The sign at the start of the trail was a little disconcerting: If you see a puma, don’t run. Maintain eye contact, shout loudly, raise your jacket over your head and tell a park ranger.
It seemed like a lot to remember should a hungry cat come loping down from the sandy hills. Would I unzip my jacket in time? What if I forgot to make eye contact?
Fortunately for visitors meandering down along this patch of the Patagonian coastline in southern Argentina, the pumas are interested in a different type of biped — namely the black-and-white waddling kind.
The penguins who live here were also what brought my wife and me to Monte Leon, the only national park along Argentina’s sinuous Atlantic coast. We had driven here from the coastal city of Rio Gallegos, on a road through the mottled brown steppe that characterizes much of the Patagonian landscape, where endless, gently undulating expanses of dry fields roll out to the horizon and meet an infinite sky. These mega fields look as though they’ve changed little since the days when the giant ground sloth ambled across them 10,000 years ago, but the landscape has actually been carved up into vast ranchlands, demarcated by countless kilometers of thin metal fencing and sporadically populated with sheep, horses and guanacos, which are like llamas.
After driving about 240km, we noticed a small break in this barrier, adorned with a colorfully painted sign.
It was the main entrance to the park — an extra blink, and we would have missed it.
Monte Leon is Argentina’s newest national park and it might not be here at all if not for private funding. The former sheep ranch was purchased in 2001 through a donation made by Kristine Tompkins, the ex-CEO of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company who is working with her husband, Doug Tompkins, to create vast swaths of conservation areas in both Chilean and Argentine Patagonia.
The US$2 million price tag to buy the land, strip it of its sheep fencing and clean it up seems like a paltry sum, considering how many animals are now protected.
The old estancia at Monte Leon covers 622km2, including 40km of coastline, and is home to sea birds, sea lions, elephant seals, guanacos, ostrich-like rhea and many other creatures including the penguin-snacking puma. Over the years, such biodiverse riches have attracted their share of plunderers.
Between 1930 and 1960, guano extractors hauled thousands of tonnes of phosphorous-rich dung from a cormorant colony. Exporting guano was a key economic activity but its removal caused a sharp decline in the population of birds, which had used the droppings to make nests.
Seal hunters also took their toll, sometimes killing the creatures en masse. More recently, sheep and the fencing that contained them scarred the landscape.
The road into the park is a 24km stretch of uneven dirt and stones. An all-wheel drive vehicle with a protected underside is essential in Patagonia. Though most main roads in the region are now paved, plenty remain covered in loose, churning rubble that would make quick work of a regular car. It’s important to book your vehicle ahead online; we didn’t and spent a nerve-racking Saturday in early January, peak season, looking for a rental. We ended up paying top dollar for what was seemed to be the only remaining rental truck in Rio Gallegos. But the Toyota Hi-Lux did travel the dirt roads into Monte Leon with ease.
A volunteer-run visitor center provides a great overview of Monte Leon, including wall displays describing its history and what to expect in the way of wildlife. The center’s workers were friendly and helpful and patiently slowed their Argentine Spanish down to a comprehensible crawl — I inquired how much it was to get into the park and was surprised by the answer: “Gratis.”
We soon were at the trailhead that leads to the home of some 60,000 Magellan penguins. To reach the rookery, you walk a couple of kilometers along a sandy path dotted with peculiar, pointy bushes that look like something from a Dr Seuss book. Even though this was peak season, it soon became clear that Monte Leon is far enough from the beaten track that relatively few people visit. We passed only a couple of families but it felt as though we were pretty much alone.
The sparseness, combined with the strange plants and the remoteness of the location lent the park — and Patagonia in general — an otherworldly feel.
The first sign we were approaching our destination was, rather disturbingly, a cluster of feathery carcasses. We later learned that these had been picked off by pumas.
The big cats, called cougars in North America, had pulled the defenseless birds behind the rest of the colony and chewed upon them at leisure. While the losses were not great, it was hard not to feel a pang of sorrow for the plucky birds and wonder what became of the chicks they left behind.
Soon, however, we were among a thriving cluster of penguins that was busily feeding, preening and tending to chicks. Some were nesting right at the edge of the path — we could have touched them if we’d wanted to. Fluffy chicks waited patiently in their burrows as their parents filed up and down toward the Atlantic in search of fish.
I’ve only ever seen penguins in the zoo, but witnessing countless thousands of the birds dotted along the beach and shuffling around was truly magical.
A park ranger told us that the biggest enemies of the penguins are not actually pumas, but commercial fishing, pollution and disease. Long the foe of sheep farmers, the cats themselves are now protected, though the ranger said government officials still surreptitiously pay rewards to hunters who produce a paw to prove they killed one.
After visiting with “los pinguinos,” we took a stroll along a deserted and wind-swept beach towered over by gray cliffs comprised of countless layers of fossilized sea shells.
The park is considered a place of paleontological value and in places, shells poking out of the cliffs looked as though they had been placed there by recent human hands.
We rounded off our visit with a welcome cup of hot chocolate and a slice of pizza in a cozy restaurant run by a friendly retired couple, then took a short drive farther north to a small oil town called Piedra Buena. If you’re not camping, it’s the nearest place with lodging and a good jumping-off point for further forays into Patagonia. Other attractions that bring tourists to the region include the massive and better-known penguin colony at Punto Tombo, near Puerto Madryn; the Perito Moreno glacier in El Calafate, and Torres del Paine, Andean peaks on the other side of the Chilean border that attract hikers and climbers.
Needless to say, our black-and-white dreams that night were populated with penguins.
On the Net: www.conservacionpatagonica.org/monteleon.htm
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