We woke up to our 5:00 alarm and casually rolled out of bed in preparation for our early morning excursion. The early morning was the best time to see wildlife. Usually they hide during the heat of the day, and around dusk a lot of them are starting to look for a place to settle in for the night, but during the day the animals are just starting to come alive!
We didn’t have to go very far to start seeing some wildlife. On the way to the canoe, on the dark path, we spotted the rare night monkey in the trees above us. These monkeys, also known as owl monkeys, have very large eyes, which give them the ability to look for food at night. This is just one of many species you would really only be able to see in the early morning. If you would like to do an Amazon excursion, I would highly recommend staying in a jungle lodge rather than staying in a city like Puerto Maldonado. Not only is there not much to do in the city, it is also incredibly inconvenient. Because we were already right in the jungle, we could start seeing animals at 5:00am, whereas if we were doing a day trip we wouldn’t be able to get to the lake until around 8:00 at the earliest. By 8:00, most of the animals are already gone and it starts to get very hot. We enjoyed having a nice early excursion and then taking a siesta during the middle of the day.
One of the most common animals we saw on our morning canoe was the Hoatzin. This is perhaps the second most unusual bird in the world. It belongs to no known group of birds because it is so unusual. It is the closest living relative to Archaeopteryx, one of the first animals to have feathers. It also has four stomachs like a cow, and by far the weirdest feature of all, the animal has claws on its wings like a pterodactyl. These claws are far more prevalent in the babies, and they use them to crawl out of the water if they fall in. Still, I think this is one of the most unusual animal facts I have heard on this trip.
In case you are wondering, the most unusual bird in my opinion is the snake-bird, or Anhinga. At first we saw one sitting on a branch by the water and it just looked like a large cormorant. The first time we saw it swimming, that was a different story. This bird dives into the water to look for fish like a cormorant, but then it brings its head above water like a periscope. It can then raise and lower its head out of the water in a bobbing motion. This is so bizarre to see. It really doesn’t look like a bird or a snake for that matter. It just looks like a miniature Loch Ness monster swimming in the murky water.
These birds were all super cool, but we had mammals to see. More specifically, the giant river otters. These animals are one of the Amazon rainforests most famous residents. Because of their coats, unfortunately these animals have been hunted close to extinction. There are only 150 left in Peru and 1,500 in the whole world. Apparently, there was a family of 7 that lived in the lake we were staying at, but they were very elusive. We saw another canoe that stopped right on the other corner of the lake, and we knew that they had heard the otters nearby. The guides knew this lake quite well, and they knew all the spots that the otters liked to hang out. Otters have to eat about 4 kilos of fish everyday, so all the places they hang out have to be great for hunting. The shallow swamp part of the river was a perfect place to hunt because this furry little team of fishers could overpower the fish in the small water. They could also hide from Caiman amongst the submerged tree roots.
We rafted alongside the other canoe and eventually they gave up looking for them and paddled away. We knew it would just take a little bit of patience in order to see them so we hung tight. All of a sudden, we heard a little buzzing sound, almost similar to Chewbacca from Star Wars. This was one of the 20 calls that giant river otters had been recorded making. They also make a sound that sounds like a small child playing and laughing. We heard that sound as well so we knew this was definitely them. Then we saw some splashing and a small little face came out of the water. And there he was, the first otter of the trip. This little guy was so beautiful! Even though they can be up to six feet long, they are very slender so he still looked like a small puppy from the front. Another otter emerged and the two began chasing each other around the swamp. Although they spend most of their day looking for fish, they still found some time to play with each other, which I think is nice.
We had been in the Jungle for less than 24 hours and already I was set. I think I would’ve been satisfied even if we saw nothing else the entire time. We still had some of our best excursions ahead of us! In the late morning, we walked through the part of the forest right by our lodge to look for monkeys. This was probably one of the most productive wildlife excursions of my entire life. We got to a patch of the forest filled with trees that looked like banana trees but smaller and skinnier. These trees are the perfect habitat for small monkeys because they are light enough to bounce around on the large leaves, but the leaves are big enough that they cover their entire silhouette from the predators below. We saw a few squirrel monkeys in the distance and then the entire troupe. We stood there for almost an hour as around 50 monkeys walked directly over us. This was absolutely incredible. Not just squirrel monkeys, but brown capuchin monkeys as well. The capuchins are some of the most intelligent of monkey species, and we saw a few attempting to crack nuts open on tree trunks. I had heard that these monkeys did this, but to see it right in front of my eyes was incredible. They looked like little kids up in the trees, banging away and playing with one another.
That night, on our third excursion, we saw a three-toed sloth. These animals are rare in South America, and far more common in Central American countries like Costa Rica, where I saw a whole bunch. For those of you who have never seen a sloth, I would lower your expectations a little bit. I know you are picturing seeing a cute little fuzzy animal right at eye level, but in reality they are usually just a small gray blob, forty feet high in a tree. You sometimes need binoculars just to make out the silhouette of the animal and if you are lucky you can see the arms hanging from a branch. At least you can say you saw one!
With so many cool animal sightings under our belt, we were ready to call it a night. We headed back to the lodge for a great dinner and then we went to bed shortly after. The next morning would be even earlier, and we would be looking for an entirely new time of animal. Stay tuned!