Okay, we’re on our way. We’re in Joburg waiting to board our flight to São Paulo, and then on to Lima after a few hour layover. We arrive at 12:40am Lima time.
This is a daily diary of our travels to Peru. Some daily entries may be a little long but I know at least my mother-in-law is fond of reading my long stories, so I’ve used her as the minimum standard. If you don’t enjoy being distracted, I won’t be offended if you don’t get past the first sentence.
I thought it would be worth introducing the trip so you know why I’m doing this.
First, to introduce Garret. Some of you know him but many don’t. Garret is a great birding mate of mine and was the only sucker that agreed to do this with me during my mid-life crisis (not really a crisis if the truth be told). Once Jeanie had allocated the requisite number of pink tickets, I sought a suitable companion and Garret took very little convincing, being equally fanatical about seeing great birds a little beyond the borders of South Africa.
Just as an aside, there were a few moments of confusion following the pink ticket handover ceremony. Jeanie thought she’d doled out 2 weeks of birding time and was shocked when I told her that there’s very little point in going so far for such a short time. After many additional promises were made, she eventually relented. She is the best wife in the world. Incidentally, one of the additional promises I made to her was that I publicly state that about her. At least I can now tick that off as it’s a long list.
Anyway, Garret is in his mid-30s and is a highly skilled pathologist. So, if I get a rare disease in Peru that requires a magnified analysis to diagnose, then I’ll know I picked the right guy. His medical supplies are also a little more comprehensive than mine. Garret is a slightly less experienced SA birder than I am (only because he’s ten years younger than me) but he’s travelled a little wider outside of SA than I have.
So, why Peru?
Peru has over 1,900 species and has the second highest species count of any country in the world (Colombia is number 1 with just over 2000 species). As a comparative, South Africa has somewhere near 850 or so. You’d think that would be reason enough, but there are plenty of others: by all accounts the people are friendly, the lodges are well suited to newbies like me, the scenery in proximity to the Andes is beyond compare and the distances between localities is not unmanageable.
Birding in the neotropics is an entirely different kettle of fish and so we arranged a private guide for the two of us (the settling of a guide is a very long story for another day). Our lead guide, Juan, put together a very diverse itinerary for us that will combine a high species count as well as target many of the endemics and specials. Our rough route is as follows:
- about 4 days in a clockwise loop from Lima where we target coastal and desert species and then highly specialized birds at 4,500 meters (Garret has some muti in his box of tricks to make sure I can actually see the birds rather than seeing the spots of a splitting headache)
- we then return to Lima and fly about a thousand kilometers south east to Cuzco on the eastern slopes of the Andes. You’ll know Cuzco as being the access point for Machu Pichu and you’ll be pleased to know we’ll be visiting the archaeological site (mostly because there are great birds nearby). We spend about 5 days in the drier slopes of the Andes, which has a ton of special birds. If I send a report of seeing a Royal Cinclodes it’ll certainly come with lots of smiley face emojis
- we then leave Cuzco on the Manu Road, which is what attracted me to this trip in the first place. The Manu Road travels from Cuzco, crests the Andes at around 5,000m and then descends through many special elevation zones to the Amazon basin at around 400m. With changes in altitude comes changes in habitat and changes in bird species. We descend over a period of about 5 days and our minds are set to be blown by the diversity we should encounter. Manu Road is considered by many to be the top bucket list birding experience worldwide. I can’t say if this is true or not but I’m sure it’ll be pretty good.
- We then spend the last 5 days or so in the Amazon basin which will be hot and humid but full of rainforest birds.
So, that’s it in a nutshell.
We’ve done quite a lot of prep but the volume is high and we’ll take some time to figure it all out.
So, how many birds will we see? A question a lot of people have asked me.
I reckon we’ll see between 500 and 550 species in the three weeks. I’m hopeful that at least 350-400 will be lifers for me. In amongst that will be my 2000th world species. I’m currently on about 1700. Garret should get to 2000 a little sooner than me. He’s currently on about 1800.
And then we have a full day layover in São Paulo on the way back, where we’ve organized a day trip with a Brazilian guide to a lodge outside the city (as one does). That’ll probably add around 80-100 birds for the trip.
With each daily report I’ll give an update on species numbers as much as is possible. You’ll know when we hit those milestones (either through photographs of the obligatory chest-bumps and high fives or written in black and white).
So, wish us luck and hopefully some of you enjoy the updates. I’ll try send one each day, connectivity and exhaustion levels permitting. There’ll also be some bird, people and scenery pics.
Day 0 | 4 May 2019 | Transit
We arrived safely in São Paulo. No birds because it’s dark, so not much to report. We leave at 9:30pm (2:30am SA time) and arrive in Lima at 12:40am (7:40am SA time).
Final thoughts on Peru
As promised, here follows my final thoughts on the trip and on Peru in general. I like to waffle and I have plenty of time to kill at the airport so it comes with a length warning. There will also be limited birdy stuff so this is most probably for my own memories in ten years’ time and for my very dedicated readers.
Absolutely beautiful in almost every area we went to. The coastline is barren and bleak but we were lucky with the weather (without mist) and so we saw it at its best. The most dramatic vistas were on all the Andean passes. We went up and down from just about every angle so we saw most of it. The western slopes are dry and scrubby and so are many of the eastern slopes we were on initially. The highest areas are alpine-like with short heath-like vegetation and mossy bogs.
It was only when we ventured further east of Cusco that we moved into the higher altitude cloud forests, polylepis and elfin forests. And then, of course, as we dropped below 500m in the east we were in the tropical forest of the Amazon Basin. The extent of these gallery forests is mind-boggling and most of it along the Rio Madre de Dios was pristine. It’s only when we got to mining towns and Puerto Maldonado that it degraded quite a bit.
The most beautiful areas, for me, were the cloud forests and obviously Machu Picchu was a visual highlight.
The roads and driving
This was one of the tough bits of the trip. When I looked at a map before we left, I noted the distances were very short and so I didn’t expect a lot of car time. This was an underestimation. The roads are not terrible in condition but the mountain passes just seem to go on forever. It takes absolute ages to ascend or descend the thousands of meters we went up and down. On one particular day we spent about 9 hours in the car with very little birding (Cusco to Wayqecha). I’m not naive to the toil of travel on a birding trip having been to Mozambique and Ethiopia previously but this was just worse than I expected. The boat at the end was such a pleasant alternative.
We were astonishingly lucky with the weather. You’d generally write off two or three full days to bad weather but, at most, we lost a few hours early on.
The first two weeks were mild to very cold. The coldest was when we saw the Diademed Sandpiper-Plover at 4800m. It was below freezing.
Weirdly the last week in the Amazon wasn’t nearly as hot as I expected but it was extremely humid so there was a lot of sweating. At least at night I could sleep.
Seemingly a very peaceful and friendly bunch of people. We were in hotels and lodges throughout so it is a skewed view, but we spent many lunches and breakfasts in very authentic local eateries and I found the people to be incredibly non-intrusive and took us just as passers-by. Even with binoculars and camera lenses I never felt I was a spectacle. We spent about half an hour in a remote village in the Amazon where I bought a cold coke and sat and drank it amongst the villagers and about ten little kids passed me and I was very aware that they didn’t even give me a second glance. It’s very different to being in Africa where umlungus/gringos are noticed and engaged with (positively and sometimes negatively).
This bit is specifically for Goggo (Jeanie’s mom) as I know she’ll appreciate it.
The food was generally excellent. In most places the food was a very simple plate of food or “n bord kos” as Jeanie puts it. The Peruvians love their carbs and every meal comes with at least two. There was almost always white rice and potatoes or French fries.
They also love their bread. We stopped at so many little bakeries where Alex and Juan would eat plain bread straight out of the oven from the bakeries. And heaps of it.
There were a few specific local meals that stood out for me:
This was my absolute favourite. It is basically sautéed strips of beef with chunks of red onions, red peppers and tomato served with rice and French fries. I had it about ten times and I was never disappointed. Goggs will be making this for me when I get home. Please?
This is a very traditional dish of Peru. I had it in Pucusana, which is a coastal village and then once at Ollantaytambo. It was also absolutely delicious. It is usually made with a fresh white ocean fish. Naturally served with rice.
We had pan seared trout with quinoa on a few occasions. The quality varied dramatically. At one eating house about half way back up Abra Malaga it was an over cooked bone fest served with potatoes, which wasn’t great and then in a touristy restaurant it was boneless, well-seasoned and deliciously juicy. The price at the eatery was about R40 and about R140 in the restaurant so I guess it was not a big surprise that there was a quality difference.
Chicken soup for breakfast
The Peruvians don’t restrict breakfast to traditional breakfasty type things. Chicken soup is common, particularly at high altitude where it’s cold. We’d spend the first 3 hours of the day birding and then stop at a tiny eatery and we’d have chicken soup. It’s more of a consume than a broth but it comes with a boiled chicken breast, with skin, and about three different kinds of potato (there are apparently 3,000 types of potato in Peru but this fact is unsubstantiated). I may have taken abuse about my need for midday naps (which I never actually had, for the sake of accuracy) but we often found time for chicken soup. On a few occasions I joined in too, even though it wasn’t quite Granny Pam quality.
We never got around to eating guinea pig, which is the true iconic meal in Peru. We saw it on the menu in one restaurant and it was twice the price of lomo saltado so you know which one I chose.
The cost of food is very comparable to South Africa. Main meals are around R120-R160. Our tour included all meals so we didn’t need to watch the prices at all so I may have missed the exact comparison.
Oh, last food thing. The fruit is delicious, which you’d expect in the tropics. We ate a lot of passion fruit which makes a granadilla look like a very poor cousin.
I’ve realized two things about my relationship with coffee on this trip. Firstly, I’m a bit of a Southern Suburbs coffee snob and, secondly, I’m not an addict. There was nothing wrong with the coffee, it was actually quite good, but I went most days without.
Garret, on the other hand, was unable to get through the day without it. A morning coffee was imperative before he was able to spot his first bird and then a midday fix was just as important. Given his ability to spot birds after his coffee fix I was very happy to indulge his need for stops during the day.
The coffee is served very differently. They brew a very strong concentrate which is stored in a small glass bottle and then it is diluted with hot water from a flask, either on the road or in the eateries.
For the most part, the accommodation was everything we needed. We stayed in quality hotels in the main centres like Lima and Cusco and then smaller quaint hotels in smaller towns like Aguas Calientes and Ollantaytambo. In the more remote areas we stayed in guest house-type places and simple lodges. In this category I think Wayqecha was my favourite, whilst Amazonia Rustic Camp was at the bottom of the barrel. Amazonia Rustic Camp lost huge points for a lack of cold beer. Like Garret needed his coffee, I needed a cold beer at the end of the day.
Obviously, it was amazing. No doubt about it. Our final numbers reflect that it isn’t considered the top birding destination in the world for nothing. The altitude variation is the key for Peru, as well as the climate changes from a dry desert in the west to a tropical rain forest in the east. The isolated scrubby valleys in the Andes have also contributed to the high levels of endemism. Our itinerary was actually restricted to south central Peru. The northern parts of the country are, arguably, even richer with higher numbers of endemics. Alex and Juan said we’d need 15 days to cover those areas and we’d probably add another 400 species. I think Garret is ready to go tomorrow whilst I may need to start contemplating my pink ticket acquisition strategy for the next 20 years.
As good as the birding is and as high as the diversity can be, the birding is harder than you think. The open country stuff at the beginning was a real pleasure but hard to separate canasteros and ground-tyrants and miners and cinclodes. But then the forest stuff is really tough to keep up. I actually coped way better with the close tall forest birding at low altitude compared with the cloud forest flocks. In the cloud forests the birds are often distant or moving very fast and I battled to pick up all the species in a flock. In the dark forest the birds come in ones and twos and it was easier for me to keep up.
I referred a lot to the exhausting pace of the trip, with extremely early starts and owling into the evening. I have taken a suitable amount of abuse from birding mates for my comments but it was genuinely very tough at times (plus there may have been some poetic license with my hyperbole).
We were birding with the top lister in Peru (Alex) who used to guide a crazy Swedish guy, Gunnar Engblom, on his radically extreme tours, so he is used to serious listers chasing big totals, so it was not just me being useless. 20 days of 13-15 hour birding days is hard. Jolting car travel is not downtime either. Plus, Alex was chasing his own big year list so we were often spending half an hour trying to see a single species in the humid, mosquito forests. Garret is genuinely far more determined than me and I had true admiration for his continual efforts to add each additional species.
Don’t tell him I told you this but he also admitted that he disliked the owling but he was prepared to suffer it for an additional owl or two.
And then seeing almost 650 species is an exceptionally high number for three weeks and trying to remember them all was often an additional challenge for me.
The photography was generally very difficult. The light conditions are often sub-optimal and I was often just trying to see the bird rather than worrying about photographing it. But make sure you watch my insta page as there will be pics of some of the birds that sat still for more than a fraction of a fraction of an instant.
But, overall, the birding was just amazing (I repeat myself). I’m not sure when I’ll do another three-week birding trip but I’m so pleased that I did this one. If you want to see some of the world’s greatest birds then Peru is the place.
Juan and Peruvian Wings
We couldn’t have done better. As simple as that.
He’s a young guy and has only about four or five years specific birding experience but his organization and catering for our needs was world class. We never had a single mishap related to transport, accommodation, meals or birding localities. At least none that were in his control. We asked him to show us a lot of birds and he arranged the itinerary to achieve that end. I expected 550 and we got nearly 100 more. He and Alex were a perfect combination. Juan’s English was excellent so he could always understand our needs, which were then communicated to Alex and then he would be set on the trail making sure we maximized.
Our last day of travel that I spoke about with a form of dazed surprise may have been extraordinarily interesting (and potentially disastrous) but Juan had arranged it all like clockwork. Mobile reception is very iffy but at every changeover from boat to taxi or vice versa there was the next guy waiting for us right there and then. We wasted not a minute on a day that needed precision.
We finally said goodbye to Alex and Juan when we went through security to board our flight to Lima. They were flying direct to Cusco an hour later. It wouldn’t surprise you to hear that they used that hour to go birding in Puerto Maldonado
My travelling companion
Aside from a few half-day trips to West Coast National Park, Garret and I hadn’t travelled at all together. It was a potentially very risky venture spending three untested weeks together, given how difficult I can be and how structured Garret is, but it is quite remarkable that we’re out the other end of the trip and we’re still talking to each other like we were on the first day. Sharing a room and bathroom with someone for 21 straight days is a big ask but, more than that, we were together birding the whole time as well. I’m sure he’ll need a break from me for a decent period but we’ll definitely be doing a lot more birding in the future. I’ll be back to half-day West Coast National Park trips whilst he may be seeking out more voracious, hard-core birders for his next trip.
When did I get the time to write these?
Most of you will know that I love to write about stuff that I do, which is why I decided to do this daily diary. It wasn’t meant to be a quality, edited article every day; merely a record of my thoughts for my future reminiscing as well as to give my family and others an insight into a hardcore birding trip.
I would usually use the last few hours of car travel each day to start assimilating my thoughts and then I’d single-finger type them on my iPhone Notes before handing to Garret to do a quick read for appropriateness and grammar errors. Then it was a quick copy into WhatsApp and send.
As much as Garret loved precisioning his lists every evening, I loved writing these.
I apologize for spelling and grammar errors (especially misplaced apostrophes, which I’m sure my family enjoyed with revengeful glee) and I guess an apology for the length, sometimes, because most of you had normal life to get on with. But, for those that did read them and enjoyed keeping up, thanks for coming along.
We’ve just landed in Joburg and I’ve got one more flight before seeing my wonderful family who I have missed like crazy.
Until next time.…