The rich oceans off Peru’s coast support a wide variety of marine mammals and seabirds. Sea lions, seals, and the endangered Humboldt penguin can be observed at the Reserva Nacional de Paracas and the new Reserva Nacional de las Islas, Islotes y Puntas Guaneras (this reserve, created in 2010, protects all islands and guano points along the Peruvian coast). Hundreds of thousands of birds also roost on these protected islands, which are covered in thick layers of guano or bird dung.
There are more than 200 bird species at Paracas, including a variety of gulls, pelicans, boobies, cormorants, frigate birds, hawks, ospreys, and vultures. You are likely to see a pink Chilean flamingo or even an Andean condor.
The dry forests farther north begin to support a variety of mammals, such as gray and red deer, anteaters, foxes, pumas, and the endangered oso de anteojos (spectacled bear or Andean bear). A few dozen unique forest birds also live here, along with a range of iguanas, snakes, and lizards. Peru’s small chunk of Pacific coastal forest near the border with Ecuador is home to the only crocodile in Latin America, the endangered Tumbes crocodile.
The most ubiquitous animals of Peru’s Andes are the four species of native camelids that eat the high-altitude íchu grasses and produce wooly coats as protection from the rain and cold. Two of these, the llama and alpaca, were domesticated thousands of years ago by Peru’s highlanders, who tie bright tassels of yarn onto the animals’ ears. Herds of the much smaller and finely haired vicuña can be seen in the sparse grasslands above Ayacucho, Arequipa, and Cusco. The fourth camelid, the guanaco, is harder to spot because its main range lies south in Chile and Argentina.
Other animals in the Peruvian Andes include white-tailed deer, foxes, and the puma. The only animal you are likely to see, however, is the vizcacha, which looks like a strange mix between a rabbit and a squirrel.
There is a huge range of birds in the Andes, the most famous of which is the Andean condor, the world’s largest flying bird. Its range extends from the high jungle, including Machu Picchu, all the way to the coast. It can easily be seen in Colca Canyon, along with a variety of other raptors, including the impressive mountain caracara, which has a black body, red face, and brilliant yellow feet. There are also falcons, which have a russet belly and can often be seen hovering over grasslands in search of mice or birds.
A variety of water birds can be seen at Lake Titicaca and in the cold, black lakes of the Andean puna. The Andean grasslands are one of the habitats for the Andean goose, a huge, rotund bird with a white belly and black back, and a variety of shimmering ducks, including the puna teal and crested duck. There are even flamingos and a few wading birds, such as the red-billed puna ibis. One of the most interesting birds, which can be seen in the river near Machu Picchu and in Colca Canyon, is the torrent duck. This amazing swimmer floats freely down white water that stymies even experienced rafters.
The Amazon is a zoo without bars. Exotic birds flit through the air, turtles line up on riverside logs to sunbathe, and pig-sized aquatic rodents called capybaras submerge like submarines under the water’s surface. Sloths clamber slowly through the trees along with noisy troops of monkeys. Just in the low jungle around Puerto Maldonado and Parque Nacional Manu, there are more than 600 bird species, 1,300 butterflies, an estimated 30 million insects and a range of animals including tapirs, armadillos, anteaters, caimans, otters, anaconda snakes, and the sovereign of all, the jaguar. Farther north in the Iquitos basin is a slightly different range of birds and animals, including the pink river dolphin and the mysterious and shy manatee.
The Amazon’s lush greenery can make these animals hard to spot. To see much of anything, you need a good pair of binoculars and an experienced guide to spot them for you. As a result, the longer you stay in the jungle, and the farther you are from cities, the more you will see.
A walk in the rainforest, however, will nearly always produce sightings of monkeys. Among the most common are troops of large playful squirrel monkeys, which shake the branches in search of sugary fruit. Accompanying them are black-fronted nunbirds, which eat the katydids that jump away from the commotion. You will also hear (and hopefully see) red howler monkeys and observe the pygmy marmoset, which can survive on a few drops of sap per day and is the smallest monkey on earth.
There are various snakes, which is the reason jungle guides usually walk in front of visitors to inspect or “clean” the path. There are also plenty of iridescent frogs, some of which have elaborate chemical defenses on their skin that the Amazon natives use for their poison blow-darts. Colorful butterflies flit through the forest, and if you’re sweating, one might land on your shirt to eat your salt. Most of all you will see insects, including long lines of leaf-cutter ants carrying bits of everything on their backs toward their huge ground nests. There are also smaller army ants and termites, which build tunnels toward their nests of mud built around tree branches. You may not see them but you will hear thousands of cicadas, which make a deafening chorus by vibrating a plate under their wings.
Macaw clay licks are one of the jungle’s more extraordinary sights. They are found throughout the Amazon basin, generally on riverbanks where minerals are highly concentrated. Assorted parrots, parakeets, and macaws congregate at them every morning to eat the mineral-rich mud that helps neutralize the toxins in their stomachs, allowing them to eat a large variety of ripe and unripe fruit. The largest (and smartest) birds are the macaws, with the more common species being the chestnut-fronted, scarlet, and the blue-and-green. At the world’s largest clay lick, near the Tambopata Research Center, dozens of these birds can be seen squawking and flying about as visitors use spotting scopes to watch them from a blind. There are also salt licks that attract mammals, including one at the Manu Wildlife Center that attracts reliable nighttime views of tapirs and brocket deer.
All Amazon jungle lodges offer an early-morning boat cruise to see birds. The ringed kingfisher darts above the river with its light blue body, russet belly, and white-ringed neck. Mealy, orange-winged, and festive parrots squawk noisily through air. You may see the Cuvier’s toucan, which sometimes uses its huge tricolored beak for eating eggs and baby chicks from the nests of other birds. Smaller, colorful birds such as flycatchers, cotingas, and tanagers can often be observed perched on branches. Raptors perch on the dead branches above the river, including the slate-colored hawk and yellow-headed caracara. Rustling through lakeside bushes is the hoatzin, a chickenlike, stinky bird with a spiky crest and a grunting call. If you’re lucky, you might see an Amazonian umbrella bird, nicknamed “the Elvis bird” for a crown of feathers that flops over its head, resembling The King himself.
© Ross Wehner and Renée del Gaudio from Moon Peru, 3rd Edition