The Vilcanota Mountains in Cusco, Peru offer some of the best trekking opportunities in South America, with extensive mountain trails offering fantastic views of snow-capped peaks, glaciers, and alpine habitats. Conveniently located above the Sacred Valley and a short distance from the ruins of Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo, many trekkers visit this area as an alternative or addition to the Inca Trail.
This area is also one of the most important centers of endemism for birds that specialize on Polylepis forests in the Andes. These include the Royal Cinclodes, Ash-breasted Tit-Tyrant, White-browed Tit Spinetail, Tawny Tit-Spinetail, Tit-like Dacnis, Thick-billed Siskin, Giant Conebill, Stripe-headed Antpitta, and others. Polylepis is a highly threatened ecosystem and has been the focus of a long-running and successful conservation campaign by the Peruvian conservation organization Asociación Ecosistemas Andinos (ECOAN) with support from American Bird Conservancy since 2001, resulting in the planting of more than a million Polylepis trees and creation of eight communally owned Private Conservation Areas (PCAs, or ACPs in Spanish) that form the Vilcanota Reserve Network spanning more than 18,000 acres.
Trails run through all of the eight PCAs in the Vilcanota Reserve Network. We call this the “living Inca Trail” because the descendants of the Incan people still live here maintaining traditional practices.
One the trails you will also traverse puna grasslands, which support ground-tyrants, canasteros, tapaculos, and sierra-finches. Andean Geese, Andean Ibis, Puna Ibis and other waterfowl can be found in the wetlands. Mitred Parakeets and Andean Condors are sometime seen flying overhead. Short-tailed Finch, a rare and local songbird, has been observed in the tallus slopes within the Hatum Queuña – Quishuarani Ccollana PCA.
For birders, the most famous area for seeing the endemic birds is Abra Málaga Tastayoc – Royal Cinclodes Private Conservation Area, which is the easiest to access by a paved highway that crosses the Abra Málaga pass before dropping into the more humid eastern slope of the Andes.
Birders should be comfortable walking on steep terrain at high elevations (above 4,000 m or 13,000 feet above sea level). Visitors who can acclimatize in Cusco for several days prior to their visit often avoid more detrimental effects of altitude here. Dress in layers as sunny weather can be quite warm, but rain or even snow can occur here.