Extract of feature that Cara has written for an online travel guide www.travelmag.co.uk:
It's five in the morning, a tropical storm is rumbling somewhere in the distance, and we've just had our wake-up call. It's time to pack up the bags and tents and head off, a relatively simple task made tediously slow by the absense of electricity. We head down to the riverbank and the boat, as the first spears of sunrise push through the clouds and the last of the rain settles, making a thousand new homes for the milling mosquitoes. It's the last morning of our week-long jungle trip in Manu, Peru. Our clothes range from damp to soaking wet, everything has been liberally christened with sticky, rust-coloured mud and exposed skin has become a feeding frenzy for every biting insect looking for a free lunch. For the moment though, clean clothes, hot showers and home comforts exist only in a parallel universe and seem strangely unnecessary and easily surrendered.
Nestled in the south-east of Peru, Manu National Park is an area of immense biological and cultural importance and covers a staggering 3.7 million acres. Visitors are only admitted with official guides or as part of a recognised tour group and numbers are limited to 3,500 a year. The park itself is accessible only by boat, or one of the tiny planes that leave from a field near the town of Boca Manu, the last place where you can buy a cold beer, or anything else for that matter, before the National Park begins.
Our tour began two days upriver in a small town called San Pedro. After extricating ourselves from the bus, following a nine-hour journey from Cusco on what could only be described as a dirt track, we were introduced to Oliver, who was to be our guide for the week. He announced that we were going to spend the afternoon white water rafting our way to Erika Lodge, where we were staying that night, our bags being transported separately, on a motor boat. Too exhausted to put up any kind of resistance, we followed him down to the river for a briefing session. Now I have never had any inclination to paddle in a raft while clinging on for dear life and being pummelled with icy water, but it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. The rapids were few and relatively sedate and the scenery was absolutely stunning. For the most part we were gently drifting along as Oliver pointed out different plants and birds and the bus journey was soon forgotten. We arrived at Erika Lodge just as it was getting dark. The lodge, owned by the tour company, was in an idyllic spot by the river and the very basic facilities were in complete keeping with its location. After a cold shower by candlelight and the ritual killing of an extended family of cockroaches in our room, dinner was ready and we had the opportunity to get to know the other people on the tour.
The following morning, we were up at 5am to visit a parrot lick about ten minutes along the river. A parrot lick is literally a place where parrots go to lick the rocks. Different theories abound as to why they do this, but the most probable is that when food is scarce, the parrots have to eat fruit which isn't ripened. This is bad for their digestive systems, so they lick the rocks to obtain vital minerals that help them digest the fruit. Sitting still on the ground, we waited as hundreds of parrots flew overhead and eventually settled on the exposed area of rock in front of us. As the sun came up fully, the colours became more prominent and the rock was awash with green, blue and red. It was the first of many occasions that I wondered why anyone would think it morally acceptable to keep a parrot as a pet.
Back at the lodge we packed up and got ready to leave. Meanwhile, the long wooden boat that was to be our transport for the rest of the trip was loaded up with provisions, camping equipment and petrol. We had a four-hour journey to our next destination but with cushions on the benches and a canopy overhead, this was actually extremely comfortable and gave everyone the opportunity to doze off, in between enjoying the ever-changing surroundings. We were on the Alto Madre De Dios river which, at this time of year is quite low, so much so that on a number of occasions we had to get out of the boat to lighten the load and push it through a particularly shallow area.
Home for the night was a small lodge in the jungle, owned by two brothers. We were sleeping in tents on raised platforms and, as electricity was once again absent, we made slow and largely disastrous attempts at unpacking what we needed for the night. It was at this stage that most of us accepted the fact that we wouldn't have the underated joy of pulling on a fresh pair of socks every morning. It was also around this time that we discovered the sheer brutish determination of mosquitoes to have their fill of human blood. The toilet and shower were the most dangerous places as, naked and vulnerable, you're easy prey. And so it was that despite using four different types of insect repellent, my legs looked a chicken pox test site after only a couple of days. And when the mosquitoes had finished, the sand bugs would arrive. It seemed that these inocuous-looking flying insects could bite through most man-made fibres, so you weren't even safe in trousers and long-sleeved tops. They also appeared to be immune to the effects of insect repellent. The most annoying thing was that Oliver didn't seem to be affected by the bugs at all. So, when we went for a walk into the jungle that night, we were all dressed up like firemen on a call-out, carrying torches, water and enough sprays and creams to fill a small pharmacy, while Oliver wandered out in a pair of shorts, no shirt, no shoes and just a machete for company - it was to be his standard uniform for the week.
The unfamiliar noises in the forest gave it an eery feel as we walked in silence and single file. With the immense trees and plants, it's all too easy to miss the smaller plants and animals, which are, more often than not, just as amazing. At one stage we carefully stepped over a line of leaf-cutter ants, that seemed to stretch on forever. Each one was carrying a piece of leaf many times larger than itself, and their destination was an underground burrow where they deposit the leaves. The reason for this is that the leaves decompose to form a compost which is conducive to the growing of a variety of mushroom that the ants like to eat. So, in effect, these ants are running a communal organic farm!
The early mornings continued, as we set off at 6am the next day. It was an hour on the boat to Boca Manu, where we were picking up some supplies before heading into Manu National Park itself on the beautiful Manu river. The rest of the day was spent in the boat spotting wildlife which included a number of black caymans. These are similar in size and appearance to crocodiles and they sit on the riverbanks or float like logs in the water. We were also lucky enough to see some groups of monkeys jumping through the trees, on their endless quest for fruit. In fact, if you can avoid the hypnotic noise of the engine and the gentle swaying of the boat and manage to stay awake all day, the amount of wildlife to be observed is amazing. In the late afternoon, we saw a family of collared peccaries (a small pig-like mammal), taking some shade on the riverbank. They tend to stay close to the river, as their main enemy is the jaguar and, should one approach, they will escape by jumping into the river, where they stand on the bottom, holding their breath for up to one minute.
The day ended at another lodge, with another fantastic meal prepared by the cook (as well as a guide, a cook, driver and helper travel with each group), and a a game of cards accompanied by a few bottles of beer that someone had been saving for just such an occasion.
Manu National Park is home to an indigenous group of people called the Machiguenga. Having lived in the area for hundreds of years, they have extensive knowledge of the plants and animals of the rainforest. In 1996, a project was begun to enable these people to take a more active role in the development of tourism in the area. The result is a tranquil and beautifully thought-out lodge called Casa Machiguenga, and it was here that we spent the fourth night of the trip. Simple wooden rooms are scattered around a clearing and fragrant candles light the path and keep the insects away. The discovery of an electric light in the bathroom elicited the kind of response usually associated with a moderate lottery win and spirits were at an unusual high. It's actually quite amazing how quickly you can become accustomed to living without daily luxuries, and just how exciting the smallest things can be.
The days and nights became a blur as the early mornings continued and we had a daily routine of packing, boarding the boat and watching out for yet unspotted varieties of birds and mammals. A catamaran trip around Lake Salvador failed to discover one of Manu's most famous residents - the giant otter. Endangered and protected, this elusive creature is slowly gaining in numbers and sightings are becoming more common. We were unlucky, the group after us managed to spot them on two occasions. Disappointment was short-lived however, as we arrived at a beach on the river, put up our tents and made a campfire out of driftwood. It seemed as if all the stars in the universe were in the small area above us and we enjoyed dinner by candlelight, gazing up in awe and soaking up the isolation.
A final night of camping on another beach followed and it was already the last night of the trip. Although we'd been bitten to within an inch of insanity and couldn't wait to have a proper shower, use a proper toilet and generally enjoy some of the material goods on which capitalism continues to flourish, it wasn't without a hint of sadness that we boarded the boat for the final time the next morning. Of course this could have also have been due to the bum-numbing prospect of the return journey, which consisted of nine hours on the boat, followed by ten hours on the bus. No easy ride, this seemed almost necessary to the overall enjoyment of the trip, as the beauty and vulnerability of Manu warrants a certain amount of effort.