When I signed up last year to travel to Peru, I had no idea I would be seeing wildlife in their natural habitat. I expected, like it had been on my first visit to South America, that most of the wildlife would be captive. As in caged or behind glass enclosures. Or, as I had seen in Brazil some thirty years ago, ten snakes in a beat-up wooden box (yes, it was terrifying) or small parakeets with clipped wings kept as family pets. This is not what I found when I traveled to the Amazon jungle, the high plains of Lake Titicaca or the mountainous Andes around the Sacred Valley.
Here are just a few of the amazing animals I saw in Peru:
Bullet Ants. These ants are gigantic in “ant” terms. Up to 1.2 inches long. We happened upon one while hiking through the Amazon Jungle near the Tambopata River. Our guide Saul had one of these humongous ants on a stick large stick and explained that their bite was one of the most painful. I stood back as others took pictures. I guess I was afraid it could develop wings and fly towards me. Upon researching it once we were back home later, I found this first-hand account of being stung by Dr. Justin Schmidt: “It really felt like a bullet. It was instantaneous, almost even before it stung me. It was absolutely riveting. There were huge waves and crescendos of burning pain—a tsunami of pain coming out of my finger. The tsunami would crash as they do on the beach, then recede a little bit, then crash again. It wasn’t just two or three of these waves. It continued for around 12 hours. Crash. Recede. Crash. It was absolutely excruciating.” Luckily no one was stung, but I am glad to no longer be in the same hemisphere with those ants.
Caimans. As we first arrived in Puerto Maldonado and survived an intense bus ride down a rutted road from the airport to the Tambopata River, we embarked on a boat down the river. Along the 90-minute boat ride, we stopped to view different animals that happened by. We ran into a mother caiman with about 6 baby caimans of different sizes. The caimans are relatives of alligators and crocodiles. We sat offshore as the baby caimans walked along the riverbank and the mother sat 5 yards offshore with only her head (and large eyes) above water. I was surprised since the baby caimans were various sizes, but our guide Saul explained that the eggs hatch at different times, each up to a week apart, resulting in different sized caimans. Interesting.
Parrots and Macaws. We left our lodge along the Tambopata River at about 6 AM (horrifically early for folks on vacation). We hiked through the jungle and embarked on our boat while it was still dark, just to be prepared to view the parrots and macaws along the cliffs of the Tambopata. I had very low expectations. How in the world did they know that these birds would show up? It’s not like we had an appointment. Sure enough, along with several other boats of explorers, there we saw the magical blue-headed parrots flying along the cliffs. I would guess there were at least 60 parrots, if not more, flying along the banks. No cage. No clipped wings. Just beautiful blue and green parrots flying in the wild. About 30 minutes later, we parked our boat with several others along the riverside and watched as red, green, blue and yellow macaws flew along the cliffs and stopped to perch in the tree tops. I have to say that watching 4 or 5 macaws fly with their extraordinarily long tail feathers is spectacular. To see these amazing tropical birds in the wild? Priceless.
Moorhen. We spent several days on Lake Titicaca, which is the largest lake in South America and the highest navigable lake in the world at 12,500 feet. We took a boat along the reeds and marshes of the Uros of the Floating Islands. There was this striking bird that had black feathers, the size of a mallard duck and a prominent red beak. They were visible throughout the islands and marshes alongside egrets and herons. The red beak is very distinguishable and showed up in many of the crafts that the local villagers made.
Llamas and Alpacas. I expected to see llamas on my trip to Peru. I did not expect to see its shaggy cousin alpacas. I really did not expect to see llamas wandering around one the seven wonders of the world at Machu Picchu. As we traversed the rocky steps and awe-inspiring ancient site, there they were; hanging out for photo bombs and eating the grass around the archeological site. We didn’t see alpacas at Machu Picchu but did see them in Chinchero, Peru. Llamas and alpacas have been domesticated in Peru for over 6,000 years. In fact, llamas are the only residents of Machu Picchu in present day. So, there’s a wonderful surprise for you while you explore the ancient site.
There are many more animals that we experienced in the wild like howler monkeys (loudest monkey in the world), puno ibis, wood storks, Amazonian oropendola (they make ingenious teardrop nests hanging off tree branches), capybara (largest rodent in the world), russet-backed oropendola, black-tailed trogon, spix’s guan (distant cousin of our turkey), vicuna (very shy cousin of the llama) and paradise tanager (spectacular in color as well as singing ability). It seemed as if there were gifts that showed up at least once a day on the trip. I have a new appreciation for the diversity of flora and fauna in Peru and a new patience for letting them reveal themselves. What do you need to appreciate?