wildlife watching in South America, WildSide, World Wild Web

Wildlife watching in South America: in search of the big six!

We asked WildSide users to let us know the animals they most wanted to see in South America. Based on the responses, we put together a list of the top six species:

  1. Andean condor,
  2. Puma,
  3. Green anaconda,
  4. Killer whale,
  5. Sea lion,
  6. Jaguar.

This post sets out the best places to see each of these incredible animals! Something missing? Send us a report of your wildlife watching experiences an we’ll update the list.

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1) ANDEAN CONDOR

With a wingspan of over 3 metres and a weight of 15 kg, the Andean condor is the largest flying bird in the world. Catching a glimpse of one soaring overhead is a sight to behold. Luckily, condors live throughout South America and there are a number of places where sightings are pretty much guaranteed.

The most popular spot is Cruz del Condor in Colca Canyon, Peru. You can get here on a day trip from Arequipa or, alternatively, WildSide recommends spending a night in Cabanaconde. This allows you to spend a morning with the condors and then organise a self-guided trek through one of the deepest and most spectacular canyons in the world. Cruz del Condor is hands down the best place to see condors in South America. The only downside is that you are likely to be sharing your experience with hundreds of other tourists.

If you prefer somewhere a bit more ‘off the beaten track’ then El Nido de los Condores in Samaipata, Bolivia is a great alternative. If you can hack the challenging hike you are likely have the whole mountain to yourself and uninterrupted views of condors on all sides. 

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2) PUMA

These graceful cats have the largest range of any wild animal in the Americas – being found from northern Canada to southern Patagonia. Despite their wide range they are notoriously difficult to spot in the wild. They aren’t called ‘ghost cats’ for nothing!

The best spot to see pumas is the incredible Torres del Paine National Park in Chile. With around 50 pumas in the park, the population density is one of the highest in the world. While they can be seen when trekking the spectacular W-circuit, the best chance to see them is to take a day or two to hike the Avifauna trail from Laguna Amarga to Laguna Sarmiento. For a list of top tips to help you spot them see our guide.

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3) GREEN ANACONDA

The green anaconda is the biggest snake in the world, weighing up to 70 kg and measuring up to 5.2 metres long. There are even reports of giants reaching 12 metres in length (although hard evidence is lacking)! Despite their size, they are extremely difficult to spot in the wild. Especially given their preference for hiding out in wet, swampy areas.

There are two key places to look for these giant snakes – areas of dense, tropical Amazon rainforest such as Madre de Dios in Peru, or open wetlands such as Los Llanos in Colombia. If you have to choose, WildSide recommends Los Llanos given the sheer volume of water and density of vegetation in the Amazon. Head there in the dry season from December to March when there is less water for them to hide in. Even if you don’t manage to see one, it’s a memorable experience to be up at dawn nosing about a swamp to try and find the world’s largest snake!

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4) KILLER WHALE

Killer whales, or orcas, are one of the most intelligent animals on the planet. They are known for their sophisticated hunting techniques, which are often specific to a particular group and passed across generations. Perhaps the most spectacular of all these techniques is ‘intentional stranding’. Where these 6 tonne giants launch themselves onto land to try and snatch sea lions from the shore. There is only one place in the world where killer whales have developed this spectacular technique. And that is the Valdes Peninsula in Argentina.

The Peninsula is home to a population of around 30 resident killer whales. There are two clear seasons when sightings of the attacks are possible. The main season runs from February to April. During this time the best place to see killer whales is Punta Norte although sightings are not guaranteed by any means. The secondary season is October to December where they can be seen off Caleta Valdes – although this season is even more unpredictable! Even during the season you need a lot of luck to see an attack. The best way is to hire a car and get to either site around 2-3 hours before high tide.

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5) SEA LION

Sea lions can be found throughout South America and there a number of places where you can get up close and personal with these inquisitive creatures. Chances are you’ll encounter sea lions lounging at the busy industrial port of Arica in Chile, guarding the sea bird covered beaches of the Ballestas Islands in Peru, or trying to evade killer whales in the Valdes Peninsula.

However, the best place for a memorable encounter with sea lions are the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador. Here they can be seen year round on pretty much every beach – and even some bar stools. If you get a chance, WildSide recommends doing some scuba diving to see them in their underwater habitat. Coming face to face with a large mammal that stares directly into your eyes when you are under the water is a once in a life time experience!

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6) JAGUAR

The jaguar is South America’s most powerful and charismatic predator and has been a symbol of power in Andean and Colombian culture for thousands of years. Like the green anaconda, there are two main spots to look for these beautiful cats: areas of dense, tropical Amazon rainforest such as Madre de Dios in Peru, or open wetlands such as Los Llanos in Colombia.

Jaguar densities are higher in the Amazon than in the wetlands of Los Llanos and chances of sightings are highest if you stay at one of the lodges deep in the forest. If you head to Madre de Dios, the Tambopata Research Center claims that 35% of their visitors see jaguars, while the Manu Wildlife Center claims a 10% success rate. Good luck!

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