PERU’S NATIONAL PARKS: 10 NATURAL GETAWAYS

What are things you can look forward to when you add a dose of nature to your travel itinerary?

Is it clean air, or hiking through mind-blowing landscapes? Maybe you love observing exotic plants and wildlife or sleeping under a sky etched with various constellations.

Peru’s national parks and reserves completely fit the bill! Whether we need a rejuvenating vacation, or just to elevate ourselves out of the post-pandemic blues, there does come a time in our lives that we need to escape into nature and enjoy her gifts of (bio-) diversity.

Peru is one of the finest countries in which to explore South America’s contrasting landscapes. Here you will find mangrove forests and Amazon jungle, sere deserts, sky-scraping mountains, and blustery islands. They are all protected by Peru’s national park service.

If nature is not enough, you will also encounter remnants of ancient civilizations, and be able to visit indigenous communities living inside Peru’s national parks the same way they have done for centuries.

Peru's Protected Nature

Peru has a dizzying array of nature conservation areas. Over 17% of the national territory is protected as parks and reserves.

SERNANP (Servicio Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidos por el Estado) administers Peru’s 15 national parks and 16 nature reserves. But these aren’t the only protected natural spaces. The list of reserves also includes national sanctuaries, wildlife refuges, landscape refuges, communal reserves, protected forests, hunting reserves, reserved zones, and other various types of protected zones. What’s more, SERNANP oversees more than 150 privately held nature reserves. Each classification has different levels of permitted tourism development and harvesting of resources.

SERNANP also manages a handful of archaeological sites under the denomination of Historic Sanctuaries, including Machu Picchu. Other national parks and reserves, like Paracas and Río Abiseo, also contain within their borders some vestiges of the country’s ancient civilizations. However, the majority of archaeological sites fall under the stewardship of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INC).

Many of Peru’s national parks and protected areas are free to enter. However, some of them – especially the most famous ones – charge an entry fee. Foreigners pay more than local tourists. For further information on each national park, visit SERNANP’s website or the regional SERNANP office.

Peru’s Rich Biodiversity and Landscapes

Peru is South America’s third-largest country, covering almost 1.3 million square kilometers. Within this area are four main types of environments: coast, desert, mountains, and jungle. With such a varied landscape, Peru can boast one of South America’s greatest biodiversity of flora and fauna. Plus, dozens of new species are being discovered every year! Peru’s government estimates that Peru hosts 70% of the planet’s biodiversity.

Peru ranks second worldwide (trailing Colombia) in bird species according to BirdLife International, with 1,861 registered bird species (138 of which are endemic – or unique to Peru).

Mongabay catalogs 467 species of mammals, making it the fifth-highest in mammal diversity (as well as in the top five countries in primate diversity with 56 recorded species).

Peru is fourth in amphibian diversity (572 species) and ninth in reptile diversity (530 species).

A new study by the Natural History Museum of the United Kingdom also puts Peru behind Colombia with the world’s greatest number of butterfly species.

It isn’t just the fauna that makes up Peru’s immense biodiversity. According to SERNANP data, Peru’s national parks are also home to over 25,000 known species of flora, of which 4,400 are endemic. Peru boasts the top spot when it comes to having the world’s greatest number of orchids. Among these flowers is the 13-meter-tall Inkill (Sobralia altissima), the world’s largest orchid found only in Bosque Nublado Amaru (Huancavelica Department).

Peru’s Pacific Coast

The Paracas Trident, Peru
Colin W, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Along most of Peru’s Pacific coast, the cold Humboldt Current (a.k.a. Peruvian Current) flows northward. Depending on the season and the occurrence of El Niño and La Niña weather events, the current veers westward between Máncora and Tumbes in the far north of Peru. The nutrient-rich Humboldt provides an inviting habitat for marine wildlife. The 35 species of marine mammals include sea lions, two types of fur seals, nine varieties of dolphins, and almost two dozen species of whales. Avifauna is diverse, with many varieties of cormorants, skags, pelicans, and even the Humboldt penguin!

The coastal region also includes hundreds of islands, many of which are protected by the Reserva Nacional Sistema de Islas, Islotes y Puntas Guaneras. These include the Ballestas Islands and Peru’s newest protected area, the Dorsal de Nasca National Reserve, the country’s only marine reserve.

For much of the year, garúa, a fine misting rain bathes the coast.

Peru's Deserts

The desert region is divided into three areas: the Sechura Desert, the Peruvian Coastal Desert, and the Atacama Desert. Among the national reserves and parks preserving this ecosystem are Parque Nacional Cerros de Amotape and Reserva Nacional de Paracas.

The desert region, though, is far from desolate. Among the flora species are Algarrobo and Peppertree. Fauna includes the Sechuran Desert fox, and numerous types of rodents and reptiles. During El Niño events, rainfall brings dormant seeds to life, blanketing the desert with bright green brush and, in the south, colorful wildflowers. Huaycos (dry gulches) fill up to become rushing rivers, albeit temporarily.

Sechura desert, Peru
Photo by A. Duarte, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/ via Flickr.

Peru's Andes Mountains

Rod Waddington from Kergunyah, Australia, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

From the Ecuadorian border to the Chilean border, the Andes forms Peru’s spine. This ecosystem, though, does not limit its embrace to ragged mountains. On the mountain chain’s eastern slopes, you’ll find humid cloud forests teeming with wildlife, given that human occupation of these zones is sparse. The Andes also feature the altiplano or puna (high altitude plains; 3,700 to 4,200m). During El Niño events, the altiplano in southern Peru suffers drought.

As you can imagine, the mountains have many ecosystems within them. Each ecosystem hosts a wide variety of flora and fauna. Mammals as diverse as the spectacled bear, vicuña, and the adorable viscacha live in these parts. Hundreds of species of birds, including the majestic Andean condor and Chilean flamingo, are there too. In the cloud forests, you can seek out the Andean cock-of-the-rock, Peru’s national bird.

For the full mountain experience, head for Parque Nacional Huascarán near Huaraz. If birding in cloud forests is more your game, then Parque Nacional Yanachaga-Chemillén is the place to go. To immerse yourself in the other-worldly landscapes of the altiplano, your itinerary should include Reserva Nacional de Salinas y Aguada Blanca near Arequipa or Reserva Nacional del Titicaca on the shores of Lake Titicaca.

Peru's Amazon Jungle

Peru has the second-largest area of the Amazon rain forest after Brazil, and it comprises over two-thirds of Peru’s national territory. Living within this vast area are over 40,000 species of plants and trees. But what draws the majority of people is the wildlife. The 430 species of mammals include jaguar and capybara, the world’s largest rodent. There are also 30 types of primates found in the region, but the most popular is the red howler monkey. In the rivers, you may see giant river otters and pink river dolphins.

Photo by Anna & Michal, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/, via Flickr.

Species

About 300 species of reptiles are also found here, of which one-third are endemic (found only in Peru). The Amazon region has over 100 species of snakes, including green anaconda, Rainbow Boa, and the deadly fer-de-lance.

When along the waterways, keep an eye out for black caiman and other types of caiman (locally called “alligator”). The number of species of amphibians is also impressive, including 380 species of frogs alone!

And then there are the birds… oh, the birds! Among the 1,500-plus avian species, there are numerous varieties of toucans, parrots, macaws, parakeets, hummingbirds and so much more. Some special species you might observe are jabiru stork, harpy eagle, nhoatzin (a.k.a. “the reptile bird” for its prehistoric appearance), and roseate spoonbill.

The insect family has members too many to count, with new species being discovered regularly, including an astounding 4,000 types of butterflies!

Besides a mind-boggling diversity of flora and fauna, this jungle is home to 51 indigenous nations, with a population of over 300,000.

Much of Peru’s Amazon basin is protected by national reserves, parks and other preserves. Among these are Reserva Nacional Allpahuayo-Mishana and Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria (both near Iquitos, in northern Peru); Parque Nacional del Río Abiseo (near Juanjuí, San Martín Department); Parque Nacional del Manú and Reserva Nacional Tambopata (both near Puerto Maldonado, in southern Peru).

What To Do in Peru’s National Parks and Reserves

Peru’s immense biodiversity provides many opportunities for enjoying its habitat. Birdwatchers will especially be busy checking off species from their checklists.

But there are many other ways to spend time in the fresh air, gazing across the landscape. Some areas – like Huaraz National Park – are perfect for multi-day treks, mountain climbing, and biking. Coastal areas provide opportunities for scuba diving. Canoeing and kayaking are sports to undertake when exploring Amazonian waterways.

Top Ten Places to Explore Peru’s Nature

We’ll present to you a variety of famous bucket-list national parks and reserves in Peru, as well as lesser-known, less-visited ones. These destinations cover the gamut of natural environments, from mangroves to sky-scraping mountains, and from deserts to tropical rainforests.

Some of these you can get to on your own (yes, by bus!). Others, though, are accessible to travelers only with authorized guides and tours.

1. Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes​

Pescador de los manglares
Photo byyonel alberto campos gamonal CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ via Flickr.

Boating through mangrove forests, the exposed and twisted roots dyeing the water inky black or scarlet red – or paddling past huge colonies of frigate birds whose throats inflate like massive red balloons: this is a tropical dream that you can live in the majestic Manglares de Tumbes in the far northwestern corner of Peru. This 2,972-hectare national sanctuary preserves one of the country’s few mangrove forests and works with local communities in ecotourism, and sustainable harvests of black conch, crab, and prawns.

These mangroves are home to almost 150 species of birds, 19 of which are endemic – including the yellow-crowned night heron, Rufous-necked wood rail, and white ibis. The endangered American crocodile is also found in this park.

In the El Palmal sector, you can kayak through the mangroves and visit local communities. At the El Algarrobo control post, there is an Interpretation Center. The easiest way, though, to explore Los Manglares de Tumbes is to head to Puerto Pizarro (15 kilometers from Tumbes) and join in one of the boat tours through the mangroves. You’ll visit several islands, pass by others with large breeding colonies of frigate birds and pelicans, and visit a crocodile breeding center.

QUICK FACTS:

  • Closest town: Tumbes. Bus to Tumbes from Piura (or another town)

  • Tours: As low as $35 USD/pp for a half-day tour, includes transport from Tumbes, boat ride, entry fee, viewing of birds and crocodiles, and guide (Spanish, but can upgrade to English if requested). Reserve here or ask for more details.

  • Entry fee: $8 USD for foreign residents.

  • Climate: Temperatures average 18ºC in winter and 30ºC in summer. Los Manglares de Tumbes has a subtropical climate that can be affected by the Humboldt Current and the El Niño phenomenon which can cause extreme drought (100-300 millimeters of rain per year) to extreme deluges (2700-3800 millimeters of precipitation). The best time to visit is during the dry season, April-November.

  • SERNANP page: Santuario Nacional Los Manglares de Tumbes

  • Lodging: Tumbes (hotels of all prices), Zorritos (hotels, camping)

2. Parque Nacional Cerros de Amotape

Boating in Cerros Amotape
Vladimir Terán Altamirano CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ via Flickr.

In northern Peru, the mangrove forest suddenly disappears and you enter the sere desert. Cerros de Amotape National Park is where these two worlds meet. The east side of the Río Tumbes, which flows through the park, is blanketed with Pacific tropical rain forest. The western side of the river is covered with an equatorial dry forest, which includes such trees as Algarrobo and the aromatic Palo Santo.

This 151,767-hectare park is located in the far north of Peru and encompasses the low Amotape hills that extend to the Peru-Ecuador border. Its forests are populated by approximately 400 bird species, of which 50 are endemic. Some noteworthy birds are the grey-backed hawk and grey-cheeked parakeet. Mammals include the mantled howler monkey best seen at Quebrada Las Pavas, neotropical otter, jaguar, and ocelot.

At the Rica Playa access point are several hiking trails. At Bocana Carrillo, you can fish or raft in the Río Tumbes, or check out the mud volcanoes at Jaguar del Monte sector. The El Caucho checkpoint gives access to hikes into the tropical Pacific rain forest. Quebrada La Angostura’s crystalline waterfall makes a good day trip for those with less time for a visit.

Cerros de Amotepe National Park is much more than landscapes with diverse flora and fauna. Also within its boundaries are several archaeological sites like Tambo de Rica Playa on the Qhapaq Ñan Inca road system (which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site).

QUICK FACTS

  • Closest town: Mancora. Bus to Mancora from Tumbes (or another town)

  • Tours: As low as $70 USD/pp for a full-day guided hike, includes transport from either Mancora or Tumbes, park entry permit, lunch, archaeological site visit, and guide (Spanish, but can upgrade to English if requested). Reserve here or ask for more details.

  • Entry fee: None.

  • Climate: Mean temperature in the park ranges between 23ºC and 26ºC. The dry season runs from May to November, and the rainy season from December through April. The northern and eastern sectors of the park are Pacific humid forests and receive up to 1450 millimeters of rain per year. The equatorial dry forest, which lays to the south and west, only receives 500 millimeters of rain annually.

  • SERNANP page: Parque Nacional Cerros de Amotape

  • Lodging: At the control posts are basic facilities where visitors may stay overnight. There are campsites in the Ucumares and Guanábano sectors of Rica Playa. Lodging for all budgets can be found in Tumbes, Zorritos and Máncora, with camping as well in Zorritos and Máncora.

3. Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria

A riverboat resting in Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria
Verlic Redclaw, CC BY 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

One easy way to access the Amazon jungle is through the Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria. Known as the “jungle of mirrors” for how this dense forest creates reflections in the black, tannin-rich waters of the Pacaya, Samiria, and Yanayacu-Pucate Rivers, it is accessible only by boat.

The over-two-million hectare Pacaya Samiria National Reserve is home to 27% of the vertebrate species found in Peru, and 36% of those are in the Amazon region. While boating through the reserve, you may be fortunate to see manatees, pink dolphins, or giant otters swimming in the rivers. Also, keep an eye out for black caiman and spectacled caiman.

While hiking in the forest, your guide will point out tapir and several species of peccary. Members of the cat family include puma and jaguar. In the canopy overhead, you may hear and see primates like the white-bellied spider monkey, red-faced spider monkey, howler monkey, and brown woolly monkey.

Fluttering through the foliage are almost 450 species of avifauna, making this a birder’s paradise. Notable species are wattled curassow, jaribu, and black-crested antshrike.

The 2021 International Tourism Fair (FITUR) in Spain declared Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria a must-experience destination among Peru’s national parks, stating it is “an amazing place that will leave even the most adventurous with their mouths open.”

QUICK FACTS

  • Closest town: Yurimaguas. Bus to Yurimaguas from Piura (or another town)

  • Tours: As low as $175 USD/pp for a three-day guided expedition by boat through the reserve from Yurimaguas, includes all transportation from Yurimaguas, rustic but clean lodging, meals, and guide. Reserve here or ask for more details.

  • Entry fee: $8.50 USD for foreign residents.

  • Climate: Throughout the year, temperatures range from 20ºC to 33ºC, with it being hotter July-September. Annual rainfall averages 2,000-3,000 millimeters. The best time to visit is between May and January, with August-November being the best.

  • SERNANP page: Reserva Nacional Pacaya Samiria

  • Lodging: Lodging for all budgets (hotels, hostels) is available in Yurimaguas and Iquitos. Inside the reserve are various private and community jungle lodges (campamentos), and you may arrange to stay at one with agencies based in Lima or Iquitos.

4. Parque Nacional Huascarán

Parque Nacional Huascaran
Gregor Ludwig, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Turquoise-colored, cold lagoons surrounded by towering, snow-streaked mountains. The thin air and immense natural beauty of these heights take your breath away. This soaring, snowy landscape in the tropics is all a bit mind-boggling. And yet, such experiences and scenes are what make Huascarán National Park one of the most popular natural areas in Peru – and well-deservedly, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

This 340,000-hectare park encompasses the Cordillera Blanca, the world’s highest tropical mountain range. The park has 27 snow-capped peaks over 6,000 meters in altitude, the tallest of which is Huascarán (6,768 meters). Approximately 300 glacier-fed lagoons scatter across this landscape that is gouged with rushing streams and deep valleys.

Huascarán National Park also has a variety of animals and plants to pique your imagination. About 800 plant species carpet the valleys and meadows, including the endangered Queen of the Andes with a stunning giant spike flower. Mammals include vicuña, spectacled bear, taruca (a.k.a. north Andean deer), and the endangered Andean mountain cat. More than 100 bird species have been observed, most notably the Andean condor and the giant hummingbird, which as its name suggests is the largest member of the hummingbird family.

If you love getting out into pure nature in the mountains, then Parque Nacional Huascarán is a wonderful place for you. Activities in which you can partake are trekking, mountain climbing, mountain biking, and boating excursions. To help outfit your expedition, you can hire porters, horses, cooks, and high mountain guides (and advisable to do so at these altitudes and the risks they pose!).

QUICK FACTS

  • Closest town: Huaraz. Bus to Huaraz from Lima (or another town)

  • Tours: As low as $35 USD/pp for a full-day guided hike from Huaraz up to the gorgeous alpine lakes in the park, includes all transportation from Huaraz, with the hike itself being 3 hours on foot. Reserve here or ask for more details.

  • Entry fee: $8 USD for foreign residents.

  • Climate: The main determinant in the park’s climate is the season. During the rainy season (December-March), expect frequent thunderstorms and temperatures ranging from a low of 5ºC to highs of around 20ºC. The dry season (April-November) brings sunny days with temperatures to 24ºC and clear, cold nights dropping to 2ºC. Altitude also plays a role in temperatures: the higher up, the colder it will be.

  • SERNANP page: Parque Nacional Huascaran

  • Lodging: Hotels and hostels for all budgets are in Huaraz; camping is available inside the park, and also some of the small villages have campgrounds.

5. Parque Nacional Yanachaga-Chemillén

Birding in Parque Nacional Yanachaga-Chemillén
thibaudaronson, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Just 260 kilometers to the south (as the condor flies), you’ll find a totally different reality in Peru’s Andes. Near Oxapampa is Yanachaga-Chemillén National Park, which preserves central Peru’s extant undisturbed jungle ecosystems. This park is off most travelers’ radar, and so it provides a more pristine environment for the most avid of birdwatchers.

The 122,000-hectare Parque Nacional Yanachaga Chemillén is part of the UNESCO-recognized Oxapampa-Ashaninka-Yánesha Biosphere Reserve, covering the Yanachaga Mountains with an elevation range of 60 to 3,643 meters. More than 5,000 plant species, representing 25% of flora diversity in Peru, can be found in this park’s rain forests, cloud forests, and grasslands. Jaguar, jaguarundi, and other felines call these forests home, as do 126 other mammals like deer, fox, and monkeys. Of course, multitudes of reptiles and amphibians reside here, including the endemic Ctenopharynx Barbatula frog.

The big draw, though, is the avifauna. Almost 530 bird species have been recorded, most notably Andean cock-of-the-rock and yellow-throated toucan. In the San Alberto sector, you can add seven endemic species to your checklist, including the Inca flycatcher, masked fruiteater, rufous-vented tapaculo, and several varieties of antpitta.

You can embark on one of the many hiking trails in Parque Nacional Yanachaga Chemillén, and some guides offer nighttime tours. In the San Alberto Sector is Sendero Abra Esperanza, which includes the Ficus Circuit and the Orchid Route (14 kilometers / 8 hours). Sector Huampal features the Robin Foster, Camino de Colonos Austro Alemanes, and Pan de Azúcar trails, ranging between 2 and 6.5 kilometers (2-6 hours). There is also an Interpretation Center at Huampal. In the Paujil Sector are five more trails, including Laguna Luna Llena and the Caverns Circuit; the longest of these is 18 kilometers (10 hours) in length. It is also possible to scuba dive in this sector!

QUICK FACTS

  • Closest town: Oxapampa. Bus to Oxapampa from Lima (or another town)

  • Tours: As low as $40 USD/pp for a full-day guided hike from Oxapampa to the Tiger Waterfall inside the park, plus a visit to an aguardiente factory using local ingredients in production. Reserve here or ask for more details.

  • Entry fee: $8.50 USD for foreign residents.

  • Climate: Altitude plays a crucial role in both rainfall and temperatures. The humid, hot climate – with temperatures averaging 23-26ºC and up to 6,000 millimeters of rain annually – is found in the Pozuzo, Palcazú, and Pichis valleys. A less hot, but still humid climate – temperatures 13-20ºC and annual rainfall 1,500 millimeters – is present near Oxapampa city and in the Yanachaga, San Carlos, and San Matías mountain ranges.

  • SERNANP page: Parque Nacional Yanachaga Chemillén

  • Within the national park there is camping (Huampal, San Alberto andPaujil sectors), a refuge with beds (Huampal sector), and ecolodges. In Oxapampa you’ll find hotels for all budgets.

6. Reserva Nacional de Paracas

Sea lions in Reserva Nacional Paracas
ESMERALDA118, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

As the beige desert descends to the coast, the landscape becomes a painting of intense colors of burnt orange, gold, and red blending with the green and blue sea. Rock formations sculpted by wind and sea lie just offshore ( unfortunately, the famous La Catedral rock formation fell during the 2007 earthquake.) Scores of birds peck along the beaches and soar overhead. Paracas National Reserve is breathtaking and proves that the desert has much life.

Reserva Nacional de Paracas protects 335,000 hectares of desert and coastal environment, 35% of which is land and 65% marine. During your tour of the park, you’ll visit Bahía de Paracas with the La Catedral lookout point, and various beaches: Playa Roja (Playa Colorada), La Mina, Raspón, and Yumaque. The Laguna Grande circuit includes not only this coastal lagoon but also Playa Mendieta and Playa Playón.

Believe it or not, this barren-looking desert is abundant with life. Over 70 flora species can be found, mostly in the transitional zone between the desert and the hills, and in the wetlands. Among the half-dozen reptile species are lizards and geckos. The 19 mammal species include those of the sea – South American fur seal, South American sea lion, marine otter, dolphins, and whales; and on land the coastal fox, bats, and rats.

The main fauna found in Paracas, though, are birds. In fact, over 200 species of birds! The most noteworthy ones are Chilean flamingo, Inca tern, Peruvian pelican, Humboldt penguin, and the endemic Peruvian seaside cinclodes. Endangered species are Peruvian diving petrel and Peruvian tern.

Within the reserve are more than 100 archaeological sites, including the Candelabra Geoglyph, which is best appreciated on a boat tour. The Museo de Sitio Julio C. Tello exhibits many ancient finds, including mummies with strangely shaped heads. Besides this museum, you can get tours into the park and go bird watching. Paracas National Reserve offers lots more adventures for you to enjoy: kayaking, sport fishing, biking, scuba diving, kite surfing, and paragliding. At Ensenada Lagunillas you’ll find beach side eateries and camping.

QUICK FACTS

  • Closest town: Paracas. Bus to Paracas from Lima (or another town)

  • Tours: As low as $48 USD/pp for a full-day guided tour from Ica or Paracas to both Reserva Nacional de Paracas (for the coastal desert experience) and the Islas Ballestas (actually part of a separate reserve described below in #10) to view wildlife like sea lions, penguins, and booby birds. Price includes all transportation to the islands and back. Meals and park entry fee not included. Reserve here or ask for more details.

  • Entry fee: $5 USD for foreign residents.

  • Climate: Paracas has a warm, arid climate. High temperatures range from 15ºC in August to 22ºC in February. Winds (called Paracas) can be high and intense. Rain is scarce but mostly falls in winter. The high season (January-April) sees a huge influx of tourists.

  • SERNANP page: Reserva Nacional de Paracas

  • Lodging: Lodging for all budgets (hotels, hostels) are in El Chaco (Paracas village) and Pisco. Camping is in the national reserve (with previous permission) and El Chaco.

It’s easy to travel from Lima to Paracas – and there’s a lot to see in both towns.

7. Reserva Nacional de Salinas y Aguada Blanca

Alpaca in Reserva Nacional de Salinas y Aguada Blanca
Paulo Tomaz, CC BY-SA 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Imagine yourself gasping (literally – at 4,320 meters altitude) on a high Andean plain, surrounded by majestic snow-capped volcanoes, some with a thin wisp of vapor twirling into the clear sky. Tawny vicuña wander through scrub brush and magenta flamingos dip their serpentine necks towards the surface of chilly lagoons.

Welcome to Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca, a 366,936-hectare reserve originally established to protect the severely endangered vicuña, a goal it successfully reached. Now a major challenge is to provide safe haven to the vulnerable species of taruca, Andean flamingo, Chilean flamingo, and James’s flamingo.

The best place to see these majestic birds is Salinas Lagoon (Bofedales y Laguna de Salinas), wetlands whose importance is recognized by the Ramsar Convention. In the distance, volcanoes rim the altiplano’s southern edge: Chachani (6,057 meters), Misti (5,822 meters), PichuPichu (5,664 meters), and Ubinas (5,672 meters). To the north are the snowy peaks of Chuccura (5,260 meters) and Huarancante (5,426 meters). Other features of this national reserve are Laguna del Indio, Confital and Cañahuas pampas (plains), the rock formations at Macau, and the petroglyphs of Sumbay.

Over 350 flora species may be found here on the high plain. The vicuña’s cousins – guanaco, llama, and alpaca – can all be spotted. Other mammals you might see are viscachas, puma, Andean mountain cat, and some 30 other species. Avifauna number over 150 species; besides the aforementioned flamingos, other feathered residents are Andean goose, Andean crested duck, and puna plover.

There are lookout points and hiking at Salinas Huito y Cañahuas, and a Centro de Interpretación at Tocra. Hiking, bird watching, and mountain climbing are all activities that can be enjoyed in this reserve.

QUICK FACTS

  • Closest town: Arequipa. Bus to Arequipa from Lima (or another town)

  • Tours: As low as $189 USD/pp for a three-day guided tour that includes going into the reserve as well as the famous Colca Canyon, hot springs, dance entertainment, and viewing of condors in their habitat. The final day of the tour you can choose from a city tour of Arequipa, a painted chiva bus tour around the perimeter of the city, a historical tour about the material from which the city is built (sillar), or a two-hour hike to the Sogay Waterfalls. All hotels (basic) and meals included! Reserve here or ask for more details.

  • Entry fee: None.

  • Climate: Due to Reserva Nacional Salinas y Aguada Blanca extreme altitude, temperatures are cold: 2-8ºC at any time of the year and nighttime temps that reach -20ºC. The rainy season (December-March) is the prime time for observing flamingos at Salinas Lagoon. The sun is also very strong here, so be sure to use solar protection.

  • SERNANP page: Reserva Nacional de Salinas y Aguada Blanca

  • Lodging: Accommodations for all budgets are in Arequipa and Colca Canyon.

Yura Hot Springs near Arequipa is the perfect place to soak after visiting Salinas y Aguada Blanca National Reserve. Find about more about these aguas termales and others in Peru in this special guide, Hot Springs by Bus.

8. Parque Nacional del Manú

Parque Nacional Manú
Uriel caballero quispitupa, CC BY-SA 4.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Walking down a path, a leaf mosaic dances across the earth. In the shadows of this dense jungle, boas thickly coil, and jaguars watch your every step. Overhead in the tree canopy echo the calls of howler monkeys and thousands of birds.

This may seem like the setting of an adventure movie – but it is a reality you can experience in Manú National Park. This massive 1.5 million-hectare reserve in southeastern Peru protects virgin rain forest that ranges in altitude from 150 to 4,200 meters. Ecosystems include lowland Amazon rain forest, cloud forests, high Andean forests, and puna grassland (over 4,000 meters). Parque Nacional Manú is a UNESCO World Heritage site.

This territory is home to an astounding diversity of plant and animal species, including over 4,300 types of plants and an estimated 30 million species of insects (including 1,300 varieties of butterflies, 136 varieties of dragonflies, at least 300 varieties of ants, and more than 650 varieties of beetles).

Around 160 species of mammals have been recorded, including the oft-sighted jaguar, giant river otter, capybara, 13 different monkey species, and various varieties of peccaries, deer, tapirs, and other critters. Reptiles also rule here, with three caiman species and 50 varieties of snakes.

And as far as those bird calls that you will hear through the forest canopy? Over 1,000 species have been spotted in Manú. Some noteworthy feathered friends you may see in the tropical zone are hoatzin, roseate spoonbill, and harpy eagle. At saltlicks, you’ll observe gatherings of blue-headed and scarlet macaws.

In the cloud forests and mountains, keep an eye out for Andean cock-of-the-rock, puna ibis, and the giant hummingbird. Rare finds are hairy-crested antbird, rufous-capped nunlet, the endemic Junín canastero, and Peruvian piedtail, and the endangered yellow-rumped antwren.

Much of Manú National Park is the traditional homeland of several indigenous nations, like the Yora, Mashko-Piro, Matsiguenka, Harakmbut, Wachipaeri, and Yine.

Parque Nacional Manú is divided into three zones. In the cultural zone, into which visitors may enter independently, are several native communities that offer lodging and other services to tourists. The reserved zone is accessed only through licensed tour agencies and eco-lodges. The restricted zone is a pristine zone that is off-limits to tourists and is still home to uncontacted indigenous tribes. In the Salvador, Otorongo, Juárez, Pakitza, and Limonal sectors of the park, there are lookout points and hiking trails.

QUICK FACTS

  • Closest town: Cusco. Bus to Cusco from Lima (or another town)

  • Tours: As low as $399 USD/pp for a three-day guided tour that includes wildlife and bird viewing (monkeys, caiman, macaws), a night safari, sailing on a native wooden raft. Transport to and from Cusco and all lodging and meals included! Reserve here or ask for more details.

  • Entry fee: $8 USD.

  • Climate: Climatic conditions within the park vary greatly, depending on the altitude. In the higher altitude southern sector, rainfall averages 1,500-2,000 millimeters per year. The central sector receives 3,000-3,500 millimeters annually, and the lowest altitude northern sector, over 8,000 millimeters. The dryer season is May to September, characterized by less precipitation. Temperature ranges from steamy at low altitudes (average: 25ºC) to frigid at higher altitudes (8ºC during the day).

  • SERNANP page: Parque Nacional Manu

  • Lodging: Hotels of all classes in Cusco. Jungle lodges are found within the park.

9. Reserva Nacional del Titicaca

Floating islands of Lake Titicaca
David Stanley from Nanaimo, Canada, CC BY 2.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The fact of the matter is, many of us who visit sites around Puno go into the Titicaca National Reserve – without even knowing it!

Want to go to the phallic ruins of Chucuito or the archaeological site of Sullistani? To Taquile and Amantaní islands, or some of the Uros floating islands? The colonial churches at Juli, Pomata, or Zepita? All of these popular destinations are part of the ecosystem of Peru’s national parks, specifically within or on the edge of Reserva Nacional del Titicaca.

This 36,180-hectare reserve, with an average altitude of 3,810 meters, includes Puno Bay and Chucuito and Wiñaymarca lakes; tributary rivers Ramis, Huancane, Coata, Ilave, and Suches; islands in Lago Titicaca; and totoral marshlands along the shorelines where the reeds grow for making the traditional boats.

Reserva Nacional del Titicaca plays a critical role in the preservation of Lake Titicaca’s wetlands and the watershed, which are together a Ramsar Site. The reserve is divided into two noncontiguous sectors: Puno (29,150 hectares), and Ramis (7,030 hectares) which is on the road towards Huancané on the north shore of Lake Titicaca.

Fauna species of Titicaca National Reserve number 159, among which are 15 types of mammals, nine of amphibians (most notably the endemic giant Titicaca water frog), and four types of reptiles.

The big draw for many nature enthusiasts, though, is the birds. Over 100 varieties can be seen here, including waterfowl like the endangered Titicaca grebe (Rollandiamicroptera), as well as the Andean coot, puna ibis, Chilean flamingo, and several types of ducks. Other birds to keep an eye out for are the many-colored tyrant and yellow-winged blackbird.

The best area for bird watching is at Carata Mocco. You can also take a boat tour for optimum avifauna observation, or to visit local indigenous communities.

QUICK FACTS

  • Closest town: Puno. Bus to Puno from Cusco (or another town)

  • Tours: As low as $168 USD/pp for a three-day guided tour that includes archaeological ruins, floating islands of Uros and Taquile. Two nights lodging and three meals (2 breakfast/1 lunch) included, plus all transport on tour. Reserve here or ask for more details.

  • Entry fee: None.

  • Climate: Cold and dry (relative humidity 60%). Temperature average 3º to 19ºC, with the lowest temperatures in June and July. The rainy season occurs from January to March, and the dry season from May to August. Annual rainfall is about 700 millimeters.

  • SERNANP page: Reserva Nacional del Titicaca

  • Lodging: Hostels and hotels are in Puno, camping can be found at the Carata Mocco checkpoint, and home-stays are available in the Uros Islands.

After visiting Titicaca National Reserve, why not head on over to Bolivia.

10. Reserva Nacional Sistema de Islas, Islotes y Puntas Guaneras

Penguins in Reserva Nacional Sistema de Islas, Islotes y Puntas Guaneras
Luis Padilla, CC BY-SA 3.0 https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The Guano Islands, Islets, and Capes System National Reserve is a bit of a strange critter in Peru’s collection of protected nature areas. It is a series of 22 islands and islets plus 11 capes stretching all along Peru’s Pacific coast, from one end of the country to the other. If you’re looking for a checklist challenge, try to visit as many as you can during your Peruvian vacation. Birdwatchers will find this adventure quite rewarding.

Before the arrival of Europeans to this part of the world, indigenous peoples harvested guano from islands and capes all along the Pacific Coast. The cold, nutrient-rich Humboldt Current lays the ground for large colonies of seabirds that produce this excrement rich in nitrogen, phosphate, and potassium. After the Conquest and continuing well into the 20th century, guano was heavily harvested from these lands. But with the advent of synthetic fertilizers in the 1950s, demand fell off. Fishing and guano exploitation are carefully managed now that it is a national reserve. Today, it is the El Niño phenomenon and climate change that pose the greatest threats to this reserve.

This group of islands, islets, and capes, encompassing 476,284 hectares of marine and coastal environments, stretches 2,138 kilometers. The northernmost point is Isla Lobos de Tierra, offshore from Playa Las Delicias in the Piura Department. The southernmost is Caleta Coles, near Ilo in the Tacna Department, just north of the Chilean border. The reserve is home to a number of seabird species. Among these are the Humboldt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti), Peruvian diving petrel (Pelecanoides garnotii), Inca tern (Larosterna inca), red-legged cormorant (Phalacrocorax gaimardi), guanay (Phalacrocorax bougainvillii), blue-footed boobie (Sula nebouxii), and Peruvian boobie (Sula variegata).

Twenty-five marine mammals also find refuge in this reserve. On your boating expedition, keep an eye out for bottlenose (Tursiopstruncatus) and other dolphins; humpback (Megaptera Novaeangliae) and other whales; marine otter (Lontra Felina), and South American sea lion (Otariabyronia). About 72% of Peru’s South American fur seal (Arctocephalus australis) population exists within its boundaries.

If you can’t squeeze a visit into all of the islands, islets, and capes in this national reserve, then hit the most commonly visited ones. Offshore from Callao (14 kilometers west of Lima) is the Palomino Islands. You can take a 1.5-hour boat tour to these five islands to observe various species of seabirds, including the vulnerable Humboldt and the endemic Peruvian booby. Also hanging out on these islands are hundreds of South American sea lions. While in Callao, visit the Ventanilla wetlands where you can observe about 120 species of resident and migratory avifauna.

Even more visited are Islas Ballestas, accessible from Paracas on a two-hour boat tour. These islands are nicknamed “The Poor Person’s Galapagos,” because many of the same species can be observed here as in the more famous but expensive islands in Ecuador. Among resident birds are guanay cormorant, Humboldt penguin, Peruvian booby, Peruvian pelican (Pelecanus thagus), and the endemic Peruvian seaside cinclodes (Cinclodestaczanowskii). You’ll also see large colonies of sea lions basking on the rocks. As you head out to the islands, you’ll see the famous Candelabro de los Andes, a mysterious giant geoglyph that is visible only from the sea.

QUICK FACTS

  • Closest town: As this reserve stretches along the entire coast of Peru, there are many towns you can jump off the mainland to get out to a part of the reserve.

  • Tours: Local buses arrive at all the jump-off points to the islands and islets. Boat tours are easy to arrange in Callao (for Palomino Islands) and Paracas (for Ballestas Islands). To visit most of the other islands and islets, you will probably have to negotiate with local fishermen for a boat tour. Some – like Isla Lobos de Tierra – are the easiest to visit with a tour agency. It is also possible to observe much of the avifauna from the shore. The capes (puntas) will be easier to access.

  • Entry fee: Most are free; those charging $8.50 USD for foreigners are Guañape, Punta Coles, and Punta San Juan; those charging $3.25 USD are Cavinzas, Palomino, and Ballestas.

  • Climate: Along the coast, the climate varies. In the north, the rainy season is January to April, though precipitation is scarce and irregular. The relative humidity is 70-80%. In the central zone, rain is also scarce except in the coastal hills, which receive 310-950 millimeters of rain. Fog is common, and relative humidity is 84-93%. The southern zone (which covers Ica, Arequipa, Moquegua, and Tacna departments) has a climate much like the central zone: arid, cloudy, and high humidity.

  • SERNANP page: Reserva Nacional Sistema Isla, Islotes, y Puntas Guaneras.

  • Lodging: In Lima and Paracas, hotels and hostels are available for all budgets. In the smaller towns, rustic inns may be available but in low season the choices may be fewer or closed.

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