If you are researching a wildlife-watching trip to South America, our guide to three top Peru birding routes will give you lots of advice on where to go if you want to see some of the country’s most iconic species.
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1. Peru’s North Amazonian Circuit
This Peru birding route adventure begins at the city of Chiclayo and a visit to the Pomac Forest. This is the habitat of many endemic Tumbesian species, where you can see the Peruvian Plantcutter flitting among the carob trees, as well as the endemic Rufous Flycatcher, the Tumbes Swallow and the Mouse-colored Tyrannulet.
If the waters of the adjacent La Leche River are running then the Black-faced Ibis can be found, which is a sporadic visitor to this protected area. The Chaparri Private Reserve Area also offers a variety of endemic Tumbesian birds, with the highlight being the reintroduced population of White-winged Guans, birds that had been thought to be extinct for 100 years until they were rediscovered in 1977.
Following a northerly direction from this point you reach the small village of Limon where you can again see the critically endangered White-winged Guan, but this time in the wild. The wild populations of this species have been recovering thanks to the work of conservationists. At Quebrada Frejolillo, close to Limon, you can easily see other birds such as the Ecuadorian Piculet, the Henna-hooded Foliage Gleaner, the Short-tailed Swift and many more.
Photo credit: Green Tours, Peruvian Plantcutter
From Limon the route takes you towards the east along the road to Jaen. A recommended stop is at the montane forest close to the Porculla Pass where you will find a wealth of endemic Tumbesian species such as the Piura Chat Tyrant, the Rufous-necked Foliage Gleaner and the Three-banded Warbler.
As you cross the Porculla Pass you leave behind the western side of the Andes and enter its eastern slopes, specifically the Marañon River Basin. The road follows the Huancabamba River all the way to Chamaya, where you will take the turnoff towards Jaen. Close to that city, in the adjacent tropical thickets, you can find the Marañon Crescentchest, the Marañon Spinetail, the Chinchipe Spinetail and other interesting Peru birds, many of which are endemic to the area.
Exiting Jaen, the circuits continues eastward and passes the place where the Chamaya River empties into the Marañon. A few kilometres further on a prairie extends towards the confluence of the Chinchipe, Utcubamba and Marañon Rivers at a place called the Pongo de Rentema. In this area, it’s possible to find endemic Inca Finches. The Little Inca Finch can be seen posing on the top of the cacti, while the Marañon Gnatcatcher looks for insects among the branches of the bushes.
Leaving this impressive place behind, the route continues towards the south via a road that runs parallels to the Utcubamba River to the village of Pedro Ruiz. From there you can choose from two options to follow: to the southeast or the east.
Choosing to go East
The route takes you through a semi-dry, riverine forest on the banks of the Utcubamba River, where you can catch glimpses of endemic species such as the Buff-bellied Tanager, the Spot-throated Hummingbird and the Marañon Thrush. As you approach the village of Leymebamba, which lies near the river’s source and just past the incredible ruins of the Kuelap fortress, the climate becomes humid.
Taking the road that leads to Balsas, you cross through the Barro Negro Pass at 3,670m, home to the threatened Russet-mantled Softtail, a bird associated with bamboo groves and found in only locations in Peru. You’ll also find the lovely Gray-breasted Mountain Toucan, many species of hummingbirds and several mountain tanagers.
Once over the pass, there is an abrupt drop through delightful countryside until you arrive at Balsas on the banks of the Marañon River at an altitude of 850m.
Photo credit: Green Tours, Buff-bridled Inca Finch
This way, as it descends, crosses portions of paramo, dwarf forests, montane forests, dry thickets with scattered specimens of acacia trees and dry forests where the red silk cotton tree and cacti dominate. There is a fine selection of birds endemic to the valley of the Marañon: the Yellow-faced Parrotlet and the Buff-bridled Inca Finch live in the dry forests, the Marañon Pigeon is found in the mango plantations close to the river and the Chestnut-backed Thornbird and Gray-winged Inca Finch in the dry thickets.
The route then climbs westerly towards the city of Cajamarca, passing through the town of Celendin. Throughout this part of the route, close to the remaining patches of vegetation in the higher reaches, it is possible to encounter the White-tailed Shrike Tyrant and the cajamarcae race of the Rufous Antpitta.
When you reach Cajamarca, the city where the Spaniards captured the last Inca king, Atahualpa, you must see the spot where the Gray-bellied Comet feeds on the inflorescence of the bromeliads around the Chonta River.
Leaving city, the route takes a southerly course towards the town of San Marcos, in the environs of which you can observe the rare Great Spinetail flitting among the acacia trees.
Choosing to go Southeast
The southeast route from Pedro Ruiz follows the course of the Chido River, a tributary of the Utcubamba, and passes the famous Chido Path, the best known site on Peru’s birding routes for catching glimpses of the rare and endemic Pale-billed Antpitta.
In the upper stretches of the Chido River, it is likely that you will see the most beautiful hummingbird in the world, the Marvelous Spatuletail. This fabulous bird can be spotted as it feeds on a variety of seasonal flowers that grow on the bushes just outside the village of Pomacochas. A surefire place to see the bird is Huembo Reserve, which is dedicated to conserving the species.
Photo credit: PromPeru, Marvelous Spatuletail
From Pomacochas the road continues east, arriving at the upper reaches of the Nieva River just after crossing the famous Patricia Pass. The forests here are home to a group of special enigmatic birds such as the Long-whiskered Owlet, a small owl that has rarely been seen in the wild, the elusive Ochre-fronted Antpitta, and the musical Bar-winged Wood Wren. The latter two were only discovered in these forests at the end of the 1970s.
Other interesting birds that can be observed in this location are the Royal Sunangel, the Cinnamon Screech Owl and an array of colourful tanagers, including the Yellow-scarfed.
Passing the upper headwaters of the Nieva River you begin a rapid descent through the humid Alto Mayo Protection Forest, an area preserved by the state. This fascinating forest is full of birds, some of the most spectacular being the Ash-throated Antwren, the Equatorial Graytail and the Black-mandibled Toucan.
Further downhill is the city of orchids, Moyobamba, where you can climb Calzada Hill, a refuge for the Lettered Aracari. You then move on to Tarapoto, near to the Huallaga River, a tributary of the Marañon. This runs to the north of the boundary of the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve. It later joins the Ucayali River and the point of confluence is the birthplace of the Amazon River, very close to the city of Iquitos.
From Iquitos the possibilities of viewing birds on this Peru birding route are very exciting. The white sand forests of the Allpahuayo-Mishana National Reserve, located southwest of Iquitos, are full of surprising birds. Many of these have only recently been discovered, species such as the Allpahuayo Antbird, the Ancient Antwren and the rare Iquitos Gnatcatcher, a bird described as recently as 2005.
Another bird watching option from Iquitos is to travel the continuous line of islands near the city. These have a distinct avifauna that includes birds such as the Short-tailed Parrot and Zimmer’s Woodcreeper.
Read more: Taking the Northern Peru Birding Route
2. Peru’s Central Circuit
This is an eight-day Peru birding route that begins in the capital city of Lima and ends at the Cueva de las Lechuzas (Screech Owl Cave) in Huanuco. There are more than 350 species to observe along the way and, among these, the standout is the Junin Grebe, star inhabitant of Lake Chinchaycocha. This beautiful endemic bird is sadly at critical risk of extinction. Also found there is the Hooded Mountain Tanager, resident of the superb Unchog cloud forest.
Photo credit: Kolibri Expeditions, Diademed Plover
From Lima you take the Carretera Central and at kilometer marker 39 turn left and take the road that runs parallel to the Santa Eulalia River. After two hours of driving you reach the charming little town of San Pedro de Casta, where all the houses face the same direction. At the top of Casta, extending outwards, is Marcahuasi plateau with its pre-Incan ruins and mysterious stone forest, a fascinating area for birders who are also interested in history and geology.
The wetlands of Milloc, Marcapomacocha, Antajasha and Ticlio Bajo are all found in the upper part of the river basin. At these locations it’s possible to find White-bellied Cinclodes, an endemic and critically endangered species. Other interesting birds are the Diademed Plover, the White-cheeked Cotinga and the endemic Great Inca Finch.
Also in the river basin are highland grassy plains, ranging in altitude between 2,200m and 4,800. More than 120 bird species have been described here by notable ornithologists such as Gunnar Engblom. A good selection of endemic species resident in the area, including the Bronze-tailed Plumeleteer, the Blackbreasted Hillstar, the Black-necked Woodpecker, the Dark-winged Miner, the Striated Earthcreeper, the Rusty-crowned Tit Spinetail, the Canyon Canastero, the Rufous-breasted Warbling Finch and the Rusty-bellied Brush Finch.
There are also several possibilities of seeing the mighty Condor, especially at the lookout near the town of San Juan de Iris.
Photo credit: Heinz-Plenge, Junin Grebe
After spending the night in the town of La Oroya, the next stop is Lake Chinchaycocha. Even though the lake has been affected by local mining, you can still find the splendid Junin Grebe, an endemic among endemics because it only lives on this lake and nowhere else on earth.
The task of differentiating between a Junin Grebe and a Silvery Grebe is challenging because they look very much alike at first glance. The major differences lie in the size of the beak and the birds’ posture.
There are many other desirable aquatic birds to be found at this Ramsar site – Ruddy Duck, Puna Ibis, Andean Negrito, Puna teal, among others. And in the surrounding bunchgrass prairies you can easily pick out the Junin Canastero.
On the way to Huanuco there is a convenient stop off at the Quichua queñual forest in order to look for some of the specialist species in this habitat such as the Giant Conebill and the endemic Striated Earthcreeper.
Descending by way of the Carretera Central where it hugs the Huallaga River, you pass thickets close to Ambo where you might see endemic species such as the Rufous-backed Inca Finch and the Brown-flanked Tanager.
Photo credit: Green Tours, Sword-billed hummingbird
On the fourth day of this Peru birding route, you begin the ascent from the city of Huanuco to the Carpish Pass at 2,700m. There, a tunnel cuts through the mountains, leading to more tropical regions. As you exit the tunnel you will notice the landscape has changed and you catch the unique scents of the jungle.
Five kilometres from the tunnel you have to stop to hike down the famous Paty Trail. This pathway descends through the cloud forest, a region with a high endemism in species. Here it is easy to see striking tanagers flying over the forest canopy in mixed groups: the marvellous Yellow-scarfed Tanager, the Grass Green Tanager and the Scarlet-bellied Mountain Tanager.
There are also colourful Barred Fruiteaters and sensational Golden-headed Quetzals, not forgetting the Sword-billed Hummingbirds and the almost imperceptible Tschudi’s Tapaculos and Rufous-vented Tapaculos. With a little luck you can also see the Orange-breasted Falcon and the Black and Chestnut Eagle.
On the fifth day, you turn off the Carretera Central 12km from Huanuco at kilometre marker 425.5. You travel 24km along this road, passing through the town of Cochabamba on the way to the Unchog Forest. At Cochabamba, you have to make arrangements to enter the forest by paying fees to the community. Local people maintain the road and are involved in protecting the ecosystem from fires and overgrazing.
You can set up camp at Unchog, at an altitude of 3,600m. The forest’s name is Quechua for ‘in the shape of a chair’ and there is a mountain with the same name towering over the area that looks exactly as the name describes.
Patches of queñual forest near to the campsite shelter the Many Striped Canastero and the Neblina Tapaculo. A 5km trail winds its way through some extraordinary cloud forest, home to specialised birds of this habitat such as the Golden-backed Mountain Tanager and the Pardusco. The Rufous-browed Hemispingus and the Undulated Antpitta are also among the 150 bird species that have been reported in Unchog.
On the sixth day you will return to ‘base camp’ in Huanuco for a well-deserved rest before beginning the penultimate day of this Peru birding circuit. This time you descend from Huanuco’s 1,894m altitude to 652m at Tingo Maria, a decidedly tropical city. One of the stars of this area is the endemic Huallaga Tanager, but that’s not the only bird to capture the imagination. The Blue-headed Parrot and the White-eyed Parrot, known in the area as the Shamiro, are attention grabbers as well.
You spend the night in Tingo Maria so you can look for nocturnal birds such as the Tropical Screech Owl and the Band-bellied Owl.
On the eighth and final day, your steps are directed towards Tingo Maria National Park, in particular to the most glorious spot known as the Cueva de las Lechuzas, inhabited by thousands of Oilbirds. There are also some species found in the park that are unique to their genus, such as the prehistoric-looking Hoatzin, the young of which even sport a claw on each wing.
Another especially beautiful bird to look out for, the queen of this protected forest, is the Magpie Tanager. At the end of a long day’s birding and the culmination of this Peru birding route, travellers can refresh themselves in the Velo del Angel falls.
Photo credit: Explorer’s Inn, Hoatzin
3. Peru’s Southern Andean Circuit
This Peru birding route crosses a large part of what was once the Incan Empire and also Manu National Park, perhaps the most important protected area in the country. This circuit is easier for travellers than most as there is a good tourist infrastructure in place.
The Huacarpay wetlands is a remote area of colour and life lying just 24km south of Cusco, a city close to the ancient Incan capital of Machu Picchu. The wetlands are a must-stop for birders. Huacarpay comes from the Quechua word Huacar, imitating the sound produced by the Great Egret, which is one of the symbolic birds of this lake.
Hundreds of water birds take advantage of the lake and the abundant totora reeds that surround it. Birds such as Cattle Egret, Snowy Egret and Black-crowned Night Heron flock here. And as with all paradises there are predators, the main one here being the Peregrine Falcon, the world’s fastest bird that reaches the astonishing speed of 180kph while hunting.
Photo credit: Shutterstock, Andean Cock-of-the-rock
From Huacarpay you take the turnoff that leads towards the east and passes through the delightful village of Paucartambo, with its white houses and light blue balconies. Then you ascend towards the Acjanco Pass, close to Tres Cruces which is thought of as a natural viewing terrace where you can see the most beautiful sunrises in the world. Along this part of the route you can find endemic birds such as the Chestnut-breasted Mountain Finch and the Creamy-crested Spinetail.
Leaving Tres Cruces you enter Manu National Park at its southern gate and begin a steep descent into the Kosñipata Valley. the name comes from Quechua for ‘smoked land’, a reference to the permanent fog that hangs over the area. This is the location of the important Wayquecha biological station, which boasts a canopy walkway. It’s an excellent site for finding the Red and White Antpitta, another of Peru’s endemic jewels.
Some 160km from Cusco, in the midst of a cloud forest, is San Pedro, a great lookout point for Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. From an 8m-high platform you can watch the curious dance that the male birds perform in the forest understorey. At the same time you can spy birds such as the Solitary Eagle, the Black and Chestnut Eagle and the Blue-banded Toucanet.
As the road gets closer to the Madre de Dios River, the jungle thins out and livestock pasture and rice paddies appear. You cross the river near Atalaya, where the hospitable Amazonian plantation of the Yabar family lies. There, you can comfortably observe more than 150 species, among them a huge number of hummingbirds, including the Koepcke’s Hermit and the Fine-barred Piculet, endemic to Peru. It is also possible to see Maquisapas, large monkeys who like to clown around, as well as mammals such as Peccaries.
With an area of 1.7 million hectares, Manu National Park is around half the size of Switzerland. At its heart is the Manu River basin. Birdwatchers can travel downstream in motorboats on the Madre de Dios River until they reach the river mouth. Along the way you can see the Fasciated Tiger Heron and the Great Black Hawk Eagle. Strident macaws fly about, and somewhere the powerful Harpy Eagle will be perched.
Photo credit: Rainforest Expeditions, Harpy Eagle
There are nearly 1,000 bird species registered between the pristine forests in the upper reaches of Manu and the lakes of Cocha Juarez, Cocha Salvador and Cocha Cashu. There are plenty of viewpoints and well marked pathways in the area, and as you walk about in the dense forest the territorial calls of Blackfaced Cotinga, Rufous-fronted Antthrush, Peruvian Recurvebill and Pale-winged Trumpeter surround you in chatter, while the cries of the Howler Monkeys deafen you.
In this Park you can experience the phenomenon of mixed flocks of dozens of species, and see the most interesting Bluish-slate Antshrike that stands guard over these flocks and gives a warning cry if it sees a raptor.
Along the sandy sides of the river lurk the Orinoco Goose, the Bat Falcon, the Black Skimmer and the Purplish Jay. Plus, there are enormous caimans resting on the banks and, with luck, a Jaguar might make your day by showing itself in all its splendour.
After admiring the magnificent Giant River Otters and 13 species of monkey, it will be hard to tear yourself away, but it will be time to direct your paces towards Puerto Maldonado, the capital of Madre de Dios.
Choosing Between Tambopata Reserve and Malaga Pass
One option to continue this Peru birding route is to sail from Puerto Maldonado down the Tambopata River and cross into the Tambopata Reserve. This area boasts comfortable lodges with excellent bird watching stations and clay licks that are visited by the largest and most fabulous macaws and parrots.
The second option is to return to Cusco and visit the famous Malaga Pass, a little over two hours from the city. To reach it you must cross an area between kilometre 22 and kilometre 90 along the road from Ollantaytambo to Quillabamba. Here there are not only queñual but also cloud forests as the route moves towards the jungle.
The highest pass is at an altitude of 4,230m and from that spot the view of Mount Veronica with its eternal snow cap is spectacular. There’s a good chance of seeing endemics such as the White-tufted Sunbeam, the White-browed Tit Spinetail and the elusive and rare Royal Cinclodes, a seriously endangered species.
Photo credit: Green Tours, Machu Picchu
This Peru birding route culminates with a train from Ollantaytambo to Machu Picchu. At this world-famous archeological site there is not only the Incan city to admire but also endemic bird species such as the Green and White Hummingbird, the Inca Wren and the Masked Fruiteater. In all, there are 18 hummingbird species to be seen at Machu Picchu.
Also impressive is the number of orchids that grow here – 327 species and each one more beautiful than the last. At the foot of these mountains runs the Urubamba River where there is a chance of spying the threatened Torrent Duck sunbathing in the middle of the river . In the dense forest there are birds such as the Mitred Parakeet, the Chestnut-breasted Coronet and the Golden-naped Tanager.
When you leave Machu Picchu, head for the Colca Valley, an unbeatable experience of countryside, culture, architecture and nature where you can find the world’s largest flying bird.
The Andean Condor is considered the emblematic bird of Peru for many reasons. It has been visibly present in all the pre-Hispanic civilisations, from the Chimu to the Incas, depicted on temples, pottery and textile art. In present-day Andean communities the Condor is venerated almost as a god that can either grant prosperity or misfortune.
It is also present all over the country, roosting in Peru’s three geographic regions – the coast, the mountains and the jungle. You can watch them soaring above the snowy mountains of Huascaran National Park or floating on the wind above the Pacific Ocean at Paracas National Reserve. No wonder the bird represents an important part of Peru’s identity and collective culture.
Photo credit: PromPeru, Andean Condor
There is no trustworthy census of the current population of Andean Condors in Peru, but there are thought to be only about 2,500 individuals in the entire country. However, your best chance of observing Andean Condors in Peru is definitely the Colca Valley. The road leaves the city of Arequipa at an elevation of 2,400m and climbs to 4,000m. The 165km to the town of Chivay, gateway to the Colca Valley, takes about three and a half hours and takes you through countryside of surreal landscapes and abundant wildlife.
Two guardian volcanoes, Mount Misti and Mount Chachani, rise majestically along this Peru birding route and a great place to pause for a moment is at Pampa Cañahuas in the Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve. Here you are guaranteed to see large groups of elegant Vicuñas running free on the plateau.
The next stopping point is Tocrapampa, where herds of stocky Alpacas and graceful Llamas cluster next to the road. Small areas of wetland shelter plenty of birds such as the Andean Flamingo, Cinnamon Teal, Puna Ibis and the Andean Goose. You can also see falcons and eagles in flight.
The highest point on the road is the Patapampa Pass, at 4,889m it is known as the Observatory of the Andes. From there you can see the volcanoes Mount Hualca Hualca, Mount Sabancaya and Mount Ampato. There are also a large number of apachetas, small mounds of stones made as an offering to the holy mountains where the ancient people of these lands believed their gods resided.
Photo credit: Green Tours, Chestnut-breasted Coronet
When you arrive at the Colca Valley you begin a 50km route to Cabanaconde, taking in the terraced hillsides and Colonial-era churches in the small towns of Yanque, Maca and Pinchollo. Flitting among the reeds flanking both sides of the flowing Colca River you can see Giant Hummingbirds that measure up to 20cm in length, about the size of a small dove.
Andean Condors fly here, harnessing the warm air currents that rise from the valleys and soaring easily to 7,000m and gliding for hundreds of kilometres, practically without flapping its outstretched wings.
The best place for observing this winged wonder is the famous observation point known as Cruz del Condor, the point at which the valley becomes a canyon. Ideally, arrive there before the sun rises. As the first rays of light appear they illuminate the astonishing depths of this ravine – twice the depth of the US’s Grand Canyon – with the river like a silvery snake in the distance.
Andean Condors always appear here, usually between 12 and 20, some of them are brown youngsters, others older than eight years with black feathers and a white scarf around their necks. The sight of these legendary birds completes the most amazing journey on this Peru birding route.
- Birds of Peru: Gifts to the Birding World
- Birding in Peru: Where to Go and the Best Times to Visit
- Why Peru is the ultimate birding destination
- Endemic Hummingbirds of Peru
- Birding in Peru’s Amazonian Rainforest
- Natural areas for Birdwatching Peru
- A Guide to Amazon Rainforest Tours in Peru
Are you interested in birding in Peru?
For more information on Peru birds or if you are interested in following one of the birding routes we have described, contact one of our specialist Peruvian wildlife tour operators and companies to book directly for best pricing.
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Originally Published: 23 May 2017 Updated 1 July 2022