baby. It is vital to get them reunited and we always heaved a big sigh of relief when this was accomplished. The first tagging was accomplished in four minutes which we thought was pretty good but eventually we were usually done in about two and a half minutes.

The radio collars are designed so that they expand as the baby grows and do not put pressure on the neck, even though it looks as if the collar is tight. The batteries last about eighteen months and soon after that the collar drops off.

You can see the radio collar and the ear tags on this newborn chulengo.

The rest of the day was spent looking for more babies and eventually we tagged five more. We were spoiled by the first easy capture, all the rest were up and running and it involved some fancy flying tackles to grab some of them.

fighting above baby

The last capture of the day provided a little drama after it was over. When the mother and baby had been reunited she wandered into the territory of another male who promptly attacked her. The first thing she did was to stomp on the baby really hard, knocking it to the ground. If you didn’t know better, you would think she was trying to kill it, but the reason is that she wants it to stay in one place and not move while she is having a fight. If it was between two fighting adults, it would probably get hurt.

If you look closely you can see the baby under the two fighting guanacos.

Catching one of the babies was a great thrill, as you suddenly realize that these are wild animals. I was holding one that was probably only half an hour old and it dawned on me that it was dry. Baby llamas at home don’t dry that quickly and these newborn chulengos seemed as if they were a day or two old in comparison. In the wild, the chulengos have to be dry before nightfall or they probably would not survive, as the nights can get very cold.

mom leaving with tagged baby

Before we released the babies, everyone would scatter, and then the person holding the chulengo would point it towards the mother and then run as fast as possible, usually ducking behind some brush. The problem was that quite often the baby would follow the human, which meant that sometimes you had to push the baby to the ground giving the mother time to get to it. We would not leave until we were absolutely sure that they had reunited.

In this case the mother was quite worried and hung around. She made sure that her baby went with her.

There is a lot of friendly rivalry between the groups and at the end of the day one of the other groups had tagged six chulengos, as had our team. Dr. Franklin’s group hadn’t caught any so he got a bit of razzing from the other two group leaders.

Sheep ranch with Torres del Paine mountains

Dinner each night consisted of lamb, which is the only fresh meat available in the area. Actually they were pretty big for lamb, but the cooks did a great job, cooking it a different way each night. Each night after dinner, we would gather around the campfire and Dr. Franklin would conduct a discussion on the day’s events, getting people to participate. Then he would tell us more about the history and future of the project, or get one of the students to explain what their particular project was.

The sheep ranch, just out of the park also had a spectacular view. The towers in the background are popular with serious Mountain clmbers.

The weather during the ten days we camped in the park was incredible. The temperature was often in the seventies, one day it was in the eighties. It was actually a relief to have a cloudy day as we were hiking a fair distance each day. The fabled wind never appeared, though occasionally you could hear it a little during the nights, but the valley we were camped in was really protected.

The one thing we suffered from was “sensory overload” which is hardly a complaint. Just when you thought you had seen everything, something totally unexpected would show up. Our faces hurt from smiling so much. The operative word was awesome. The scenery was. The animals were. The country was. The atmosphere around the camp was incredible, the recounting of every day’s adventures created an energy that had everyone totally pumped up.

rhea with babies

Every day was exciting, there were guanacos nearly everywhere, but we also saw lots of rheas, which are ostrich-like birds that stand almost as high as the guanacos. There were black-necked swans, lapwings, cara cara hawks as well as many other varieties of birds. At least every other day we would spot a grey fox. There were many large hares and a few skunks around.

A Darwin’s Rhea with some chicks that are very well camouflaged.

Sometimes at night you would hear alarm calls from the guanacos and you could assume that there was a puma in the vicinity but the chances of actually seeing a puma are pretty remote. There were no mosquitoes or biting insects, but after a couple of people found small scorpions in their tents, I made sure that my tent was always zipped up.

After a few days you got to know the area, all the valleys, lakes and ponds had names and eventually you could recognize places you had been a few days before. It was exciting to see the babies that had been tagged and realize that they were doing well. One of the students was studying the yearlings that had been tagged last year. She had been observing a yearling female who had been in the same area for three days, but on the day I spent with them, the tracking equipment indicated that she had moved. We found her a few miles away in a herd of males. There were one hundred and thirty-three animals in the herd she just blended right in. The males were treating her just like one of the guys.

Lone guanaco

If a male guanaco at about four years of age manages to get a feeding area, he will attract some females. There seems to be about six females in a group with one male and the feeding area is well defined. If any other guanacos try to enter the area, the male immediately chases them off. Defending their property seems to be a full-time job for these males. Just before the new babies are born the males will chase off the yearlings, both male and female, expelling them from the family group. This ensures that there is no inbreeding. The females are not bred until they are two years old.

One of the graduate students has been tagging and getting blood from some of the males who have family groups. By analyzing the blood, they hope to be able to identify parentage of the chulengos and also find eventually out if the same males return to the same feeding areas each year and also if the same females return to the same male. He is also interested in “parental investment” whether the mothers let the males or females nurse more often. His theory is that it is to her advantage to give more to the male as he is more likely to pass on the genes.

overhang with hand prints

On one of the hills in the park there is an overhang along the side of the hill at the bottom of a cliff. On the sloping roof of this wide, shallow cave there are some ancient paintings of hand prints, guanacos and condors. It is estimated that they are about 6,000 years old. One afternoon, after our tagging efforts were complete, we decided to hike up there and get some photos of the cave paintings.

The inset shows one of the handprints on the ceiling of the overhang. While we were there, a puma was waiting just around the corner of the overhang.

Three of the people had been there before and left, walking around the end of the hill and waited for us on the other side of a gully. The other three of us spent a few minutes taking some more photos and just as we were about to leave, saw a puma about thirty feet away. The other three people must have walked right by it without knowing it. Of course it was gone too quickly to get a photo, so eventually we followed the others and when they spotted us, they started yelling that there was a puma. It had followed them and was lying on top of a big flat rock, watching them. They were able to take lots of photos, but when they yelled, it jumped off the rock and ran up the hill right in front of us.

During the period we were in the park we tagged seventy-eight chulengos and in the next couple of weeks the students remaining down there were hoping to use up the rest of the hundred sets of ear tags.

hotel and view

After camping for ten days, our bus came by to pick us up and the last night was spent on a small island in Lake Pehoe at a hotel with the most magnificent view of the mountains, Torres Norte and Torres Central. The hot showers were appreciated even more than the beds.

There are not too many hotels with a view like this one has. The hotel is situated on a small island with a walkway out to it.

The next morning we left for Punta Arenas, arriving there about 7:30 and we stayed in a hotel there that night. Most of the group spent the next day looking for souvenirs as the plane didn’t leave until late afternoon. I left the plane at Puerto Montt as I wanted to spend a few more weeks in Chile and visit the Atacama Desert area in the north. It was really tough getting off of that plane and saying good-bye to all the new friends, even though we had only known each other for a couple of weeks. We had experienced a whole gamut of emotions, seeing life and death in the wild. Some of the more macho members of the trip had been in tears at the struggles of one premature chulengo to live.

When I got home, I was showing a friend some photos and he said it sounded like the trip of a lifetime. I corrected him, telling him it was the trip of two lifetimes.