Day 11 | 15 May 2019 | Andean Spirit Lodge to Cusco

Just to get this out of the way, as I’ve had numerous messages of concern for my exhaustion levels. There have been a few suggestions that I cancel the rest of the trip and head to a tropical island retreat for some R&R and there have equally been a few suggestions to stop whining and make the most of things while in the best birding country in the world (please don’t debate that with me).

I’ve opted for the latter and I can assure you I was up and at ‘em again today. I was still 3 or 4 seconds behind Garret for most things but we know that is not unusual.

Anyway, we were back on the tourist trail today. To an extent. The Inca Trail isn’t the only multiple day hike in Peru. For a country that has so many dramatic landscapes there are certainly many more. I suspect the popularity of Machu Picchu makes the Inca Trail the most well-known, but the second most popular trail is called the Salkantay Trail that starts at the base of the Salkantay Massif. It just so happened that there were birds there that we needed to see. Well, to be more specific, there was one bird that we needed to see – Vilcabamba Tapaculo.

You’re probably wondering whatever happened to the Apurimac Spinetail. That one was done and dusted early this morning with the silky-smooth skills of Alex and Juan, despite their late night following their extraordinary commitment to see the Buff-fronted Owl. They were so tired, in fact, that I was the first one to hear it so maybe my early night helped.

Other than having one of the coolest bird names around, the Vilcabamba Tapaculo is a very poorly known endemic of the Cusco area and so very much sought after by birders. It’s poorly known because it is so localized, but it’s also a Tapaculo. It hates to be seen.

To get to our spot we had to drive up yet another twisty, turny pass to get to the “base camp” of the Salkantay Trail. This meant a major difference from many other scenic passes we’ve done. This one had loads of traffic. Buses and minibuses travel up every day, delivering adventurers to the trail, so our usually quiet roadside birding was considerably noisier.

It’s a customary habit of most road users, not specific to Peru either, to toot their horn as they pass, as if the binoculars and intense concentration on a tree or a bush are not an indication that silence would be preferable.

Anyway, we got to the hustle and bustle of the base of the trail amongst tourists of all shapes and sizes and lines of horses, either carrying gear or people. If the latter, I did wonder why they went all the way up there to be carried on a horse. Maybe to see a Vilcabamba Tapaculo? Probably not.

We worked our way through a number of orientation speeches for the hike ahead and were pleased we only had a 15 minute walk to get to our spot.

As it turned out, the build-up was probably overdone, as Alex found an enthusiastically singing bird, perched on a little mossy rock, behaving in the most unTapaculo-like way.

We spent the appropriate amount of time viewing this anomaly and even pointed it out to a few hikers that seemed interested. The vast majority, I reckon, must have thought we were crazy. At least they couldn’t toot.

Vilcabamba Tapaculo (endemic)

Vilcabamba Tapaculo (endemic)

And, with that, our day of birding was wrapped up at 10am and all that was left was our long drive back to Cusco. There were a few other birds worthy of a photographic share:

Cream-winged Cinclodes

Andean Lapwing

White-tufted Sunbeam (endemic)

Streak-throated Bush-tyrant

It’s a strange feeling to be at our place of sleep before dark, but here we sit in the foyer of Hotel Royal Inka, waiting for our room to be cleaned. I promise it wasn’t my doing, getting us here this early. We head into Manu National Park tomorrow and Juan has to do an afternoon of admin to prepare, as amenities are scant compared to the busy touristy Cusco region.

Manu National Park (Manu is pronounced like the Afrikaans name “Hanno”, not “Mar-noo”) is the bit I’ve been dreaming about for many years. I hope I’m not setting my expectations too high but we should move from day lists in the 50s to far higher numbers and lifers will come thick and fast as we descend into the Amazon basin. Reception may be a little iffy but I should have moments to send the reports.

Tonight we’re tossing culture aside as we feel we’ve sampled a broad range of the Peruvian cuisine, although we’re yet to try out Guinea Pig. Instead, we’ve decided to head to Paddy’s Irish Pub, which, according to the “Top 10 things to do in Cusco”, is the highest Irish owned pub in the world. We’ll be drinking a Guinness to celebrate the Tapaculo.

Wish us luck for Manu.

  • Total day birds: 33
  • Total trip birds: 331
  • Total trip endemics: 31
  • Mike day lifers: 8 (I saw Koepcke’s Screech Owl after sending the report yesterday so included it today)
  • Mike total lifers: 288
  • Garret day lifers: 5 (ditto)
  • Garret trip lifers: 206
  • Bird of the day: Vilcabamba Tapaculo

Click here for day 12