Latin America, home to the Amazon rainforest, the Pantanal and Iberá wetlands, the Galápagos Islands, the high Andes, the Patagonian steppe and the Falkland Islands, is unbelievably rich in wildlife most of which found nowhere else in the world. The continent also boasts of almost 3,500 species of birds. In the remote wildlife meccas of South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula, seabird and marine life and mammal numbers - seals, whales and dolphins - rival Africa's top wilderness areas.
From the jungles of Mexico in the north, to Belize's jaguar rich lowland and coastal rainforests, Nicaragua's cloud forests and Costa Rica's well-protected national parks covering over a quarter of its total landmass, Central America is a haven for wildlife and birdlife. However, South America is the region's big game country, with wildlife hotspots such as Brazil's Pantanal wetlands offering the best opportunities to spot jaguars, tapirs, giant anteateters and many other iconic mammal and bird species. Guyana's tropical forests and rolling grasslands are arguably the best place on the continent to view giant harpy eagles and anteaters, and the chaotic macaw and parrot clay licks in the Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon are ranked up there with the top wildlife spectacles in the world.
Patagonia's Torres del Paine is now firmly established as the top puma viewing destination in the world, while the Altiplano, the High Andes and the Patagonian steppe all harbour healthy populations of puma, thanks to the increase in numbers of their preferred prey and the continent's two wild camelid species - the vicuña and guanaco - as well as their domesticated cousins the llamas and alpacas which are thriving at haciendas and farms throughout the southern part of the continent.
The Pantanal is the world’s largest tropical wetland and South America's answer to Botswana's Okavango Delta. This is the one wildlife destination that rivals Africa as it is big game country with a staggering variety and density of wildlife and birdlife. This vast area of wetlands and floodplains spans three countries—Bolivia, Brazil, and Paraguay—and covers more than 70,000 square miles. While the Amazon usually gets the limelight, the Pantanal is also one of the most biologically diverse places on Earth, home to more than 4,700 species of plants and animals.
The Amazon rainforest is the largest in the world, three times larger than Africa's Congo Basin, and spreads across nine countries: Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Suriname, Peru, Colombia, Bolivia, Guyana, and French Guiana. It is one of the last refuges for jaguars, anacondas, tarantulas, giant armadillos, piranhas and pink river dolphins, and it is home to sloths, black spider monkeys and poison dart frogs. The Amazon contains one in ten known species on earth: over 400 mammal species, 1,300 bird species, 40,000 plant species, 3,000 freshwater fish species and more than 370 types of reptiles and 400 reptiles.
The Galápagos Islands
Off the mainland, the Galápagos Islands are our planet's "laboratory of evolution", extremely pristine and free of introduced and invasive species. Charles Darwin and his famous book The Origin of Species will forever be linked with the Galapagos. Darwin only spent five weeks on the islands in 1835, but it was the wildlife that he saw there that inspired his Theory of Evolution. The Galápagos tortoise will probably be the most iconic species one will find on the islands but it is packed to the brim with marine iguanas, sea lions, colorful sea-birds including blue, Nazca and red footed boobies, magnificent frigate birds and flightless cormorants. Flamingos, brown pelicans, galapagos penguins and galapagos hawks are all on every birdwatcher's list and the waters around the islands are rich in turtles, sharks, rays and whales.
Big and Small Cats
Africa usually takes the cake when it comes to big cats and understandably so, but Latin America certainly comes a very close second. The continent's wild habitats house large fractions of our planet’s biodiversity, including ten species of wild cats found in the continent: jaguar, puma, ocelot, margay, jaguarundi, Geoffroy's cat, pampas cat, Andean mountain cat and oncilla. Just like in Africa, one needs a lot of luck to spot the smaller and more nocturnal species, but the iconic larger cat species such as jaguars, pumas and ocelots (image below) can be tracked at certain parks at the right time of the year, with the help of an experienced tracker and guide and the right dose of patience.
Foxes and other Carnivores
South America's foxes are not true foxes, but are a unique genus more closely related to wolves and jackals. The continent has six species: the Andean fox (or culpeo), South American grey fox, pampas fox, sechuran fox, hoary fox and the endangered Darwin's fox which has its last stronghold in Chile's Chiloé Island. Other dog-like canines of South America are the bush dog, the crab-eating fox, the maned wolf (image below), the small-eared zorro and the Falkland Island or Antarctic wolf which was hunted to extinction in the late 1800s.
The continent is also ground zero for earth's most strange looking but fascinating wildlife. Prehistoric looking lowland tapirs, giant and silky anteaters, sloths, maned wolves, spectacled bears, capybaras and fascinating armadillos patrol the continent's wild areas. Latin America is home to 20 different armadillo species - from the nine-banded armadillo found in Central America (image below) to the grassland's hairy armadillo to southern Patagonia's pygmy or dwarf armadillo. And of course every wildlife enthusiast's holy grail, the elusive giant armadillo, South America's answer to Africa's giant pangolin.
South America is home to two species of penguin: the Galápagos penguin, endemic to the Galápagos Islands and the only penguin found north of the equator, with the cool waters of the Humboldt and Cromwell currents allowing it to survive a tropical climate; and the magellanic penguin, endemic to southern Chile (along Chiloé) and Argentina (including the Falklands) and occasionally migrating up north to the coasts of Brazil on the Atlantic and Peru on the Pacific. A small king penguin colony is starting to form on an island off Punta Arenas most likely due to climate change, way north of their historical range. Then you have the Antarctic's eight iconic penguin species: emperors and adélies which live exclusively on the Antarctic Continent; chinstraps, macaronis and gentoos straddle both northern Antarctica and the sub-Antarctic islands; and rockhoppers, kings and magellanics which live exclusively in the sub-Antarctic.
Latin America is the "bird continent". It boasts 3,420 species, more than any other continent on earth. Colombia alone has a staggering 1,852 species and both Brazil and Peru are not far behind with confirmed lists exceeding 1,800. Of the continent's species, 2,477 are endemic with nine entire families containing 21 species. The continent's birdlife is also the most colourful and boisterous, with 40 toucan species, 19 macaw species including endangered Spix's and hyacinth macaws, over 100 parrot species and 120 species of hummingbird.
Four species of new world flamingos occur in Latin America. Three of these - the Andean, Chilean and the rare James's - thrive on the Altiplano's high altitude lagoons, with the American flamingo found in coastal pockets on the northern half of the continent as well as in the Galápagos. Lastly, the continent is home to many of the world's most unique and bizarre-looking birds including the oil bird, cock-of-the-rock, hoatzin, magnificent frigate bird, jabiru stork and king vulture (image below).
Rich Marine and River Life
Underwater, the scope for amazing wildlife encounters is no different, with incredible snorkeling and diving opportunities. Swim the crystal clear river waters of Brazil's Bonito and go eyeball to eyeball with over a hundred species of fresh water fish. Or wade into the Amazon and Pantanal's piranha infested waters. Snorkel with sharks, sea turtles and even marine iguanas and flightless cormorants, or dive amongst hammerhead sharks in the Galápagos. Or frolick with the dolphins and turtles which inhabit the crystal clear waters of the marine park which surround the remote island of Fernando de Noronha 350 kilometres off the Brazilian coast. And for the ultimate deep dives, Costa Rica's Cocos Island - 500 kilometres off its coast - is famous for its schooling hammerhead sharks and open ocean diving, the underwater equivalent of a big game African safari and a mecca for divers.
And for a few weeks every year, one of nature's most incredible predatory behavior plays out on the beaches of Argentina's Peninsula Valdes as orcas or killer whales intentionally beach themselves to hunt young sea lions and elephant seals. It is certainly not for the faint-hearted but this unique phenomenon is at the top of many wildlife enthusiasts' lists.
Even if your reasons for visiting Latin America are for its culture, art, history, landscapes or even its food and wine, there is certainly no escaping encounters with some fascinating species - both the four-legged species and the winged versions - on your wonderful travels around the continent!