Birds, Plants? Check. Monkeys and Macaws? Check. Caimans? Check. Jaguars? Not So Fast!
Peru's Amazon jungle regions have some of the greatest recorded biodiversity and species of plants and animals on earth. However, you may be disappointed if you go expecting a daily episode of Wild Kingdom. An expedition to the Amazon is not like a safari to the African savanna. Many mammals are extremely difficult to see in the thick jungle vegetation, and though the best tour operators employ guides skilled in ferreting them out, there are no guarantees. Even in the most virgin sections, after devoting several patient days to the exercise, you are unlikely to see a huge number of mammals, especially the rare large species such as tapirs, jaguars, and giant river otters. If you spot a single one of these prized mammals, your jungle expedition can be considered a roaring success. (Your best shot at seeing jaguars is in Manu during the months of May and June.) However, in both Manu and Tambopata you are very likely to see a wealth of jungle birds (including the region's famous and fabulous macaws), several species of monkeys, black caimans, butterflies, and insects.
While Tambopata is superb for bird-watching, with nearly 600 species, Manu enjoys a nearly mythic reputation among birders. And it should: It has the highest concentration of birdlife on the planet. In addition to its many thousands of species of plants, more than a dozen species of monkeys, and hundreds of mammals, the Manu Biosphere Reserve contains some 1,000 species of birds, including seven species of colorful macaws. That's more than half the bird species in all of Peru -- one of the top countries in the world (along with Colombia and Indonesia) for recorded bird species within its borders. That's more species than are found in all of Costa Rica, and it's one of every nine birds in the world! The forests of the western Amazon enjoy the highest density of birds per square mile of any on earth.
The immense variety of birds is due to the diversity of altitudinal zones, habitats, and ecosystems spread across Manu, which encompasses cloud forest and upper and lowland tropical forest. In addition, Manu shimmers with vastly different types of forests, lakes, and microclimates. From the Andes Mountains surrounding Cusco, the road to Manu plummets an amazing 4,000m (13,120 ft.) down to the dense tropical forests of the Amazon basin. For every 1,000m (3,280 ft.) of change in elevation, the indigenous bird life changes just as dramatically. The twisting road near the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge has been called "the best road in the world" by leading bird-tour companies.
In visits of just 2 to 3 weeks in Manu, dedicated birders have recorded a staggering 500 species. Birders can expect to come into contact with quetzals, toucanets, tanagers, and the famed, blazing-red Andean cocks-of-the-rock at their numerous leks. Also of interest to birders, among many dozens more, are the blue-headed macaw, white-cheeked tody-tyrant, bamboo antshrike, and Manu antbird.
For most visitors, the spectacle of viewing hundreds of guacamayos, or macaws, and other birds feeding at a collpa (clay lick) in Tambopata or Manu remains the holy grail of Amazon bird-watching. Many birds and mammals (such as tapirs) supplement their diets with minerals found in clay, which is loaded with minerals and salts. Early in the morning, parrots gather in trees above the river. They then descend in large numbers and feed at the clay. Gorgeously colored and noisy macaws arrive next. Visitors often view the scene from a small catamaran. Blanquillo Macaw and Parrot Lick, the subject of a 1994 National Geographic report and subsequent TV special on macaws, is the most famous collpa in Manu. Collpa viewings are during the dry season only and are best from July to September; macaws do not feed at the clay licks during the month of June, for reasons unknown.
All the Manu tour operators focus to some extent on birding, of course, but for specialists, the Manu Wildlife Center (www.manu-wildlife-center.com), jointly owned by Manu Expeditions, itself run by a well-known ornithologist, is perhaps best suited for enthusiastic birding in Manu. Also recommended by birders is Pantiacolla Lodge where birders have recorded 500 birds in a month's time. Tanager Tours, La Estrella F-9, J. L. Bustamante y Rivero, Arequipa (tel. 054/426-210; www.tanagertours.com), organizes birding trips to Manu, Puerto Maldonado, and many other spots in Peru; the Dutch-owned group also has a branch in Cusco.
Birders and would-be birders should check out Birding Peru (www.birdingperu.org) and Ornifolks (www.ornifolks.org) for additional bird-watching trips to Peru. WorldTwitch (www.worldtwitch.com) has helpful links to birding lodges, tour operators, and organizations throughout Peru, as well as the Americas and the Caribbean.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.