Birding Southeastern Peru – An Andes-to-Amazon Tour Starting in Cusco

Peru owes its exceptional biodiversity to the Andes Mountains. The mountain range divides the country into three main geographic regions: the Pacific lowlands, the Andes, and the Amazonian lowlands. Peru features more than 1,792 bird species and endemism is rampant, with 106 species seen nowhere else on earth.

The country has long been popular with nature travelers and even longer with scientists studying ecological diversity. In fact, the three southern Peru lodges I visited last summer were born as biological stations but have since been renovated into guest cottages and lodges for birders.

Wayqecha, Villa Carmen, and Los Amigos birding lodges, which are located in the eastern buffer zone of the world-famous Manu National Park, are owned and operated by a nonprofit called Amazon Conservation Association. This means any visit to these lodges will offer a deep dive into remote wilderness where you are surrounded by beautiful scenery, remarkable birds and wildlife, plus allow you to witness Amazon conservation efforts in action.

This article describes what a typical Andes-to-Amazon tour of these lodges looks like, and what you can expect if you follow in my footsteps.

 

How I got there:

As did most of the “fam tour team,” I flew into Lima and checked into the Costa del Sol airport hotel directly across (really close!) from the airport. This allowed me, after a quick sleep, to catch an early one-hour flight to Cusco and meet up with our birding group and start the long, scenic drive through the snow-capped Andes on the way to our first stop at Wayqecha.

The view from Cusco town square.

While just over 3-hours distant by car, the drive can easily take six or more hours if leisurely birding stops are made along the way. Your guide will likely stop at Huacarpay Lake, which is a great place to pick up water- and shorebirds you may not see anywhere else. Here you may see the brilliant Many-colored Rush-Tyrant, Andean Ruddy Duck, Andean Gull, Andean Negrito, Plumbeous Rail, and in surrounding shrublands you can see Bearded Mountaineer, Giant Hummingbird, Black-tailed and Green-tailed Trainbearers, and the endemic Rusty-fronted Canastero. Keep your eyes to the sky, as Aplomado Falcon, Black-chested Buzzard-Eagle, and Mountain Caracara are possible flyovers.

Tip: try to check into your Cuscso flight the night before.

Many-colored Rush-Tyrant, taken by Edison Buenano.

 

Wayqecha Cloud Forest Birding Lodge

9,875 ft elevation in the upper montane cloudforest
9-miles of trails

 

View from Wayqecha Cloudforest Biological Station

View from Wayqecha Cloudforest Biological Station

Wayqecha Cloudforest Birding Lodge has been on birders’ radars for a long time, as it’s the most conveniently located lodge for birders exploring the Andes-to-Amazon birding route from Cusco.

Wayqecha is enshrouded by thick clouds, whose droplets tickle your cheek and provide sustenance for the lush forest that stretches as far as the eye can see. In July, the 1,400-acre property was chilly and deeply silent in the way that only a remote, mountaintop wilderness area could be. The only sound, other than muffled voices or the hoot of Rufous-banded Owl was the slow, steady cascade of a waterfall echoing from a distant canyon.

It’s impossible to name all the “good birds” we saw at and around Wayqecha. While the official bird list shows just 203 species, eBird shows that more than 442 birds have been recorded at or around this hotspot. We searched for high-altitude specialties (Rufous, Rusty-breasted and the endemic Red-and-White Antpittas as well as Gray-breasted Mountain-Toucan, Blue-banded Toucanet, Band-tailed Fruiteaters, Chestnut-crested Cotinga, and more).

Grey-breasted Mountain-Toucan

Here we saw mixed-species flocks associated with patches of bamboo (with flycatchers, such as the endemic Inca, Bolivian Tyrannulet, Plushcap, tanagers, Pearled Treerunners, Black-capped Hemispingus, and Barred Becard), hummingbirds (Sword-billed Hummingbird, Gould’s Inca, Amethyst-throated Sunangel) and tanagers (Rust-and-yellow, Golden-collared, and the brilliant Grass-green Tanager).

Single cabin at Wayqecha

The cabin was rustic and comfortable with thick wool blankets that kept me toasty, though it was too darn chilly to brave the hot shower. Views from the vaulted dining area were inspiring, and we adored the station manager, Robinson, who took good care of us. For me, an omnivore, the food offerings at every lodge were fabulous and memorable. The soups, meats, vegetables, rice, beans, etc. filled us up but did not overstuff.   My vegan friend, however, had some challenging mealtimes. While the stations do cater to vegan diets, reminders to the chefs that vegetarian means more than a plate of vegetables were in order.

Tip: The cabins are not heated so bring long underwear. Take altitude sickness medicines to combat the thin air (day hikes take you on some hilly trails so you’ll need the oxygen). BRING A GOOD FLASHLIGHT or headlamp! Electricity runs only from 6 to 9 pm at night.

 

Watching Puna Ibis in the distance, Haraguay Lake

Watching Puna Ibis in the distance, Huacarpay Lake

Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge

Elevation 3,940 feet

On our way down the mountains, we made a quick overnight visit to the independently owned Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge to try our luck at the world famous Andean Cock-of-the-Rock lek. This was an incredible experience worthy of its own story!

Brown capuchin by Edison Buenano

Brown capuchin by Edison Buenano

 

Villa Carmen Birding Lodge

1,968 ft elevation in the Andean foothills
25-miles of trails

Cabin at Villa Carmen

When we finally pulled away from the C-O-R lek, we continued our descent to Villa Carmen Birding Lodge. The size, style, and creature comforts of Villa Carmen were a great surprise! Villa Carmen is the newest of the biological stations and renovations that catered to visiting birders are impressive. Here, visitors can explore the bio-station campus, stroll nicely kept trails through woods, waterfalls, grasslands and ponds (where we spotted several sunbathing Hoatzin!), tour agriculture and fish farms, enjoy a great meal and a pisco sour at the dining hall, and gather with researchers in the evening to discuss their work.

Villa Carmen main lodge.

The Scandinavia-inspired cabins at Villa Carmen are outstanding. Large, airy, and bright, they featured a huge rainshower with a pebble floor, a screened-in back wall that overlooked the forest, mosquito netting over the beds, and two slingback chairs. I had plenty of room to relax and spread out, and to wash and hang my laundry. The weather here was warm and humid.

Again, the birding here is incredibly good. Due to its size and location, Villa Carmen offers a wide mosaic of habitats (old-growth rainforest, lower montane forest, secondary forest, shrublands, streams, rivers and waterfalls). The bird list includes 460 species. Species include: Blue-crowned Trogon, Bar-breasted Piculet, Military Macaw, Blue-headed Macaw, Rufous-capped Nunlet, Russet Antshrike, Spix’s Guan, Black-billed Treehunter, Cabanis’ Spinetail, Amazonian Umbrellabird, and more.

Blue-headed Parrot

Villa Carmen features a productive bamboo forest that is home to: Rufous-headed Woodpecker, Bamboo Antshrike, Ornate Antwren, Dot-winged Antwren, Manu Antbird, Goeldi’s Antbird, and the magnificent Red-billed Scythebill.

Hummingbirds at Villa Carmen include the plucky White-necked Jacobin, White-beareded Hermit, Wire-crested Thorntail, Amethyst Woodstar, Sapphire-spangled Emerald, and Golden-tailed Sapphire.

Sapphire-spangled Emerald

Neat waterbirds include the aforementioned Hoatzin, Sunbittern, Blackish Rail, and Gray-cowled Wood-Rail, among others.

Owls and nightjars in this area include: Tropical and Tawny-bellied Screech-Owls, Black-banded and Mottled Owls, and Great and Common Potoos.

Crested Owl by Edison Buenano

Tip: You can enjoy down time at Villa Carmen. There are plenty of trails and get-away spaces for you to slow down and watch birds or just catch up on your list. You might want to plan an afternoon stop at Amazonia Lodge where Rufous-crested Coquette can be seen in the gardens. Bring your camera tripod and plan to stay awhile. Plan for chiggers!

 

Two-Day River Boat Ride to Los Amigos

After three nights at Villa Carmen, we departed port Atalaya via boat to make a long (two-day) journey down the Rio Alto de Dios to reach Los Amigos Birding Lodge. We’d been having an adventure the whole time, but this is where the realization that we were traveling into a deeply remote region of the world’s largest and most important rainforests – the Amazonian Lowlands, or Amazonia for short – started to take hold.

The covered boats comfortably seat two rows of at least ten people.

Our boat ride was divided into two 6-7 hour days. The river courses through dense forest, sandy shores, and tiny villages. At points along the way, modern-day gold diggers operating rickety, small-time mining operations. Our group kept our eyes open, scanning for birds and magnificent creatures such as Giant Otter (one person caught a glimpse), Tapir, Jaguar, and Caiman.

Giant Otter by Edison Buenano

We were especially pleased to see two Orinoco Geese and Capped Heron. Cocoi Heron, Great Egret, Fasciated Tiger-Heron, King Vulture, Plumbeous Kite, and Ornate and Black-and-white Hawk-Eagles are other possibilities along the river.

Pre-friaje fun.

While the boat was comfortable, the ride was abnormally chilly. Confronting us just hours into down the river was a massive friaje, or cold front, which caused a sudden drop in temperature and harsh winds. This is not at all what we expected during our stay in the “hot, humid, and muggy” Amazon basin, but the chill kept mosquitoes at bay even if the birds were quieter than normal.

Post-friaje frolics.

We made a quick overnight stop at Manu Wildlife Center and used it as an outpost to visit the macaw lick (aka collpa) at Blanquillo. This was an amazing experience that should not be missed. Assistant Editor Rob Ripma discusses that experience on this post >>.

 

Los Amigos Birding Lodge

After climbing a towering staircase up the bank and landing in the shady grounds of the biological station, the Los Amigos station manager and staff gave us a warm welcome and directed us to our cabins.

Our fam tour team gathers around the station manager at Los Amigos © Edison Buenano

Los Amigos features several distinct habitats (palm swamps, bamboo thickets, oxbow lakes, and flooded and non-flooded forests) and the bird list is just under 600 species. The list includes Harpy Eagle, Spix’s and Blue-throated Piping-Guans, Razor-billed Curassow, Western Striolated Puffbird, Rufous-capped Nunlet, Pavonine Quetzal, Rufous-fronted Antthrush, and Pale-winged Trumpeter.

My cabin at Los Amigos Biological Station and Birding Lodge

The forest surrounding Los Amigos is truly wild but the trails are nicely marked (thank goodness-but take a map!). In addition to great birding, it’s not unusual to see a representative from one of its 11 species of monkeys (such as Emperor Tamarin, Tufted Capuchins, or Spider Monkeys) and, if you’re lucky, Giant Otters and Jaguars near the river. Because I have a strange fascination with dangerous animals, I spent quiet a bit of time scanning logs for a giant Anaconda while hiking the oxbow trail, but no such luck!

We took the oxbow trail to this tiny lake.

The vibe at Los Amigos is more “biostation” than Amazon retreat, but the cabins are sturdy and the birds and wildlife are phenomenal. My cabin overlooked the Madre de Dios riverbank and was a good place to watch for kingfishers, hummingbirds, and raptors. On the last day, two White-throated Jacamars fed each other close to the bank, and were extremely confiding for photographers.

White-throated Jacamar © Edison Buenano

Tip: Electricity runs only between 6-9 pm, so plan well and bring a good light source. Internet was sketchy at best – enjoy being unplugged. Food was good. You may have to ask for fresh-brewed coffee (instead of instant) in the cafeteria. You might consider bringing small gifts for the graduate students who work there — it’s a three-hour ride, via boat, for them to refresh personal supplies.

 

Departure

From Los Amigos, a typical guest will take a three-hour boat ride back to the town of Laberinto where we caught a bus to Puerto Maldonado. From there, we departed on flights to Lima or Cusco, respectively.\

The Amazon Conservation 2017 fam tour team: Bob Warneke, Edison Buenano, Raymond VanBuskirk, Rick Wright, Rob Ripma, Jose Padilla, Laura Kammermeier, with guide Fernando Angulo Pratolongo. (Not pictured: Brian Zwiebel, John Sterling).

 

 

If you go…

This is a classic South American birding adventure that offers limitless birding opportunities along this Andes-to-Amazon trail. Our group featured birds with a wide range of experience with Peruvian birds, and each of us were gobsmacked by something everyday. Antbirds are especially abundant and hard to see, so even if you’ve seen all the more colorful and conspicuous species, antbirds and other families will make a wonderful and challenging study, not to mention all the primates, other mammals, reptiles and orchids.

The Amazon Conservation lodges are well equipped and maintained to house and support guest birders. Visit https://birding.amazonconservation.org/ to explore the lodges and be sure to contact staff with questions. Their travel coordinator can help plan your itinerary, find a birding guide and transportation, and answer other questions.

Rates start at $115/night for Los Amigos and $150-160 for the other two lodges.

 

Tour Guides

Several of my great traveling/birding companions on this trip work for or run their own guiding companies. Check out Sabrewings Nature Tours, JB Journeys, BRANT Tours, Jose Antonio Padilla (Peru-based), John SterlingSword-billed Expeditions, and VENT.

Field Guides

Resources: Birds of Peru (revised and updated edition).