MY ADVENTURE TO MANU

manucaiman DAY 1 : I awoke with a feeling of excitement for today I was leaving on an adventure to Manu National Park. We left Cusco bright and early and as we left the city behind, we started to see more of the Andean countryside. As we were all keen birdwatchers our guide, Andrés, suggested we make a short stop at a lake just outside Cusco, where we saw many different varieties of Andean waterfowl. Driving through the Andes provides some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen, with the majestic mountains rising high above the villages scattered at their bases, making them seem totally insignificant. All the while we passed Andean people in their traditional clothing and going about their everyday lives.

Our first stop was at a small village for a refreshing jugo de naranja con miel (orange juice with honey). Then we stopped at an Inca cemetery perched high on a mountainside where there were many small stone huts. This is where the Incas buried their royalty. Our next stop was the quaint little town of Paucartambo. We stopped by the small local market, then walked across the bridge which spans the river and through the quiet streets until we came to a fountain decorated with several metal figures. There is an annual festival in Paucartambo and the metal sculptures represent the different costumes and dances which are recreated at the fiesta each year.

After travelling over two high passes at 4000m and 3500m, we began to descend as we officially crossed the border into the Manu National Park before continuing to descend through the cloud forest. I now know why it is called the cloud forest, as we couldn't see anything but clouds beyond the road. As we descended further still, the cloud began to clear and the scenery was amazing. In total contrast to the high Andes, we were now surrounded by lush green rainforest vegetation and we often passed waterfalls tumbling down the rocks in sheets of white water.

We arrived at our camp late in the afternoon and it was raining, which only added to the mystique of the cloud forest. That night we slept in tents which had been set up on a huge open-sided platform.

manucaiman DAY 2 : We awoke early and walked a short distance to a bird hide where we hoped to see the Cock-of-the-Rock (Peru's national bird). We were rewarded with the sight of six males all waiting for the female to appear at the lek. Unfortunately for us, and for them, she didn't appear and we didn't witness the mating dance performed by the male. However we weren't disappointed, as just the sight of the bright red males at such close quarters was satisfying enough.

After breakfast we went for a walk along the track through the cloud forest. We saw flowers, some with wonderful fragrances, many birds and dozens of beautifully-colored butterflies, the most spectacular of which was the Blue Morph, with its iridescent blue wings.

As we continued to descend, the landscape began to level out and we started to see more typical Amazonian villages. Here the houses are made from timber and have grass roofs. We stopped briefly to see a small coca leaf plantation.

Shortly after arriving in Pilcopata and after settling into our comfortable hotel, we set off on our excursion to Huacaria village. We travelled by truck for a short distance and then began our walk. First we saw a leaf cutter ant's nest, closely observing the fascinating hub of activity. We stopped along the way many times as Andrés pointed out things of interest. We arrived at the village after approximately two hours and as it was quite hot we went for a refreshing dip in the river. Unfortunately, the local Shaman (Medicine Man) was unavailable, although his wife took us on a walk to where they grow their medicinal plants, and proceeded to explain the various uses of the different plants. It was very interesting. Afterwards we walked back to the village, where we were shown handicrafts we could purchase. There were many different bracelets, necklaces and handbags, all made by hand by the women from the seeds they collect in the forest.

As we began to walk back to Pilcopata we were fortunate enough to be offered a lift in a vehicle which was leaving for the village. That was an experience in itself, riding in the back, hanging on for dear life as the truck rocked from side to side over an extremely rough track to Pilcopata. All part of the adventure!

That night we ate dinner in a local restaurant and slept in a comfortable bed.

manucaiman DAY 3 : After the rain stopped, about mid-morning, we boarded our truck again for the drive to Atalaya. Unfortunately, we hadn't gone very far when we found our way blocked by another truck which had become bogged down in the mud. We decided to walk to Atalaya, a journey of about one and a half hours. From the road above Atalaya we looked down at the Madre de Dios river before walking down the hill through the jungle to the settlement, where we sat in a cafe on the riverbank and waited for our truck to arrive before boarding our Amazon river boat for the twenty minute trip downstream to "Buena Vista", our lodge for the night.

That afternoon we went for a walk into the surrounding jungle and Andrés pointed out many different species of plants and trees, the most impressive of which was a 300-400 year-old kapoc tree, which was huge. After the walk we returned to the lodge and spent the remainder of the afternoon relaxing in bamboo chairs, watching the birds in the fading light.

That night, "Maestro" (our cook) prepared a traditional Peruvian dish called "lomo saltado". As we sat around the dinner table that night the fireflies tantalized us with their flickering fluorescent green bodies.

manucaiman DAY 4 : Today we travelled down the Madre de Dios river by boat all the way to "Blanquillo Lodge". The previous night there must have been heavy rain in the Andes, for the river had become a raging torrent, with many trees and other debris dragged along by the fast current. The wind coming off the water was quite cool and combined with the continuous rain it really became quite wet and cold on the boat. Once we left Boca Manu village, conditions improved and the remainder of the journey downstream was much more pleasant. We started to see birds along the riverbank again and pairs of macaws flying overhead, screeching out what seemed to be a special welcome just for us.

After arriving at "Blanquillo" we walked to a nearby ox-bow lake, where we paddled around on a catamaran. The light was fading fast and as it became darker we went in search of Black Caiman. Shining our torches around the lake hoping to pick up the red eye shine of a caiman's eyes, we found several small caiman about 1 meter long and then a monster of about 4 meters. We walked back to the lodge through the jungle by torchlight - an eerie experience.

manucaiman DAY 5 : Another early morning star in order to visit the macaw lick. We travelled by boat to a floating bird hide. Here we had pancakes for breakfast and then settled in for a long wait. The parakeets and parrots came first, flying among the treetops and making a lot of noise. It was such a long wait, I think everybody became disillusioned and had all but given up hope of seeing the macaws. The high point of the morning came when we saw a family of Giant Otters playing in the mouth of the stream before eventually swimming out into the river and disappearing from view.

We continued to wait and our patience was rewarded as the macaws finally started to fly into the trees above the clay lick. It was a long process, and eventually when they considered the area to be safe from predators they came down to the lick. It really was an amazing sight to see these brightly-colored red and green macaws against the backdrop of the dense, green Amazon jungle. This is what I had hoped to see on my trip to Manu.

We returned to "Blanquillo" and after cleaning up we were feeling fresh and ready to tackle the long boat trip back upriver to Boca Manu. This time the trip was much more pleasant, with the sun shining at intervals. It was actually quite relaxing, lazing back and watching the jungle pass us by.

We saw quite a lot of wildlife, including lots of Yellow-Spotted Side-necked Turtles basking on logs in the sun. Many of the turtles had butterflies resting on their heads. Our guide spotted a sloth in amongst the trees along the river bank. It was a Brown-throated Three-toed Sloth and it was just hanging there in the tree, motionless. It was a strange looking creature and so well camouflaged that it was difficult to tell which way it was facing. Not far upriver, we saw a pair of Blue and Yellow Macaws sitting in their nest in a palm tree. Then shortly afterwards we saw two Capybaras, the world's biggest rodents, crossing the river and running up the bank as they left the water.

After a short stop in Boca Manu village we left the Madre de Dios river behind and entered the Manu river. The Manu is calmer than the Madre de Dios, lazily meandering through the jungle. It was lovely to be on this peaceful river as the afternoon was beginning to fade into early evening.

We actually camped that evening at the Limonal Control, which is the official entrance point into the Reserved Zone for tourists. The rangers were kind enough to allow us to pitch our tents inside the station. We had arrived just as the sun was setting on the river, and what a spectacular scene it was! As the colors changed from golden hues to blues and the moon began to rise, we could only marvel at the beauty of nature. And as nightfall came upon us, I could hear the call of the Crested Owl, a slow "Whoo... whoo"...

manucaiman DAY 6 : We continued our journey far into the Reserved Zone towards the "Casa Machiguenga", our lodge for the next two nights. We spent the early part of the day searching the riverbanks for jaguars, hoping to be one of the fortunate travelers who spot one on the bank occasionally, soaking up the morning sun. We didn't see any jaguars, but we did see a White Caiman sunning himself on a sandbank. We also saw several species of birds, including the large Jabirus Stork.

We moored at the river bank and went for a walk to Cocha Otorongo, an ox-bow lake where a high tower has been constructed overlooking the lake. Here, we saw the pre-historic bird called the Hoatzin, as well as our first monkeys - a troupe of Brown Capuchin Monkeys foraging in the trees for fruit.

After arriving at our lodge and settling in we went for a long walk through the jungle in search of more monkeys. As we were leaving the lodge we saw Black Spider Monkeys in the trees. They have very long arms and legs and swing through the trees in an extraordinarily acrobatic manner. During the walk we saw more Brown Capuchin Monkeys, as well as Common Squirrel Monkeys, which are small and very active and take flying leaps from tree to tree. We also saw Woolley Monkeys, which are amongst the largest monkeys found in Manu. We also found a bird's nest in the hollow of a tree, only about one meter from the ground and full of tiny hatchlings.

That night, under the security of my mosquito net, I fell asleep to the amazing sounds of the jungle and slept like a log.

DAY 7 : This morning we went to Cocha Salvador, another ox-bow lake, in search of Giant Otters. On the walk to the lake we saw White-fronted Capuchin Monkeys. We paddled around on our catamaran, taking in the tranquility of the lake. Our first sighting was of Red Howler Monkeys, lazing around high up in the treetops. We paddled down to the otter's burrow, but there was no sign of the them. We saw a Black Caiman swimming across the lake and on the return journey we saw White-fronted Toucans and a pair of Scarlet Macaws perched in a tree.

On the walk back to the lodge we saw more Red Howler Monkeys and another pair of Scarlet Macaws. Along the trail we passed a Brazil nut tree and found a coconut on the ground which had been cracked open by a macaw. We also passed a Machiguenga woman with a baby walking on the trail who disappeared into the jungle as quickly as she had materialized before us.

Back at the lodge we had a refreshing shower and after lunch we were shown the handicrafts made by the Machiguenga people. There were necklaces made from seeds, cloth bags and sets of bows and arrows. One of the men also played a traditional musical instrument which sounded similar to a violin, only softer.

That afternoon we walked back to Cocha Salvador, along the way we tried a spot of piranha fishing, but they weren't biting that day. Before we reached the lake we saw Brown Capuchin Monkeys eating fruit, as well as more Common Squirrel Monkeys and Black Spider Monkeys. We wanted to return to the otter's burrow to see if they were home. As it was late in the afternoon it was doubtful we would see them as they usually retire early. When we arrived at the burrow, there was no sign of them and we were so busy looking at the Black Spider Monkeys in the trees above, we almost didn't notice the otters' heads suddenly bobbing up out of the water. Then one got out of the water completely and lay on a log for a short while. We saw another otter laying on a dead tree in the water, while the rest of the family played contentedly in the water. We watched them for a short while and then one entered the burrow, digging its way in. After all the activity was over at the burrow, we sat back and enjoyed another splendid sunset on the lake as we paddled back to the platform.

After dark we began searching again for Black Caiman. Andrés found the red eyes with his torch and this time he actually caught one. It was a very small caiman, only about 6 months old, and the poor little thing only had one leg - the others had probably been eaten by piranhas. We let him go and then returned to the platform, below which we saw another two small caiman in the water. We returned to the river on foot through the jungle by torchlight, and went back to the lodge by boat.

DAY 8 : We fell asleep to the amazing nocturnal sounds of the jungle, and awoke in the morning to its daytime cacophony. At dawn the eerie sound of Red Howler Monkeys greeted me, like the howling of the wind through the trees in a storm.

We left "Casa Machiguenga" early as we had a long trip ahead of us. We were aiming to reach "Buena Vista Lodge" so we wouldn't have to spend the night on a beach. It was a beautiful day and our return journey on the boat was a pleasant and relaxing one, as we left the lowlands of the Amazon basin behind and headed towards the Pantiacolla mountains. As conditions were good we managed to achieve our objective and we slept that night at "Buena Vista".

DAY 9 : We said goodbye to the jungle in the same way it had welcomed us - in the rain. After waiting at "Buena Vista" until an early morning downpour had passed, we returned by boat to Atalaya, hoping to find our truck waiting for us, but there was no sign of it. We were told that it was stuck again on the track from Pilcopata to Atalaya behind another truck which was bogged down. We ended up walking from Atalaya to meet our truck, which became bogged down yet again on the way back to Pilcopata when the road turned into a quagmire. The drivers cleared it with their hands and we were on our way again, but not for long. This time the problem was a landslide that had blocked the road, which was fortunately already being cleared by heavy machinery. With this final obstacle surmounted, we made our way to Pilcopata without any more hiccups. After leaving Pilcopata at around 4 pm we arrived in Cusco at 2 am.

It seemed to me to be a fitting way to end our jungle adventure, and if I had the chance, I'd go to Manu again tomorrow!

JUNGLE JILL