The town of Cusco in Peru is the place to aim for if you want to explore a variety of quite different habitats the country has to offer. On a Cusco tour you can cover much of the southern part of Peru. This means experiencing the lofty heights of the Andes mountain range with its montane wildlife and immersing yourself in the true Amazon jungle.
From Cusco it is possible to combine a visit to the historic Inca site of Machu Picchu and the world-famous protected areas of Manu National Park and Tambopata Natural Reserve to see Peruvian wildlife.
One of the big draws on a holiday to Peru is a visit to the Inca ruins at Machu Picchu. But wildlife seeking visitors find that a number of different wildlife tours are available from Cusco. It is not just the main stopping place for an Andean cultural and archaeological trip, but also a gateway to some truly spectacular wildlife encounters.
The birdlife alone that can be seen on a tour from Cusco is enough to fulfil a lifetime’s ambition. Add to that the chance of Spectacled Bears, Giant Otters, Jaguars, amphibians galore, hundreds of orchids and thousands of butterfly species and you have a wildlife watcher’s paradise.
Getting to your Cusco Tour
To travel from Peru’s capital, Lima, to the south of the country to see the Cusco wildlife and Inca sites, you have two ways to choose. The quickest is to fly, but as Cusco sits high in the Andes at 3,400m (just over 11,000ft) you have to allow yourself time to get acclimatised to the altitude before you do anything strenuous, even just a little gentle birdwatching tour.
Alternatively, you can take a bus to begin your Cusco tour. The preferred route is via the town of Arequipa, which is a longer trip but considered safer. There is a direct bus route over the Andes but the mountain roads are windy, steep and dangerous, especially in wet weather.
You can take a Lima-Arequipa-Cusco non-stop bus trip with reclining seats to help pass the hours or a hop-on-hop-off one that makes stops along the way so you can break the 24-hour journey and stay in hotels. The latter takes more time, of course, but you can enjoy some wildlife watching along the way.
When you reach your destination, using tour guides in Cusco will ensure you get the best experiences out of your time in the city. The types of trips are flexible. You can make day tours from Cusco or use it as a base for longer explorations of both the Andes and the Amazon.
Cusco Day Trips
If Andean Condor is a bird you would like to add to your life list, then there are day trips that you can make from Cusco to find it. By making an early start you can also take in some of the birds that are endemic to the Cusco area, such as the Rusty-fronted Canastero and the Creamy-crested Spinetail.
A half-day Cusco tour to Balcón del Diablo offers a mix of culture and birding as this is one of the places that were sacred to the Incas. Another half-day tour from Cusco takes you to the Huacarpay wetlands, lagoons deep in the Andean mountains where you can see a range of ducks and waders as well as hummingbirds and tanagers.
On the fringes of San Salvador Lake, you have the chance to see the endemic Bearded mountaineer hummingbird feeding in the flowering Tabaco bushes, along with specialists to these mountain ranges such as the Andean Lapwing and the delicate black and white Andean Goose.
Birding in Abra Malaga
The high mountain pass of Abra Malaga is a birder’s paradise with clumps of Chusquea bamboo where you can find the endemic Puna thistletail and Parodi’s hemispingus. The list of exotically named birds doesn’t end there. The cloud forests on a tour from Cusco abound with local birds such as the Ash-breasted Tit-tyrant and the Giant Conebill.
The scenery in this area is stunning, with glaciers and waterfalls and views down into the Amazon basin. Herds of llamas can also be seen here, grazing around the small farms and terraced fields. The tropical polylepsis woodland, which is endemic to sheltered areas in the Andes up to 4,500 metres, is a habitat rich in birdlife.
Longer Tours from Cusco
If you take a longer Cusco tour you can drive down the serpentine Manu road, birding all the way. You transition from the stunted woodland of the higher elevations down to lush cloud forest. Here you find the Wayqecha Biological Station, Peru’s only permanent field research establishment focussed on conservation of the cloud forest. It sits along the southern edge of the famous Manu National Park and acts as a buffer to protect the species within the park.
The humid atmosphere in this part of the Andes supports a huge diversity of plants including many orchids. There are also thriving populations of birds, amphibians and mammals. Here it’s possible to witness the rare natural spectacle of a Cock-of-the-Rock lek. This national bird of Peru has got to be top of their wish list for any keen birder.
Manu National Park is a jewel in the Amazon rainforest and a round-trip Cusco tour here is possible. Following a visit to Machu Picchu, this completes the trip of a lifetime. Giant Otters live near the park’s lakes, along with White Caimen, and brightly coloured macaws visit the famous clay licks there. Spectacled Bears inhabit the area and over 1,000 species of birds have been recorded.
If primates are your favourites, you can certainly see up to 10 different species along the Manu road through the lowlands. And there are seven or eight species that can be seen in another of the longer tours from Cusco, to Tambopata.
Tambopata National Reserve
From Cusco you can fly to Puerto Maldonaldo which is the gateway to Tambopata National Reserve. This amazing park is in the southern Amazon basin where, apart from Howler Monkeys and many other species of primates, Capybaras, Jaguars, Agoutis and a multitude of birds, you can find more than 1,200 different types of butterfly.
Tambopata boasts a 35-metre high canopy tower that takes you to level with the birds that inhabit the upper reaches of the tall trees. It’s also possible to take a night walk in the Amazon jungle, which brings you closer to creatures that are too shy during daylight.
Like Manu, you can also find clay licks at Tambopata, popular with all manner of parrots and parakeets. There are also clay licks that are used by Tapirs – the largest mammal in South America – although you have to go out at dusk or in the night time and have an amount of luck to see them.
Peccaries – wild rainforest pigs – can often be glimpsed on the trails as they roam the forests in large groups. They are very shy, though, so sightings may be fleeting.
Lakes and the Mighty Amazon River
A forest trail from Tambopata leads to Lake Condenado, home to Black Caiman and Giant Otters. Some amazing birding can also be had around the shores of the lake. And you can take a boat ride on the Tambopata River looking for Alligators and, possibly, the thrilling sight of a Jaguar sunning itself on the banks.
On a Cusco tour you can also take a train trip to Lake Titicaca that lies on the borders of Peru and Bolivia. The lake supports a unique selection of flora and fauna. Because it is at such a high altitude, only the most resilient of species can survive in its shallow waters.
In the endangered Lake Titicaca, find the Giant Frog, which is a very strange sight with its baggy skin that scientists say helps it to absorb more oxygen from the water. Migrant Chilean Flamingos can also be found here, along with long-legged Puna Ibis and Black Night Herons, skulking among the reedbeds. On land, there are Andean Skunks and the rabbit-like Vizcacha with its fluffy tail.
All in all, South Eastern Peru is one of the best places in the Amazon region to see the specialist wildlife that lives around that mighty river.
So, as you can tell, the possibility of memorable wildlife experiences that can be arranged by tour operators in Cusco are endless. And you don’t have to confine yourself to just having wildlife adventures from Cusco, you can combine the fascinating history and culture of Peru as well.
Drawn to southern Peru but keen to learn about the northern part of the country as well? Why not have a look at some of the wildlife tours in the largest protected areas in Peru, the National Reserve of Pacaya-Samiria. Or explore the option of taking the northern birding route. Between Tarapoto and Jaen is the best place to find hummingbirds, with 40 species easily recorded over a five-day trip.
- Birding in Peru: Where to Go and the Best Times to Visit
- Endemic Hummingbirds of Peru
- The Wildlife of Peru’s Natural Wonders
- Why Peru is the ultimate birding destination
- Birds of Peru: a gift to the world
Are you interested to see Peruvian Wildlife in the Wild?
For more information, contact one of the Peruvian local wildlife specialists to book directly your next wildlife adventure in Peru.
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Peru Export and Tourism Board
Originally Published: 25 Nov 2020