On the Bolivian border, not far from Puno and famed Lake Titicaca, the “highest navigable body of water in the world,” is a unique conservation zone clinging with lush abandon to the Andes, as they plunge toward the thickly jungled Amazon Basin.
The star attraction is Peru’s Bahuaja Sonene National Park, connected by a network of public and private lands to Tambopata Natural Reserve, Peru’s most visited wildlife preserve. Madidi National Park and Pilon-Lajas Biosphere Reserve are both on the Bolivian side of the border. Together, they protect one of the most biodiverse hotspots on Earth, home to more than 1000 bird species, including the rare military macaw, blue-headed macaw, and Amazonian parakeet.
These four parks’ epic altitudes (500m/1640ft–3000m/9840ft) and a range of microclimates conspire to create a cradle for all sorts of diverse life. The wetlands of Bahuaja Sonene, never suited to the people of Peru as farms or villages, remain an almost untouched Eden of unusual species like the ciervo de los pantanos (marsh deer), which has webbing on its hooves that allow it to gracefully traverse this watery world of rustling savannah and precious mahogany. Giant otters, spectacled bears, maned wolves, giant anteaters, and scores of amphibians and insects make this place a photographer’s dream, and a biologist’s holy grail. In fact, when the Peruvian government proposed privatizing part of the park in 2007, the world rallied to protect it.
As part of these efforts, the Wildlife Conservation Society mounted an expedition into the Bahuaja Sonene to seek out new life forms. This February, they announced the discovery of 365 previously undocumented species.
While parts of this enormous conservation area are easy to visit, Bahuaja Sonene is accessible by boat only, along the Tambopata River. Most travelers book a three-day tour into this quiet corner of Madre de Dios, including stays at lovely lodges in the lush jungles. Though this isn’t an excursion for folks on a shoestring budget, it is usually cheaper than the similar (and much more popular) Amazon expeditions into the Manu Biosphere Reserve, just a few kilometers away as the macaw flies.