Peru - Manu - Janes of the Jungle, Part 2
Nov 18, 2005
|The Manu Biosphere Reserve contains almost 2 million hectares of virgin cloud and rainforest on the foothills of the eastern Andes, and is considered one of the planet's last great forest wildernesses containing the most diverse flora and fauna. It was declared a national park in 1973, elevated to a World Biosphere Reserve in 1977, and finally to a UNESCO World Natural Heritage Site in 1987. Besides the forest wildlife, the only inhabitants of this reserve are the park guards, a group of scientists at a biological research station, and a few indigenous tribes who have chosen to completely remove themselves from contact with the modern world.
The reserve is divided into 3 zones: (1) "Zone A, National Park", the core and largest portion of the park which is being strictly preserved in its natural status and is completely inaccessible to anyone, (2) "Zone B, Reserved Zone", an area set aside for controlled research and tourism and is only accessible by organized tour, and (3) "Zone C, Cultural Zone", a small area easily accessible to anyone with some human settlements of controlled traditional use.
Continuing on with our jungle theme, Tracy and I, along with her friend Juan from Cusco, and a last-minute group addition of Pieter the Dutchman, set off to discover the flora and fauna within the Manu Reserved Zone....
We're on our way by vehicle from Cusco, driving through beautiful Andean landscape and over numerous mountain passes (the highest >4000m). Unfortunately I picked up a wicked head cold after going from hot/humid Iquitos to cold/dry Cusco so my head feels like it's gonna explode every time we change altitude, which at this point is quite often. Once we entered the Manu Cultural Zone we noticed an immediate change in surroundings from dry barren Andean hills to foggy mystical cloudforest rich with vegetation. Spent the rest of the day traveling along narrow bumpy roads, through waterfalls and over road washouts, always surrounded by lush hills and fantastic scenery. Spotted a little armadillo crossing the road, so we stopped to have an encounter. Poor thing, we quite literally "scared the poop" out of him as he projectile pooed when we gently picked him up. Late in the afternoon and close to our first night's destination we stopped to watch the "Cock of the Rock" mating dance ritual. The male birds have black wings and bright red head/body plumage and congregate twice daily to dance for the ladies who eventually select their partners based on who dances/sings/looks the best. Real mating doesn't actually occur this time of year, but I guess practice makes perfect. Our guide, Andres, has a telescope which not only gives fantastic viewing but also great pix through the telescope. Unfortunately this hasn't much improved my wildlife photography skills; I still suck. The Paradise Lodge, our first night's accommodation, is like the Ritz Carlton compared to our Iquitos digs ... private rooms, hot showers, flush toilets, comfy beds, babbling brook, formal dining room, professionally prepared meals, the whole nine yards.
Took in another early morning observation of the Cock of the Rocks. Then, while eating breakfast, Andres spotted some Woolley monkeys across the river, which we all watched through the telescope. After breakfast we went on a short hike that unfortunately turned somewhat disastrous as Tracy had yet another unsuccessful water crossing! After lunch we bade farewell to Paradise Lodge and spent another 3 hours bumping along in the van. All were much relieved to finally reach the village of Atalaya where the road trip ended and the river trip began. Had just enough time for a quick beverage (read: beer), then the boat was loaded and we're traveling northward on the Madre de Dios River. We're now a group of 8: 4 tourists, 1 guide, 1 cook and 2 boatmen. We traveled until Andres found a suitable campsite for the night, at which time the crew very efficiently set up the tents, the cook prepared dinner, and the lazy tourists cooled off with a leisurely soak in the river.
Rain and thunderstorms hit around 2am, and by 4:30am we were awake and packing up quickly. Although our tents had been set up well back from the river last night, the heavy overnight rains quickly swelled the river to the point where the water level was now literally touching our tents. Cool, we now had a tent with a bedside pool! Not so cool ... we had to wade through raging knee-deep river water in the pouring rain to get our gear into the boat. The rain continued for the rest of the morning, but that didn't stop us from enjoying a hot breakfast that the cook miraculously prepared in the back of the boat as we traveled. Late morning we arrived at the small settlement of Boca Manu, our day's destination, and had siestas in our lodge rooms until the rain finally stopped. After lunch we hiked through corn, banana, coca and yucca fields to first visit a boat maker and then a tiny indigenous village. People who live here sometimes work a few days to make money for basic supplies, but otherwise simply live off the land and enjoy a quiet basic life. We all had cabin challenges this evening ... first Juan had to chase a big frog out of his and Tracy's room, then he had to chase a strange leaf-shaped insect out of mine which had been quiet during the day but was now doing crazy laps around the room. Pieter accidentally locked himself out of his room while going to brush his teeth and then later, on a baño visit, Andres locked himself out of his. I hear that Pieter and Andres' parts of this comedy were acted out in their underwear or possibly birthday suits, but I can't confirm as I didn't witness.
Have changed directions and are now heading west along the Manu River. Formally checked into the Manu Reserved Zone, then traveled 6 more hours by boat before reaching the lodge that'll be home for a few days. Saw lots of wildlife along the way; monkeys, turtles, tons of tropical birds, and even caught a quick glimpse of a jaguar, revered "king of the jungle". This is my 4th jungle visit, but only my 1st time seeing a jaguar! He was a bit camera shy though, so sadly no pix. The recent rain has increased the water flow and current of the river, and also eroded the riverbanks and felled many trees into the river. No problem for our boatman though, who competently wound his way through the maze of branches and half-sunk logs. Locals like to "catch" these felled trees and either use them for boat/house construction or for sale to the outside world. But since they're not allowed to enter this protected park reserve, they wait patiently outside the park entrance for the trees to flow downriver and literally come to them. It's nice to actually witness a form of "legal logging" in the Amazon rainforest for a change. Settled into our camp, then went for a jungle hike where we saw more birds, a land turtle, snake and bone remains of a wild pig. Spotted a group of Woolley monkeys who aggressively shook trees and threw branches at us. Tracy scored major jungle points by tripping, falling, and this time actually spraining her wrist. The jungle cabins are sparse but comfortable, with screened walls and mosquito nets to keep out the nasty critters but to allow a breeze, if there were one that is, to flow through. There's even one hot water shower and in the evening, since there's no electricity, the rooms, toilets and pathways are lit with candles and little torches. Quite romantic, too bad there's just me and the monkeys! It's wonderful to fall asleep with nothing but the natural sounds of the jungle to listen to.
Rose early and took the boat across the river, then hiked a short while to reach Lake Salvador, home of the giant otters. Our boatmen provided paddle power for our catamaran, so the quiet of our beautiful morning was broken only by the sounds of nature and the soft stroke of the paddles. Quickly found a group of otters - parents hunting and babies playing - and followed them around the lake. We laughed at the babies who loudly protested when mom caught a fish and didn't share. Took a longer hike back to the powerboat and saw some Black Spider monkeys enroute. I think they're the largest monkeys in this jungle. Had a little siesta, then hiked to an observation tower after lunch from where we saw Red Howler monkeys and lots of birds including my favorite, the Hoazin, with big eyes and Mohawk-style spiky feathers on their head. Also went on a night hike to observe nocturnal jungle creatures. Saw lots of creepy crawlies like brightly colored and highly poisonous spiders, caterpillars and frogs, but unfortunately no tarantulas.
Our guide, Andres, is a real bird guy. He heard a bird sound while we were eating breakfast, set up his telescope, and immediately zoned in on a large toucan. He's pretty good with the animals too, and can recognize the sound, species and practically the weight and shoe size of any monkey he hears. After breakfast we packed up and traveled upriver to visit a small village where we snooped through some locally made products. Lots of things made from feathers and teeth but, really, how often are you going to wear that toucan feather headdress outside of the jungle? Continued downriver, lazily floating this time instead of under engine power, hoping to see more animals and maybe even sight another jaguar, but no such luck. Formally checked out of the Manu Reserved Zone but instead of immediately leaving, we went tarantula hunting in the park behind the park office. Andres spread saliva on the end of a stick and stuck it down the tarantula hole. Thinking there's an intruder nearby, the tarantula came up to investigate. We also came across an agouti on the path, the live version of the "jungle rat" that Tracy and I ate while in Iquitos. Underway again, we stopped just outside of Boca Manu to do a little pirañha fishing. Andres first caught a tiny fish that we used for bait. Pieter and I decided to have a little fishing competition, which he promptly won on the first cast if you can believe it. No other fish were interested in biting, so we continued to Boca Manu, stopped just long enough for the gringos to pound back a few beverages, inhale a few Snickers bars, stock up on snacks and cheap-tasting-but-expensively-priced wine, and then were off to another private lodge just outside of Boca Manu where we spent the night.
Originally planned on flying back to Cusco from Boca Manu - a quick 55-minute flight versus a 2-day boat/car journey along basically the same route we had arrived on. But a problem with the airline (one of their planes crash landed, thankfully no fatalities) completely shut down the one and only airline into Boca Manu for who knows how long, so flying back was now not an option and we're back to boat travel southward on the Madre de Dios River. Stopped at another indigenous village named Diamante, larger and more developed, where everyone bought locally made ceramic products. Then we sat in the boat for what felt like days until we reached another suitable campsite, this time making sure it was WAY back and uphill from the riverbank so that another near flooding wouldn't occur. Once again the tourists sat in the river, sipping wine and watching a beautiful sunset, while camp was set up and a scrumptious dinner prepared.
Another early morning start, this time to visit a nearby clay-lick. Every day, large birds like parrots, macaws and parakeets must lick salt and various other minerals found in this soil, which I think helps them digest their food or something like that. We'd wanted to visit this clay-lick before when we camped at the beginning of the trip, but the rainstorm/flooding had cancelled that plan. Great to see the swarms of birds flying in, carefully circling the area to ensure no predators were nearby, and then the flutter of wings and activity as they quickly licked salt and flew off. Back to camp, one final riverside breakfast, then we packed up and spent more long hours in the boat retracing our steps back to Atalaya where we ditched the boat, said farewell to our boatmen, and continued by minivan along those same bumpy narrow roads back to Cusco, only stopping once along the way to look at some Inca funerary towers built high on the Andean hills. Once back in Cusco we said farewell to our fantastic guide and cook ... and the Manu jungle trip was officially over.
In total, we saw a unbelievable amount of wildlife in Manu including 7 different species of monkeys, giant otters, beautifully colorful tropical birds, caiman, agouti, capybara, turtles, tarantulas, and of course the jaguar.
Comparing Iquitos and Manu ... Tracy and I definitely had 2 completely different jungle experiences. In Manu we saw a fantastic amount of animals, but were only there to "observe". In Iquitos we saw very few animals but were fully engaged in our environment ... we "lived and experienced". Although I'm pretty sure I know which one you guys would choose, in honesty I don't think I could pick a favorite because they were both such amazing unique experiences; to me a combination of the two trips would be the "ultimate jungle adventure".
And finally in closing ... I'd like to say a big "thanks" to my mate Tracy for providing so many hours of entertainment along the way, and for making me look so good in the jungle! I'd travel with you again Jane T - anytime, anywhere.