Wildlife Holidays in the Andes

The Andes are amongst the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world. Stretching for over 8,000 kilometres along the spine of South America, and passing through no fewer than seven countries, they are home to the greatest peaks outside Asia – Argentina’s Mount Aconcagua rises to 6,961 metres above sea level, and the planet’s equatorial bulge means that Ecuador’s Chimborazo is further from the Earth’s core than anywhere else. The highest volcanoes are also found here, with Ojos del Salado between Chile and Argentina towering at an altitude of 6,893 metres. Of course, such extremes of topography result in landscapes of unparalleled splendour, within which can be found an almost unimaginable diversity of spectacular wildlife. From its extraordinary mammals, such as Spectacled Bear and Mountain Tapir, through its birds, including such sought-after species as Andean Condor and Cock-of-the-rock, to a remarkable host of plants, reptiles, amphibians and more, there is perhaps no other mountain range on Earth that offers so great an opportunity to experience wildlife at high altitude.

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Operations Manager
Andy Tucker

Our Specialist Recommends

Keen birders will be bowled over by the avian jewels of the Colombia and Ecuadorian Andes where tanager and hummingbird diversity flourishes. Our Multicoloured Tanager tour in Colombia and Andes & Amazon itinerary in Ecuador are particularly popular. To get seriously off the beaten track, have a look at our Surf & Turf holiday in Peru, or the Lowlands and Highlands itineraries in Bolivia. For mammal enthusiasts, ‘Ecuador’s Mammals’ promises Spectacled (Andean) Bear, Mountain Tapir and a wealth of primates, while for botanists Ecuador’s Andean Flora is an incredibly interesting and unique holiday.

Operations Manager - Andy Tucker

Wildlife of the Andes

Although the origin of these mountains’ name is unclear, it is believed to derive from the Quechua word ‘anti’, meaning ‘east’. The eastern region of the mighty Inca Empire, which dominated the region until their conquest by the Spanish in the 16th century, was known as Antisuyu. Today, remains of the Inca civilisation, including the famous Machu Picchu, represent some of the Andes’ most visited destinations. The range passes through seven modern-day South American nations – Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina – and can be roughly divided into three sections, each of which offers a unique perspective on Andean natural history.

In the northern Andes, the mountains pass through Venezuela and Colombia before reaching Ecuador. Despite its small size, the variety of wildlife on offer here is practically unmatched. Many visitors travel here for the birdlife – Ecuador has more species for its size than any other country in South America. Much of this diversity can be explained by the astonishing breadth of habitats that are created by the steep slopes and valleys of the Andes, from almost tundra-like páramo to mysterious cloudforests and even deserts. In the higher temperate forest, species include gems such as Andean Guan, Rainbow-bearded Thornbill and an overwhelming diversity of glittering hummingbirds. Further down the mountains, the habitat takes on a more subtropical character, and hides Plate-billed Mountain Toucan, Toucan Barbet and the highly sought-after Andean Cock-of-the-rock – viewing this species on its lekking areas at dawn is one of the planet’s most thrilling avian experiences.

Although large mammals are usually highly elusive in the Andes, in recent years several iconic species have become much more visible in Ecuador. In particular, the Cayambe Coca Ecological Reserve offers unrivalled opportunities to track two icons of these high peaks – the Spectacled Bear and Mountain Tapir. Ecuador’s Andean forests can also be a superb destination for reptiles and amphibians, sheltering such species as Pinocchio Lizard, Eyelash Viper and Red-spotted Glassfrog, while the mountains also support astonishing botanical diversity. For example, Ecuador has over 3,700 species of orchid, more than any other country. Few other Andean nations can offer such convenient access to so many highland species.

Moving south, the central Andes are dominated by Peru and Bolivia. Peru, perhaps more than any other country, epitomises the appeal of these mountains, with its rich history and culture, fabulous landscapes and abundant wildlife. Here, a trek to the world-famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu can be combined with serious birdwatching, with species on offer including Chestnut-breasted Mountain-finch, Bearded Mountaineer and the world’s largest Andean Cock-of-the-rock lek. Other remarkable sites in the Peruvian Andes include the Colca Canyon, one of the world’s deepest and offering perhaps the best Andean Condor viewing on the planet – at dawn, these gigantic birds perch on the clifftops, awaiting the thermals that will carry them high above the mountains. The great high-altitude plains at Pampa de Troca provide another contrasting experience, with flocks of Andean Flamingo, Puna Ibis and the strange Rufous-bellied Seedsnipe. Mammals may be a little harder to find, but sites such as the community-run Chaparri Ecological Reserve can be good for Spectacled Bear, White-tailed Deer and Sechuran Fox.

Machu Picchu may be the most famous Inca site in South America, but it is within the deep waters of Lake Titicaca that this extraordinary civilisation reputedly originated. Whatever the truth of this claim, the lake is remarkable in its own right, being three million years old and sitting at 3,810 metres above sea level. Although it straddles the border between Peru and Bolivia, it is the latter country that offers some of the best opportunities for exploration and seeing some of the continent’s most unique and endangered birds, such as Berlepsch’s Canastero and the flightless Titicaca Grebe. Other iconic species of the high Bolivian wetlands include Crested Duck, Cinereous Harrier, Andean Avocet and Taczanowski’s Ground-Tyrant. Deeper into the country’s montane forests, there are further rarities like Red-fronted Macaw, Bolivian Earthcreeper and Solitary Eagle. Although the Bolivian Andes are primarily considered a birdwatching destination, the characteristic local cultures of the people living here have survived well – their traditional dress is especially captivating, and ancient languages such as Aymara are still spoken in remote areas.

The southern Andes pass first through northern Argentina, home to another unique mountain habitat – the Yungas cloudforest. Here can be found species like White-throated Quail-Dove, White-throated Antpitta and Giant Antshrike, alongside Golden-collared Macaw and a bewildering myriad of other birds. Higher up in the altiplano wilderness, the shifting drama of the landscapes brings corresponding changes in birdlife, featuring Giant Hummingbird, Red-tailed Comet, Andean Lapwing and Andean Tinamou. Around Lake Pozuelos, both James’s and Andean Flamingoes breed, while other special species include Lesser Rhea, Mountain Caracara, Giant Coot and Andean Goose; wild Vicunas, the ancestors of domestic alpacas, can also be seen roaming the plains in small herds.

This great mountain range finally ends in Patagonia, a region of Argentina and Chile at the far southern tip of the continent. Despite being at their terminus, the Andes here are at least as spectacular as at any other point along their vast length. Argentina’s Los Glaciares National Park typifies this, with majestic peaks towering over a huge glacial lake, Lago Argentino. Along its shores nest Upland Geese, and impressive numbers of Andean Condors still patrol the skies. Here, every stunning vista constitutes the territory of a suite of special southern birds, including Magellanic Woodpecker, Austral Parakeet and the wary Spectacled Duck. The most conspicuous mammal in this landscape is the Patagonian Mara, a strange almost antelope-like rodent, while small herds of Guanaco are also present – extremely fortunate visitors may even catch a glimpse of their predator, the vanishingly elusive Puma.

More than any other of the world’s mountain ranges, it is impossible to convey the full natural splendour of the Andes. Their diversity of landscape, wildlife, history and culture defies description – the only way to gain a real impression of their montane magnificence is to visit for yourself. Whether it’s Spectacled Bears and amphibians in Ecuador, Inca ruins in Peru, Bolivian birds or the windswept plains of Argentine Patagonia, the breadth of the Andes’ appeal is simply unrivalled.