Cusco, Peru

The Waiting Game

Andi Cross
Adam Moore
February 22, 2024
6 min read
Audio generated for accessibility using AI. Intonation does not express the true level of awe and stoke.

It’s easy to think that incredible wildlife encounters happen exactly when you want them to. That as soon as you confirm your “animal” sight-seeing adventure in any given country, that you will be guaranteed to leave it with post-worthy pictures of said animal. But that’s not reality by any stretch. 

Wildlife encounters actually require time, effort, work and an uncomfortable amount of patience. They require a deep desire to want to witness something coupled with grounded and realistic expectations of it not likely happening the way you anticipate. It’s often the reality that you have to spend more time planning than actually experiencing the encounter. After all, it’s called WILDlife for a reason. 

Our third day in the Peruvian Amazon was a tale of the wildlife waiting game. 

It all started with your typical 4:45am wake up call, early jungle breakfast and heavy bug spray application. From there, our morning included a boat ride across the river, a short hike to Salvador Lake, the boarding of a catamaran and then a two and a half hour search for a family of endangered giant river otters. We had made it to one of the few places you can see these animals in the wild. 

Aboard this old-school unpowered cat, we paddled and drifted delicately in almost complete silence so as not to disturb nature’s delicate routines. We were being circled by Hoatzin, also known as “stinky birds” here in Peru (an old nickname of mine, believe it or not!) Monkeys of all kinds bounced from tree to tree, while flying above us were pairs of Scarlet macaws, squawking loudly. But the one animal we were looking for was nowhere to be found. 

Here’s the thing about giant river otters: it’s said that there are only 5,000 left in the world and approximately 70 of them are in Manu National Park. In 1999, they were established as endangered and have remained that way ever since. Feeding on fish, they hunt as a pack and stay with their family. It’s rare to see them alone. Yet during our time searching, that’s exactly what happened. A Lone Ranger was out there, hunting catfish with no family in sight. To our guide, Jose Medina, this was weird and slightly alarming, given their status and general state of existence. 

The otter is considered a highly social species, with families that range from 3-8 members. 

They are monogamous and like to work together to guard their territory. Although they are non-confrontational to humans, they will attack other otter families or the lurking caimans that get a bit too close for comfort. The giant otter creates nests along the freshwater banks close to food sources and can be found hunting in the early morning and right before sunset. But even searching all the typical spots, we were only seeing this lone otter in action today. 

After this brief encounter, we headed back to the dock where we were swarmed by easily 100 tiny, unidentifiable bats, so small you could hardly tell what they were at first. Captivated by their swarming, it was near impossible to get me to leave this site. After the team basically had to pull me onto land, we did the short hike back to our river boat, encountering more special species endemic to the Amazon—including the rare glasswing butterfly. This one is particularly special because its wings are completely transparent (hence the name). Even though they look fragile, they are far from it and can carry 40x their own body weight! 

But finally, when heading back to camp, sitting right at its entrance, was the giant river otter family we’d been waiting for. We had spent hours searching Salvador Lake, only to find them right at our doorstep! Giving us a brief show, we were happy to have run into them, even if only momentarily. 

Our afternoon mission was to trek to another Amazonian wonder: the claylick. 

Strange name, yes. But an accurate and descriptive one, even moreso. A claylick is where parakeets, parrots and macaws come to get their daily salt intake here in the Amazon basin. Due to the lack of salt in this region, this is how the birds balance out their diet and ensure their sodium needs are met. There’s another theory that eating the clay helps with the reduction of toxins in their system, as the plant life in the Amazon can be quite potent. The clay helps balance things out. 

 In the blazing heat, covered in a blend of sunscreen, bug spray and sweat, we followed the sounds of the screeching macaws. Even though we were extremely far away, we could hear these loud and large birds clearly. With every step their sounds were louder and louder, while ours became quieter and quieter. After about 45 minutes, we made it to a lookout area where there was a clay wall with gigantic trees surrounding it and the sounds of the macaw were now inescapable and omnipresent.

The claylick acts as a place for socializing as well as feeding, where single birds can in fact find their life partners. Overall, kicking it at the claylick is a social and critical part of their routine. And because of that, in Manu’s Reserved Zone, there’s a wilderness “schedule” that many of these special animals try to follow. But don’t be mistaken, you’ll never be guaranteed any sightings of these creatures, even if you’re on their schedule!

For example, when it comes to the claylick, there’s so many factors that determine the “scene” in a given day. Here, the claylick typically is active from 11-2 pm, but that’s if it’s perfectly sunny, there are no clouds, no wind and no predictors or alarming sounds around. If any one of those variables aren’t met, there could be no birds licking the clay that day. 

For us, we got lucky. The conditions were utterly perfect. 

But even so, we still waited in total silence with hardly any movement from 10:30am - 1:30pm for the action to finally happen. Close to 30 Scarlet macaws along with a handful of red and green macaws were hovering around the claylick area, talking to each other and debating taking action. Since it’s a spot that leaves them extremely vulnerable, there’s deep bird deliberation among the group for when the time is right to begin the licking. 

We watched as these birds contemplated the lick fest for hours. We even had a moment where the birds were fully scared off because of a gust of wind, leaving the claylick area abandoned for another thirty minutes.  Waiting patiently, we were hoping they’d come to their senses and make their way back, which thankfully they did. And so, the deliberation process had to start all over again. It was a scene, and watching it was nothing short of fascinating. 

When we finally got the payout, and the 30+ gorgeous birds with the most vibrant colors all joined together to lick and sit on the clay wall, it wasn’t just worth it, it was one of the best things we’d ever seen. And this happened right at the 2pm mark, the bitter end of the claylick scheduled window. 

The moral of the story is, the best things in life are hard to get, and they often require work and serious patience. This is true not just for wildlife encounters, but pretty much everything worthwhile in life. We’ve learned from our time on the edges of earth that, with enough commitment and dedication, the things you seek to achieve have the potential to become your reality. 

This might mean accepting long, hard, exhausting and sweat-covered processes to make your desires come to fruition. But enjoying the ride is just as important as getting to the final destination when it comes down to it. And if it doesn’t work out exactly as planned, that’s even better—it might mean you get whisked away on another wild ride or an incredible adventure. And it’s all with room for improvement the more you try! 

To be continued …

[Special thanks to Manu Ecological Adventures and their Jungle Specialist team (shout out to the Biologist Jose Medina) for crafting what was undoubtedly an exceptional itinerary, allowing us to experience the breadth of the park to the fullest.]


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