From the giant tortoises of the Galápagos to the condors of the Andes, from the Amazon’s toucans and monkeys to the hummingbirds and sloths of Costa Rica – wildlife is at the heart of so many of Latin America’s great holiday experiences.
For wildlife enthusiasts, birders and keen photographers, there can be few better places to visit than this continent of breathtaking biodiversity and geographical extremes, home to the largest rainforest, the biggest river, the longest mountain range and the driest desert. The vast variety of habitats makes for a fascinating array of both animal and bird life: over 50% of the world’s total bird species call Latin America home, while a new species is discovered on average every three days in the Amazon.
Choosing just where to visit on your ultimate South American wildlife holiday can be tough, so we’ve put together a simple guide to the region’s top wildlife areas. Find out where and when to go and what you’re likely to see, plus discover the lesser-known alternatives to the continent’s most famous wildlife destinations.
The Galápagos Islands
Where: The Galápagos Islands lie off the coast of Ecuador. To get there you must fly from either Quito (3hrs) or Guayaquil (1.5hrs). Once there, most visitors embark on a cruise but it is also possible to stay on land. See our choice of cruises and land-based holidays in the archipelago: there is more choice and variety than you might imagine.
What you will see: You are highly likely to see many sea lions, marine and land iguanas, blue-footed boobies and Darwin finches, while under the sea, turtles, hammerhead sharks and manta rays are common, among many other species. Depending on the islands you visit you may see giant tortoises, Galápagos penguins, albatrosses and/or flightless cormorants. You will be able to see the animals at very close range – famously, they have no fear of man.
When to go: There is no wrong time to visit the Galápagos in terms of either wildlife-spotting or climate. Generally speaking, between December and May the weather is hot with warm, calm seas and more chance of showers. Between June and November, it is cooler with morning mist and choppier, colder seas.
You might also like: Isla de la Plata, Ecuador, which has similar wildlife but is much closer to the mainland.
Where: The Pantanal do Mato Grosso is located in south-western Brazil. This wetlands area known for some of South America’s best wildlife-spotting is served by two airports: Cuiabá in the northern Pantanal and Campo Grande in the south. Click on the link above to see our selection of lodges.
What you will see: At any time of year you are highly likely to see plenty of capybara, caiman, howler monkeys, birds and piranhas (on the end of a fishing rod at least). Giant anteaters, jabiru storks, deer, peccaries, coatis and giant otters are also common, while ocelots and tapirs may be sighted. With luck, it’s possible to see a jaguar or an anaconda.
When to go: The rains tend to fall from November through to March, with water levels reaching their full height in January or February. The land remains flooded until around May or June, but it is still possible to spot land mammals as they seek the limited high ground that is left. What is regarded as the best time to observe wildlife falls in the cooler months from July to October, as the lagoons slowly shrink and the animals are forced to seek what water remains.
You might also like: The Esteros del Iberá in northern Argentina or the Llanos in Venezuela – both offer a similar wetland wildlife experience.
Where: Costa Rica’s main areas for wildlife-spotting include Tortuguero National Park, Monteverde Cloud Forest, Corcovado National Park and Manuel Antonio National Park.
What you will see: You can expect to see plenty of wildlife in Costa Rica’s cloud forests. Amongst the most commonly sighted fauna are sloths, monkeys, marmots, poison dart frogs, tree frogs, iguanas, toucans, parrots, dolphins, lizards, snakes, quetzals, blue morpho butterflies and caiman. With luck you may see an ocelot. In season (see below) you can see turtles nesting.
When to go: Costa Rica has a subtropical climate with rain to be expected at any time of year – at its heaviest during the ‘green’ season from May to November. Turtles: green turtles nest in Tortuguero National Park between July and October, while leatherbacks nest along the Caribbean coast and Guanacaste from February to June, and Olive Ridley turtles nest in Guanacaste in August and September.
You might also like: Pico Bonito Lodge in Honduras or Chaa Creek in Belize.
Where: Covering half the landmass of South America, the Amazon rainforest is typically visited from either Brazil, Peru or Ecuador, though it is also possible to visit the Bolivian and Colombian Amazon.
What you will see: It is worth viewing a holiday to the Amazon as a jungle experience rather than expecting see a large variety of wildlife. While you are likely to spot capuchin monkeys, macaws, toucans and caimans, and perhaps snakes, tarantulas, spider monkeys and giant river otters (as well as pink river dolphins in the Brazilian Amazon and around Iquitos, Peru), the dense foliage hampers your chances: if wildlife is a top priority, you may wish to consider visiting the Pantanal in addition to or instead of the Amazon.
When to go: The hot, wet climate of the Amazon varies relatively little throughout the seasons, and in Peru and Ecuador there is no reason not to visit at any time of the year. The Brazilian Amazon however is perhaps best visited from April to July when the water levels are high and you can canoe through the flooded rainforest, lodges are more accessible and transfer times shorter – though in the dry season when water levels are low (September to around February) there are more forest walks available. It can be sunnier but extremely hot in August.
You might also like: The cloud forests of Costa Rica.
Where: Guyana is in north-eastern South America, bordered by Brazil, Venezuela and Suriname.
What you will see: Remote and little-visited Guyana is a nature-lover’s paradise. Giant river otters, tapirs, anteaters, kinkajous and ocelots are amongst the most commonly sighted mammals, while there are over 800 bird species, including the harpy eagle, the cock of the rock, the spectacled owl and the jabiru stork. Guyana also represents one of the best chances to see a jaguar in the wild.
When to go: Avoid the wettest times of year when wildlife shelters and roads are often impassable. The coastal strip has two rainy seasons – December to February and late May to mid-August. Southern Guyana (the Rupununi) has just one, running from mid-May to late August.
You might also like: Other remote wilderness areas such as the Darién National Park in Panama.
Getting there: Expedition cruises to the Antarctic set sail from Ushuaia, Argentina. There is also a fly-cruise option available, which departs from Punta Arenas in Chile.
What you’ll see: In this untouched icy wilderness you will see a vast amount of wildlife, particularly penguins, elephant and fur seals and whales (orcas, humpbacks and minke whales are the most commonly spotted).
When to go: Antarctica is accessible from late October to early March. Dependent on when you visit, you can see birds court and mate (November) give birth (December/January), or fledge their young (February).
You might also like: The wildlife-rich Falkland Islands, which are sometimes incorporated into Antarctic cruise itineraries. Patagonia where you can spot condors, guanacos and (with luck) pumas in stunning glacial landscapes.
Whale Watching in Latin America
Peninsula Valdés, Argentina: In the Valdés Peninsula, southern right whales are commonly seen between August and November (and more than a million Magellanic penguins gather at the Punta Tombo sanctuary between October and March). You’ll also spot elephant seals and sea lions.
Florianópolis, Brazil: Every year between June and November, the southern coast of Brazil’s Santa Catarina state becomes the stage for an amazing spectacle as the southern right whales escape the Antarctic winter to breed and nurse their calves in these waters.
Magdalena Bay (Baja California), Mexico: In the months of January and February, see grey whales nurse their young in Mexico’s Baja Peninsula.
You might also like: Swimming with the world’s largest fish, the whale shark, in Holbox, Mexico, or in Placencia, Belize.