Madre de Dios is a region in southeastern Peru which is almost entirely covered with tropical rainforest. The Madre de Dios river flows through the area before reaching the Amazon. Along the length of the river are several national parks and reserves including the stunning Tambopata and Manu National Parks. These reserves are home to large areas of pristine rainforest and are one of the most biodiverse places on the planet. Together they support populations of giant otters, sloths, jaguar, tapir, anaconda, capybara, caiman, macaws, hoatzins, as well as howler, spider, and squirrel monkeys. Madre de Dios is accessible via a flight from Cusco – or a bus during the dry season (April – November) – to the capital city of Puerto Maldonado. Trips into the rainforest leave from here by boat.
Average rating: 4.8 (very good)
Average spend per person: $1,115 ($430 – $2,300)
Number of reports: 4
Best time to visit: April – November
Typical activities: animal watching, bird watching, boat trip, jungle trek
Wildlife in Madre de Dios
According to reports submitted to WildSide, the species visitors most want to see here are as follows:
Caiman – 100% of visitors (4/4) reported sightings
There are four species of caiman which can be found in the area. The most common are black and spectacled caimans although dwarf and smooth-fronted caimans are also present. Black caimans prefer slow moving water and can be seen around oxbow lakes such as Lake Sandoval. Spectacled caimans can be seen in rivers or sunning themselves on the banks. Caimans are relatively easy to see in the area and sightings are pretty much guaranteed on tours. The best way to spot them is to take a trip out on the river at night and shine a torch along the banks. When exposed to light caiman eyes gleam a shining red, creating an unforgettably eerie experience.
Capybara – 75% of visitors (3/4) reported sightings
These large, semi-aquatic rodents can be found throughout the Madre de Dios region. The best places to see them are basking on the shores of lakes and rivers or wallowing in the shallows. Chances of seeing capybara are fairly high – particularly when on a boat trip along the river. A good tip is to look out for areas where grass is growing along the shores as they like to eat new shoots. They live throughout the forest although hunting means that they are often wary of humans. So the best places to spot them are on trips to protected areas such as Tambopata and Manu.
Giant otter – 50% of visitors (2/4) reported sightings
The best place to see giant otters is Lake Sandoval which is home to a resident family. The lake is a great place to see them playing, resting, swimming, and hunting in a chattering, splashing group. It is accessible on a day trip from Puerto Maldonado – around 25 minutes by river boat. However, spending a few days (and nights!) in the area gives you more chance of seeing the otters and the wealth of other species nearby. WildSide recommends JunglePro as a good tour operator who focus specifically on seeking out the best wildlife watching opportunities – expect very early starts! Their five day tour (~$600) includes two nights at Lake Sandoval looking for otters and caimans. This is followed by two nights deeper in the Tambopata Reserve looking for macaws, tapirs, and if you’re very lucky, jaguars.
Green anaconda – 0% of visitors (0/4) reported sightings
Seeing one of these giant snakes is a fantastic experience in the Amazon. Particularly when canoeing through one of the many swamps, rivers, or areas of flooded forest. The bad news is that sightings are challenging given the sheer volume of water and density of plant life. Due to their preference for remaining submerged, anacondas are harder to see in the wet season (December – March) when the forest floods and they can easily conceal themselves. The dry season is a better time for viewing anacondas as there is less water for them to hide in and move through. The best place for sighting these beautiful creatures is in the more open, wetland areas such as the Pantanal and Los Llanos.
Howler monkey – 50% of visitors (2/4) reported sightings
Venezuelan red howler monkeys can be found throughout the area. There are good chances of seeing and even better chances of hearing them when staying at lodges in the forest. Waking up to their booming calls as the dawn breaks is an unforgettable jungle experience! They are less active than other monkeys so can easily be overlooked – look out for reddish balls in the treetops. As they are canopy dwellers, boat rides along the rivers and trips up to canopy towers which provide views of the treetops are good places to spot them.
Jaguar – 0% of visitors (0/4) reported sightings
Due to the abundance of prey species such as peccaries and tapir, the area supports a large population of jaguars. A camera trapping survey at six sites in Madre de Dios estimated a population density of around 4.4 jaguars per 100 km2. However, sightings are notoriously difficult! The best spots are along river banks where the vegetation is less dense or around clay licks where they come to hunt. Chances of sighting jaguars are higher if you stay at one of the lodges deeper into the forest. The Tambopata Research Center, for example, claims that 35% of visitors see jaguars, while the Manu Wildlife Center claims a 10% success rate.
Sloth – 0% of visitors (0/4) reported sightings
There are two species of sloth found in the area: Hoffmann’s two-toed sloth and the brown-throated sloth. The brown-throated variety is the most widespread and common in the area. Sloths have an exceptionally low metabolic rate and spend between 15 and 20 hours a day sleeping in order to conserve as much energy as possible. This behaviour – combined with their excellent camouflage – makes them difficult to spot in the wild.
Spider monkey – 75% of visitors (3/4) reported sightings
Chances of sighting Peruvian (also known as black-faced) spider monkeys are high in the area. There are particularly large numbers of sightings around the Tambopata Research Center. These inquisitive and playful creatures forage in the canopy during the day for fruits and flowers. Look out for rustling leaves and long limbs overheard. Spider monkeys are particularly vulnerable to habitat loss so the presence of healthy populations is an indication of the good health of the rainforest in the area.
Squirrel monkey – 50% of visitors (2/4) reported sightings
Squirrel monkeys are found throughout the area, typically roaming through the forest canopy in large troops. They are an extremely curious primate and are seemingly undisturbed by the presence of humans below them. Some are even inquisitive enough to throw twigs at people standing beneath them. Thanks to their boisterous behaviour, when they are nearby they are often one of the first monkeys that visitors see in the area. This is despite them only being around 35 cm in size!
Tapir – 25% of visitors (1/4) reported sightings
The Madre de Dios region is home to one of the largest South American tapir populations on the continent. However, sightings of this elusive animal are rare. For the best chances head to the Manu Wildlife Centre which provides a specialist tour to a nearby tapir lick. The lodge itself is also often visited by a semi-wild individual called Vanessa! Alternatively you can head to lodges located deep inside the rainforest such as the Tambopata Research Center or Heath River Wildlife Center.