Peru is doted with a rich diversity of animal and vegetal species, and Man has lived alongside them in a harmonious co-existence for thousands for years. Species such as the condor, serpent and puma were worshipped by the ancient highlanders, who crafted their images into pottery and monuments during the rise of early civilizations, in homage to their beauty and power. Other species served as food or as raw materials for Man's creations. Some animals even forged a relationship of interdependence that has lasted for thousands of years, a relationship maintained by Peruvians living outside the major cities. Peru's territory has also long kept hidden thousands of species that continue to amaze scientists from all over the world. The most startling are the native species, due to their unique characteristics and beauty, and above all the way they have managed to adapt to Peru's difficult climate and geography.
Birdswashing in Peru
Imagine a country with over 1,800 species of birds…. A country with more bird species than found in all of North America and Europe combined. Home to 120 endemic species that cannot be found anywhere else in the world!
There are 32 different species of primates in Peru. These are divided into three large taxonomical families which group together the primates found in the New World: Callithricidae, which includes tamarins and marmosets; Callimiconidae, which comprises one unique species (Goeldi's monkey); and the Cebidae, the largest of the three groups which includes common squirrel monkeys, capuchin monkeys, dusky titi monkeys, night-monkeys, howler monkeys, woolly monkeys and spider monkeys, among others. Monkeys of the Old World (order Platyrrhini) can be distinguished from those of the New World (order Catarrhini) by a series of morphological differences which are the product of the adaptation of the latter to the tropical environment in which they live. The most noticeable of these is the shape of their noses. The former (including those of man), feature elongated noses with large nostrils on each side that point downwards while the latter, have wide, flat and often sloping noses. American monkeys are powerfully built. Their faces, flattened and devoid of hair, have large eyes, small ears and short necks. Their hind legs are generally very long and have prehensile claws at the ends. In most cases, American monkeys also have long prehensile tails which act like a fifth limb. They are, for the most part, tree-dwelling, and come down from their tree habitats only to drink water or to cross open spaces. Another characteristic of American monkeys is their ability to change color dramatically according to their geographical location. As a result, a species can change the color of its fur within a wide range of shades, from black and ochre to yellow, depending on the latitude of its habitat. Monkeys scatter the seeds from the fruits they eat over large areas, contributing to the regeneration of the dominant lianas vines and trees of the Amazon forest, home to practically all of Peru's monkeys. The only exceptions are the white-fronted capuchin monkey, which is also found in certain areas of the Andes' western slopes in the northern departments of Piura and Tumbes, and the howler monkey of Tumbes, which is found only in the northernmost tropical forests of the Pacific
There are a total of 33 species of marine mammals in Peru ranging from the tiniest salt-water marine otters or chingungos, that inhabit inaccessible beaches to the large whales and sperm-whales that roam the open sea. Scientists group them into nine taxonomic families, with the most important being the otariidae and the delphinus, that group the sea lions and southern fur seals and the dolphins, respectively. Undoubtedly the most widely-seen mammals on the Peruvian coast, are the sea lions. Two different species share the coast bathed by the cold Peruvian ocean current: the large South American Sea Lion (Otaria byronia) weighing up to 300 kg, which prefers to gather on sandy beaches, and the smaller South American Fur Seal (Arctocephalus australis), which tends to group on outcrops of inaccessible rocks along the coast. Both species reproduce between November and March, ideal months for observation. The best spots for finding them is along the southern coast: Paracas (250 km from Lima) features major breeding grounds on the Ballestas Islands (a one-and-a-half hour boat-ride from the El Chaco dock or from the Hotel Paracas), Punta Arquillo (15 minutes on a rough-grade road that runs through the peninsula) and Morro Quemado (a three-hour drive in an all-terrain vehicle) where possibly the largest number of sea lions and southern fur seals in the country congregate. The coastal beaches of the Paracas National Reserve are also the best spots for viewing the elusive chingungo or marine otter, a marmot that inhabits the rarely-visited rocks and beaches of the central and southern Peruvian coast. The beaches of Mendieta and La Catedral have the greatest number of recorded endangered species. A bit further south (480 km from Lima via the Pan-American Highway) is Punta San Juan, a Reserve established to protect the nesting grounds of guano birds, Humboldt penguins and a large colony of sea lions. Cetaceans are well represented in Peruvian waters. Observing them, however, is rather difficult since there is a lack of tourist infrastructure for this end. Several species of dolphins, such as the Bottlenose Dolphin and the Short-Beaked Common Dolphin, as well as Porpoise, are habitual residents of the relatively shallow coastal waters. The best way to observe these creatures is to rent a boat in the larger coves or ports and then to request information on the best spots and times for viewing. In Peru, all cetacean species are protected by law. The capture, consumption or sale of these animals or any product derived thereof, is strictly prohibited
The Andes, which cuts across countless valleys that run down to the coast on one side and down to the jungle on the other, have made it possible for wildlife to adapt to a series of eco-systems by developing survival strategies. The department of Tumbes features a tropical forest inhabited by plants from other regions, such as the cedar and fig trees as well as other species native to the Amazon forests such as the ceibo and guayacan, also found in the Equatorial dry forest. What is more, the forest also features several species of bromelias and fillandsias not to be found anywhere else in the country. Access to the Tumbes jungle is via a dirt road that runs out of the city of Tumbes itself. The dry forest, located in the departments of Tumbes, Piura and Lambayeque, enjoys a dry, warm climate, with rains during summer, which favors the growth of abundant and unique plantlife. This territory features species such as the Begonia (Begonia pleioetala), the Cardenal (Euphorbia cotinifolia) and wild grenadine (Passiflora tenella). In the Andes, regions between 1,000 and 3,500 meters are transit areas, where for topographical and climactic reasons, flowers from the valleys and highland plain grow alongside each other. The area features a large diversity of wild species from the tiny yareta flower (Azorella yareta) to the teeming clumps of flowers on the Puya Raimondi (Puya raimondii), delicate porporos (Passiflora trifoliata) or the colorful chochos (lupinus mutabilis). Peru's cloud forests, between 2,000 and 3,000 masl, are home to the rarest flowers on Earth, including the bromelia (Aechmia SP) or giant begonia (Begonia sp.). There are several cloud forest regions in Peru, including the Chanchamayo Valley in the department of Junin.
For those in the know, to talk about butterflies is to talk about Peru. One of every five species of butterflies in the world is found here. However, more than just another world record of bio-diversity, this constitutes one more reason to encourage nature lovers to take a journey through the Peruvian forests. Today, butterflies make up the best-known group of land invertebrates and much of this knowledge is attributable to scientists working in the remote jungles of Peru. In recent years, theories stating that the natural diversity of the Amazon region increases in relation to its proximity to the Andes have been proven true by overwhelming statistics. For example, the extraordinary number of species (1 300) were recorded in the community of Pakitza, in the Manu National Park, in southeast Peru and only 235 km away, in a small hostel on the Tambopata river, 1 260 species were recorded. What is amazing about these findings is that only 60% of the entries of both places overlapped! Researchers estimate that the total diversity of butterflies in the country must be over 4 200 species, of which 3 700 have been registered. The scale of this figure can be appreciated when making comparisons of total number of species with other parts of the world: Australia (396), Europe (441) and North America (679). The narrow band of coastal desert with its agricultural valleys, as well as the Andean highlands at more than 5 000 masl have relatively few but very interesting species that have adapted to their rigorous environment. Tropical forests are the environments that by far are home to the greatest variety of butterflies. In the high-jungle, as well as in the Amazon lowlands, there are areas where diversity is such that that a nature lover could be kept busy for weeks on end. These places range from the northeastern jungles (Tarapoto and Moyobamba), to the southern jungles (Tambopata and Manu), passing through the Chanchamayo Valley and the area surrounding Tingo Maria, famous for its importance as part of the great butterfly collections made by botanists at the turn of the century.
In Peru, the Orchidaceae family features some 3,000 species, most of which grow in the tropical jungle on the eastern slopes of the Andes: the cloud forest region. There, amidst the exuberant vegetation produced by nearly 5,000 mm of rainfall a year, orchids multiply, forming veritable natural gardens. In the far northwest of Peru, in the departments of Tumbes y Piura, one can find several attractive species of orchids such as the Cattleya maxima, with large, violet flowers. To the east, the department of Amazonas features vast stretches of cloud forest which are a haven for a series of striking orchids such as the Masdevalia. The Mayo River Valley, in the department of San Martin, has been dubbed "the land of orchids", where one can find the Cattleya rex, considered a symbol of the region's wildflowers. Huanuco is the gateway to the tropical jungle and an ideal place for orchid lovers: cloud forests and dense vegetation which hide hundreds of plants, including the Epidendrum which grow on tree branches, amongst rocks or on ground-based moss. The Cordillera Blanca mountain range and the Callejon de Huaylas valley in the department of Ancash add to a breath-taking landscape the chance to spot interesting varieties of native orchids, including the wakanku (Masdevalia amabilis). The Chanchamayo Valley in the department of Junin is home to an ideal series of circuits for orchid fans. One particularly interesting trail is the route that runs through Pampa Hermosa and Monobamba, outside San Ramon, where one can find an enormous diversity of species such as the Royal Butterfly (Psychopsis sanderae) and the lovely Star of David (Huntleya vargasii). Finally, the Machu Picchu Historic Sanctuary is home to more than 200 orchid varieties. The finest include the wakanki, which in the Quechua language means "you will weep" (Masdevalia vetchiana), and wiñaywayna, "forever young" (Epidendrum secundum). The best way to study orchids and at the same time take in the spectacular countryside is to hike the Inca Trail, which links Qorihuayrachina (on the outskirts of Ollantaytambo), with the Inca citadel of Machu Picchu.
A typical inhabitant of the Andes, the South American camelid has for the past 6,000 years served as a source of food, clothing and as a beast of burden for Peruvians. Moreover, the animal is a quintessential part of the personality of the highlands, and has wielded a major influence on the serene and contemplative idiosyncrasy of its tamers. Over the centuries, various Andean cultures have crafted images of llamas, alpacas, guanacos and vicuñas, from the cave paintings of Toquepala, depicting hunting scenes, to the more sophisticated Inca pottery. These animals have also formed part of countless ritual ceremonies, whether as sacrificial victims or as companions to their overlords in their tombs. Their origins, however, stem from distant-lands: it is believed that millions of years ago the camelid family inhabited what is now North America. Apparently at some point a group emigrated to Alaska and then over to Siberia, giving rise to the present-day Indo-European camel. Another group then emigrated south, discovering an ideal habitat in the central Andes. Each of the four species of Andean camelid -whose identical number of chromosomes makes it possible to cross the species- has developed its own characteristics. The llama, the strongest and appreciated as a pack animal (which can carry up to 60 kg), stands around 1.90 meters tall and comes in a variety of up to 50 colors. The alpaca, whose fiber is popular in the textile industry, stands 1.50 meters tall. Its meat is also being promoted in the foodstuffs processing industry. The vicuña, which is smaller (barely 1.30 meters tall) and runs wild, features extremely fine fur which is in such demand that poachers have driven it to the verge of extinction. Today, the animal is protected by the Peruvian State. Finally, the guanaco is the wildest of the Andean camelids, standing around 1.80 meters tall. It is also found in the highlands of Argentina and Chile.