First time to Peru? Try Machu Picchu & Abra Malaga

I’m often asked, “Which is the best introductory tour to Peru?” Given the variety of landscapes and birdlife in this my favorite country, there’s no easy answer…but I have, nevertheless, settled on a definitive one: Machu Picchu & Abra Malaga.

“Why?” you might ask. Well, for one, it’s a relatively easy tour, accommodations and food are great, the birds include some real “stonkers” (including about 15 possible Peruvian endemics) but are more manageable than the mega-diversity of the lowland rainforest, and, as you no doubt guessed, we’ll enjoy a two-day visit to the world-famous Inca ruins at Machu Picchu, where we’ll be accompanied by our local guide for our own personalized tour of the ruins.

Moisture-laden clouds from Amazonia wash up the lower slopes of the Andes below Abra Malaga (Photo by guide John Rowlett)

The Cusco Andes of Peru comprise a great destination to get to know the birds and culture of this large and varied country. Here we can experience several different habitat types—from arid temperate valleys to open puna to humid temperate and subtropical forests—and the birds that inhabit them. And of course, we can also enjoy learning a bit about the history of Peru, the cradle of one of the three most important pre-Columbian civilizations in the Americas both in the context of pre-conquest times (before the arrival of the swashbuckling Spaniards) and the present.

Traditional customs and dress are in evidence everywhere in the Cusco region. (Photo by participant Francesco Veronesi)

In so many ways, the people of the region have maintained many aspects of their pre-Columbian culture despite centuries of “westernization”… some still speak only Quechua and farm potatoes and raise sheep and alpacas for wool. (Okay, so I admit the sheep would not be part of the pre-Columbian culture, but you see what I mean.) We are able to enjoy delicacies that are based on native crops (quinoa, potato, maíz), and some more daring participants have even been known to try alpaca and cuy (guinea pig), though if these are too exotic for your palate, never fear, Peruvian cuisine can cater to nearly any taste.

The birds? Lots of fabulous ones! Highland Motmot by guide John Rowlett

On this tour we see the southern Peruvian Andes in all their glory: from the arid intermontane valleys to the puna to the humid slopes cloaked with temperate and subtropical forests.  And, gosh-durn-it, those habitats are just full of birds!

Lovely and colorful gems such as the hummingbirds and tanagers abound both at the feeders and in the forests where big mixed-flocks break the apparent stillness, causing a few minutes of chaotic birding.  In the drier and more open country, some of the birds of interest have more muted colors, but many of these are endemics and fascinating in their own right.

If 20th-century road engineering to reach the ruins from the railroad below was this extreme, how on earth did the Inca ever build Machu Picchu (partly visible behind the road)? (Photo by guide Rose Ann Rowlett)

The scenery—as you might expect—is breathtaking, especially on the train ride from Cusco to Machu Picchu and also on the Abra Malaga section of the tour.  At 14,200 feet, Abra Malaga is the low point, or pass, along a ridge of rugged peaks called the Vilcanota Mountains separating elfin treeline and humid temperate forest on the northwest from the dry, shrub-covered slopes of the upper Rio Urubamba Valley.  Buffering the upper limits of these habitats is the starkly beautiful puna grassland dotted with llamas, alpacas, and the very occasional cluster of stone houses, corrals, and fences erected by Quechua-speaking families who are somehow accustomed to prospering in what seems to most visitors an inhospitable environment.

So if you’ve been thinking of visiting Peru and have been wondering which of our many tours to take first, I’d recommend starting with this one, Machu Picchu & Abra Malaga, Peru.  We have two departures scheduled this year, June 25-July 4 and August 7-16 and you can read more and download a tour itinerary from our website.  Just head to the Machu Picchu & Abra Malaga tour page.  Once you’ve gotten a toehold on the avifauna and culture of this large and varied country, we’d love to show you more of it.  So come along with Jesse Fagan and me this summer-and don’t forget your binoculars!

Click the start arrow below to enjoy some images from our tour page’s slideshow!
(Place your cursor over the image and use the buttons to pause or change images at your speed…)