Manu Reserve Jungle Trip (part 1)

Day 1 - Cuzco to San Pedro Lodge

In central South America, the Andes chain form a rampart between the dry coastal areas and the lush jungle of the Amazonian basin. We had visited the deserts and trekked amongst the snow-covered peaks. To complete the discovery of these mountains, we really needed to descend their eastern slopes to where they finally vanished into this flat green world. The Manu Biosphere Reserve, a world heritage listed region to the east of Cuzco seemed the perfect place to do this.

We left Cuzco with our ten fellow adventurers from Ireland, Israel, Peru and the USA, our guide, Yuber, and Carlos the cook in a 4WD bus at 6.15am for the 9 hour trip to Manu. It was only 150 km away, but in many ways travelling this road is very much part of the adventure. The bus climbed over the mountains to the east of Cuzco before dropping into a long valley and then climbing back up again, along a narrow dirt road high above the valley floor to Huanaci, the main centre of this high agriculture region, where wheat, beans and potatoes grew in small plots on steep slopes.

Chullpas (pre-Incan tombs) at Ninamarca

From Huanaci, the climb continued up to 3800m. where we caught a glimpse of distant Ausengate, bringing memories of our recent trip around its base flooding back.

From here we started a steady and winding descent, stopping briefly at the Ninamarca arqueological site with its pre-incan tombs. Continuing on, we visited the village of Paucartambo, with its beautiful arched colonial bridge and plaza lined with old blue-balconied and white-stuccoed colonial buildings, home to 1000 people most of the year and 35,000 for the fiesta in July celebrating andean culture and the consumption of much alcohol.

The central plaza at Paucartambo

Colonial bridge - Paucartamba

We reach the Manu National Park

From Paucartambo, we climbed yet again and gradually became enveloped in a cloudy mist. Soon we arrived at Acjanaco, 3560m and gateway to Manu National Park.

From here we started an impressive descent of 1800m on the hairiest road that I have ever been on, passing from grassy puna landscapes which morphed gradually through shrubby layers of increasing height into the tall cloud forest. This lush forest, dripping with moisture, covers the eastern slopes of the Andes between 2000 and 3500m above sea-level.

Descent into the cloud

Waterfall pouring down the steep slopes
of the cloud forest

The dense green canopy of the cloud forest

A walk down the road to stretch our legs

Stream on the valley floor of the Manu
cloud forest

The mist hid the depths of the valleys that we were descending, probably as well, as the narrow, rough road snaked its way between rock walls and steep drop-offs, crossing recent landslips on a bed of earth and logs into the misty depths of the cloud forest. Water pours off the steep and unstable rain-soaked slopes of the cloud forest and to just keep the road open is a job in itself. The bus crept downwards relentlessy, but very very slowly. Halfway down, just after passing a long ribbon-like waterfall, we stopped to walk for a while along the road to stretch cramped legs and get a better feel for the local flora and fauna. The songs of birds floated down from the trees, covered with bromeliads, epiphytic vines and lichens, while the relatively light-rich verge between road and dense vegetation was dotted with red, pink, yellow, white, pink and mauve of orchids and other curiously shaped flowers of this rich habitat.

A sample of cloud forest flora

Back on the bus, we ccould not but be impressed by the skills of our driver - when a bus going down meets a truck coming up a dirt road less than two vehicles wide between a rockface and a 100m drop, how do you get by? I don't know, but after 15 minutes of measuring minute distances to sheer edges and jiggling the two big vehicles back and forth, we were on our way again!

Bromeliad cluster in the lichen-draped trees

One of many bromeliads high in the trees

A small tree frog

Nocturnal leafshaped grasshopper
Not long after, with the light fading fast, we finally arrived at San Pedro Lodge, set in a valley deep in the cloud forest - it was great to finally be free of the bus and to be mobile again. Candlelight dinner over and lathered up with extra DEET-enhanced insect repellent, we set off for a torchlight stroll. It was time for a little nature walk in the Peruvian cloud forest.

Day 2 - San Pedro Lodge to Erika Lodge

So why are 20 or so mature adults sitting quietly at dawn in the Peruvian cloud forest watching droplets falling from the canopy onto the broadleafed undergrowth? They are waiting to see the spectacular courtship display of the cock-of-the-rock, Peru's national bird. The only problem was that we sat there for an hour and our red-feathered top-knotted friends did not appear at their lek. A couple of toucanets and a motmot provided some consolation, but did not quash the sense of disappointment - nothing is certain in the jungle.

A sombre dawn in the cloud forest


The lek of the cock-of-the-rock (or where not to find one)


A consolationary flash of colour from
the mot-mot

Waiting for the cock-of-the-rock

Back at the lodge, we enjoyed our breakfast and prepared for a day of adventure of the childhood-relived type. First off was a 12 km mountain bike ride down the rocky dirt road from San Pedro Lodge to the village of Conchacata, 500m lower down and on the cusp of the rain forest. It was a bone-jarring and mud-spattering ride, but a lot of fun nonetheless.

bout ot set of on the mountain bike section

8m tree ferns in the forest

A cloud forest stream

Cluster of butterflies at a salt lick

The only problem with riding, as opposed to walking, was that there is less time to look at the flowers that lined the road or the colourful butterflies that flitted by. If you did, you also risked riding off into the depths of the valley - a couple of timely stops were needed to satisfy my urge to photograph the many flowering plants that lined the road.

Rafting the not-so rapid rapids

A still deep pool in the Kosñipata Gorge

Upon reaching Conchacata, we had but a short wait before the bus arrived to pick us up and take us to the next village of Pillcopata, where we transferred from bus to rubber rafts for a trip down the Rio Kosñipata / Rio Alto Madre de Dios; again a lot of fun, with rapids that were not seriously scary but gave everyone a good drenching.

Emerging from the Kosñipata Gorge

After an hour of rafting, we emerged from the steep green-clad walls of the Kosñipata Gorge, a gap where the river breaks through a line of low hills, and pulled in to the jungle village of Atalaya. Once again we transferred craft, this time into a motorised river longboat, with Moises at the helm and Carlos keeping an eye out for shoals up front, for a twenty minute trip down the Rio Madre de Dios to Erika Lodge, with its netted wooden cabins. We had now left the cloud forest well and truly behind, but had not yet reached the Amazonian basin - the lodge was surrounded by the low hills of the montane jungle and we had arrived early enough to head out and explore the dense green vegetation.

Loading up the river boats to start our way down the Alto Madre de Dios

Capybara on the river bank

Erika Lodge set between river and jungle clad hills

So what are eight mature adults doing half way up a tree, on a narrow platform, 30m above the ground? Waiting to zip across a 100m long steel cable strung 40m above the ground, of course! We had walked from Erika Lodge into the rain forest to do the canopy tour; a line of four steel cables strung between platforms high in the rain forest canopy, each descending further down the slope of a jungle-clad hillside.

A dusky titi monkey watches in
bemusement as

It was not an exploration of the canopy, rather just a thrill ride deep in the Peruvian rainforest, harnessed to a handle that rolled down the angled steel cable on a set of pulley wheels - lift the handle and you fly, pull it and you slow - well that's the theory.

For the fair Nello, veteran of 160m bungee jumps and hang-gliding on skis, it was a piece of cake. For the more altitudinally challenged, such as myself, it was a chance to conquer old fears; I was still surprised that I had actually done it when we finally rappelled to the ground again. As I said before - childhood relived.

Today had been a day of simple fun - the more serious exploration of the Amazonian rainforest would wait for tomorrow.

..... with camera-blurring speed, the fair Nello traverses
the canopy

Day 3 - Erika Lodge to Boca Manu Lodge

Dawn breaks over the Alto Madre de Dios

This morning was another 5am start; this time to travel 10 minutes down river by boat to watch the parrots visit a clay lick in the cliffs lining the river. We sat quietly in a row on a wide sand bank below the cliffs for an hour as the sun rose pink above the cloud draped forest and hills, but unfortunately it was to be another cock-of-the-rock experience.

Coral tree in the morning mist

Mists over the montane rain forest

Lining up to watch the parrots .....

... licking clay from the cliffs at dawn ...

... too bad all they wanted to do was fly in circles above us

Flocks of green parakeets whirled noisily about and the odd pairs of green macaws flew by, but none felt the need to supplement their diet today. Disappointed, we packed up and went back to Erika Lodge for breakfast, followed by one more short walk in the montane rain forest, where the intense green was broken up by splashes of colour from the occasional flower, fungus or butterfly.

View of the rain forest canopy

Our first sighting of a jungle predator

Farewelling our two Irish friends, who were only doing a 4-day trip and were heading back to Cuzco, the rest of the party set off down the Rio Alto Madre de Dios. It was a beautifully clear morning and, looking back, you could see the Andes chain rising above the green jungle; the snow-capped peak of Ausengate visible above the 3500m high range of puna and cloud forest covered slopes that we had descended two days before. Our long river boat travelled quickly, slowing only to negotiate the many sets of shallow rapids in the river.

Heading down the river

The majestic Andes rise above the river and jungle

Riparian rain forest

After an hour of following the river as it meandered its way between stone / grey clay banks and low orange cliffs, we passed the blue-tinged Pantiacolla mountains, the last ripple of the mighty Andean chain before it melted into the vast flatness of the Amazonian rainforest. The odd house on a high bank or boat moored on the shore told us that we were still in an area occupied by people. The sun shone hotly on the rain forest, but while the boat moved the air kept us cool.

Isolated huts on the river cliffs

Baño break on a stony beach

More open riverside forest
On the flat, the river changed character, its form becoming less definite as channels braided their way along the broad stony bed, and our driver carefully picked the channels with maximum flow. The impact of the rainy season was becoming more obvious, with stretches of eroded bank and areas of snags from fallen tree trunks appearing. Each season, the river would choose new courses to run along its stony bed.

Yuber kept us on the look out for river fauna - egrets, herons, terns, several species of vulture, the odd kingfisher or osprey - as we passed small settlements high up on the river banks, almost hidden by the tall jungle vegetation. Still, with the constant drone of the motor, the warm sun and a stomach content with a filling lunch, we started to drop off to sleep one by one.

A group of egrets on a stone bank

Red-headed vulture

Black vultures waving to us as we passed

Finally, we entered a broader, smoother part of the river and soon passed the mouth of the Manu River, where the coffee colored waters of the Manu merged with the clearer, greener water of the Alto Madre de Dios. These two waterflows ran side by side for a short while before the turbulent muddy colour won the day and merged to form the Rio Madre de Dios. Not long after we arrived at the jungle village of Boca Manu for a welcome break from our boat trip.

Our cabin in the rain forest at Boca Manu

The jungle village of Boca Manu on Rio Madre de Dios

Niños de Boca Manu who sought internet immortality

We had descended from 3560m to just under 300m in less than 100 km - from here it would take another several thousand kilometres for the water to reach sea level at the mouth of the Amazon.

For us it was only another two kilometres further down river to Boca Manu Lodge, set back from the shore in a jungle clearing. Finally after 6 hours in the river boat, we were back on land and tonight, after a night walk in the jungle accompanied by the sounds of frogs, crickets and cicadas, we would fall asleep in our small stilted cabin to the sounds of the Amazon.

Day 4 - Boca Manu to Manu Reserve Zone

By now, we were getting used to the early starts, as we were up again at 5.30am for another long boat ride; this time however, we would be heading upstream, pushing up the Manu River deep into the reserved section of the National Park for 6-7 hours. Here, traces of human civilisation would no longer be visible and we would finally enter pristine Amazonian rain forest, but not first without drama. Pola, our Peruvian companion, decided that she was unwell and could go no further - fair enough but she also refused to go to Boca Manu town where there was a doctor and insisted on staying in bed at the lodge, alone in the jungle. After an hour of negotiations with Yuber and finally a disclaimer signed to state she knew what she was doing, our party left without her. Strange girl, but "suerte, Pola".

The broad reach of the Rio Madre de Dios

A three-stack of river tortoises

White caiman sunning itself on the bank

Squirrel monkey high in the forest

That left Dan and Laura from the US, the Israeli group of Ilil, Naama, Inbar, Netta and Alon, and us to push on. After a short stop at Boca Manu to report the hiccup to the tour organisers in Cuzco, we set off again, turning from the Rio Madre de Dios into the coffee-coloured waters of the Rio Manu to start our trip into the heart of the reserve. The difference in wildlife compared to the human-inhabited sections of river was dramatic. After a few minutes we spotted our first white caiman, sunning itself on the steep clay bank, then a stack of river tortoises on a log and not long after, a small group of squirrel monkeys chattering and leaping between branches in the tall trees on the river's edge.

The green-fringed brown highway of the jungle

White-necked heron

Orinoco geese

Black skimmer skimming

Fresh paw print of a jaguar

The fauna here was much richer than on the Madre de Dios and sightings of caiman, tortoises, squirrel and capuchin monkeys, plus the usual assortment of waterbirds, vultures, flycatchers and hawks kept us occupied for the long haul up this wide brown jungle highway, as it meandered its way through the dense green lowland jungle.

The forest lining the river was rich with greens of every shade and the occasional dash of red or yellow from flowering trees. Butterflies drifted across the water, as well as the occasional rich waft of decaying vegetation.

Stopping at a sand bar for a baño stop, we found ourselves following the tracks of a jaguar in the soft mud - it was the closest we came to spotting this top predator of the Amazon.

Butterflies feeding on tortoises' nostrils

Blue-capped heron

Capuchin monkey in the treetops

A pair of storks

A variety of rain forest trees

The evolution of the river became apparent, one side eroding away bit by bit each rainy season, the other side slowly building up with snags, gravel and sandy clay shoals that would one day be colonised and stabilised by new vegetation. The path of this river is not a constant one and as we looped around the large meanders, the hot sun seemed to drift from side to side and perspective and direction faded into a broad riverscape of green-fringed browness; at times it was difficult to stay awake.

Manu River near our campsite

Aroused from our languid torpor by a drop in the tone of the motor, we found ourselves pulling into slippery clay bank; we had arrived at our jungle lodge and home for the next two nights. We all clambered ashore, glad to be able to stretch our legs once again.

Brown capuchin monkey watching us pass

... as was the white caiman

The odd other boat passes by

That evening we took a walk away from the riverbank into the absolute greenness of the rain forest. For such a biodiverse habitat, the forest, which seemed so rich in wildlife along the river's edge, had a strangely sterile feel as we moved deeper into it. There was hardly a flowering plant in this sombre shadow world of buttressed trunks, vines, palms and large leaved shrubs; just a few pink petals that had fallen from the canopy and one or two bright orange berries.

There was also a strange lack of vertebrate noise - take away the steady drone of cicadas and crickets and silence pervaded - broken by the odd screech of a macaw, the occasional mournful call of an unseen bird, the odd crash in the canopy and cry of a monkey.

In the deep shade of the rain forest

In the canopy the vegetation fights for light

Amazonian lowland habitat

Buttress roots of the rain forest trees

Rainforest does not greatly enthuse me, but the extent of this landscape (effectively from here to the Atlantic) was both fascinating and mind-boggling. We were glad that we had made the effort to spend some time in the lungs of the world.

go to part 2 .....