This was our Return To Peru Trip: to finish an adventure that the March 2020 COVID-19 lockdown had wiped out.
In March of 2020, we flew to Peru with the intention of doing a long, two-part birding tour: the first half based out of Iquitos, in the Amazon region, and the second starting in Tarapoto and meandering through the northern Andes up to Jaen.
We made it to Iquitos, did a bit of birding in the area, but then got trapped when Peru enacted a very severe lockdown in response to the pandemic. They shut down all the airports, leaving us in the world’s largest city that cannot be reached by any road. Even had we been in Lima, we’d be stuck, as nobody was permitted to leave the country. We were left trapped in a city hotel for much of the time, looking at the Rock Pigeons through a prison-cell window. After a few weeks of contacting the US Embassy in Lima and cajoling our elected representatives by email, we finally made it home on a chartered flight out of a military base in Lima. It was not a fun adventure.
Before that trip, in December 2019, I had wired almost all of the (substantial) payment to the Tarapoto-based guide for the second leg. He’d been sitting on that money for some 20 months, and so I was a bit antsy about getting back, doing this trip, and getting off the books, so to speak. We exchanged emails from April 2020 to September 2021, trying to find a good window for the return, waiting for the lodges and hotels and flights to all be back online. We also added a few more days to the itinerary, so that at the end we could visit the dry, western slopes of the Andes and the coast of northern Peru, finishing in Chiclayo.
Route out was Minneapolis to Dallas, Dallas to Lima, Lima to Tarapoto; route back was Chiclayo to Lima, Lima to Miami, Miam to Minneapolis. There was no need for a negative COVID test to enter Peru, but we did need one within 24 hours of flying back to the US. We used “home test” kits from Abbott and luckily all went well, though it took a good four hours to do the test at eMed.com, then get results into NAVICA, then into the Verifly app, and then get American Airlines content with all this and let us check in.
This was also the first trip for which I used a new tool in the airports: I finally bought a white cane. Navigating the terminals had always been tough when airports are busy, because the foot traffic is often every which-way. With my tunnel vision I was always having close calls. So now, with Claire’s hand in one of my hands and the cane in the other, most people get out of my way before I have any chance to run into them – except for those few lovely souls that walk around staring at their phones.
Our guide was Henry Gonzales Pinedo, of Barbet Tours. He may have the best eyesight of any middle-aged guide we ever worked with, finding a perched Gray-bellied Comet on the other side of a valley and getting it in the scope for us. I cannot understand how anyone can do such things, His knowledge of songs and calls and prime locations for species was second-to-none.
I had sent him an exhaustive list of targets to chase. He took that list to heart, made a detailed itinerary, and then marched us up and down the trails from before sunrise to well after dark (when owls were possible). I kept thinking of Willard in Apocalypse Now: “I asked for a mission, and for my sins they gave me one. When it was over, I’d never ask for another.” This was by far the hardest birding trip we have ever done. Maybe we are just getting old, but I think we are done with tropical mountain trekking.
Starting on the east slope of the Andes, the weather was mostly rotten. Rainy and cold, often with very limited visibility. The birds were, unsurprsingly, not very active, and often few and far between.
The low point might have been clambering through primitive, muddy forest trails (already hard for me with my eyesight issues) at night (ugh!) for an hour each way to look for the once-presumed-extinct Long-whiskered Owlet. We did hear one, and I recorded it, but it never came very close.
Fawn-breasted Brilliant, common at Owlet Lodge feeders.
The birding east of Tarapoto was also not very easy or fast; we explored the Cordillera Escalera–Túnel Yurimaguas area near Ahuashiyacu, where the Koepke’s Hermit is typically found. Saw one only as a flash of hermit-shaped rufous with a long white tail. Never saw one come to the feeders that they visit during some parts of the year. Too much heliconia in bloom, apparently.
One of the primary targets is readily found at Huembo, and so we spent a few hours there waiting to get a good look at the Marvelous Spatuletail in the rain. A few males made very short appearances at the feeders. No photos – by then I had stopped bringing the camera along as it was too difficult to use in the wet conditions.
All in all, sites are Tarapoto, Moyobamba, Owlet Lodge, Huembo, Leymebamba, Celendin, and Cajamarca were rainy messes; we were lucky to have seen the birds we did, but we also missed a lot of targets such as Royal Sungangel, Black Antshrike, and Fiery-throated Fruiteater. Luckily on the western slopes the climate dried out and the birding improved.
Our original plan suffered further disruption due to the earthquake that hit the area just last month, which closed the road up to Jaen. We had to take an alternate route, plunging down into the crazy Marañon Valley to the east of Cajamarca. It took about three hours to cross via countless hairpin turns on a single lane road with two-way traffic consisting of large trucks; and no guardrails between road and precipitous cliffs. It was quite a harrowing journey. The bottom is like a furnace. Good birds abound, though, including several types of Inca-finch.
The Chaparri Ecolodge, not far from Chiclayo, was by far our favorite place on this trip. It was full of endangered White-winged Guans, with plenty of gorgeous White-tailed Jays and the strange little Parrot-billed Seedeaters.
Chaparrí has a lovely eco-lodge there with great food and facilities and the weather is nice; yes, baking hot midday, but otherwise very pleasant and dry. It reminded me of southwest Colorado.
Bookending the tour in Lima, we stayed in the La Punta region where we again failed to find either Humboldt’s Penguin or Surf Cinclodes. But on the whole, no complaints: we came home with 135 lifers. Peru now ranks as our second highest country overall, only behind Brazil. This is impressive given that we have done only two-and-a-half trips there, in a sense, since the lockdown wiped out the previous effort, and because Peru has less birding infrastructure than other places like Ecuador and Colombia and Brazil. Including the USA, where we have birded for 30-some years, our top countires are now:
- Brazil: 801 (3 trips)
- Peru: 616 (2.5 trips)
- USA: 571 (~30 years)
- Ecuador: 539 (3 trips)
- Colombia: 534 (3 trips)
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