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The Ultimate Guide to Wildlife in Peru

Helen Howard

Peru, whilst renowned for its awe-inspiring ancient Incan cities and mystifying Nazca Lines, is less known as a world-class destination for its abundant and diverse wildlife. Peru has around the same number of bird species as Brazil, despite being more than six times smaller, and is home to many mammals, butterflies and beautiful flora too. In fact, Peru is classified as a megadiverse country due to its great biodiversity. Visit three distinct environments in one trip, taking in the Pacific coast, Andes mountains and Amazon basin and combining with eco lodges in stunning locations for an unforgettable wildlife holiday. While wildlife sightings cannot be guaranteed (which is half the fun) here is are 13 of Peru’s most notable species.

1. Jaguar

There’s something about the mysterious jaguar that evokes the very essence of the Amazon. Rarely seen, this solitary predator moves silently through the undergrowth, with sightings most likely at the water’s edge. The jaguar is a keystone species, playing a vital role in how the Amazonian eco-system functions. It’s culturally important too, the Moche culture of Northern Peru features the jaguar, a symbol of power, on numerous ceramics. Visit the Larco Museum in Lima to see some of these artefacts. Or go to the Madre de Dios river in the Tambopata National Reserve to try to see this elusive creature for yourself.

jaguar amazon madre de dios peru
Jaguar in the Amazon
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Hummingbird in Lima

2. Hummingbirds

Peru boasts over 120 species of hummingbirds, which accounts for one third of all known species. Found across Peru, at every elevation, from the arid valleys in Northern Peru and humid montane forest surrounding Machu Picchu to the parks and gardens of Lima. Some hummingbirds are especially feisty despite their diminutive size, defending their territory with furious ‘buzzing’ of their wings, something that you can witness in the gardens of many hotels and lodges. Visit the Nazca Lines in southern Peru where you can see representations of many creatures, including one thought to be a hummingbird.

blue morpho butterfly peru
Blue morpho butterfly

3. Blue morpho butterfly

You see a flash of electric blue, then nothing. Then there it is again. The captivating blue morpho butterfly is emblematic of the Amazon and can be seen gently fluttering over streams and along forest trails. Despite its size and brilliant blue, if it’s not flying it can be remarkably difficult to spot as its underwings are a dull brown, which is camouflage against predators. The iridescent blue only appears to us as blue from the way light reflects off the butterfly’s microscopic scales. And like many creatures, only the male is brightly coloured, the female isn’t even blue. Peru has a huge variety of butterflies, 20% of all species, including beautiful swallowtails and buttery-yellow species that can be seen at edges of puddles taking in moisture, salts and minerals. From the mountains of Cusco, to the Amazon butterflies can be seen throughout Peru.

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Andean cock-of-the-rock

4. Andean cock-of-the-rock

The national bird of Peru, the Andean cock-of-the-rock is one of the more difficult birds to view in the wild but is a worthwhile and unforgettable experience. Like many birds, the male is more colourful with brilliant orange and red plumage that contrasts with a grey and black lower body plus a characteristic crest. In the early morning mists in mountainous forests, the colourful males gather at leks to perform flamboyant displays of their prowess to impress and entice females. The show might not be described as melodious, but the performance is something to behold!

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Peruvian llama

5. Alpacas and Llamas

Often mistaken for one another, alpacas and llamas are intrinsically connected to the Andes. They’re both camelids, with a llama being the larger of the two species, with a longer face. The smaller alpaca was more highly prized due to its finer fleece. Originating from Peru alpacas can now be found all over South America. In Peru alpacas are primarily found in the central and southern regions, on the steep grassy slopes of the Andes. Take the spectacular journey by train from Puno to Cusco across the high plateau of the altiplano and look out for herds of llamas.

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6. Frogs

Frequently tiny and often strikingly colourful there’s an abundance of frog species in Peru. From bright green tree frogs found in the Amazonian rainforest to multi-coloured poison dart frogs found in the UNESCO protected Manu Biosphere Reserve these amphibians are strangely beguiling. Glass frogs are particularly curious creatures as you can see their internal organs functioning through their transparent skin on their abdominal area, hence their name. Take a guided night walk to encounter nocturnal frogs or enjoy gently meandering by boat through flooded forests to see them close up.

amazon tree frog
Amazon tree frog / Image credit: vil.sandi

7. Inca tern

The striking Inca tern is found in the Humboldt current eco-system, along the length of the Peruvian coast. Distinctive with a white moustache, bright red bill and legs against dark grey plumage, it nests in huge colonies on rocky cliffs along with other sea birds. Pelicans, sea lions, Humboldt penguins and Humpback whales are also found in this region due to the nutrient-rich waters created by the Humboldt current. You don’t need to venture far to enjoy seeing this unusual looking bird – take a day trip from Lima or simply head to the coastal restaurants in the capital’s Miraflores district for Inca tern-watching.

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Incan tern

8. Giant river otter

Found along the Amazon and in nearby oxbow lakes, the giant river otter lives up to its name growing up to 1.7m long. Other characteristics include thick brown fur with unique creamy-white markings on their throat, that help ecologists identify them. Belonging to the mustelid family, which includes weasels and badgers, the giant river otter is one of the most endangered mammal species in the neotropics. They’re diurnal, being active during daylight hours and are very social creatures. Head to the Tambopata National Reserve for the best chance to see these wonderful otters.

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Giant otter

9. Condor

The condor is synonymous with the Andes with its vast wingspan making it unmistakable. Ingrained into the folklore of Andean regions the condor was considered the only animal able to communicate with the world of the gods and stars. As such it’s no surprise there’s a temple dedicated to the condor at Machu Picchu. See condors majestically soaring over the mountains, as well as close-ranging views at Colca Canyon, with the best months being April and May.

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Andean condor

10. Pink river dolphin

Situated in the north east of the country, Pacaya-Samaria National Reserve is one of the largest protected areas in Peru but is lesser-known than Manu or Tambopata. It’s a vast wilderness of forests, lagoons and rivers in the Amazon region, with superb biodiversity. The rare pink river dolphin, also known as the Amazon river dolphin is famously found here, as well as an abundance of birds, butterflies and exquisite orchids. Being the largest river dolphin species in the world it reaches up to 3m in length and it relies on sonar to locate prey of fish, crabs and turtles as its vision is poor.

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Pink river dolphin
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orchids machu picchu
Orchids at Machu Picchu

11. Orchids

Distinctive and delicate, orchids are renowned and revered all over the world. Peru boasts over 3,000 species of these plants, from the large to the tiny, making some difficult to spot. They’re found in cloud forests, tropical rainforests and the north coast of Peru. There are several trails within Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary where you can see orchids, walk the well-named Orchid Inca Trail, considered one of the richest in terms of species including one known as gallo-gallo after it’s rooster-like red comb. Some lodges and hotels have specific orchid gardens too, so you don’t have to venture too far.

brown throated sloth
Brown-throated sloth

12. Brown-throated sloth

In the Amazon rainforest there are many creatures that live high in the canopy, some of which occasionally venture to the forest floor. The brown-throated sloth is one of these, so to increase your chances of seeing one get up high – at a canopy tower or walkway. Sloths live up to their name, and are the slowest mammal on earth, though this is officially determined by their metabolism not their notorious slow movement! They are so sedentary that they can be difficult to see, sometimes easily confused for a jumbled mass of epiphytes, especially as algae grows on their long, coarse fur. With a blunt nose and inconspicuous ears, the sloth is easily recognised. While you’re up in the canopy searching for sloths, also enjoy spotting a variety of animals including howler monkeys, toucans and tanagers.

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Red-and-green macaw / Image credit: Fernando Flores

13. Red-and-green macaw

The mayhem of a claylick is quite an experience, with many species of birds jostling for position while constantly scanning for danger. Parrots, parakeets and the beautiful red-and-green macaw are some of the most colourful birds who visit a claylick. Claylicks were originally thought to attract birds for only one reason; to eat clay which would neutralise the toxins consumed when eating unripe fruit. It’s now thought that there could be multiple reasons birds visit claylicks, from taking in vital minerals to socialising. It’s best to visit a claylick at dawn because as the day progresses less birds visit and activity drops off. Visit the claylick in the Tambopata National Reserve to see this brightly coloured spectacle and witness the stunning red-and-green macaws.

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