Peru’s Amazing Animals

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.

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Macaws along the Tambopata River

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.

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Alpaca near Lake Titicaca

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?

Machu Picchu: It’s Worth It

I traveled to South America in 1988 with my first husband, Orlando. Besides visiting his native Colombia, we planned to make a trek to Peru and its treasure, Machu Picchu. The issue at the time was Peru’s internal terrorism and most of Orlando’s extended family recommended against a visit to Machu Picchu. Ironic that we spent an extensive amount of the month-long visit in the long-standing democracy (until recently) of Venezuela and ran into most of our issues with the police/army of Colombia. Perhaps we should have taken the bet on traveling to Peru, but we instead stuck to Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil.

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Suffice it to say, Machu Picchu has been at the top of my bucket list for the last thirty years. A very dusty bucket list since I’ve had children, a career and am no longer married to a bilingual adventurer. So I learned Spanish myself. When I saw photos of the classic photo taken atop Machu Picchu by a college friend, Lisa, about two years ago on social media, I reached out to find out how she had accomplished such an extraordinary feat. In addition, I have a co-worker from a past job, Claudia, who is a native of Peru. Without these wealth of resources due mostly to social media, I would probably not have had the wherewithal to head south of the equator to finally check off the item at the top of my bucket list.

 

This is what you need to know traveling to Machu Picchu:

 

Remote. I have traveled internationally several times over the last few years. I have taken Uber rides to far flung Colombian villages, like Guatapé, some three hours outside of Medellín, Colombia. No need for a bus token or much Spanish. Machu Picchu, the Sacred Valley and Ollantaytambo are all very remote with mostly gravel and rutted roads in between. You will not be able to get an Uber or taxi ride to the train station at Ollantaytambo or Agua Caliente. I point this out because, unless you are hiking the famed Inca Trail (I did not), you will need to have transportation set up in advance. I was on a tour with REI, so all of the transfers were set up well in advance. In addition, outside of tour buses and tuk tuks, you won’t see many other vehicles on the road. Be prepared.

 

Water. The water in Peru is not potable for US travelers. Every hotel and restaurant served bottled water. Most hotels instructed us to brush our teeth with bottled water. Basically, your stomach isn’t ready for whatever parasites and bacteria living in the water versus the water you drink every day in the United States. It’s not bad; it’s just different. I was amazed that every place we went to served drinks from a bottle without ice. Funny that when we arrived at a buffet restaurant right outside the park with self-serve drinks, most of the kids had put ice in their glass along with one of our tour group. When we pointed out the error, she came back without ice in her glass. It may just be the custom not to serve ice with drinks in Peru, but avoiding ice and tap water is important. I, for one, was guarding my digestive health to make sure I summited Machu Picchu successfully. Be prepared with plenty of bottled water.

 

Transportation. We took the train from Ollantaytambo to Agua Caliente (Pueblo de Machu Picchu) the morning of hiking Machu Picchu. I made the mistake of sitting opposite the direction the train was traveling. It’s a pleasant 90-minute ride but facing backwards may have led me to be a bit queasy later. What added to my queasiness was the insane, harrowing bus ride up to the actual archeological site. It’s about 30 minutes long and the full-size buses ride up switch backs and hairpin turns on a gravel road with no guard rails, inches from a precarious thousand-foot drop–as well as passing buses running down the mountain! It was a really bad movie scene waiting to happen! I don’t normally get car sick, although it may have been the anticipation of finally arriving at Machu Picchu. I do have one recommendation: keep your eyes shut. And the only other way in is hiking for several days on the Inca Trail. Don’t forget that you come back down on a bus on the same road you went up. If it sounds sobering, it is.

 

Altitude. I remember focusing on the fact that Machu Picchu is at about 8,000 feet in elevation. That, in hindsight, is not the issue. Cuzco, the closest major city with an airport, is at 11,500 feet. When we strode up a short flight of stairs upon arriving Cuzco, you feel it. You are out of breath. You start to get a headache. For some in our tour group of ten, you get sick. You feel dizzy and can’t stand up. Cuzco and its altitude is a bigger obstacle than Machu Picchu. Seems counterintuitive that the big city is at a higher altitude than what was once misnamed “the Lost City of the Incas” (it was never lost but the Spanish Conquistadors never found it). Apparently, altitude sickness is random. You may or may not get it. Just know that Machu Picchu is much lower than Cuzco. Acclimate in Cuzco and Machu Picchu will be a breeze.

 

“Steps.” I remember that by the end of my trip, I was sick of “steps.” There are “steps” everywhere in the various archeological sites we visited from Pisac, to the Saltpans of Mara, to the 250 “steps” up Ollantaytambo. I use quotation marks around the steps because they are not a set of steps that you would expect in any given public building with an even uniform height to the steps, singular material such as wood or metal, and, of course, a nice handy railing in case you want to grab on for balance at some point. Well, on the initial approach up to Machu Picchu there are “steps”. I’d guess there were about a hundred or so. There are many tourists in varying phases of fitness on those steps either going up or coming down. There are no railings, no escalators, no elevators (yes, I did sheepishly ask a few times during my tour of Peru). The steps are uneven, nonuniform, and disjointed. Poles might have been useful but having help from our guides and some fellow friends was invaluable.

 

AweThere are few sights in this world that bring tears to my eyes. The Golden Gate bridge, Yosemite Valley and the New York Skyline come to mind. On that approach just a few short weeks ago, to see that view? I had tears in my eyes. That breathtaking view of an ancient village built in the 15th century, nestled into the shear edges of mountains. The engineering feat in the middle of an impossibly steep mountain range. The civilization that masterminded the moving and shaping of the landscape without beast or wheel. The sheer beauty of the extraordinary backdrop. It is breathtaking. It is magical. It is inspiring. It was completely worth the thirty-year wait. Machu Picchu is awe-inspiring.

 

I am so fortunate to have traveled with my REI cohort of ten to Machu Picchu. A fantastic group of tenacious and fun hikers with knowledgeable, helpful guides. It wasn’t easy or simple but worth the wait for that awe inspiring view.

Return to the Amazon Jungle

When I left the Amazon jungle thirty years ago, I had no illusions that I would ever return. In 1988, I was there with my then husband Orlando to see the sights of his homeland Colombia; the Amazon River and Manaus, Brazil were tacked on for good measure. Flash forward thirty years and here I sit, under mosquito netting, the sounds of cicadas and frogs outside and the humid air that hangs on you like wet jeans. This time, I am in the Peruvian Amazon Jungle and half a mile from the Tambopata River, a downstream tributary to the great Amazon River. I am husband-less, older but no less tenacious and traveling with a friend; I think tenacity is a requirement for this type of journey.

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There are many differences besides the language and technology, but there are many things that are magical and otherworldly. This is what I found:

  • Tour guides. The first time around, I was in Manaus with Orlando searching tour companies that would take our American Express card. We were willing to go with any guide that would take our “plastic”. At the time, Brazil had extraordinarily high inflation rates so they would actually receive significantly less cruzeiros to the dollar once they received reimbursement from the credit card company. Nonetheless, we prevailed and ironically found a young Peruvian guide to take us upriver on the mighty Amazon. Our guide in 1988 knew English, Spanish and Portuguese but mostly regaled us with Michael Jackson songs instead of biology. This time around, I searched and received recommendations from several well-traveled friends, set up the dates and itineraries 6 months before and, most importantly, had a very well-educated guide, Saul, who was a wealth of information on all the flora, fauna and culture of the region. Saul knew where to go and at what time to fully take in the rich variety of nature in the Amazon.
  • Food. In 1988, we followed our guide around the streets of Manaus purchasing provisions for our two-day trip into the jungle. I remember limes, chicken and rice along with Brazilian rum. I know bottled water was not so ubiquitous as it is today. I think we typically drank bottled Coke. We traveled on a small boat and would stop at riverside places that would cook for us. This would take several hours and I never knew what we would be eating. In 2018, we had freshly-prepared buffets for each meal with salads, soups and desserts. Fresh juice from an array of unpronounceable fruits that were all delicious but completely foreign and not replicable. Bottle water dispensers were located throughout the jungle lodge where we stayed. Hot coffee and tea were available all day. We could eat at our leisure and have as much as we wanted. What a difference 30 years make.
  • Animals. I can still remember dragging a 15-pound “state of the art” camcorder with film cassettes and trying, haplessly, to record the monkeys and birds as they flied and romped in the trees. I failed. Orlando failed. We could not record a thing but we pointed aimlessly above, in the hope we’d accidentally caught something on tape. This time around, we cruised right up to a chalky cliff and saw 50 to 60 parrots flying, swooping and cackling. Amazing. We walked 25 yards and enjoyed coffee and cake as we saw some dozen or so brightly colored Macaws perch, soar and lick the chalky cliffs. There were about a half dozen scopes set up to record or view the varieties of Macaws that came out to play. Most amazingly, for me, was running into, on three or four occasions, the romping, swinging and flying of six or so Saddleback Tamarins. Two would jump from branch to branch like they were synchronized swimmers. They are very small monkeys and their bodies were the size of a squirrel with a very long black tail. I felt like they would show up mid-hike just to entertain us or perhaps we entertained them with our cameras, scopes, flashlights and iPhones? Who was watching who?
  • Accommodations. This is a drastic change from 30 years ago. My first time here, we slept in a one-room house with what seemed like 15 hammocks. The family we stayed with included their children, our guide, our driver, Orlando and myself, where each of us slept swinging from the rafters in individual hammocks. No bathroom. Just the woods and stories of pythons lying in wait (I recall relieving myself once on the entire trip…but perhaps my memories have been edited). This time, we are in a beautiful open air two-story lodge complete with television, masseuse and store. Our rooms had a private bath, mosquito netting, and intermittent Wi-Fi. There was a hammock by an open wall facing the jungle full of howler monkeys and exotic birds, like the Amazonian Oropendola, which made a sound like water dropping in a barrel.

Regardless of the decade, the Amazon is timeless. The water rolls by ceaselessly, the animals still make sounds foreign to my urban ear, and there are a million species of insects who ignore Deet and still penetrate long sleeve shirts. The beauty and grace is unmatched. It cannot be recreated by animation or drawings. It must be experienced. And to do so is life changing.