We headed back south past Queulat and the Enchanted Forest that we could see and appreciate now that it had stopped raining. Our destination was Coyhaique Alto, a border post between Chile and Argentina to the east of Coyhaique. On the journey we observed a dramatic change in the vegetation and topography as we moved south and the east – from the dense vegetation and steep slopes of the Enchanted Forest where the annual rainfall is over 1.2 metres a year to the vast, flat pampas grasslands where the rain is less than 30 cm a year.
Just south of Mañihuales there is a choice of routes to Coyhaique. We decided to try the route via Villa Ortega but didn’t find it particularly spectacular. It was certainly not special enough to recommend the dirt road over the (only slightly longer) paved alternative route that we had used on the way north.
We had a brief stop in Coyhaique to meet Alejandro, owner of Estancia del Monte, so we could follow him up the road towards Argentina and his ranch. At the estancia we stayed with Alejandro’s family in his house. Tim Druett of The British Tour Guide joined us to help with translation, be our wildlife guide and take us out to the condor cliffs. Everyone was warm and welcoming and the food was excellent making it a great home-stay experience.
Alejandro explained that the mainstay of the estancia had been his family’s award-winning corriedale sheep, bred especially for the harsh conditions, but that there was no longer sufficient profit to be made from sheep. The family was therefore working to establish the estancia as an ecotourism destination based on the presence of spectacular cliffs where Andean condors roost.
Next morning we had an early start and after a quick breakfast we headed off in the dark to the condor cliffs. When we arrived the sun was just rising. We climbed down to the viewing spots and settled in hoping to see condor and hoping that the birds would come to us if we waited patiently.
We were not disappointed. A pair of adult condors rested on a ledge way below us and several were flying around. Condors are really curious and several flew right over us, clearly looking at us intently and “checking us out”.
After a while a pair landed on a pinnacle of rock quite close by. Although still in juvenile plumage they were clearly a bonded pair and were the same size as the adult birds. The female was particularly curious and at one point flew up to a point that was only a few metres away from me and just looked me up and down. It is only when you are that close that you can appreciate how big these birds are. I had a long lens with me and all I could fit into the frame was the head! After a couple of shots I stopped photographing and just tried to drink in the moment. It was an awesome experience. Tim and Phil were so stunned that neither of them thought to take a shot with me in it to show just how close the condor had been willing to come to me.
The female rejoined the male and the pair spent several hours mutually grooming and preening before flying away.
Flying around the cliffs we also saw and photographed a pair of black-chested buzzard eagles who rode the currents along the cliff face. Although they were still tending a large chick they also found the time to engage in some courtship routines flying close together and briefly clasping talons.
After what had been a great and memorable day we headed back to the estancia for a late lunch before driving back to Coyhaique. We stayed the night here before commencing the next stage of our adventure on the southern part of the Carretera Austral.