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Puma-rama!

When packing for our trip to Patagonia last November, Walker hemmed and hawed about bringing a longer lens, which is admittedly heavy, but also is best for capturing fauna. 

Our first morning within the true confines of Torres Del Paine National Park in Chile made us all so glad he had, and even disputed with Aerolineas Argentinas to carry along. We left our lodge, Awasi, early and dark, and drove about an hour to where Diego, our fearless tracker of a guide, suspected Walker would find at last the animal he wanted to badly to see. But first, the peaceful early mornings with all the ducks of the land.

I cannot remember the names of each variety, but I remember this type was always in pairs, everywhere we saw them, even in flight, or landing from flight.

Diego stopped every while to scan the horizon with his binoculars, and we did the same. Lucky for us, Diego was the man to have. His off-season job is a puma tracker for The Awasi Puma Foundation, which is working to protect these cats. We came around a corner, right near a lake, and although this looks close, we watched from near the road, hoping she would stand for a better view.

And here she goes. It turned out to be a mom and one kitten, which was nearly her size.

The morning light behind them was all that set them in our vision,

and truly, the angles of their tails as they walked, and their interactions with each other, took away our breath.

They seemed so huge compared to the African leopards we'd seen.

With the sighting we had come sorted out, Diego took us on our first of two morning hikes, this time by Lago Amarga to Lago Sarmiento. 

We had to pass through the guanaco guard/sentry of alpha males atop each hill first.

and although we'd seen them from afar at Eolo, our first Chilean spotting of the flamingo, which surprised me yet again that it was in such a cool clime.

The appeal of this hike were the hieroglyphics, but first, we had our first close encounter with the llama-like guanacos. We walked by a few and Walker asked Diego if they ever spit. He shook his head and laughed; they are not llamas!

First, can you even handle this situation? Its momma was on the other side of the fence and just stared us down as we approached.

And one of my biggest regrets from the trip was not filming this because literally right as we were walking past, momma guanaco  stared straight into our souls, sucked in her breath and woosh: a cloud of saliva vaulted toward us. Thankfully, just a bit too far to dampen, but it was both the funniest and most unexpected moment and got her message across: don't mess with that cute little chulengo.

They watched us into the distance and I can't say my laughter wasn't mixed with a little bit of get me outta here. Walker and Diego thought it was the funniest.

We were headed toward this dome on the right on our hike, 

where the hieroglyphs were hiding.

Diego left us to get the car to meet us on the backend (his amazing strategy for one-way hikes) and we continued on ahead, alone. The vast distance shimmering and wild, and as we continued, passing through valleys and hills, we noted the alpha guanaco on each hill, without fail, staring us down.

At one point, from three directions, they started making noises and walking off their mounds toward us, and then started almost jogging. My get me outta here alarms were going off strongly, and vocally, to Walker. 

They converged on us, hissing, as we sped up our pace. To this day, I'm not sure if it was us they didn't like or if there was some in-fighting going on, but they could gallop like the wind so I'm glad they seemed to calm down once they saw we were just two scared little hikers.

The air was humming with spring life; in November, such a treat.

We kept up the ascent, our destination the top fold of this hillock. 

The view as we climbed was more and more awe-inspiring,

and steep, although you can't quite tell. We didn't have a map (although we did have walkie talkies for emergencies; thank you, Awasi!), so we just followed the sparse signs, glad Diego had pointed the way.

When we got to the top, we looked and looked. There were no signs pointing to the hieroglyphics, just signs saying not to touch. We examined every  groove in the rocks above us, searching.

until we realized they were right smack in front of us, paintings estimated to be over 10,000 years (I believe).

And the view on the way back down was just as spectacular.

As we approached the end of the hike, on an empty road, we saw Diego and a group of other tourists (very few and far between on this trail) looking into the distance.

And there were more pumas. Diego's patient watching had won the day!

What an incredible and truly wordless experience to see animals at home in the world. Thank you, Awasi, and Diego, for helping us see them.