Surire Salt Flat © Claudio Vidal

Naturally Chile: Get to Know Patagonia Leader Claudio Vidal

Surire Salt Flat © Claudio Vidal

Born and raised in southern Chile, International Expeditions’ Patagonia Expedition Leader Claudio Vidal ranks among the leading field naturalists in South America.  

He became an avid birdwatcher at the age of 12, and has since developed into one of the continent’s most respected ornithologists. Based in Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, his expertise in the region’s birds and mammals led him to co-author more than 20 books, including Birds of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego & Antarctic Peninsula, Torres del Paine: Wildlife & Landscapes, and the newly released field guide Birds of Chile.

After leading birdwatching and natural history tours in Chile for decades, he’s become a favorite among IE travelers thanks to his knowledge and insights into the beauty of Patagonia’s animals and landscapes. Check out our interview with Claudio about what inspired his early interest in nature, his passion for birds, and some of Patagonia’s many can’t-miss attractions…
Patagonia guide Claudio Vidal
Was there a particular person or experience that inspired your early interest in nature and wildlife?

I have very fond memories of my beginnings with natural history. My mother was extremely encouraging in allow me and my little brother to explore the natural world and spark curiosity. We had all sort of collections – stuffed birds and mammals, plants and marine invertebrates, insects and other critters. Our shared bedroom was a sort of museum, in our eyes. In spite of the mess, my mother perceived that nature was a wonderful way to learn, to make deductions, to inspire us to be sensitive about the world that surrounded us.

Was there anything she did specifically to encourage your passion?

She gave me several presents in those early years, but perhaps the most inspiring and precious to me were my very first binoculars and my first field guide. At that time, the only one available was with black and white drawings. I think it was from these initial years, when I was between eight and 12, that I decided to become a naturalist. The same applies to my brother, Osvaldo, who is the real scientist: He’s currently a researcher with a PhD in forest ecology.         
When did you develop a similar passion for travel? Was there an early travel experience that stands out in your memory?

I think that my desire to know the world – and consequently to travel it – really started by reading the journals of early explorers. Reading about Magellan, Darwin, Shackleton and so many others were very inspiring. My explorations were very modest when I was a child and a young man, but also really rewarding. My first solo visit to Torres del Paine at the age of 13, with the purpose to study Black-chested Buzzard-Eagles, was the beginning. I’ve never abandoned travel since then. My horizons have expanded according to my age. But I still feel like a young person when I go to new places or revisit a destination I love so much.    
Birding in Chile 
You're considered an expert ornithologist. What was it that initially drew you to birds?

Their infinity in colors and shapes. They are so diverse, and they occupy every habitat on Earth. Their presence is so overwhelming, but at the same time cryptic. They’re often not evident unless you are prepared and actively looking for them. Birds are everywhere, but they’re different in each region of the world. For somebody with that curiosity, it’s just wonderful to travel the world, getting to know new habitats to explore and adding new species to your “life list.”   
White-rumped Sandpiper
Can you talk about some of your favorite bird species that people can find in Chile?

The ocean is my main source of inspiration. It’s the definite frontier, so vast and wonderful. I have always been close to the ocean, so seabirds are the most fascinating bird group for me, particularly the “tubenoses.” Albatrosses, Petrels, and Shearwaters are all abundant along the cold, productive waters of the Humboldt Current, which flows along nearly the entire range of Chile’s coastline. You can take a boat trip anywhere off the coast of Chile and feel privileged to see these magnificent birds dwelling in this vast space. It’s no wonder they have inspired so many writers and travelers.

My favorite quote is “I now belong to a higher cult of mortals, for I have seen the Albatross,” by American ornithologist Robert Cushman Murphy. 

Hosteria Pehoe
Patagonia is one of our favorite places we've ever traveled. What would you say makes the region unique?

Patagonia, in the words of adventurer and writer Bruce Chatwin, “is the farthest place to which man walked from his place of origins.” Patagonia is still a frontier. It’s a place where the term “remote” is meaningful and true, where you still can feel like an explorer. I really like wild places, where Nature still keeps in control of things. This is Patagonia for me– my base, and the place my ancestors chose as their home.
You live in Punta Arenas. Can you talk about the amazing ecological diversity travelers can experience in southern Chile?
There are two major ecological features down here – the Andes and Southern Ocean – that collide and create a spectacular region. The ruggedness of the world’s longest mountain chain, the omnipresence of the glacial ice, and a myriad of islands teeming with wildlife makes the whole region a magnet for nature enthusiasts from all over the world. They come here looking for different interests and experiences, but above all for an intimate contact with nature. Wherever you have such a diverse mosaic of habitats, you’ll find very little repetition in your journeys. That’s the beauty of any itinerary to this part of the world: The scenery is constantly changing as well as the challenges of new wildlife to discover.
Chile guide Claudio Vidal
You're an avid photographer. What are some of your top tips for people looking to improve their nature/wildlife photography?

Nature photography is a repetition business. You must strive to correct your technique, look for new subjects, and challenge your creativity. Take advantage of the best hours of light. Revisit places and watch the wildlife more closely. I don’t see many wildlife photographers with binoculars around their neck, but I think that people should observe first and shoot pictures later. The results can be very different, intriguing, and surprisingly rewarding.
What do you hope International Expeditions’ travelers will take away from their journeys in your native country?

This is a tricky question... I hope they will discover a land of extremes and feel comfortable and welcomed in this long, thin country. I hope they can achieve an overwhelming number of memories during their Patagonia tour. Chile can be an attack on their senses in terms of their perception of the hospitality, the food, the wines, the vast landscapes, and the fascinating wildlife. Overall, I hope their trip makes for many great memories of the destination. I’m pretty sure that Chile is prepared to provide IE travelers with a journey of a lifetime. Sean bienvenidos!  

Ready to travel to Chile?

Indulge your wanderlust while discovering Chile's bounty of wine and wildlife! International Expeditions offers a variety of small-group and private Chile tours, including trips to Patagonia, Chiloe Island, Easter Island and the Atacama Desert. Drawing on decades of expertise, International Expeditions has crafted evocative experiences designed to immerse you in this iconic destination.

Bret Love is a journalist/editor with 23 years of print and online experience, whose clients have ranged from the Atlanta Journal Constitution and American Airlines to National Geographic and Yahoo Travel. Along with his wife, photographer/videographer Mary Gabbett, he is the co-founder of ecotourism/conservation website Green Global Travel and Green Travel Media.