There are few sights as memorable as an exotic animal in the wild. And there are few better places to see wildlife than in Central and South America.
To help you plan a wildlife adventure, and to indulge in some animal inspiration (who doesn’t love animals?!), we’re showcasing some of the amazing animals of Central and South America. Not only that, we’re sharing some of the best places to spot these animals in the wild.
So keep reading to learn about some of the most colorful, fluffy, and all around delightful animals you can see on a vacation to Central and South America.
What animals can you see in Central and South America?
This brilliantly pink bird might be most associated with the soda lakes of East Africa, but the Andean flamingo is a distinctly South American species that only lives in the Andes Mountains (hence the name). You’ll find the birds living in colonies near saline-rich lakes in the summer and in the lower wetlands in the winter. The birds are migratory, however, capable of traveling up to 700 mi in a single day, so you never quite know where you may spot them.
Where to see Andean flamingos?
You’ll find these birds throughout the Andes Mountains ranging from Peru to Argentina and Chile. Visiting Bolivia is perhaps your best bet to see Andean flamingos in the wild. Laguna Colorada in the southwest is a particularly good spot to see them.
The world’s largest rodent has become a fan-favourite on the Internet over the past decade. Its remarkably unflappable demeanour and adorably big nose have won fans worldwide—just watch some videos to see how it ignores other animals that climb on it and even try to eat it! These rodents spend a lot of their time in the water, so you’ll find them in wetlands and rainforests across the continent, except in Chile.
Where to see capybaras?
Capybaras are common in most parts of South America, but head to Brazil for your best chance to see them. In particular, head to the wetlands of the Pantanal.
If you’re a 90s kid, you’ll be intimately familiar with the guinea pig. Even if you didn’t have one as a pet, you probably had friends who did. It’s no secret why guinea pigs are popular pets. They’re friendly, affectionate, and very cute. But in South America, they’re not pets. They’re common rodents and also a popular food source in the Andes—known as cuy. We don’t blame you if you don’t want to try cuy while exploring Peru or Bolivia, but you should have many opportunities to spot these animals while traveling.
Where to see guinea pigs?
Head to Peru to spot guinea pigs in most of the rural parts of the country. On farms and in traditional villages, you’ll find them in pens, much like other domesticated animal food sources. You’ll also have the rare chance to spot them in the wild in the Andes.
The giant tortoise is the world’s longest living land animal (not the longest living overall, since jellyfish appear to essentially live forever). Giant tortoises regularly live over 100 years, and the oldest on record lived to be 152! That’s pretty old. There are several species of the giant tortoise, but the most famous is the Galapagos tortoise, which can only be found in this Ecuadorian island chain.
Where to see giant tortoises?
It’s a no brainer: the Galapagos Islands are the best place in the world to see giant tortoises in the wild. While Lonesome George isn’t around anymore, you’ll find other giant tortoises wandering around the Santa Cruz highlands and the volcanic landscape of Isabela.
The jaguar is neither the largest (tiger) nor the smallest (rusty-spotted cat) species of wild cat, but it might be the prettiest. It’s one of the most elusive cats in the world, but luckily, numbers remain robust in the wild, meaning you have a decent chance to see these gorgeous beasts in the jungles of Central and South America.
Where to see jaguars?
You can find jaguars as far north as Mexico and as far south as Argentina (there are even occasionally sightings as far north as the southwestern United States). However, there’s an entire tourism industry in Guyana focused on spotting jaguars in the wilds of the Iwokrama Rainforest, so that’s a great place to look.
One of the dominant species of penguins found in South America (the other being Humboldt penguins), the Magellanic penguin is an adorable, black-banded bird that thrives in the coastal south of South America. Like their Antarctic cousins, these penguins live in large colonies and have strong social bonds, although they can handle a bit warmer temperatures than kings or emperors.
Where to see Magellanic penguins?
You’ll find these birds along the southern coasts of Chile and Argentina, as well as in the Falkland Islands. Isla Magdalena near Punta Arenas, Chile is a particularly good spot to see them, as there’s a colony of around 120,000 on the island.
Poison Dart Frog
While the name refers to a family of amphibians rather than a specific species, most people simply want to see poison dart frogs in general, not a specific species. And these colorful frogs abound in Central and South America. You’ll hear them ribbit in the jungle, although you’ll find them shockingly difficult to spot unless you know how to decipher their spatially disorienting manner of throwing their sound. Popular species include the strawberry poison-dart frog, with its brilliant red torso and blue legs, and the yellow-banded poison dart frog. Just don’t touch them!
Where to see poison dart frogs?
If you visit a rainforest anywhere in Central and South America, you’re likely to find poison dart frogs. Belize is a particularly good spot to search for them, as it abounds with rainforests and tropical coastline.
This bird is so gorgeous, its existence almost beggars belief. Bright green feathers, a red breast, white tail, and a long, green, peacock-like plume. The resplendent quetzal is almost mythical in appeal, but they are real and if you’re lucky you can spot them when exploring the cloud forests of Central America. Go early in the morning and scope out a wild avocado tree, the source of quetzals’ favorite food.
Where to see resplendent quetzals?
The resplendent quetzal is the national bird of Guatemala, so Guatemala is an ideal spot to search for them in the wild, although you’ll find them from Mexico to Panama. Head to higher elevation and search out the cloud forests in the early morning. Biotopo del Quetzal in central Guatemala is a good place to search.
The most famous and majestic of the parrots, the scarlet macaw is one of the largest birds in Central and South America. It’s also one of the longest living. Macaws can live for up to 80 years, they mate for life, and they can even vocalize like a human, which means they share a lot of similarities with humans. If only we were so pretty. The burst of red torso with rainbow-colored wings and a blue tail is breathtaking—and even more gorgeous when you spot one in person.
Where to see scarlet macaws?
You can find scarlet macaws from Mexico to Peru and Brazil, but probably your best bet to spot them is by visiting the Pacific regions of Costa Rica, including the Nicoya Peninsula and Manuel Antonio.
These tiny mammals are some of the cutest New World monkeys. They’re no larger than a squirrel and have fur coats that are mixes of black, brown, and white. They have the playful personalities that you’d expect of monkeys, but are also very adept at running and jumping, which is useful to stay high in the canopy and away from predators. Most species of tamarins are endangered, especially the cotton-top tamarin, which is named for the white tuft of hair on its head.
Where to see tamarins?
The cotton-top tamarin is only found in northwestern Colombia, so that’s the best place to search for them in the wild.
Two and Three-Toed Sloths
Yes, there are two kinds of sloths! The famous three-toed sloth has its grey fur and iconic black band across its eyes that looks like a bandit mask. The two-toed sloth is smaller and browner. It also looks a bit like a pig, with a snub-nosed snout. Both of these species abound in Central America. They feast on cecropia leaves, which have a narcotic effect on the sloths, leaving them extra sleepy and slow—as if they weren’t slow enough already!
Where to see sloths?
No matter where you go in Central America, you won’t have a hard time spotting sloths in the wild. Panama is a good place to search. Panama City has some parks within its borders where you have a good chance to spot one, although the many national parks further afield also abound. If you want to guarantee a sighting, consider stopping at the sloth sanctuary in Gamboa.
Is that a llama? No, it’s a vicuna, which lives in the remote steppes of Patagonia. Vicunas are camelids, so they belong to the same family as llamas, alpacas, and guanacos, although they’re slighter than their cousins. The slender look is particularly adorable, but also advantageous, as it allows them to navigate the rocky slopes and high altitudes of Patagonia.
Where to see vicunas?
If you head to Patagonia in Argentina or Chile, you’ll have a good chance of spotting vicunas as you hike across the wind-swept landscape.
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