Day 6 | 10 May 2019 | Cusco to Aguas Calientes

You may notice that these messages are getting longer but I’ve always had a lot to say. I would apologize, but I figure if I’m not too tired to write it, you all shouldn’t be too tired to read it.

So, here goes.

Another 5am departure from Cusco from our very fancy hotel in the main square of Cusco with a brief, but freezing, stop for a Puna Teal on a cold lake at about 3500m.

I should have been excited for a lifer, but a Puna Teal is really just another duck. The birders in the group will be shaking their heads as there are some pretty cool ducks out there (peg that for later).

Just a quick non-birding aside: we arrived late in the afternoon at our hotel in Cusco to be ushered to our room on the second floor.  The lift was too small for all our bags and so we puffed and panted our way to the room, which turned out to be the honeymoon suite.  One wonders how they confused Garret and I for a honeymoon couple, as we arrived grimy and rugged-looking from our day out in the field.  But Cusco is the adventure capital of the world so I guess anything is possible.

After leaving the icy marsh, following our first sprinkling of day birds, we descended into the Urubamba Valley for a coffee stop at the town of Urubamba, which is famous for their large corn kernels but, seemingly, not at all famous for coffee as we couldn’t find a coffee shop for love or money.

We entered the narrow streets looking for an appropriate establishment and I felt as if we had entered the South American version of the Bermuda Triangle. I remarked to Garret that we were in that Eagle’s song “Hotel California” where you can check in any time you like but you can never leave. Yes, it was a form of hell. Garret suggested it may not be the worst kind of hell but I countered that it was about as bad as it gets for birders. Being stuck in the narrow streets of a busy town and driving in circles, whilst there were hills and forests surrounding us with birds to be seen, was quite excruciating for me.

The purgatory finally ended when we arrived at the central market and found our morning coffee. Once again, we proved that we’re open to cultural experiences as we sipped our coffee and wandered around the market seeing the most impressive selection of fresh produce. A chef would have done their nut in that place as there was just about everything on offer that you can think of.

I will acknowledge that, after 45 minutes of coffee and market, I had returned straight back into that mild form of hell. It was prime birding time and the only birds I’d seen so far were a few ducks and coots and the only birds I was currently seeing were the featherless chooks in the poultry section of the market.

“Baminos a pagariya”, I announced to Juan, which means “let’s go birding” and we hustled out of the market back to the car. I think he could sense that I didn’t need a coffee fix nearly as much as I needed a birding fix. If only my family were that attentive when I issued instructions as we were back on the road in no time.

We spent the remainder of the morning in the garden of one of Juan’s friends watching for hummingbirds and a few other bits and pieces. We saw three endemic birds (Green and White Hummingbird, Rusty-fronted Canastero and Cream-Crested Spinetail) but the undoubted highlight was one of the world’s most iconic birds – Sword-billed Hummingbird. It’s the only bird on the planet whose bill is longer than its body and that’s actually a fact.

Sword-billed Hummingbird

Green and white Hummingbird (endemic)

The birding was good but it wasn’t the frantic “lifer a minute” we’d expected of today’s birding.

We jumped into the car and headed to the town of Ollantaytambo, which is the access town for the train ride down to Aguas Calientes, which, of course everyone knows, is the access town to Machu Picchu.

Ollantaytambo is a beautiful, authentic Peruvian town with wonderful old buildings and an Inca monument on the hillside above it. It is, unsurprisingly, about as touristy as you get but we really didn’t mind too much. After a rather rushed lunch we boarded the train to Aguas Calientes, which is the only way to get into the blind valley that lies below Machu Picchu.

I had planned to have a bit of shut-eye on the trip down to Aguas Calientes but that was impossible. Not only is it the most scenic train ride I’ve ever done as the line snakes alongside the Urubamba River, from scrubby high altitude down into cloud forest, but we were told by Alex and Juan to look out for Torrent Ducks. So, here is where I backtrack on ducks. A Torrent Duck is a great looking bird and lives its life in fast flowing rivers in South America. Just like the Sword-billed Hummer it is yet another iconic world bird. So, our snooze time was shelved as Garret and I both sat glued to the window looking for TDs. When we saw our first one, we leapt out of our seats and gave a victory yell, which must have been slightly disturbing for our fellow passengers.

Aguas Calientes is about the most touristy place you can imagine, even more so than Ollantaytambo, but it is still well worth a visit. It lies in a deep gorge overlooking the rapids of the Urubamba River and, weirdly, it reminded me a little of a Disney theme park. The paths are all well paved with cobblestones and the buildings are convincingly authentic but the big difference, I guess, is that here it is actually authentic.

We dropped our bags and headed straight out for some birding along the railway line. There really is no time to pause when there are birds to see. 

The precautionary measures against birders being flattened by the regular train traffic is light, at best, and we spent quite a bit of our time jumping off the railway to make way for a train as we meandered through the cloud forest and picked up about a gazillion lifers.

The Sword-billed Hummer was still comfortably in prime spot for BOD (bird of the day), but Alex and Juan mentioned they had a surprise for us. We stopped at a point on the railway line and the two of them were locked onto the canopy looking for this “surprise”. After 40 minutes of no success they conceded they were looking for a Masked Fruiteater, which is yet another Peruvian endemic and a particularly special one. It’s quite rare and range restricted and it is a seriously colourful bird. It has a light green belly with darker green streaks, a bright orange throat, a black mask and a bright red bill. It’s about the size of a robin and lives quietly in the canopy so, despite its colours, it is quite tricky to see.

Eventually Juan shouts out “MASKED FRUITEATER” and we all rush over to see where he is pointing. That moment coincided with the 5pm train from Aguas Calientes to Ollantaytambo coming around the corner. As it did so we had to fold up the scopes and jump off the railway line onto the service path to avoid being run over by Peruvian Rail. I wouldn’t say it was a close shave like you see in the movies, but the driver was clearly determined to get us off the line as he tooted his tooter resolutely as the train rumbled passed us. One would think the chances the Masked Fruiteater stuck around during all that noise would be pretty minimal but we didn’t see anything fly out of the tree so we were still quite bullish.

Once the train has passed by, we resumed our scanning in the tree.

As a brief interlude I need to mention that one of the most important birds for me on this trip would be a crazy looking thing called an Andean Cock-of-the-Rock. It’s about the size of a large pigeon, bright orange, with grey and black wings and a weird rounded crest that extends from the tip of its bill to the back of its head. We’re going to a place in about a week called the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge and my expectations were that we’d see it then.

But as Murphy would have it, a Cock-of-the-Rock landed in the middle of the Fruiteater tree in the midst of our search and, despite my excitement, nobody else gave a damn as they were so focused on the Fruiteater.

This story ends well as we eventually saw the Fruiteater and I even had a quick moment to enjoy the Cock-of-the-Rock in between all the excitement.

Masked Fruiteater (endemic)

So, we had our first afternoon of true forest birding and it really hit home how important local guides are. Of the 25 or so lifers we saw this afternoon we reckon we may have spotted and identified about five had we been flying solo. We’re not as useless as you think, as there is still a great degree of skill involved in actually seeing the bird being pointed out, so we patted ourselves on the back for the ones we would have seen ourselves as well as the ones that were pointed out to us and wrapped up the day with dinner at the least touristy place we could find.

Andean Motmot

Tomorrow is more birding in the forests in the morning and then we get another chance to show you all how we’re taking in the culture with a trip up to Machu Picchu.


  • Total day birds: 74
  • Total trip birds: 214
  • Total trip endemics: 21
  • Mike day lifers: 39Mike total lifers: 172
  • Garret day lifers: 26
  • Garret trip lifers: 138
  • Bird of the day: Masked Fruiteater

Click here for Day 7