"Have you seen one?" they asked, "they're huge, they live in the river, eat garbage, and they can be as big as a cat; in fact, they eat cats!!" And so I was first warned of Chile's inferior rodent species, the guarén. Given that curiosity is one of the largest contributing factors to my personality and being, I was instantly set on a mission to track one of these pseudomythological creatures down.
When I first arrived in Chile, I lived close to the estero Marga Marga, which was supposedly an optimal location for tracking down a guarén. I would extend every bridge crossing to double its required time, eyes glued to the water and marshy banks looking for a beastly creature of sorts which I imagined was a small version of the ROUS featured in Princess Bride.
As my goal drained on and on, I collected more and more stories and information about the animal, and its cousins around South America (capybara/carpincho, coipo, pacarana). The nanas told me about how the guarenes sometimes enter in the kitchen of houses, host families claimed they can crawl through the plumbing pipes, and friends told me stories of their sightings.
And finally, it was my turn! Crossing over to the Plaza Miraflores, I saw something causing ripples in the water and a small animal climb onto the bank. Camera in hand, I tore down through the weeds to get a closer look at this animal that turned out to be... actually kind of cute!! It wasn't eating metal or poodles or baring teeth and my fear of attack or deadly disease turned into a condescending "awwwww." It looked like a guinea pig! Though the most popular photo on the internet remains rather ugly, I'm not sure if its because of the bad quality or they found a particularly creepy one. Plus, I must say I still wouldn't want this animal in my trash, kitchen, or having its tail brush my bottom from inside the toilet bowl (as one of my English students told me recently happened to his mother).
Later, my roommates parents showed me a photo they took of a seemingly related animal in Argentina and I was amazed at the size, which looked almost like a hog. But that was nothing compared to the news article last year that blew me away. They found fossils in Uruguay of the worlds largest rodent weighing over 2,000 pounds and appearing 3 meters long!!!