Whilst less well known as a habitat for big cats than Africa, you may be surprised to learn that South and Central America have their fair share of wild cats, including some beautiful and graceful species that you may sometimes never have heard of. Spotting these magnificent creatures takes rather more patience and dedication than in other parts of the world such as East Africa, but the reward of seeing such an elusive mammal on a distant river bank or on the brow of a mountain peak is well worth the search.
Huge swathes of den jungle jungle east of the Andes and into the lowlands of the Amazon and the rainforest regions once home to the ancient Maya are Refuge to an unexpectedly endangered population of cats such as ocelot, margays, jaguarundi, Geoffroy's cat, Andean cats as well as the largest of the continent's species, the jaguar and the puma (also known as the cougar or mountain lion in the USA and Canada).
As with many wild animal populations, these incredibly elusive and rare creatures are decreasing in numbers, and because they are much harder to find than in other parts of the world with landscapes of more open plains, even their numbers remain estimated by the experts. However, if you pick your spot carefully, there is still a reliably good chance to see one of the region's two largest wild cats as well as a myriad of other unique and fascinating native wildlife. And with awareness increasing gradually in Latin America to height conservation efforts, the chances of their future survival could well depend on the increased interest in seeing these cats through controlled tourism that could help protect their habitat from encroachment by farming.
Journey into the stunning region of the Pantanal in central Brazil: a vast seasonal floodplain that also incorporates savannah and tropical forest across an area hundreds of thousands of square kilometers wide. Thousand of bird, animal, fish, plant, and reptile species thrive here in its vast network of lagoons, rivers, and marshes, and some of its rare species include the hyacinth macaw, the giant river otter, and of course, the beautiful jaguar .
The best time to see these cats, third largest in the world after tigers and lions, is in the Pantanal dry season, especially in July – August as jaguar, which are great swimmers, congregate along the diminishing Paraguay & Cuiaba Rivers to stalk their prey which can include otter, deer, and even anaconda and caiman.
Lodging in these very remote regions remains extremely basic from simple houseboats to rustic tented camps and simple hotels where you take out small skiffs along the river by day looking out for jaguar as well as seeing giant river otters, capybara, caiman, and even possibly tapir , ocelot, and peccaries. You can arrange a wonderful local guide to accompany you on a private tour so that the lack of luxury for a few days will be more than compensated for by their extraordinary scientific knowledge, a dedicated naturalist who has lived and worked in this region all their life . Spend a few days near Porto Jofre heading out each day by boat looking for jaguar and then enjoy a more comfortable stay at a charming lodge in either the north or south Pantanal where you can spend days hiking, canoeing or horse-riding to observe the many species of birds, mammals, and reptiles of this incredible biodiverse region.
Like the jaguar, the habitat of the puma ranges across the length of the American continent. Puma concolor is thought of as a ghost-like mammal, so rarely is it seen. Of course, the further you are from civilization, farming, roads, and development, the more likely you are to catch a glimpse of these beautiful wild cats. In the far northern reaches of southern Chile's Torres del Paine National Park, well away from even the relatively small number of visitors who head to the trails around the iconic granite pillars or Torres or to hike around the shores of intensely colored glacial lakes, lies a quiet wilderness of Patagonian steppe where the puma can still range undisturbed along the equally rare Huemul (South Andean deer) and other indigenous wildlife such as condors, rheas, guanaco, gray foxes, and eagles to name but a few.
You can arrange to explore the remote regions of southern Patagonia with an incredible guide who is a professional wildlife photographer and expert wildlife guide, who will accompany you on your own private puma tracking expedition and photo safari. There are a number of beautiful design-led lodges in and around the park that can be your base for your Patagonian adventure where you can relax in the evening in a stunningly beautiful remote setting with a cozy fire, a glass of fine wine, and gourmet cuisine.
One of my favorites is a camp on the shores of Lake Toro, where you can lodge in very luxurious yurt tents, gazing up at the stars from the rooftop window and out over lakes and forest from your terrace. You can arrange a bespoke itinerary here combining a few days hiking, kayaking or horse-riding in the park with a few days spent in the northern reaches of the park with your guide, sometimes overnight for one or two nights in remote refugios or simple lodges (but of course with some gourmet picnic fare!) in order to get the best possible chance of seeing a puma.
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Louise Anne Mumford