Manu Reserve Jungle Trip (part 2)

Day 5 - Exploring Manu

Morning mists float over the Manu River

After four days of early rises, we finally got to sleep in a bit. As we were eating our breakfast at 7am, the morning mist still lay heavily over the rain forest with moisture dripping from the trees above. However, this soon burned off as the sun heated up the land and the jungle steamed. Our plan for the morning was to walk inland from the campsite to Cocha Salvador, an oxbow lake not far from the river to try and find giant river otters (lobos del rio). Once widespread, fur-hunters almost drove them to extinction and Manu reserve is now a central part of an effort to re-establishment them in the river and lake systems. There are about 100 in the reserve and a family of nine call Cocha Salvador home.

The still waters of Cocha Salvador

For the first time we were in luck - shortly after paddling out on a flat-topped wooden catamaran, we spotted a group of four otters heading our way. For the next thirty minutes, we watched as they went about their business of hunting fish, eating noisily when they caught one and directing the odd grunts and snorts in our general direction. These are impressive animals - apparently, in a group, they will hunt and kill caimans.

The otter family come to check us out

Fish for breakfast - yummmm!!!

Giant river otter giving us the evil eye

Rainforest canopy

Leaving the lake we returned to the river to cross to the other bank in our river-boat. On our way back through the rain forest we chanced upon a group of peccaries; first we smelt them, then we heard them and finally we saw their dark shapes skulking in the deep shade of forest floor.

A peccary gives away its location in a rare spot of sunlight

Once more into the river boat

When searching for monkeys ....

On the opposite bank of the Manu, we continued our exploration of the forest, with the main quarry being the woolly monkey. Again we were lucky, finding a small troop high in the canopy tree-tops who, unimpressed by our presence, shook down a rain of leaves and sticks in an unsubtle suggestion to go away.

... look high into the canopy and you might see ....

... a woolly monkey

Returning to the boat we added to our monkey count; watching a group of squirrel monkeys leaping between trees, while the more sedate capuchin monkeys sat in the fronds of a nearby palm tree, watching them and us. High up the tree another woolly monkey was hanging from its prehensile tail while picking fruit to eat. It had been a good morning for spotting some of the rain forest's mammalian inhabitants.

... a brown capuchin monkey

... squirrel monkeys leaping about

... a capuchin watching you

... or a woolly monkey hanging by its tail

The boat then took us to our furthest point up river at Casa Matsaguenka - home to two families of Amazonian Indian, who moved here a few years back and eke out a living selling artifacts to tourist groups. It seemed a sad meeting of cultures and we empathised to some extent with some of the other tribal groups who live deeper in the reserve and have opted to avoid contact with "civilised" society.

Manu riverscape

At last we spotted the rarer black caiman

Ever get the feeling that you are being watched

In the afternoon we travelled 30 minutes down river to walk through the rain forest to Cocha Otorongo, another oxbow lake, to watch for birdlife from a 15m observation tower. Today was black caiman day, a pair of them lurked along the edge of the river, while we spotted two more drifting slowly along in the still waters of the lake.

Jabiru strutting its stuff

The still dark waters of Cocha Otorongo (can you see the caiman?)

Heliconia - a rare splash of colour

The humidity was high as we wondered along the trail to and from the lake, the odd dapples of sunlight reaching the forest floor, deep green with leaves of many shapes and textures. Tall tree trunks anchored themselves to the thin soil by large buttress roots or clusters of aerial roots, reaching up to the canopy and its cover of back-lit leafy foliage.

The big kapok - 60m tall and 500 years old

Smooth trunked emergents in the rainforest

Cocha Otorongo - oxbow lake near the Manu

The path to Cocha Otorongo

View of the canopy from 15m up

Our path took us past the tallest tree in Manu Reserve, a 500 year old 60m kapok tree, that rose majestically above the canopy from thick buttress roots. As before, the greenness was all-pervasive and finding a dash of another colour from flower, berry or fungus was like fossicking for gems.

Tortoises queuing for the baños in Cocha Otorongo

Sunset over the Manu River

The sun was setting above the river as we finally headed back to camp and a heavy stillness seemed to settle on the landscape - we hadn't been here very long, but were starting to appreciate that this vast and seemingly monotonous landscape has many moods.

Day 6 - Manu Reserve Zone to Yanayaco Lodge

Our time in the heart of the reserve had passed quickly and this morning found us packing up to head back towards civilisation. However, not before one last visit to the still waters of Cocha Salvador for another slow paddle on the catamaran, this time to spot the bird and animal life that abounded on its densely vegetated fringe.

The dense vegetation lining Cocha Salvador

Once more on the still waters of Cocha Salvador

The lake is home to many waterbirds; ducks paddling, herons waiting patiently for a fish to swim and the snowy reflections of egrets roosting on half-sunken branches drifted by. Small brightly-coloured landbirds darted amongst the reeds and overhanging shrubs on the water's edge, while above a falcon fed on on a fresh catch on a dead branch, and the odd pair of macaws flew noisily across the lake.

Startled hoatzin

Crimson tanager

Falcon feeding

Macaws in fight

Hoatzin (aka stinky bird)

Local muscovy duck

A startled pair of hoatzin, that curious ancient species of bird that has its own family and resembles a punk chook, crashed clumsily through the branches of on overhanging tree as we passed. The locals call them "stinky birds" because of the effects of their gut flora, but it keeps the predators away.

A lone black caiman lurked in the shadows at the waters edge, thinking itself invisible to us, while the otter family swam by one last time on their morning fishing trip, dismissing us with a couple of quick snorts.

The otter coming to say adios

Black spider monkey

A crashing in the tree-tops at the lake's edge drew our attention to the presence of a troop of black spider monkeys leaping skilfully from tree to tree, their long spindly limbs and prehensile tails silhouetted against the backlit vegetation. We watched with admiration as they passed by. Their passage set off a round of screeching from a group of red howler monkeys, unseen in the tree-tops. Our count of monkey species encountered was rising rapidly.

Spider monkey in mid-leap

Silhouette of a spider monkey

It had been a great finale to our stay in the reserved zone, but finally it was time to go. By the time we left our safari camp, it was late morning, hot and humid, and it was a welcome relief to feel the wind as our boat sped downstream on the Manu river.

The tall forest at the river's edge

Leaving the safari camp in Manu Reserve

Sunny day on the Manu River

It was one last chance to spot the birds and animals of the river; storks, herons, geese, horned screamers (now there is a good name for a bird!), the metallic blue flash of a kingfisher, the low sweeping trajectories of the skimmers, and tiny swallows watching us pass from snags in the river.

A pair of black skimmers

The horned screamer

River swallows

Capped heron in flight

White caiman on a sand bank

A family of capybaras strolling by the river's edge

Tortoises, white caiman, a family of capybaras wandering along the bank, all drifted in and out as we negotiated our way through the snag beds and around the broad meanders of the coffee-coloured Manu River before finally checking out at the ranger station and eventually reaching the junction with the Rio Madre de Dios.

Negotiating the snag beds of the Rio Manu

The footprint of a tapir - we thought it would be as
close as we would get

The diversity of rainforest trees

A pair of rainforest giants

River boat heading up the Manu

Giant anteater emerging from the river ...

We were back in civilisation and, after a brief rest stop at Boca Manu village, headed upstream into the afternoon sun, retracing our path of four days earlier on on the Alto Madre de Dios. It was slower going pushing against the strong current of the river, but the tedium was relieved when the fair Nello made our most exciting animal sighting - a giant anteater swimming across a side channel and climbing out onto the river bank.

.... and wandering along the bank

Settlement on the Alto Madre de Dios

The sun was setting in the western sky as we pulled in to our lodge for the night at Yanayaco, to be greeted by Pancho the friendly tapir. Feeling the need to stretch our legs after the long boat trip and with the promise of seeing more tapirs in the wild, we grabbed our headlamps and headed off for an hour-long night walk into the jungle to a clay lick that these shy animals visit to obtain salt. Silence was essential if we were to see them, but sadly we had no success - after sitting quietly in the dark of the hide for half an hour, a low whirring sound that signalled the tapirs arrival was displaced by a loud coughing sound from within the hide that sent them scurrying away into the dark not to return.

Low clay cliffs of the Alto Madre de Dios

As we trudged back, I reflected on how silent the jungle was, once you remove the background noise of crickets and cicadas chirping and loud Israeli voices.

Dining lodge at Yanayaco

Pancho the tapir meets Dan the American

Nonetheless, we returned to find dinner waiting in the screened dining cabin of the lodge and a bottle or two of wine to celebrate a successful safari into the Amazon basin. The company on a trip such as this can make or break it and we were fortunate to have had pleasant and amusing companions to share this trip and celebration with. The only company that we didn't enjoy were the mosquitos and sandflies; we were not sure that I could live for long in a place where a daily dose of DEET is needed to survive.

Day 7- Yanayaco Lodge to Erika Lodge

Last night the biting insects broke through the DEET barrier (or else there was a hole in the mosquito net); we woke up with many bites, itching and in histamine overdose. Still, we had survived six nights up until then relatively unscathed, so there wasn't much scope for complaint. We left Yanayaco Lodge early, planning to get as far as San Pedro Lodge in the cloud forest and make for an easier next-day back to Cuzco.

Farewell to Yanayaco Lodge

Red cliffs on the Alta Made de Dios

Cloud; above the jungle but beneath the peaks

Off over the left bank, a large flock of vultures was circling - we were heading home, but life and death continued in the Amazonian basin. Passing a low grey clay cliff, we made our last and best monkey sighting - a troop of the elusive red howlers clambering up vines that overhung the river.

River boat passing the Pantiacolla Hills

A large circle of vultures

Once again we found ourselves back on the river in the long-boat, pushing upstream against the fast flowing Alto Madre de Dios. The boat meandered even more than the river as our driver manouevred to keep in navigable waters. The crew, guide and cook moved up and down the boat, shifting it's weight back and forward to pass shallows and across rapids. At one stage, even this method failed and it was all out into the fast flowing river to push the boat across a particularly shallow section.

Troop of red howler monkeys

The red howler who wasn't scared

A great morning on the river


We pushed on, the journey broken by the occasional passage of another river boat and the odd electric flash as a blue morpho flitted across the river. Soon we were passing through the Pantiacolla Hills, from this perspective the first small ridge in a series of ever-increasing contours that rise up out of the rain forest flatness to form the Andes Mountains.


The Andes suspended above the flat rain forest basin

Coral Tree

Away to the west, the long snow-capped ridgeline of this mighty range slowly appeared out of the morning haze and seemed to be suspended high above the jungle.

And yet another coral tree

The river cuts through the low hills

Another flatter section was followed by the Teparo Punta Hills, where Erika Lodge nestled between jungle-clad slope and the river. We had arrived by early afternoon, but another group from our tour company were already there for the day; logistics demanded that we all stay and head out the next morning. It wasn't such a hard thing to do - we had a swim in the river, a refreshing shower and clean up and plenty of time to wander about to do one last bit of bird and flower spotting or check out the condition of the hammocks.

Day 8 - Home to Cuzco

There is not much to tell of the last day as it was a reverse of our long drive in from Cuzco. A bit more pushing of the boat got us back to Atalaya, where we boarded the bus that was to be home for the next 10 hours, as it wound its way up the narrow and land-slip straddled road, traversing consecutively the montane rain-forest, cloud forest and grassy puna, leaving the immense flatness of Amazonian basin and the last week of our lives further and further behind.

Pushing up a shallow section of the river to Atalaya

Early morning at Erika Lodge

Last day dawns over the Alta Madre de Dios

Cloud draped over the montane rain forest near Atalaya

It had been a good week, lots of interesting animal sightings, a few disappointments, a few frustrations, but good company with whom we shared a story and a joke or three over the dining table in a jungle hut or during the long hours on the boat. Thanks, Laura, Dan, Ilil, Naama, Inbar, Netta and Alon, as well as our guide and crew, Yuber, Moises and the two Carlos - we had a great adventure, no!