Machu Picchu Pre-trip to Amazon River Cruise Feb 16—21, 2013

Posted by Barry Lyon

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Barry Lyon

Barry Lyon's passion for the outdoors and birding has its roots in his childhood in southern California. During his teenage years, he attended several VENT/ABA youth birdin...

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On a remote Andean ridge between two cloud-misted mountains, Machu Picchu exists as one of the world’s most instantly recognizable landmarks. The center of the Inca Empire for nearly 100 years, Machu Picchu is today one of the most familiar icons of South American tourism.

For this Amazon River Cruise Pre-trip, a visit to the revered archaeological site was the obvious centerpiece of a tour that included a wealth of natural and cultural attractions. Traveling from Lima on the coast to the Andean gateway city of Cuzco offered powerful insight into the astounding geographical and cultural diversity of Peru.

Outside the city, our foray to Laguna Huacarpay proved memorable as that region of marshes, farmland, fields, and hills teemed with birds. Many of the species we saw were not particularly rare, yet offered a wonderful representation of Andean waterbirds and land birds. Species such as Puna Ibis, Plumbeous Rail, Andean Lapwing, Andean Gull, Giant Hummingbird, the endemic Bearded Mountaineer, Yellow-winged Blackbird, and Blue-and-yellow Tanager were all received with excitement by our group.

From Cuzco, our descent of the Urubamba River Valley brought astonishing views of one of the wildest rivers any of us had ever laid eyes on. February is typically a time of high water on the Amazon and its tributaries, and this held especially true this year with the Urubamba appearing as a roiling cauldron of brown, white-capped water.

On our day in the Andes outside the old city of Ollantaytambo, we ranged from 8,500 feet up to 14,000 feet at Abra Malaga Pass searching for the region’s specialty birds. Excellent views of the endemic Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch and Creamy-crested Spinetail were special, but equally memorable were our encounters with hummingbirds, many whose names are as angelic as their glittery appearances. Hummers with names like Shining Sunbeam, Great Sapphirewing, Sparkling Violetear, and Tyrian Metaltail were seen well, while a vigil with a male White-tufted Sunbeam was supreme.

In addition to the birding, the tour provided an intimate look at a range of Peruvian landscapes and people. Above Ollantaytambo, we entered the heart of the Andes, a region of massive mountains, glaciated river valleys, high elevation grasslands, and crystal-clear whitewater rivers punctuated by picture-perfect cascades. Along our tour route we encountered people every step of the way, many of whom were Inca descendants still steeped in their traditional customs. We witnessed fiestas and dances, women adorned with all types of hats and colorful dresses, farmers in their fields, and even the inside of a traditional home in Ollantaytambo.

As for Machu Picchu, part of the thrill was simply getting there. A morning-long train ride from Yucay to Aguas Calientes certainly heightened our sense of adventure, but traveling alongside the raging Urubamba for mile after mile was an arresting experience. A two-night stay in Aguas Calientes provided exposure to mountains draped in cloud forest where all the birds were new to us. Parts of two days birding the hotel grounds produced a range of new birds. While the tanagers and hummingbirds were primary attractions, the opportunity to sort through a huge mixed-species flock at the forest edge revealed the awesome diversity of the equatorial tropics.

For all this, it was Machu Picchu—timeless in endurance, regal in presentation—that drew us here. Perfectly situated amid towering emerald mountains, the ruins formed a focal point to the area’s undeniable scenic grandeur, accentuated, no less, by a gleaming double rainbow.

Finally, we must acknowledge Doris Valencia, one of the best local guides we’ve ever worked with. An ace birder on one hand, and an authority on Inca history and Peruvian culture on the other, Doris routinely demonstrated voluminous knowledge of her home country—its people, its history, and its wildlife. Thanks to her, our experiences were all the richer.