Cerro Ballena, Aoni Tem & Avitourism / by ASK Design

Cerro Ballena

When people head to Chilean Patagonia they usually have Torres del Paine National Park at the top of their list of must-see attractions.  Little do they know that nestled within viewing distance of the gateway town of Puerto Natales is a natural attraction of equal beauty.  While walking the trails of the Torres del Paine national park are beautiful you cannot help but be constantly aware of the other c. 150,000 tourists that arrive annually.  Conversely, Cerro Ballena feels truly natural, as though you are among the first people to pass through - in our case, we were!

We made a short film about the area for the new avitourism business Aoni Tem.  Aoni Tem is a fascinating story in its own right, so check out the video and read on.

Cerro Ballena lies within stunning fjords, allows for crystal clear views in all directions, from the southern ice field to lagoons, glaciers, forest, grasslands, alps and everything in-between.  It also happens to sit on the family owned estancia (agricultural station) of our new friend Pepe, who has been looking to diversify the ways in which the land is used and derive income in a way that is actively beneficial to the natural values of the land.  

Cerro Ballena (Whale Hill)

View from the top down the whales back.

Pepe always kept an eye out.

Pepe has teamed up with the newly formed Aoni Tem avitourism venture to start offering birdwatching and hiking through the area in an ecologically sound and responsible manner.  We had the honour of spending time with three of the team from Aoni Tem, includeing Juan, owner of Hostel Coloane and avid birdwatcher, Leo, a hilarious and amazingly knowledgable local guide (and brilliant chef, FYI) and Jaime, porter and talented web designer.  We were also lucky enough to have a fellow Australian, Lauren, come along to help us out with her intimate knowledge of the spanish language.  The area around Cerro Ballena is of particular interest to birdwatchers as the coastal fjord plays host to numerous nomadic bird species such as flamingoes and many different species of geese and swan, while the areas inland are full of impressive birds of prey, among numerous others.  

Where Condors Soar

The centrepiece, however, are the numerous Andean Condors (Vultur gryphus) that inhabit the area and curiously fly over to within metres near the mirador of Cerro Ballena.  In fact, they seem to be fond of flying at the bottom of the steep cliffs on which we were perched, which means you can hear the whistle of the wind passing over their wings as they approach, out of sight, then pop up just above your head from the cliff edge.  It is a truly magical experience.  

A juvenile condor soars over the Fjord. P: Carla Riccobon 

Male Andean Condors have a large comb on the back of their heads that females lack.  Interestingly, they are the only new world vulture in which the males are visibly different than the females, known as sexual dimorphism.  A friend of mine by the name of Daniel Hoops has been researching the effect of sexual dimoprhism on brain structure in dragon lizards of the Ctenophorus genus for his PhD.  Check out his work and writings here if you are interested.

The male andean condor, you can see a large comb on the top of his head.  A juvenile flies in the background on the left.

The female andean condor lacks the distinct comb of the males.

An example of one of the large cliffs the condors enjoy flying along.

A male Andean Condor keeps an eye out.

Other Avians

Many other birds of prey inhabit the area.  Merely a few are shown below.

Carancha from beneath.

A pair of tucúquere (Lesser horned owl) hang out at base camp of the trek, near the estancia.

The tucúquere takes flight.

 A Pitio perches on a log.

Circuito Cerro Ballena

We walked the four day full Circuito Cerro Ballena with the team from Aoni Tem as they planned their route.  It was a hell of a lot of fun, as no one had taken the route before.  We wove through lichen soaked forest, alpine lenga, cliffs, scrambled down sheer rocky faces, through precipitous forests, along cliffs, down valleys and around lagoons.  As we write this the team are forming trails and installing large domes at camp sites along the trek with the aim of creating nice warm social environments for trekkers and a bit of extra shelter.

The campsites selected are just perfect.  You'll get to camp in a lowland forest chock full of eagles and owls the first night, while the second night you'll camp near the peak of Cerro Ballena within easy access of prime cliffs to view Condors from followed by a third day camping in a dense temperate forest beside a huge pristine lagoon with crystal clear water.  t doesn't get much better than that.  As I mentioned earlier, the Cerro Ballena team have toilet facilities at each site and are working on installing large 9m diameter domes.

View of the lagoon campsite.

If you didn't know, Leo of LeoTrek can cook up a meeean dish.  We don't know how he did it!

Ecologically Conscious Tourism

Aoni Tem are being very conscious of environmental conditions; they have already begun to place removable chemical toilets to ensure no waste is left behind and are carefully placing all camp sites to avoid any disruption to the wildlife of the area.  They are even going so far as to invest in non-UV reflective jackets in the near future for trekkers so as to minimise disturbance to birds of prey, whose eyes are particularly sensitive to this part of the light spectrum, and hope to get night vision goggles for night time owl watching, which will add to their already impressive collection of high quality scopes and binoculars.  This was particularly good to see having visited a number of ecotourism locations, both public and private, that were definitely oriented towards profit at the expense of the wildlife on which they depended.  It seemed evident that a number of tourist locations we visited were killing the geese that laid their golden eggs, and it was great to see that Aoni Tem were being so active in implementing sound management practices.

View across the lenga forest near the summit of Cerro Ballena.

Carla enjoying the trek.

Views at sunrise were nothing short of incredible.

Lichen of Cerro Ballena

Cerro Ballena plays host to a huge variety of lichen.  These are but a few of those we saw.

Its not lichen, but on the dryer slopes there were even thriving succulents to be found in a sea of pebbles.

Succulent, found on  a number of dryer slopes on pebbly barren ground.

Forests

The upper peak of Cerro Ballena is dominated by lenga and alpine ground covers, however surrounding it on all sides are a variety of forest types, within which were a wealth of fruits, flowers, fungi, some of which were even edible!  In fact we had near a full meal worth of fruit and mushrooms fresh from the walk on our second day.

Alpine forest

Fungi abounds.

An edible mushroom that grows on many of the trees.

This little guy popped his head out on a dry eastern slope.  Don't worry, there were none around the camp site!

Landscapes

And then there's the view.  From the top of Cerro Ballena you'll be able to see a complete 360 degrees to some spectacular patagonian landscapes.  We just couldn't do them any justice in our photographs - you'll need to see them for yourself!

Carla and Lauren take in the view.

Where Condors fly.

View from the western flank of Cerro Ballena down towards the lagoon.

We sent up the drone to try and better capture the amazing views.  While some Condors flew over, interested in this unusual creature in their territory, others were far less impressed....

The drone goes out to capture views of a scale that a traditional view simply could not.

A female Andean Condor.

Cerro Ballena by Night

The area is often cloudy, but when it clears up, you'll get exceptional views of dark Patagonian skies.  The whale looking object in the bottom left is the skeleton of an old fjord-side boat by the Estancia.