Peru - 'Andes to Amazon'
In November 2017 we had three very memorable weeks in southeast Peru on a specially arranged wildlife photography trip that took us down the eastern slope of the Andes into the Amazon basin. This is an area of South America that I’ve always been interested in, but somewhere I thought I’d never visit. With the extent of the Andean Mountain Range (see below for some ‘quick facts’) and the sheer size of the Amazonia region as a whole, you’re only ever going to get a brief glimpse of this wonderful world during a trip of this type. But this particular tour had been well-thought-out with an itinerary that would allow us to experience the various habitats, by starting in the high Andes and then making our way slowly down through the mid-elevation cloud-forest and then onto the rivers that would eventually take us deep into the remote areas of the rainforest. Whilst it was necessary to spend time travelling the itinerary ensured that, as well as a couple of overnight stops en route, we had a sufficient number of days in each of the four primary areas where we were staying. Obviously it would have been nice to have seen even more of the region, particularly with the travelling that was needed to get there but, considering everything that was involved, the time was about right.
It was a small group tour organised by Wildlife Worldwide that was led by rainforest specialist and wildlife photographer Nick Garbutt in conjunction with Alex Hyde who is an expert with macro and flash. The following provides a brief overview of the trip and the route we took, together with some general information about the different areas we visited.
The journey started with an evening flight from Heathrow to Madrid, followed by a long overnight international flight to Lima and then an onward domestic connection to the ancient Andean town of Cusco, where we were met and transported to a small hotel for the night. Cusco is the former centre of the Inca Empire. It’s one of the highest towns in the world at an altitude of around 3,400m and, consequently, you have to be mindful of the fact as most people will feel the effect to one degree or another. Altitude sickness commonly occurs above 2,500m with symptoms ranging from light-headedness and/or breathlessness to nausea and more serious side effects that, in the worst situation, can only be remedied by descending to a lower elevation. Fortunately my wife Tris and I were generally okay, so after booking in and meeting the rest of our small party we took the opportunity of walking down the rather steep, narrow cobbled street from the hotel to the main square. Walking back up wasn’t as easy! But, interesting as Cusco is, that was not the purpose of the trip, so after a communal dinner at a local restaurant, it was off to bed ready for an early start the next morning.
Stage 1 - Andean Cloud-Forest
After driving across town and then out of the Cusco suburbs, the first stage of our adventure took us off the main road onto an unmade dusty track through a wetland area where we stopped a few times in order to photograph local species such as Plumbeous Rail, Cinnamon Teal and Yellow-billed Pintail. We then continued on a narrow gravel road that took us across two mountain ranges between the Cusco Valley and the Paucartambo Valley. During this stage of the drive we reached an altitude of 3,900m near Acjanaco before starting the slow descent into the cloud-forest. This is the route that, after many hours driving and subsequently many more hours on the river, effectively links Cusco with Manú. It’s the only way to drive in, and although it’s a long journey it’s a spectacular one as the single track ‘road’ winds its path down the eastern slope through ever-changing scenery and habitat.
Andean cloud-forest near the Kosñipata Valley
Our first destination was the Kosñipata Valley at a mid-elevation altitude of around 1,600m. Here we stayed three nights in a comfortable jungle lodge set within its own 5060-hectare private cloud-forest reserve close to a prime Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lekking site. This particular lek has been used by the birds for many years and is well-known for being one of the very best sites to see them. However, whilst we saw a number of birds on each of our visits they were mostly distant and out of clear sight - you needed patience and a degree of luck to capture decent photos through the mass of branches and leaves that were in front of the viewing point. It was also rather dark under the canopy which necessitated high ISO's and a small amount of fill-flash. The birds would start to arrive at dawn (which obviously involved a very early start) stay a while and then return again mid afternoon. This allowed everyone at least two opportunities, which was fortunate as the morning sessions proved to be extremely short and rather unproductive. The afternoon sessions were much better as you could have as many as ten birds present at any time from around 3pm through to dusk. I enjoyed one morning and two afternoon visits.
Andean Cock-of-the-Rock [Rupicola peruvianus]
Apart from the Andean Cock-of-the-Rock we were able to photograph a couple of species of hummingbirds within the lodge grounds as well as a few insects, including various bush crickets or katydids, a shield mantis, plus a rather impressive White Witch Moth. But best of all, was a small troop of Tufted (Brown) Capuchins that could be seen most mornings. These particular monkeys were reasonably used to people unlike the rest of our primate encounters and, as such, turned out to be the best monkey photo opportunities by far.
QUICK FACTS : with an overall length of around 7,000km the Andean Mountain Range, which runs down the western edge of South America from Venezuela to Chile, is the longest continental mountain range in the world. The Andes are also the world’s highest mountains outside of Asia with an average height of 4,000m. There are three sections - the Northern Andes in Venezuela and Columbia, the Central Andes in Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia, and the Southern Andes in Argentina and Chile. Throughout their length the Andes have several high plateaus that are the site of major towns and cities such as Quito, Bogota, Cusco and La Paz to name a few. The Central Andes are also known as the Tropical Andes.
Stage 2 - Arriving in the Amazon Rainforest
On day four we continued down the ‘road’ for another two hours or so to the small riverside town of Atalaya. From here on there are no roads, so our mode of travel was now by motorised canoe. We left the vehicles and said goodbye to our drivers who would now have to make the two-day trip back to Cusco. Once all the luggage was loaded we set off downstream on the Río Alto Madre de Dios towards our first rainforest lodge. Shortly after arrival we had the first macaw sighting, when a pair of Blue-and-Yellow Macaws flew over and landed in one of the tall trees on the edge of the forest. Around the lodge grounds we spotted other species, such as Speckled Chacalaca, Russet-backed Oropendola and Silver-beaked Tanager, but none offered any real photo opportunities.
In the afternoon we walked down to a local ‘oxbow lake’ (see ‘quick facts’) where we had our first sightings of the unique Hoatzin, also known as the ‘stinkbird’, which is a strange pheasant-sized bird that spends most of its time in bushes close to the water’s edge where its main diet is leaves and fruit. Its digestive system is similar to that of a ruminant, with its nickname relating to its foul odour, which is caused by the fermentation of food in its digestive system. Whilst the Hoatzin is undoubtedly an attractive looking bird, it’s pretty uninspiring as it doesn’t really do much other than sit around. I started likening it to the African Helmeted Guineafowl, often called ‘the stupid bird’, which is another attractive species, but with little intelligence. To add to the Hoatzin's unusual behaviour, it’s also a noisy species, with a variety of hoarse calls, including groans, croaks, hisses and grunts. We were all pleased to see them, but by the end of the trip it was a case of “please, no more Hoatzin photos”.
Hoatzin [Opisthocomus hoazin] | monotypic in its own taxonomic order
Amazonia is home to a large number of weird and wonderful creatures, some of which are generally only visible at night. One of these is the potoo, a near-passerine bird that’s related to the nightjars and frogmouths. They are a nocturnal species that are only found in the neotropics. They perch upright on tree stumps where they sit perfectly still and where, unless you’re extremely observant, you wouldn’t spot them as they are so well camouflaged. The best time to find one is at night if you’re out in the forest and your torch beam catches their eye. This is what happened during our stay at this lodge as Nick found one. It turned out to be a Long-tailed Potoo, which was another new species for my 'World Bird List'. There are actually seven species of potoo of which I’d seen two before in Brazil - the Great Potoo and the Common Potoo. The good thing about this particular bird was that it was still perched on the same broken tree stump early the next morning. We had just enough time before breakfast to get some better shots of it in daylight before we had to set off on the next leg of our journey.
After loading up the boats we continued down the main river to the CREES ‘conservation and research centre' where we stopped off briefly for a quick guided tour. It was then back to the boats for another two hour trip to our next overnight camp, which was the Romero Rainforest Lodge on the Manú River. The Manú River feeds into the Río Alto Madre de Dios near the Limonal Ranger Station, after which the main river is simply called the Río Madre de Dios. You notice the river change colour at the confluence as the Manú is bringing rich coffee-coloured water that's been washed down from the rainforest into the noticeably clearer water of the main river that’s been flowing down through the higher elevation of the Andes. Following some brief formalities and signing in with the ranger we started up the Manú River, which is somewhat slower and narrower than the main river and, consequently, more interesting. We were now in Manú albeit still not within the actual reserve. It had a different feel to it, and there was more expectation that we could encounter anything around the next bend. That feeling was almost immediately confirmed with, first an Osprey sighting and then, shortly afterwards, as we came round the next bend in the river we spotted a lot of activity on an exposed rocky beach area about 200m or so in front. As we started getting closer we realised that they were vultures. There was a rare King Vulture there as well, but annoyingly it flew off to a distant tree before we got close. All the other birds, about a dozen or so, were Black Vultures. Although we couldn’t see clearly our guide was pretty sure that they’d found a dead bush dog near the shoreline. It was still fresh and the thinking was that the Black Vultures had to wait for the larger and stronger King Vulture to come in and, in effect, open up the 'kill'. The Black Vultures would have held back, but as soon as they could see the King Vulture feeding they would have mobbed it. By the time we arrived the Black Vultures were all over it, heads down. The King Vulture didn’t come back to the ‘kill’, but it did circle overhead for a while so at least I got a couple of reasonable ‘record shots’ of it in flight.
Black Vultures [Coragyps atratus] collectively called a'wake' when feeding
QUICK FACTS : whilst ‘oxbow’ is the correct term to describe a pronounced U-turn bend in a river or stream, ‘oxbow lake’ specifically refers to a separated body of water that has been formed when the main river changes direction. Many large rivers meander and alter their course from one year to the next as a result of varying water levels, flow and erosion of the bank. The bends become wide and slow whilst the neck between them often gets narrower, regularly resulting in the river breaking right through, effectively cutting off the meander and forming a horseshoe or kidney shaped ‘oxbow lake’. In Peru, these separated lakes are called cochas. The isolated bodies of water and the surrounding forest develop as the cocha is no longer being subjected to the continual flow of the river and, as such, fallen trees and floating vegetation are left to accumulate. The cocha becomes shallower and the bank side vegetation begins to change as different trees start replacing each other. Over time the cocha forms its own nutrient-rich aquatic ecosystem. We visited three during our trip. They were all separated from the main river by a fair distance, surrounded by mature forest, and beautifully calm and protected without any indication that they’d previously been part of the main river system.
Stage 3 - Manú National Park
The following day saw us back on the river again where we continued upstream to the so-called ‘tented camp’, which is a simple, but comfortable, low-impact lodge that was to be our base for the next three days. We were now on the middle reaches of the Manú River and finally inside the official border of the Manú National Park and Biosphere Reserve (see ‘quick facts’). The Manú Park Tented Camp is the only tourist accommodation within the actual park boundaries - the other local lodges are all in the adjoining ‘buffer zone’. Our group of 15, including the tour leaders, had full occupancy of the camp. Unlike the other lodges on this trip, we expected tents and shared facilities at this location, so we were surprised to find ourselves in another small individual cabin with our own private bathroom. We were lucky in this respect as some of the others in the group had to share the communal washroom. It was a good base with a central meeting area and dining room where we enjoyed remarkably good food given the remoteness of the location.
Despite the diversity and abundance of wildlife that can be found in the rainforest it’s amazing how little you actually see when travelling along the river or when walking the trails. It’s certainly a completely different experience from the more open areas of the Southern Pantanal. The most surprising aspect for me was the lack of birds, particularly waterbirds which I thought we’d see in abundance. However, as we’d found the day before, the Manú River was more productive than the upper reaches of the much wider Madre de Dios, and on the way upstream we had another couple of good sightings of two new species. The first was a Blue-throated Piping-Guan that was busily picking at clay - for the same reasons as the parrots and macaws (noted below) - on an exposed river bank, and shortly after a lone Orinoco Goose who was close to the shoreline.
Blue-throated Piping-Guan [Aburria cumanensis]
The area in which we were staying was near to the beautiful Cocha Salvador. Given that it’s one of only a couple of properly accessible areas of interest it’s obviously popular with visitors and, therefore, groups have to agree visiting times with the ranger. Fortunately we were travelling at the end of the season and, as such, visitor numbers were low, so we were able to go there twice. After a short walk through the forest you reach the lake where there’s a small jetty and a floating pontoon that’s basically a large stable platform that’s been mounted on two canoes thereby forming a small catamaran that can be paddled slowly and silently across the lake. It was both peaceful and enjoyable and, although there was still not that much wildlife to see and photograph, we did have sightings of such species as Hoatzin, Anhinga, Jacana and Sunbittern, as well as a close encounter with the resident Giant Otter family. We also had our only sighting of Black Spider Monkey and our first of only two sightings of Red Howler, both high in the canopy and difficult to photograph.
Back at the lodge we got to photograph other species including an Amazon Tree Boa [Corallus hortulanus] and a Three-striped Poison Frog [Ameerega trivittata], plus an unexpected visit early one afternoon by a troop of Woolly Monkeys that were making their way through the trees at the back of the cabins.
QUICK FACTS : superbly located at the meeting point of the Tropical Andes and the Amazon basin, the Manú National Park and Biosphere Reserve is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and globally renowned area of terrestrial biodiversity. The vast, remote and isolated area, which now extends to over 1.7m hectares, is very special in that it remains totally roadless and, therefore, only accessible from the river. It is also the only park in Latin America that includes all the habitats you’ll find from the high altitude Andean puna grasslands all the way down to the Amazon lowland rainforest. The topography and geographic isolation have helped protect the area from changes that have been happening elsewhere in the Peruvian Amazon. The park is divided into various zones - the two main ones being the ‘restricted zone’ which is the pristine area of the forest still inhabited by native groups of Amazonian Indians (mostly of the indigenous Machiguenga tribe) and where access is only permitted for certain types of research, and the ‘reserved zone’ which is the area set aside for general research and visitors. With only one small low-impact lodge within the actual park boundaries, visitor numbers are small. At the time of our visit we were informed that only 1650 people had checked through the ranger station in the past year or so, which is around the same number that visit Machu Picchu every morning! However, there is a ‘buffer zone’ along the Río Alto Madre de Dios (the upper river) on the southeastern edge, separating the park from the Amarakaeri Reserved Zone, and also along the continuing Madre de Dios from its confluence with the Manú River. Within these areas there are a number of other lodges and a couple of research and education centres, albeit just as isolated and again only accessible from the river.
Stage 4 - Manú Wildlife Centre
We’d arrived in Cusco on Friday 10th November and it was now Monday 20th and we were just over half way through the trip, so it was time to leave the tented camp and head back downstream to the Río Madre de Dios and onto the Manú Wildlife Centre. This turned out to be a good boat ride as we had a rare sighting of a Tapir that had come out of the forest with the intention of crossing the river. Fortunately it was just at the water’s edge when our boatman spotted it in the distance - if we’d been a minute or so earlier we would either have missed it or frightened it off, and a few minutes later we would also have missed it. But our arrival time was perfect so we were able to hold position in mid river to watch it swim across and clamber up the opposite bank. This was an experience that few people get to witness.
South American Tapir emerging from the Manú River
Shortly after that encounter we had good sightings and photo opportunities with Horned Screamer, Razor-billed Curassow and a Jabiru Stork all within a short distance. The other boat was behind us and missed all these sightings, albeit later on they had the very good fortune to spot a Jaguar. It was a very brief sighting at distance on the far bank, but it was the sighting that everybody wants. Whilst these large cats are now regarded as relatively common in certain areas of the Northern Pantanal, they are exceptionally difficult to see anywhere else - I’m still waiting for my first sighting.
The Manú Wildlife Camp was a pleasant surprise as both the accommodation and central lodge area were of a standard we didn’t expect in the middle of the rainforest. It really was a very nice lodge with plenty of room, great food and only a couple of other guests. We had four nights at this location.
The main attraction here was the famous Blanquillo clay-lick where every day dozens of parrots and macaws gather in order to eat clay, which they need to neutralise their pH that has been acidified as a consequence of their diet. As well as helping counteract the effect of eating green fruits, the clay also allows the birds to absorb certain nutrients they cannot obtain elsewhere in the forest. Some of these birds will have travelled in excess of 20km to have their session at the colpa (the proper name for a clay-lick). The smaller birds always arrive first - parakeets, then parrots. The macaws will then start gathering until there are between 30-40 of them, sometimes more, before the first birds decide that it is safe to drop down to the clay bank. We didn’t understand why the birds are so nervous until our guide informed us that there was a resident Ocelot, which unfortunately we didn’t see, that regularly hides in the undergrowth above the bank where it can make a surprise attack on any unsuspecting bird. Whilst there are four or five species of macaw in this area, it is predominantly the Red-and-Green Macaw that come to this particular colpa. The site is perfect being in a narrow, almost cut-off channel, where viewing is from a large, open-fronted, purpose-built raised platform hide. I had two sessions here.
Blanquillo clay-lick, Manú National Park
On the first day we managed to get our canoe up the channel, but on the second day the river had dropped and the boatmen said that they wouldn’t be able to turn the canoes around and, as such, we would have to be dropped off on the main river bank and take a short walk through the forest. The short walk actually took half an hour, but it was an enjoyable experience making our way through just as it was getting light. At one point we encountered a troop of Squirrel Monkeys as they made their way through the tree tops to cross the path. They’re delightful inquisitive creatures, but so frustrating as they’re always on the move and so often obscured by branches and leaves that it’s almost impossible to get a good view of them let alone a half-decent photograph.
Within the forest around the lodge we got to photograph various strange critters including a Leaf-mimicking Katydid and a beautiful Bicoloured Tree-Frog [Phyllomedusa bicolor] more commonly known as the Giant Monkey Frog.
Giant Monkey Frog | family Hylidae
Stage 5 - Tambopata
Having departed the Manú Wildlife Centre early the previous morning we were now in Puerto Maldonado, ready for the fifth and final leg of our extended trip. The journey out of Manú had been interesting as it involved transfers by motorised canoes, cross-country jeeps, ferry boats and finally by road. The various pickups, coupled with the seemingly endless movement of luggage from one mode of transport to the next, were all on time and extremely efficient, which was a relief for those in the group that were ending their tour and needed to get to the airport. However, we’d elected to stay on with a few others in order to have a further five days to experience the adjoining area of Tambopata and the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park (see ‘quick facts’). So today, being the sixteenth of this adventure, we set off again by motorised canoe for what turned out to be a long, and rather wet, trip down the Río Madre de Dios to the Peruvian-Bolivian border posts set either side of the Heath River. After brief formalities we then turned up the Heath River for another two hours or so before reaching our final lodge where we’d be staying for the next four nights.
Our main interest in this area was the Heath River macaw and parrot clay-lick and another local oxbow lake, both of which were situated on the Peruvian side of the river, whereas our lodge was actually on the Bolivian side within the Madidi National Park. The clay-lick was really good, better in fact than the famous Blanquillo site that we’d been to in Manú. It was in an off-shoot of the main river that we again had to access via a narrow shallow inlet, but this time the viewing point was a floating hide that was moored at a more reasonable distance from the river bank. The species though were much the same as we’d seen at Blanquillo, so there wasn’t really anything new or different. However, it was a great spectacle and unforgettable experience, so I took the opportunity of going on each of the three mornings we were there.
Oxbow lake in the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park
The oxbow lake was again equipped with a floating pontoon from where we were able to photograph more Hoatzin plus a few other species. And, on the trail behind the lodge, we had some reasonable views of both Tufted Capuchin and Black-capped Squirrel Monkey - the latter also being called the Bolivian Squirrel Monkey, which was apt given that they were on the Bolivian side of the river.
An inquisitive Black-capped Squirrel Monkey
QUICK FACTS : linking the Tambopata National Reserve with the adjacent Madidi National Park in Bolivia, the Bahuaja-Sonene National Park is promoted as being the largest multi-national tropical protected area in the world. The Heath River, which flows down from Lake Titicaca in the high Andes to merge with the Río Madre de Dios some 75km or so downstream of Porto Maldonado, forms the border between Peru and Bolivia. As with Manú, the park includes some of the wildest and least impacted habitats in the world that are only accessible via the river. The area also includes the important Pampas del Heath National Sanctuary, which is a tropical savannah within the lowland Amazon rainforest. The park name originates from the local native Amazonian words for Tamboparta (Bahuaja) and Heath (Sonene). Whilst both plant and animal diversity is high, the actual number of species is lower than Manú simply because Bahuaja-Sonene doesn’t include the Andean habitats.
It was now Wednesday 29th November and we’d been away from home for the past twenty days so, despite having some regrets, it was time to pack up and make the long river trip back to the small airport at Puerto Maldonado where we had a late afternoon flight to Lima in order to connect with our evening international flight to Madrid and then back to London the following afternoon.
This was a long, tiring, but rewarding trip. We saw a lot although, if I’m honest, not as much as I thought we’d see. The problem is that you read books and see programmes on television about the Amazon and all the wonderful creatures that live there, and assume that you’ll see many of these species if you go. The reality is different. In the rainforest, close encounters are actually pretty rare. Most of the time it’s quiet. Occasionally you might pick up movement or the sound of monkeys but, even if they’re close, sightings are difficult. On the riverbanks and oxbow lakes you stand more chance, but even here most of the creatures are very timid. Any sighting becomes a good sighting. It therefore goes in hand that photographing any of the wildlife is very difficult indeed. But it doesn’t stop there, because rainforests are dark and, not surprisingly, wet places full of mosquitos, which creates further problems. Wildlife photography isn’t easy - if it was it wouldn’t be a challenge and wouldn’t be as rewarding as it is.
Red-and-Green Macaw [Ara chloropterus]
At the end of the trip I’d taken around 7,500 photos of which well over half were taken at the two clay-licks. After culling and editing I kept 1,500. Of those I’d rate around 200 or so as being good shots. I’m more than happy with that return. I was also happy to add many new species to my 'World Bird List' - apart from those specifically mentioned in the above text there was Andean Motmot, Purple Gallinule, Black-capped Donacobius, Giant Hummingbird, Ladder-tailed Nightjar, Chestnut-fronted Macaw and Southern Mealy Parrot, to name but a few. In total I photographed 71 different species. I also had some good animal encounters. Primates are always difficult, so to get at least one good publishable photo of each of the five target species (Tufted Capuchin, Squirrel, Spider, Woolly and Red Howler) was really satisfying. Then there was also a surprise encounter with an Andean Fox (Culpeo) and the Tapir that swam across the river. And, last but not least, quite a few smaller creatures including the Amazon Tree Boa, various frogs, a Pinktoe Tarantula and a number of interesting invertebrates.
In order to provide a rough idea of the local geography of the area, rather than the topography, the following is a basic map showing the various national parks together with the locations of Cusco and Puerto Maldonado, and the four main lodges where we stayed :-