Machu Picchu Extension Amazon River Cruise Feb 14—19, 2015

Posted by Andrew Whittaker

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Andrew Whittaker

Andrew Whittaker was born in England but considers himself to be Brazilian, having moved to this biodiverse country in 1987 to work for the Smithsonian Institution, banding...

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Spellbound and awe-inspired on a remote Andean ridge in deepest Peru, sandwiched between two cloud-misted mountains, taking in the breathtaking view of Machu Picchu as the mist rose, was an unforgettable experience. Words can’t even begin to explain the phenomenal spiritual experience that occurs during a visit to one of the world’s most instantly recognizable landmarks. A center of the Inca Empire for nearly 100 years, Machu Picchu is today one of the most familiar icons and a must destination of South American tourism.

Machu Picchu

Machu Picchu— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

 
   

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, and there is no better way to learn the intimate historic details than with Doris Valencia and her outstanding local knowledge.

Our first stop after arriving in Cuzco was a foray to Laguna Huacarpay which proved memorable, as that region of marshes, farmland, fields, and hills teemed with birds. Despite several periods of drizzle we did well; many of the species we saw were not particularly rare, yet offered a wonderful representation of Andean waterbirds and land birds. A particular highlight was the Peregrine that we watched through the scope as it tore into its lunch, ripping out the teal’s feathers to get to the succulent meat. Other species such as Puna Ibis, Andean Lapwing, Andean Gull, Puna and Yellow-billed teal, Spot-winged Pigeon, Yellow-winged Blackbird, and Brown-bellied Swallow 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.

Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch

Chestnut-breasted Mountain-Finch— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

 
   

On our day in the Andes outside the old city of Ollantaytambo, we ranged from 8,500 feet up to 14,000 feet at the magnificent 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 Red-crested Cotinga and hummingbirds, many whose names are as angelic as their glittery appearances. Hummers with names like Shining Sunbeam, Giant, Velvet-throated Starfrontlet, Sparkling Violetear, and Tyrian Metaltail were seen well, while a vigil with a superb endemic male White-tufted Sunbeam was supreme. However, what topped it for me was observing the amazing behavior of the tiny Blue-mantled Thornbill as it landed on the Andean meadow to delicately extract nectar from each tiny flowering plant. We had superb scope studies of both Aplomado Falcon and Mountain Caracara, and another surprise endemic in the form of an Unstreaked Tit-Tyrant foraging in the bamboo along with a lovely and well-behaved Black-throated Flowerpiercer and Rufous-breasted Chat-Tyrant.

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; with thanks to mostly Dave’s sharp eyes, we recorded an amazing 23 Torrent Ducks! A two-night stay in Aguas Calientes in our lovely Pueblo Hotel provided exposure to mountains draped in cloud forest and an abundance of amazing orchids, and all the birds were new to us. Birding the hotel grounds produced a range of new birds. The tanagers and hummingbirds were the primary attractions, with the likes of Golden-naped, Blue-neck, Silvery, and Saffron-crowned providing close-up views on the fruit feeders, allowing us to take in their wonderful vivid color patterns. Walking the lush grounds gave us the opportunity to sort through a mixed-species flock at the forest edge, revealing the awesome diversity of the equatorial tropics and allowing us studies of such gems as Andean Cock-of-the-rock, Andean Motmot, and the tiny Ocellated Piculet.

Saffron-crowned Tanager

Saffron-crowned Tanager— Photo: Andrew Whittaker

 
   

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 low clouds periodically obscuring these secret ruins. We even managed to see some cool birds such as the skulky endemic Inca Wren, and mammals such as the cute Northern Vizcacha.

What a fantastic group you all were! I enjoyed immersing myself in this exotic and incredible historical corner of Peru and its neat avifauna and wildlife. I hope that you all enjoyed it as much as I did. We shared so many fantastic, unique, and special memories. Finally, we must acknowledge Doris Valencia, one of the best local guides I’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.

I do hope to see you all again sometime in the future on another wonderful and exciting VENT adventure. Meanwhile, very happy birding to you all!