The Best Places in South America to Watch Wildlife
Wildlife abounds in the southernmost part of the Americas. While not home to many big animals such as Africa, South America has its own share of unique animals in the wild that are not found anywhere else in the world. Much of South America’s wildlife can be spotted while traveling independently, whether in the wild or in national parks. Even the Galapagos Islands nowadays have low-budget offers (relatively speaking, meaning you now no longer depend on a cruise).
Traveling down the Atlantic Coast with a campervan in Argentina is the ultimate way to see Atlantic Ocean marine animals. Hiring a car in Campo Grande or Corumbá and setting out for a trip to the Pantanal, staying in guesthouses along the way, is another. On the other hand, spotting wildlife in the Amazon is not always so easy due to the thick foliage. In the rainforest, signing up for a guided tour with a travel agency or the lodge you’re staying in often is your best bet to catch sight of wildlife.
The following list is by no means all-inclusive. The jaguar in the Pantanal, the Condor in Peru, the Harpy Eagle and countless owls are among the many animals that are reasons in themselves to travel to South America.
Here are five characteristic regions in which you’ll find specific types of wildlife: wetlands, the ocean, the Amazon Rainforest, the Altiplano, and, unique in so many ways, the Galápagos Islands.
The Wetlands of the Pantanal
In southwestern Brazil stretches the largest wetland in the world. The open, flat region is flooded during parts of the year. During summer the region is dry and that’s when you have the best chance of spotting any of these animals because they gather around the few water sources left.
It’s hardly impossible not to observe capybaras or caimans; the giant otter and giant anteater require a bit more effort to be found, while the jaguar is seen only by the lucky ones.
Generally living in family groups, you may see the heavy (35-66 kgs for an adult), barrel-sized bodies with reddish-brown fur lingering in the shade of trees, crossing roads or going for a swim.
While common in almost all of South America, another area where you can easily identify these semiaquatic mammals are the plains of Los Llanos in Colombia and Venezuela (where they call this animal chigüiro).
Locally known as jacaré, about 10 million of them live in the Pantanal alone while more live in the surrounding countries (esp. Ibera Wetlands in Argentina).
Especially when the water level is low you may see dozens, if not hundreds, lying close together on sand banks and in the little water that is left.
Their numbers can be imposing, however, they are not considered a danger to humans. The small and medium sized crocodilian (2-3 meters for a male) mostly live on fish.
Pantanal: Giant Otter
These beautiful creatures are less easy to spot than the capybara and caiman, because their numbers have dwindled on account of the hunt for their pelts.
Taking a river tour with a travel agency or from one of the lodges in the Pantanal is the best way to spot one of these river wolves (Pteronura brasiliensis).
The giant otter lives only in South America. With a length of close to 2 meters it is one of the bigger predators on the continent and will eat fish, crabs, small caimans and small anacondas.
Pantanal: Giant Anteater
The ant bear with its typical elongated snout and bushy tail is listed as threatened with extinction in virtually all regional and national IUCN Red Lists. You are more likely to see one as road kill than as a living creature and maybe therefore your heart may miss a beat when you spot one.
In Brazil the animal is called a tamanduá-bandeira. Bandeira means ‘flag’, which is an appropriate description of the huge tail of long hairs. The insectivorous mammal lives in Central and South America but in the open flatlands of the Pantanal it is not unlikely to catch sight of one.
Pantanal: Hyacinth Macaw
The largest of macaw species, hyacinth macaws can grow to be up to 1 meter long. In the wild only a few thousand are left, most noticeably in the Pantanal and in northeastern Paraguay.
Their strong beaks allow them to eat the kernels of hard nuts and crack coconuts. They can digest poisonous seeds and unripe fruits unlike any other animal, possibly because they also eat large chunks of clay from riverbanks that neutralize the poison.
The Galapagos Islands
Made famous through Charles Darwin’s studies and books, the Galápagos Islands are still inhabited by land and water animals that don’t mind the close presence of humans.
The common way to get to the islands is by plane from Quito, Ecuador’s capital, and apart from taking a cruise you can opt for staying on an island without a guided tour and organize your own day trips.
Galápagos: Giant Tortoise
The Spanish named the islands after the tortoise in the 16th century (galápago means ‘tortoise’). This largest living species of tortoise is a reason in itself to visit the Galápagos islands — weighing up to some 400 kgs they are a sight to behold.
In fact, there are 11 species, which are found on different islands. Cruises typically include an island where tortoises live, or when you stay on Santa Cruz Island, you can go see them on a day tour.
Galápagos: Marine Iguana
Only found on the Galápagos is the marine iguana, the only lizard to forage in the sea. There are eight subspecies and they live on different islands.
Not all species are black, but the pitch-black marine iguanas on Santa Cruz (about 35 cm snout-to-vent and up to 80 cm of tail) are out-of-this-world looking creatures as they run across land, or sunbathe on rocks in large numbers to warm up from the cold water. The marine iguana is a protected species.
Galápagos: Frigate bird
Among the most appealing birds on the Galápagos are the frigate birds, particularly when the males show their inflated red gular pouch during breeding season. But outside that season they are beautiful to watch as well, when they soar for hours on end on the air currents.
Other birds are not too keen on them, as they tend to snatch chicks from their nests. During guided tours you may walk among their nests that are constructed on the ground or in low trees — like all animals in this archipelago, they are not afraid of human proximity.
Galápagos: Land Iguana
There are three species of land iguanas in the archipelago: the Galapagos land iguana, the Santa Fe land iguana and the pink Galápagos land iguana (only first seen in 1986).
All species have been dwindling in numbers as a result of the introduction of dogs, cats and other animals. Up to almost a meter long and weighing 13 kilos, the big animals are easy to spot throughout the year.
Galápagos: Red-footed booby
Of the three Galapagos booby species, the red-footed ones are the smallest (the Nazca boobies the largest and blue-footed boobies medium-sized).
While their feet are red and their beaks generally light blue, they don’t all have the same color plumage.
If you’re set on seeing them, make sure Genovesa Island is on your itinerary; it is thought that the world’s largest red-footed booby colony lives there.
The Atlantic Ocean
Argentina has a rich wildlife along its Atlantic coast, whether on land or in the ocean but most visitors come for its marine life.
Depending on the season you may spot whales, orcas, seals, sea lions and penguins.
The northern side of South America’s Atlantic, however, is at times visited by a totally different kind of marine animal: the sea turtle.
The peninsula of Punta Tombo is home to the largest colony of Magellanic penguins in South America. The reserve is open to visitors and from late September to April, the penguins come here in large numbers to incubate their eggs and raise their chicks.
The other three penguin species are Gentoo (very few in number), Macaroni (along the very far south and southeastern coast of Chile and Argentina), and Southern Rockhoppers (to be visited on Isla Pinguino near Puerto Deseado).
Peninsula Valdes is among the best places in South America to see whales (another good option is Isla de la Plata in Ecuador). The largest breeding population of southern right whales annually migrate to the bays of Valdes to breed and have their young.
While you can take a boat trip to see them, you don’t have to — during high tide they come very close to the shore.
Atlantic: Elephant seals
Another reason to visit Peninsula Valdes is to watch elephant seals. With an average (male) weight of 3.5 tons and a length of 5.5 meters, they are massive animals.
Some 20,000 of them annually reach the Peninsula Valdes (September-March) to mate and give birth. The pups nurse for about three weeks, increasing their weight by as much as 4 kg each day, after which they are on their own.
They are incredible swimmers, diving as deep as 1,500 meters and covering distances of more than 11,500 kilometers in a year.
Atlantic: Leatherback Sea Turtle
These marine turtles are among five of the seven sea turtles that yearly return to South America to lay their eggs. Unfortunately, they are all on the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species.
While most sea turtles come on land at night, the leatherback tends to do so during the day as well. As a result spotting leatherbacks is easy, and particularly French Guiana is a good country for this (March-May).
Other countries to see them are Suriname, Brazil, and Venezuela.
Meaning ‘High Plains’ in Spanish, the altiplano is part of the Andean Mountains that stretch across Bolivia, Peru, and Chile, averaging about 3,750 meters in altitude.
The plateau, home to salt flats, is open and often windy and cold, although during dry season (June-July) the sun can be fierce and burning.
For miles on end the altiplano may appear empty of life. Until you reach water in the right season and the surface may be covered in pink.
A closer look reveals flamingos who have come here to spend the winter or summer, depending on where you see them, feeding on algae (the Laguna Colorado in Bolivia is called ‘Red Lake’ due to the high content of red algae.
In Bolivia your best bet to catch sight of flamingoes is from December to April — the Chilean, Andean, and James’s (or Puna) Flamingo.
The most common camelid in South America, the llama is bred for wool and meat, and serves as pack animal.
They are easily domesticated and when you see them walking in the wild, they’ll have tufts of colored cotton in their fur, denoting ownership.
Taking a trip across the altiplano in Bolivia, including Salar de Uyuni, is a safe bet to spot llamas.
A native animal in South America, guanacos are a member of the camelid family. They live in herds on the altiplano, and another very good area to observe them is in the Argentinean part of Patagonia (e.g. Peninsula Valdes).
Like vicuñas, they don’t like to be domesticated and along with the tapir they are among South America’s largest wild mammals.
It’s not always evident whether you’re looking at a llama or alpaca, although the alpaca is smaller and arguably cuter to look at.
Both are domesticated animals kept for their wool for clothes and blankets that you’ll find everywhere on Andean markets.
Like llamas they spit when in distress or feeling threatened. Alpacas are native to Peru and that’s also the easiest place to see them because of their numbers.
The most elegant of the Lamoid family, the vicuña is found on the highest altitudes of the altiplano (above 3,200 meters).
Like the guanaco, these camelids live in the wild, although they are gathered by locals once every three years to be sheared — their fine wool is very expensive.
Slender and graceful it’s sheer joy to watch them running across the plains and hills of the colorful altiplano. It’s hard to get a photo of them up close as they are incredibly shy.
The Amazon Rainforest
The largest part of the Amazon rainforest covers Brazil, but it also stretches into Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Venezuela, and the Guianas.
Because the foliage is dense, spotting animals is not a matter of course and in most countries taking a guide is your best bet. French Guiana, on the other hand, has quite a number of hiking trails that you can walk independently, increasing the likelihood of detecting wildlife by yourself.
The South American tapir lives in large areas of Brazil as well as in other Amazonian countries.
Big though they are (weighing around 225 kg), it does require some luck to catch a glimpse of them. They are extremely shy and so it’s more likely to hear them running away than to spot one.
The herbivore feeds on leaves, shoots and small branches and is in turn eaten by crocodilians, the jaguar and anaconda.
Amazon: Poison Dart Frog
Using its bright colored skin to warn predators to keep away, it’s exactly those colors that make it easier for us, humans, to spot these beautiful creatures more easily than any other frog. The poisonous skin was traditionally used by Amerindians for their blow darts, hence their name.
The Amazon Rainforest is the poison-dart frog’s home and there are more than 100 species. Small as they are and often hiding among rocks, you have to know where to look for them or hire a guide.
French Guiana is by far your best bet to find these fascinating and lethargic arboreal mammals. When on the ground they average a speed of 180 meters an hour, but they are strong swimmers. Most of their lives is spent solitary, hanging upside down in trees.
Their sluggishness makes it impossible for them to get away in time when forests are cut down and as a result their numbers are dwindling. Chou-Aï in Cayenne, the capital, is a sloth rescue center that is open to visitors.
Amazon: Spider Monkey
Among the largest monkeys in Latin America, the spider monkeys live in the Amazon Rainforest. There are seven species, all are decreasing in numbers and all are on the IUCN Red List.
As they live in the forest, spotting them — the fruit and nut eaters are often in groups — is not a matter of course, although they may betray themselves by their loud screams.
Amazon: Toco Toucan
While part of a larger bird family, the word "toucan" refers to the most commonly spotted one: the toco toucan (also called the giant toucan or common toucan).
You will spot them along the edges of the forest with open spaces. They are best known as frugivores, fruit eaters, but they are omnivores as well.
It’s been long debated as to why the bird has a beak that’s one-third of its body size but scientists have meanwhile found evidence that it regulates heat distribution, thus keeping the bird cool.