Birds and Culture – Machu Picchu and Abra Malaga

Our driver expertly maneuvered the narrow winding road which leads up from Cuzco, elevation 11,200 feet,
Peru-Cuzco-heading-out-of-t
through residential areas carved into the hills,
Peru-Cuzco-street
taking us even higher as we made our way towards Ollantaytambo, our gateway to Machu Picchu and birding near Abra Malaga.

We arrived at the Pakaritampu Hotel in time to bird the terraced hillside behind the blocks of rooms before the light began to fade. “Be sure and check out the alpacas,” the staff who carried our bags told Sue and me.
Peru-Ollantayambo-hotel-alp
Chiguanco Thrushes patrolled the grassy areas.

Chiguanco Thrush

Chiguanco Thrush

Rufous-collared Sparrows, which we had not seen since the second day of the trip, buzzed in and out of the flowered landscape.

Rufous-collared Sparrow

Rufous-collared Sparrow

However, we were interested in new species, such as the finely hooked-billed Black-throated and Rusty Flowerpiercers,

Rusty Flowerpiercer - Photo by Sue Clasen

Rusty Flowerpiercer – Photo by Sue Clasen

the Golden-billed Saltator, whose luminous bill reminded me of the bill of an Evening Grosbeak, and the endemic Green and White Hummingbird.

The following morning the clouds hung over the mountains and it was chilly and grey. We were able to get in a little birding before it started to rain, adding White-bellied Hummingbird and Black-tailed Trainbearer. “They really love the eucalyptus tree,” Dick observed.

The woman who had her wares laid out on the grass between the blocks of rooms had to pack up when the rain started.
Peru-Ollantayambo-vendor
While we were waiting until it was time to head to the train station, Sue, Joy and I explored the town of Ollantaytambo. We were delighted to witness a wedding procession making its way through the village and into the church across from where we were standing.
Peru-Ollantambo-wedding-pro
“I didn’t have a band at my wedding,” a man standing next to us from the Netherlands lamented.

“You will need this,” a local vendor told me later as I was walking to the station with my trekking pole and sold me a large rubber tip that would allow me to use my pole in the ruins.

We enjoyed the views of the sacred valley as the train followed the Urubamba River to Aguas Caliente, nestled in the canyon below Machu Picchu. Each of our rooms at the Hatun Inti Hotel had stunning views of the river, including from the shower.

Urubamba River - view from our shower

Urubamba River – view from our shower

I was delighted to capture this photo of a female Torrent Duck below our room.

female Torrent Duck

female Torrent Duck

While Sue and I opted to find somewhere to eat lunch, Dick headed for the birding area along the river, despite the rain. After lunch, Sue and I explored the town
Peru-Aguas-Caliente
and watched some local street dancers.
Peru-Aguas-Caliente-dancers
When the group gathered for dinner that evening, we were treated to an Andean flute band.

Gloria, our cultural guide, met us at the hotel the next morning and accompanied us to the bus station where we joined the queue. The bus followed the river for a while and then began snaking its way up the mountain-face to Machu Picchu at an elevation of close to 7,700 feet. It was hard to believe that I was actually about to enter the ‘lost city of the Incas’ and UNESCO World Heritage site. It had been a long-time dream to visit.

We made our way through the entrance gate, where Ron was shocked that a passport was required, in addition to his ticket. Lelis resolved his dilemma by asking them to accept his driver’s license.

Entrance to Machu Picchu

Entrance to Machu Picchu

Once inside, Gloria stopped to explain two plaques – one declaring that the site had been known by local Quechua farmers long before it was found by the outside world and another acknowledging American academic Hiram Bingham’s accidental discovery of the site in 1911.

As we stood on the agricultural terraces, I noticed Blue and White Swallows swooping over the hillside below, and then one of them zipped into a crevice in the stone wall behind me – a nest perhaps?

Gloria led us up one level to explain the architectural details of the Inca’s building methods, telling us that the smooth, perfectly fitted stone architecture was reserved for buildings in the temple area. We gazed in wonder at the Temple of the Sun and a soaring American Kestrel above us,

torreon - Temple of the Sun

torreon – Temple of the Sun

and then walked up a steep stone stairway to reach the temple zone.
Peru-Machu-Picchu-stairs-to
While waiting for our turn to walk up the next flight of stairs to the Temple of the Sun, Gloria showed us granite that had been hewn in the shape of the constellation the Southern Cross – and in fact, points directly at the constellation. The points of the stone represent the compass points.

stone carving representing Southern Cross

stone carving representing Southern Cross

The torreon, which shelters another astronomical rock, has a series of windows on the sides. On the summer solstice, as the sun peaks over the top of the mountain, it shines through one of the windows and casts a beam of light on a groove on the rock.

The view from the Temple of the Sun was magnificent!

View from Temple of the Sun

View from Temple of the Sun

After descending the stairs again, Gloria took us to another chamber containing two man-made reflecting pools that the Incas used to study the stars, much as an observatory is used today.

star reflecting pools

star reflecting pools

The Incas considered the condor extremely sacred and responsible for taking the spirits of the dead to heaven on its wings. In the Temple of the Condor,

looking down into Temple of the Condor

looking down into Temple of the Condor

the Incas fashioned the natural stone work to represent the wings of the condor in flight. On the floor of the temple are carved stones that represent the head and neck feathers.

inside Temple of the Condor

inside Temple of the Condor

Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to see a real Andean Condor on this trip. I was glad that I had seen several when I visited Ecuador.

After our tour, we returned to Aguas Caliente for lunch and to rest our weary knees before our train ride back to Ollantaytambo.

The return train trip was complete with a fashion show of alpaca sweaters and scarves that could be purchased on site, as well as entertainment from a sacra dancer.

Sacra dancer

Sacra dancer

It was barely light when our driver began heading east from Ollantaytambo towards Abra Malaga Pass at an elevation slightly over 14,000 feet.The fields surrounding a village located just below the pass were still covered in frost.

frost near Abra Malaga

frost near Abra Malaga

“We will be birding today in the puna, the dry grassland above the tree line, as well as the wet temperate forest on the eastern side of the pass,” Lelis told us.

The sun had not yet come over the mountains when we started walking along the side of the road.
Peru-Abra-Malaga-early-am-b
While Joy, Sue and I were shivering in our fleece jackets and gloves, Dick sauntered along in his shorts. We were seeking high altitude specialties and endemics, many of which had fascinating names, e.g. Puna Thistletail, Pearled Treerunner, and Parodi’s Hemisphingus.

The sun began breaking over the snow-capped peaks, showing off the gnarled and moss-covered limbs of some of the high elevation trees.
Peru-Abra-Malaga-landscape
A beautiful song emanated from the understory, and we finally located its source – Mountain Wren.

We ate our lunch alongside the road, and then headed back up to the pass.

The frost had melted, revealing the dry grass of the puna. Near the pass, we spotted a flock of Puna Ibis foraging next to the road,

Puna Ibis

Puna Ibis

and then stopped at a small lake where Andean Lapwings were prancing in the tundra-like terrain.

Andean Lapwing

Andean Lapwing

We stopped in an area dotted with farms to watch two White-winged Diuca-finches and were able to look out over the switch-backed road below us.
Peru-Abra-Malaga-switchback
Sue was able to get a wonderful photo of a Mountain Caracara just as it took flight.

Mountain Caracara

Mountain Caracara

On our last day in Peru, we spent several hours in the morning birding near some old burial ruins.
Peru-Abra-Malaga-Rd-ruins
Our target bird was the White-tufted Sunbeam – and we weren’t disappointed. As is typical with hummingbirds, they will perch in the open, but just as I am about to push the shutter on my camera, it would take off.

We were delighted to get good looks at a Creamy-crested Spinetail, a Peruvian endemic.

Creamy-crested Spinetail - photo by Sue Clasen

Creamy-crested Spinetail – photo by Sue Clasen

We walked further up the road and encountered a Mountain Caracara sitting across the river.

Mountain Caracara

Mountain Caracara

We stopped at the location where Lelis had spotted a Red-crested Cotinga as we were driving, and were lucky to all be able to see it.

Red-crested Cotinga

Red-crested Cotinga

Near a small village, we were able to observe a Peruvian Sierra-Finch.

Peruvian Sierra-Finch

Peruvian Sierra-Finch

And then it was time to head towards Cuzco. As we neared Chinchero, we stopped at a mountain lake
Peru-Chinchero-wetlands
to eat lunch and catch some remaining species, e.g. Puna Teal and Plumbeous Rail.

Puna Teal

Puna Teal

While we were eating, we watched someone walk across the field with a bundle on his back; as he got closer, we were amused to notice that he was talking on a cell phone – a true combining of the traditional and the modern.
Peru-Chinchero-W---person-o
Just before descending into Cuzco, we took in the magnificent snow-capped Andes and tried to capture the scene in our minds before we arrived at the airport and began our long journey home. It had been a memorable trip that had taken us over three weeks from the Pacific Ocean southwest of Lima, to the montane cloud-forest, down into the tropical rain forest, and finally high in the Andes – truly a journey of a lifetime.

6 thoughts on “Birds and Culture – Machu Picchu and Abra Malaga

  1. Mountain Caracara. I am used to the Caracara from the delta area of the Rio Grande. Thank you for the great details of the amazing land you visited.

  2. Thanks Judy for an amazing travelog. What a trip! I did not know about the Southern Cross carved stone. Had forgotten the Incas studied the stars from a reflection pool. Loved the birds and the Urubamba river shot. Thanks for sharing such a lyrical experience.

  3. Hi any suggestions on how to hire an independent bird guide for 2 days in Abra Malaga without buying a pricey package. My wife and I were quoted $1350 for 2 days for a guide plus vehicle and 2 box lunches. We can provide four own vehicle or not and mainly want to hire just a competent (not the best of all) birder to show us local specialties without buying a tour package.

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