by Marcela Torres
It was January 2000 and my dad and I were sitting on top of a rocky promontory in Torres del Paine National Park, in southern Chile, withstanding the strong cold Patagonian winds that pierced through our parkas, gloves and hats. But we were on a mission: To photograph the elusive Andean Condor.
We were fortunate enough to stay at a park ranger post, where the staff gave us tips on the best spots to find the Condor. Since this is a scavenger bird, they suggested we take with us some really stinky cat food that would surely do the trick of attracting it to us.
Following their instructions, we trekked for hours through the tall grasslands of the “pampa” to reach one of the hills they had recommended. It was a rocky mount, completely barren, but after climbing it we discovered it provided a great lookout point. There we sat, with our stock of smelly cat food, and waited, and waited, and waited…
As we waited, I remembered how we came to be there on the first place. In 1982, the BBC produced one of my dad’s favorite documentaries, “The Flight of the Condor”. Mind you, he got a copy and played it over and over again. Being just a girl, I was more into cartoons and Michael Jackson videos, but I ended up liking this incredible film about a bird that is a national symbol in most Andean countries, including Chile, where we lived.
In fact, it wasn’t the first time I had enjoyed a national park with him. My dad had been Regional Director for CONAF, the agency in charge of Chilean protected areas, in Arica between 1974 and 1985. As a child, I traveled with him many times to Lauca National Park, in the high Andes, during his field visits. He taught me about the Vicuña, the Flamingos, the Vizcacha, and the Condor.
It was so much fun that I never paid attention to the cold and loved accompanying him while he photographed nature, which was his passion. When I turned nine, he gave me my first camera, a Polaroid that I still have, and taught me how use it. I was so happy that I took pictures of everything!!
Thanks to him, my family and I enjoyed living in Ann Arbor, Michigan; San José, Costa Rica; New Haven, Connecticut; and Arlington, Virginia. This gave us some unforgettable experiences, such as camping around the Great Lakes and visiting all of the beautiful national parks in these areas.
Torres del Paine had always been on my wish list. So, when he offered to take me in 2000, I said yes immediately! And there we were, waiting for the condor…
A couple of hours had gone by and we had almost lost all hope when suddenly, out of nowhere, a huge bird appeared flying straight towards us. It was a Condor! We quickly ditched our gloves and grabbed our cameras, getting ready to take great shots of this amazing animal. But in only a few seconds it was right on top of us!
As it came, and we realized how low it was flying, we instinctively leaned back until we lay flat on the rock. It was such an awesome sight, having this massive bird glide only a meter above us, that we completely froze. We could see all the details of its belly and the long wings. When we snapped out of our awe, we realized we had not taken any pictures! So, we quickly rolled over on our bellies and started shooting with our cameras to try to catch at least a glimpse of the Condor. It was too late! We were only able to capture a tiny speck that was quickly flying away from us towards higher altitudes.
We stayed there a while, letting the experience sink in. It had been so amazing! Finally, we grabbed our cameras and the stinky cat food and walked back to the park ranger post. At night, while we sat with the rangers around a fire sharing a “mate” (muh-teh) –a typical Patagonia herbal tea-, they laughed at our adventure.
Our common love for nature led us to co-author two editions of the Guide to Chile’s National Parks (1999and 2004), in Spanish, and to work together in the development of the firstsustainable visitor center in a protected area in Chile, in Los FlamencosNational Reserve, between 2005 and 2006. That experience made me decide to study my Master in Ecotourism at James Cook University, in Cairns, Australia, in 2009.
My dad always supported my endeavors and often contributed with photographs for my blog. He was a member of several professional associations and chaired for many years the IUCN South American Camelid Specialist Group, promoting the conservation of the vicuña until the end of his life. I will continue contributing as well, honoring his memory.
He passed away on Saturday, February 18, 2017. It is still so recent that it’s hard to believe… I still feel him close… He will be with me forever… And my love and gratitude for all that he taught me will remain…
HERNÁN TORRES BIO