Birding Patagonia

Birding Patagonia – THE BREAKDOWN

Thrust into the icy but fertile Antarctic Sea, southern Patagonia is literally at the end of the world. There are a lot of reasons people make the journey to the end of the world and so there are a lot of ways to experience it. Here I am breaking down the main points and the costs of how we chose to experience Patagonia.

*All dollar amounts are in US dollars, unless otherwise noted.
*CLP = Chilean Peso

Total spent: $1129.25 for 2 people over 10 days
Average of $56.94 per day/per person

Accommodations: $240.25 (Airbnb, hostel, camping fee)
Transportation: $491.25 (including flights to and from Punta Arenas)
Food: $219.25 (groceries, restaurants, snacks)
Excursions: $64.25 (National Park entrance fee)
Misc: $114.25 (surprise baggage fee at airport, camp fuel, supplies)

Punta Arenas

4 nights – AirBnb: We chose to stay at 2 different AirBnb homes for a total of 4 nights. Options for accommodations on AirBnb were cheaper and offered more than the few hostels we looked at. This followed suit with the majority of Chile in our experience. A single bed in a 6 bed dorm room of a hostel usually costs about the same as a private room with a queen bed through AirBnb (and Airbnb kitchens are usually much nicer!)
1 night – camped: With the rental car, we found a free area to camp just off the road. The freedom of the car meant we could avoid any paid campgrounds and experience a new place away from other travelers.

Flights to and from Punta Arenas are included in the overall transport cost for this leg of our trip. The most common thing for people visiting Patagonia is to book a domestic flight from Santiago to Punta Arenas. These can range from $55 to $200 one way depending on the airline. SKY is usually the cheapest and best quality, but beware their incredibly strict enforcement of carry-on size limits. We had to pay an additional $75 per person because our carry-ons were “oversized” even though we had flown on SKY 3 different times in the months prior with no issues.
Taxis are a good option to get around town. We used a few to get from our Airbnb to downtown and then to the Tres Puentes pier. They seemed to average about $3 to $6 (2,000-4,000 CLP)
Uber is an excellent option as well, especially if you speak limited Spanish. Just punch in where you want to go and where to get picked up! Our Uber rides cost us from $3 to $12 (2,000-8,000 CLP)
Rental Cars are an option for those short on time. I do not know what the average cost of a rental is, but I image it can be quite expensive in the peak tourism season.
Bus is the main form of transport to and from the other towns in the area, mainly Puerto Natales. Fares to/from Puerto Natales – 8,000 CLP ($12 USD) per ticket

Unimarc grocery stores are the best for stocking up on food of all kinds! Fresh fruit and veggies are scarce in Patagonia so grab them while you can! The Unimarc downtown is on the corner of Lautaro Navaro and Pdte. José Manuel Balmaceda. It’s on Google Maps and
Wake Up – Coffee and Brunch is the BEST cafe in town with excellent food! Average prices by Chilean standards may seem a little expensive depending on where you are from. Espresso coffee is $4-$6 and lunch is $9-$14 USD.  You can find it on Google Maps and or at 944 Pdte. Federico Errázuriz just a block from the Unimarc.

Birding around Punta Arenas is wonderful. Right along the Strait of Magellan, with the patagonian steppe to the north and forests to the west. Great for various common species like Imperial and Magellanic Cormorants, Dolphin Gulls, Steamer Ducks, and Chilean Skua. With a scope and careful scanning of the Strait, you can pick out Black-browed Albatross and Southern Giant Petrels. To the north, the vast semi-arid grasslands (steppe) are the main areas to see Lesser Rhea, Tawny-throated Dotterel, Chocolate-vented Tyrant, White-bridled Finch, and many more specialties. If you have the chance to explore even farther south from Punta Arenas, I recommend going far enough down the coast to see the monument marking the political middle point of Chile and to find Ruddy-headed Geese.

Punta Arenas area
Read our post to see the photos and bird sightings from birding around Punta Arenas with our friend!

Old pier area: Great for photos of the large silver “PUNTA ARENAS” in front of the water, scanning for Albatross and great views at Imperial Cormorants and Dolphin Gulls.
DIRECTIONS: Follow Pdte. Puerto Montt all the way to the coast and it ends right across the main road from the old pier. You can also find Hotel Dreams (the big tall hotel right at the port in downtown PA) and go 300 meters north up the shore. Wide sidewalks and ample pedestrian crossings make walking around town very comfortable.

Trés Puentes Wetland: This is possibly the most-birded spot in Punta Arenas. Holds excellent water birds like Red Shovelers, Chiloé Wigeon, White-tufted Grebe and sometimes Chilean Flamingos. Shorebirds like South American Snipe, Southern Lapwing and maybe Black-faced Ibis. Easy to find and with room to park and birdwatch, it’s a great spot to sort out some of Chile’s most common and flashy birds.
DIRECTIONS: Right on the north edge of town, it’s right where Ruta 9 meets Avenida Eduardo Frei Montalva. 10 minutes (7.5km) from the old pier and downtown Punta Arenas. Parking is on Av. Eduardo Frei Montalva, on the eastbound (south) side of the road. There are 2 small turn-around lanes that allow you to reach the parking lot no matter what direction you are coming from.

Río Leñadura river mouth: Excellent spot to look for coastal shorebirds. I had great luck with Magellanic Oystercatchers, Rufous-chested Dotterels, and Two-banded Plovers.
DIRECTIONS: 8 kilometers south of Punta Arenas on the main highway. Park on the east side of the road just north of the bridge where there is a large pullout. Take the trail between the bushes and the bridge down through an open fence and down to the waters edge.

Isla Magdalena boat tour: An exceptional way to see your first Magellanic Penguins is to take the day trip to an island with thousands of them! If you book directly with Comapa, it costs 55,000 CLP ($75 usd). Otherwise, if you book with a tour agency, you will pay a lot more. Boat trips leave daily, the whole trip takes about 5 hours (1 hour on the island and the rest is transit time).  From the boat, you can see Black-browed AlbatrossSouthern Giant PetrelsMagellanic Diving-Petrels and some swimming Magellanic Penguins!The Comapa office is on the corner of Hernando de Magellanes and Benjamín Muñoz Gamero. Best to go in and book in person so you can ask questions regarding weather, time, what to bring and so on. They have very friendly and knowledgable staff, most of whom speak English.

Patagonian Steppe

Laguna Los Palos: Chilean Flamingo, Silver Teal, Upland Goose, and a good chance to find a Magellanic Plover make this a worthy stop for anyone.
DIRECTIONS: 56km north on Ruta 9 from downtown PA and 4km north of the split to Ruta 255. On the left (west) side of the road, there is a wide and nice dirt pullout for multiple cars. Great viewing of the laguna from here.

Road Y-455: A long gravel road that runs north-south from the paved highway 255 to almost the Argentina border. White-bridled Finch, Lesser Rhea, Lesser Seedsnipe, Chocolate-vented Tyrant, and a chance at Band-tailed Earthcreeper are the main target species along this road. It’s quite long, so bring a lunch, water, and full tank of gas.
DIRECTIONS: 39km after taking the Ruta 255 split from Ruta 9, turn left (north) onto the small but well-maintained gravel road Y-455.

Down the coast
Read the post about our adventure down the coast and see the photos we took!

Philip Parker King Historic Site: Stop at this pullout and scan the estuary in front of you for birds. Ruddy-headed, Ashy-headed, Kelp, and Upland Geese all feed in this area. That’s all 4 sheldgeese species of Patagonia! 
DIRECIONS: 3.7km south of the roundabout with the white monument marking the middle of Chile. This small historical marker at the estuary is called “Monumento a Charles Darwin” in Google Maps.

Río San Juan: Shortly after crossing the rio San Juan, watch for the grassy area on the left (east) side of the road. Great camping spot and another opportunity to look for geese and other birds.
DIRECTIONS: 6.6km south from the “middle of Chile”.

Canquén Colorado Reserve: Great spot to walk along the shore or in the dune grass and trees. Lots of the usual water birds for the area, good chance at Ruddy-headed Goose.
DIRECTIONS: 8.7km from the “middle of Chile” monument. Multiple turnoffs, the one we took was on a small dirt road that leads towards the sea and went past some cabins.

Puerto Natales

Small town acts as the gateway to Torres del Paine National Park. If you have a rental car, I imagine there are great birding areas outside of town, but since we didn’t have a car we only checked out the old dock on the shore. A lot of dining and drinking options await in the town center, but may be quite expensive due to the inflated prices of business catering to tourists.

2 nights – hostel: Our 2 nights spent in Puerto Natales were at Red Point Patagonia, a small hostel and expedition company. The hostel was warm and cozy despite it’s rough appearance. Young crowd, attracting budget travelers and adventurers. Our 2 separate nights cost $24.50 and $30.25 for the both of us; you can halve those prices for a single traveler.There are wide range of other hostels, hotels, and campings available in Puerto Natales, most ranging more than double what we paid, except for the camping areas.

Taxis and Uber exist in town, though we just walked to the store and the waterfront.
Buses to Torres del Paine NP leave constantly from the bus station between Avenida España and Simón Bolivar where they intersect the main roadway Avenida Santiago Bueras.There are a dozen bus companies to choose from, all offering nearly the same price. We chose Juan Ojeda since they have service that runs passed Lago Pehoé. Round trip tickets to the national park – $19.75 (13,000 CLP) per person
There are a few rental car companies in town as well.

We found a small grocery store to restock our supplies before going to Torres to camp. There are dozens of really nice and excellent restaurants, bars, cafes, and grills downtown. It seems the massive movement of tourists through Puerto Natales has cause a lot of dining options to spring up, although most are too expensive for even the locals.

Historic Pier: Excellent spot to try out some moody photography of the old pier and look for Dolphin Gulls, Black-necked and Coscoroba Swans and maybe a few other good birds of the region.
DIRECTIONS: about 500m from the Plaza de Armas, along Avenida Pedro Montt across from the gas station PetroBras Puerto Natales. 

Torres del Paine National Park

The famous gem of the region, this national park draws visitors from all around the world. It has hundreds of miles of hiking trails (though most are part of the overnight trekking routes) and has a decent public transportation network servicing most of the park. For more “off the beaten path” type of adventures, you will need a rental vehicle or hire a guide.
Read our post to see the bird photos and sightings from our time in Torres del Paine!

The entrance ticket for foreigners costs about $32 (21,000CLP) during the high season – October 1st to April 30th and $17 (11,000CLP) in the low season – May 1st to September 30th.

1 night – camping: For our only night in the park, we camped at “Camping Torres” as it’s called on Fantastico Sur’s website. This is the campground located right near Refugio Torres Central, the home base for Fantastico Sur. This spacious and comfortable campground costs $23 (15,000CLP) per person per nightCamping Pehoé, the lodge and campground along the lake, Lago Pehoé, is a great option for day trips into the park. Camping here costs about $18 (12,000CLP) per person per night.

Public transport to the national park is almost exclusively via bus, leaving from Puerto Natales. There are a dozen bus companies to choose from, all offering nearly the same price. We chose Juan Ojeda since they have service that runs passed Lago Pehoé, which we used to get to and from the lake.Round trip tickets to the national park – $19.75 (13,000 CLP) per person
Once inside the park, there are shuttles that take you to Refugio Torres Central/Camping Torres from the National Park entrance for $4.50 (3,000CLP).
You can always flag down a bus along any of the roads in the park, every driver is more than willing to make a few more bucks. We took the shuttle from the campground back to the park entrance and hopped on a bus headed down past Lago Pehoé and jumped off there. After spending the day hiking and birding, we flagged down the Juan Ojeda bus that we had our return tickets with and rode it back to Puerto Natales.

There are several high-class restaurants in the national park, located at the different refugios and lodges. Camping Pehoé also has some snacks, food, and coffee available for purchase. We brought all our food into the park, and cooked/prepared our own meals and coffee.

Birding in Torres del Paine National Park elevates your visit to a new level. If you’re reading this then I’m sure you’re aware that birding brings you deeper in understanding the world around you and helps you focus on the natural beauty of where you are. And doing so in one of the most beautiful places on Earth is an experience so grand there are few words to describe it.The long gravel roads and often windy landscape can make birding the area difficult if you stick to public transportation. We managed to see a good number of birds, but missed the chance to spend quality time with Andean Condors, Guanacos, and searching for other steppe specialties. When I eventually visit again, I hope to rent a car for more in-depth exploration.

The route to Torres del Paine NP: Along the road north from Puerto Natales, you get the chance to see a lot of the countryside as well as Black-chested Buzzard Eagles and Andean Condors feeding on roadkill or the occasional dead sheep in a pasture. Lesser Rhea are also easily seen from the bus or car. Checking eBird for specific places to stop along the way if you have a car should reveal a few more target species on the road to the park. As example, I found an Austral Canastero along the road about 1km from the national park entrance.

Camping Torres campground: The area around the campground and the Refugio Torres Central is really good for the Patagonian classics like Austral Blackbird, Austral Pygmy-Owl, Long-tailed Meadowlark, Chilean Flicker and Fire-eyed Diucon. There are some nice forests nearby as well as open areas to find scrub species like earthcreepers and Austral Canasteros.

Hike to the Base of Las Torres: This strenuous but totally worth it 20km (12mile) round trip hike takes you through some truly spectacular scenery. Keep an eye on the sky for Andean Condors and on the stream below the trail for Torrent Ducks. The lush green forests have plenty of Black-chinned Siskins and Thorn-tailed Rayaditos, although you may need to slow down and look closely to really observe and enjoy them. This hike can be really productive for all kinds of good Patagonian species, so keep alert! It’s one of the must-do hikes in Torres!

Road to Lago Pehoé: Taking the bus to Lago Pehoé means you get to see more of the rolling hills of the patagonian steppe, as well as a stop at Refugio Pudeto where you get out and stretch your legs. Along the way, you can see more Guanacos and even some Black-necked Swans from the bus. The standard stop at Refugio Pudeto is a chance to see Upland Geese and Flying Steamer Ducks along with several other usual Patagonia species. Taking a car along this route would really allow you to explore all the good habitat along the way. Austral Canasteros in the tall shrubs and Scale-throated Earthcreepers on the more open hillsides. Spending time checking the different lacunas and marshes will likely produce Plumbeous Rails and maybe even the highly sought-after Austral Rail! To really up your chances for this bird, take the road Y-150 EAST at the the only intersection between the park entrance and Refugio Pudeto at about 11km from the park entrance. Go 7.8km until the road passes immediately by a small marsh where there is a small collection of a couple buildings and barns on either side of the road. This is Laguna Los Juncos, the most reliable spot for Austral Rail!

Camping Lago Pehoé: From here, you get some of the most incredible views in the whole park! Along with that, there are some incredible friendly Southern Caracaras that will likely be looking for free food – don’t give them any. Around the picnic area, you can see Patagonian Sierra-Finches, and Austral Parakeets flying over. While making dinner in at a picnic table, we had a pair of Plumbeous Rails put on an amazing show for us out in the open! Check the lake for possible Great Grebes as well.

Mirador Condor hike: This short but absolutely spectacular hike is a must for anyone who wants an out-of-this-world view of Los Cuernos (the famous large multicolored peaks). They don’t call it the Condor Overlook for nothing! There seems to always be Andean Condors flying about. Every few minutes, one would soar past the mirador. They say that the condors even nest on the cliffs below.

Sierra Baguales road: Ruta 9 is the paved road that you take north from Puerto Natales toward Torres del Paine. 29.5 kilometers from the roundabout (rotonda in Spanish) the road splits and the pavement ends. At this point, go straight following the sign for Cerro Guido/Las Cumbres. Taking the left at the split will take you towards the national park entrance. Once past the split in the road, the next 40 or 50 kilometers is prime area to spot Andean Condors feeding on roadkill near the road, and even the chance at spotting a Puma on the hillsides. Some 15 kilometers from the split, the habitat gets even better. This area is excellent for many of the target species found in Patagonia. Yellow-bridled Finches, Patagonian Mockingbird, Band-tailed Earthcreeper, Cinnamon-bellied Ground-Tyrant, and White-throated Caracara. Unfortunately, we did not have the time to explore this road ourselves, but it will be on the top of my list when we return to Patagonia!

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