Peru contains 84 of the 104 ecosystems on Earth and 28 of the world’s 32 climates, making it among the 10 most biodiverse countries on the planet. Almost one-third of all animal and plant species living on Earth inhabit just the Peruvian Amazon. From water lilies that can hold the weight of a small child to snakes as long as a school bus and tarantulas as wide as a foot-long sub sandwich, some plants and animals are so enormous that seeing is not believing.
Here are some astonishing creatures and plants that will open your eyes to Peru’s many living wonders. Happy plant and animal spotting!
Llamas and alpacas may be the country’s most familiar mammals, but Peru is also home to some strange mammalian creatures, such as the giant armadillo, a 5-foot-long shelled animal found in the country’s eastern Andes and Amazon Basin. The world’s largest armadillo, this Peruvian jungle giant has as many as 100 teeth for chewing plants and small vertebrates. But its primary diet is termites; it has the longest claw-to-body length of any mammal and uses the 8-inch center claw on each forelimb to open up termite mounds and dig for termites, ants, and worms. Good swimmers that can hold their breath for six minutes, giant armadillos aren’t easy to see because they’re nocturnal and sleep 18 hours a day in deep burrows that always face west.
The giant river otter inhabits the Amazon rainforest and tributaries year-round but is easier to spot in June, July, and August when water levels are lowest. More than twice the length of the North American river otter, Peru’s giant otters are 6 feet long, weigh between 48 and 70 pounds, and feast mostly on fish. They live in family groups of three to 15 that include monogamous parents and several generations of offspring.
A delightful highlight of cruising the waters around Iquitos and Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve is spotting the playful Amazon pink river dolphin, which is born with translucent gray skin that gradually turns pink. These Amazonian mammals can reach 9 feet in length and weigh up to 400 pounds. They feed on crabs, shrimps, turtles, and fish. Out of five freshwater dolphin types, this species has the largest body and brain, with 40 percent more brain capacity than humans.
A beloved mammal that lives only in Peru, the spectacled bear is the only remaining short-faced bear in the world and South America’s only bear. Named for the white/yellowish rings that encircle their eyes like glasses, these shaggy-furred bears are non-aggressive toward humans and excellent tree climbers, due to front legs longer than hind limbs. They live on fruits, bromeliads, cactus, and the soft parts of palm trees in the dry forest environment of the Chaparrí Ecological Reserve in northern Peru and the Andean cloud forest. Spectacled bears are commonly spotted along the Inca Trail and sometimes roaming between the terraces of Machupicchu, where approximately 70 inhabit the surrounding forest. If you’re lucky enough to spot one, know that this rolly-polly bruin inspired the classic British children’s books about the adventures of an adorable, orphaned bear named Paddington that was sent as a stowaway from Lima to London.
The world’s slowest animals, three-toed sloths are so sedentary that algae grows on their furry coats, which gives them a greenish camouflage tint. Considered lazy because they sleep 15 to 20 hours a day, sloths spend most of their time hanging from tree limbs with the help of their long claws. They even mate and give birth there. Nocturnal herbivores, they feed on fruit, shoots, and leaves. Three-toed sloths, in particular, have a singular distinction: Their extra neck vertebrae allow them to turn their heads some 270 degrees. You can spot them in the Peruvian Amazon.
Another astounding Amazonian animal is the green anaconda. At up to 550 pounds, it’s the largest snake in the world. Green anacondas are also long; they can grow to more than 29 feet, or the size of a school bus, and measure more than 12 inches in diameter. They live in the tropical rainforests of the Amazon and Orinoco River basins, where they feast on wild pigs, deer, birds, turtles, capybara, caimans, and even jaguars. Notoriously, they asphyxiate their prey by coiling around it and squeezing until it dies, after which they swallow it whole.
The monstrous paiche (also known as arapaima and pirarucu) is king of the Amazon. The world’s largest freshwater fish, paiche can grow up to 10 feet in length and more than 400 pounds. This torpedo-shaped fish with an upturned mouth, red tail, and copper and green head must surface to breathe but can stay underwater as long as 30 minutes. While cruising the Amazon, you may spot one coming up for air. Often called arapaima on restaurants menus, paiche is a flavorful, mild-tasting fish with firm flesh.
On the Marañón River in the upper Amazon basin, the Ucayali River, and the Huallaga River, keep your eyes focused on the shore for the wood-eating Peckoltia pankimpuju. This armored catfish approximately 15 inches long uses its oversized pectoral fins to crawl single file across land for 24 hours as it seeks new pools with plentiful sustenance.
The national bird of Peru, Andean cock-of-the-rock can be found in protected areas of the Andean cloud forest at elevations between 1,600 and 8,000 feet, including Machupicchu and Manu National Park in the Madre de Dios region of southeastern Peru. Compared to the monochromatic, chestnut/orange-feathered females, the males are flashy birds with orangish-red heads, necks, breasts, and shoulders; black bodies; gray wings; and large crests of feathers that hang down to their bills. They’re more likely to be heard than seen. The males are noisy during their rambunctious group mating ritual when they present their showiest performances for the females — bowing, wing-flapping, head-bobbing, bill-snapping, and making bizarre squeaks and grunts. Fruit-eaters that nest on ledges and cliffs, cocks-of-the-rock are a prized checklist species for international birdwatchers.
A bird with prehistoric roots, the hoatzin is the last surviving member of a bird species that lived around the time dinosaurs became extinct. About the size of a chicken, the hoatzin has a mohawk crest, clawed wings, and two stomachs. The chicks are born with two claws on the digits of each wing, which enable them to crawl by alternating front and rear legs on opposite sides of their body. Hoatzins are the only living bird species that has mastered alternated walking coordination of four limbs by using its claws. It’s also the only bird with a digestive system that ferments vegetation like a cow does, which enables it to eat just leaves and buds.
The Amazon basin has its share of crazy and eye-catching insects your guides may point out. They include the Amazonian tarantula, the world’s largest at 13 inches wide; the small decoy spider that uses leaves, debris, and dead insects to build a larger, fake spider in its web to confuse or frighten predators; and the vibrant, iridescent blue morpho butterfly, whose wingspan ranges between 5 and 8 inches and whose wings have a brown underside that camouflages the insect to protect it from predators.
With its enormous biodiversity, Peru has a wider variety of plants than most countries. Some are surprising, like puya raimondi, a bromeliad also known as the queen of the Andes that grows in the high Andes. Out of 3,000 species of bromeliads on Earth, this one is a standout. The world’s largest and slowest growing bromeliad, puya raimondi blooms only once when it has lived between 50 and 100 years and the stalk has grown 50 feet high. But the flowering spike that takes so long to bloom can last a couple of years.
Another flowering plant in Peru that will leave you wide-eyed is the giant water lily. Its circular leaves grow as wide as 8 feet in diameter and are strong enough to hold the weight of a small child. You will find this lily in the slow-moving, shallow waters of the Amazon. The large flowers (16 inches across) are fragrant and white on the night they bloom, while some turn pink on the second night.
One of the rarest orchids in the world, the monkey orchid grows in Peru’s cloud forests and can bloom in any season. The blossoms, which smell like a ripe orange, really do look like the face of a monkey, each one as unique as a snowflake.