Jose Antonio Padilla in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Cusco, Peru.

Tour Leader Spotlight: Jose Antonio Padilla

Sara Frost
By Sara Frost
Website & Media Manager
18th May 2021
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Jose Antonio Padilla was born in Lima, Peru, and now lives in Cusco, spending his time leading bird tours between Manu Biosphere reserve, Cusco and other interesting Peruvian and Bolivian localities in the remote high Andes. We get to know him a little better in this month's tour leader interview.

When and how did your interest in wildlife begin?

My mother was born in the heart of the Peruvian Amazon Rainforest. Then she went to Lima where she grew up under the guidance of my grandmother. I was later born in Lima and when I was a child, my mother took me and my older brothers to the jungle city of Puerto Maldonado to visit my grandfather. She always did that in school holidays or in summertime in Peru (winter in the UK), which is also the rainy season in the jungle. The rainy season in the jungle is really wet, something that you never see in Lima, so I was really impressed with the rain and the flora and fauna seen while there, so that is when my interest in wildlife began.

Jose leading Naturetrek's lowland Bolivia tour

What did you do before working for Naturetrek?

I studied ecotourism in Peru right after I finished school, then I started working almost immediately in a national reserve called Tambopata in south-east Peru as a naturalist guide, and it was actually here where I first met Naturetrek General Manager, Andy Tucker, who led Naturetrek’s tours in Peru back then. I still remember the great group that Andy brought in 2002 as I was allocated as a local guide for them. After that, I spent some time in Glasgow, Scotland where I was working in the hospitality business and perfecting my English language skills at the Jury's Hotel in Glasgow (no, I haven’t adopted a Scottish accent!). In 2005 back in Peru, I went to Manu National Park to work, one of the most famous and biodiverse national parks in the world. Finally, in 2010, I was called to start leading birding trips for Naturetrek in Bolivia, Peru and Brazil.

What other interests do you have outside of wildlife?

I love playing basketball, a sport I started playing in my early childhood, and then I did it professionally for three years after school (I’m quite tall for a Peruvian). I also love going to the cinema or watching movies with my children, and I love spending time watching my children growing, something I think is the purest thing to watch, and in these crazy last few months I have begun a passion for photography.

When and where was your first tour leading assignment?

For me it was funny as I started in Bolivia and not in my home country of Peru, and that was in June 2010, when I replaced a very good friend of mine and one of the best bird guides I ever met: Lelis Navarrete. That is when I started guiding Naturetrek clients in the lowlands and in the highlands of this fantastic country (two different tours which operate back-to-back).

Jose guiding a Naturetrek client on the Inca trail to Machu Pichu
Jose at the Sacred Valley of the Incas, Cusco

What is your ‘day job’?

I spend in a normal year about 200 days working as a guide, and the rest of the days I try to spend as much time as possible with my family. So, when working I usually start my day at 4:30 – 5:00 am and finish by 6:00 pm in the evenings, birding basically all day long, showing all the mysteries of my country and the amazing birds to my clients. Love it!

Do you have a favourite bird, mammal or plant?

Yes, I love orchids above all, then I really like the majestic Jaguar, the largest cat in the Americas, an animal I have had many encounters with in Peru and in Brazil. And as for birds, I love the Cock-of-the-rock the most, an amazing brightly coloured bird member of the Cotinga family which happens to be Peru's unofficial national bird. I also like most of the tanager species and the amazing Harpy Eagle.

What is your most memorable wildlife encounter to date?

I guess it was in Brazil in 2013, when I was co-leading my first tour for Naturetrek in Brazil called ‘Brazil – South America’s Big Five’. As we were looking for one of the Big Five (Giant Anteater) around one of the lodges in the Pantanal, my co-leader spotted one at a great distance, and for me that was a great lifer, as I had never seen one before. I was already very happy to see it from far away, but I never thought it was going to come towards us, and in less than five minutes we had the anteater right in front of us, eating, searching, looking, smelling, etc. It was an experience I will never forget. It was just amazing!

Red & Green Macaws at clay lick in Manu, Peru, 2015 (Jose Antonio Padilla)

What current conservation projects most interest you?

In Peru, we have an NGO called Ecoan, whose main purpose is to protect the Andean ecosystem, so they are the main protector of the threatened Polylepis forests in Peru and also of many areas of the pristine jungle in northern Peru, where they are currently protecting the main habitat and home of two of our most beautiful and range-restricted birds, the Marvelous Spatuletail and the Long-Whiskered Owlet – both of which you can see on Naturetrek’s ‘The Birds of Northern Peru’ tour.

What are you reading at the moment?

I finally have time to read! And currently I am reading two books: “To See Every Bird on Earth” by Dan Koeppel, which is about a father and his son and a lifelong obsession to see every bird on earth, and “Spix’s Macaw: The Race to save the World's rarest Bird” by Tony Juniper, which is about the efforts to save this fantastic species of macaw from extinction in Brazil. Both books highly recommended!

What new destination would you most like to travel to next?

I would love to go to a different continent than mine, be it Africa, India or Australia where I could learn about other bird families. My dream is to see more than 9,000 species of birds in the world – maybe I could do that before I go!

Ocelot with Red & Green Macaw prey, 2016 (Jose Antonio Padilla)