Like most epic adventures, our trip into Manu National Park is hard to capture in words. How to describe the sweltering heat, swarming mosquitos, blissful tranquility, and stunning skies? Not to mention the bird and animal sounds that accompanied every moment, the awe of seeing giant otters up close, and the way the soft mud squished underfoot with each step we took. Here are some of the highlights.
Tuesday, June 26
On our way to meet the boat in Atalaya, we stopped at a wildlife sanctuary. No sooner had we opened and shut the gate behind us, I felt a presence at my feet and then before I knew what was happening a Woolly Monkey had climbed up my leg, onto my back and then propped itself upon my shoulders and rested his hands on my head. I was in total shock, wavering between the flight or flight response of being mauled by a wild animal and the hilarity of having a large monkey perched on my head. The kids were pointing and screeching. The monkey did not budge the entire time we were at the sanctuary, in fact he dug his little fingers into my hair when the animal keeper tried to lure him off. Ultimately we had to entice him off with fresh fruit on a ledge, but it was no easy task. He liked my head. Carmen was also visited by a monkey of her own. Her monkey tried to bite Charlie and we were told that male monkeys do not like male humans. Carmen had three goals coming to the jungle, one of which was to hold a monkey. Check. (Her other two goals were to see a capybara and a jaguar–check and not check)
We also saw parrots, a very large tapir, two wild peccaries that smelled worse than any barn I’ve ever been in, turtles, and a raccoon like animal running around. There were no cages, just random jungle animals running around. Most of these animals were originally removed from their nature environments to be pets, and then relinquished for one reason or another and unable to return home. Some were injured and being taken care of. It was pretty cool to see them up close and personal–though maybe a little too personal in the case of me and my monkey friend.
We made it to Atalaya and met our boatman, Jesus. We also met his son who was our assistant boatman. Hugo has known Jesus since he was Cooper’s age, and has partnered with the same boating family for many years. They know the river, and based on our trip they have some serious skills navigating the twists and turns, shallows and deeps, currents and elevation changes. After a boat photo, we said goodbye to Hugo. He returned to Cusco with our bikes in tow, wishing us well and crossing his fingers we would see the elusive jaguar.
And we were off! We spent the next five hours heading down the Alto Madre de Dios river, en route to Boca Manu. Atalaya is at 600m elevation and our destination was lower. This made for a quick current at times. But like I said, our boatmen were masters and we were in good hands. We sat back and watched the jungle go by. Herons and egrets stood tall on fallen trees in the river. Macaws flew overhead. This day on the river was definitely bird day. Vultures, hawks, small black and white swallows, brightly colored birds flitting and flying along the river bank, diving in and out of the fallen trees scattered in the water and on the beaches. The sound of the motor was like a cue for meditation. For me the five hours flew by. I couldn’t believe we were already in Boca Manu when we arrived. Cooper caught up on reading, and I believe there were a few naps taken by others, but I was riveted the entire time. In my happy place for sure.
We arrived to the Hummingbird Lodge in time to get situated in our cabins and head out for a hike around the property. The plant life was incredible: vines snaking around trees, tree trunks folded in and out on each other, tiny fungus growing on rotted fallen trees, and giant leaves in the shape of fish tails. We learned about the palo calatos (naked trees) which periodically shed their bark to avoid parasites. We saw a huge tarantula skin that had been shed who knows how long ago, but intact enough that it gave us pause about sleeping soundly that night. Termite nests nestled on the sides of tree trunks. We learned the difference between a bullet ant and a fire ant. We saw leaf cutter ants on their highways through the jungle floor.
Our hike ended just as the sun was setting and just in time to harvest a few papayas from the tree outside our cabin. Jeff and our guide Rivelino took turns with a big stick. One would dislodge the papaya and the other would try to catch it before it struck the ground. We ate them the next day on the boat. Talk about fresh.
After dinner we got headlamps and went tarantula hunting (I know, we’re crazy, right?!). Rivelino would find the perfect tarantula hole and then poke a stick in it. We only saw a few babies that night, but on the return trip Jeff and kids saw the big mama. The night hike was cool. The floor of the jungle moved with frogs and grasshoppers, and god knows what else. Somehow we were able to sleep soundly that night, despite knowing that giant spiders lurked in holes not far from our cabins. Thank goodness for mosquito netting, although who are kidding. If something wanted to get in our beds I doubt a little fabric would do much to stand in its way.
Wednesday & Thursday, June 27 & 28
We awoke super early to get on the river. Wildlife tends to come out just after dawn and just before sunset, so we timed most of our excursions at those times. (Midday was the time for relax in our cabins and let the kids explore close by–too hot to do anything else.) The sunrises were spectacular. On Friday morning the sky lit up with bright pinks and oranges. On Saturday morning we found the moon still hanging over the tops of trees casting a reflection on the water ahead.
We left the Alto Madre de Dios River and joined with the slower moving Manu River. It was a noticeable change, a clear fast paced river to a muddy lethargic meandering one.
The ranger station was about 30 minutes up the Manu River. We had to stop and show all of our paperwork and passports. They are strict about who enters the reserve section of Manu National Park. They check the boats on the way in and out. They even weigh our food and garbage on the way in and out to be sure the tour operators are following the strict regulations. We learned more about the park and then the ranger sent us on our way. This was about the time Jeff’s gastrointestinal illness set in. He became very familiar with the ranger station bathroom, and so began the following 24 hours of intense abdominal cramping, vomiting over the side of a boat with a newly broken rib, among other things that you probably don’t want to hear about. Jungle Jeff was not feeling too hot, probably silently cursing his wife for the asinine idea of going deep into a god forsaken jungle.
Once we were inside the park, the wildlife and river banks changed. We saw white and black Caimans, turtles stacked on logs, capybaras along the beaches, and a very rare sighting of three Bush Dogs emerging from the jungle and running on the beach. Our guide said that in 20 years of going to Manu he has never seen that kind of dog. Hugo said the same when we told him later.
Four hours later we arrived to Casa Machiguenga, our lodge for the next two nights. Jeff went straight to bed and the kids and I took a short rest after lunch and headed back out with Rivelino to see a nearby oxbow lake, Cocha Salvador. On our way out we saw our first of many Spider Monkeys.
Over the course of the two days we went to Cocha Salvador twice. We took the boat about 15 minutes down river, disembarked on the beach, and hiked about 30 minutes to the lake. Oxbow lakes are formed when the bends in the river flood during the rainy season and other tributaries forge together leaving the bended river as a stand alone body of water. There is usually still a small water source that contributes to the lake’s lifespan. The cool thing about these lakes is that the wildlife accommodates to the still waters and we humans get to see a different cross section of birds, wildlife and flora. The big draw of Cocha Salvador is the community of giant otters that live there. The otters are also called “lobos” which translates to wolves. There are nothing like wolves except that they are at the top of the food chain. A group of giant otters can take down a large caiman, and not the other way around. We saw many things during these hikes and time on the lake catamaran, but the highlight was the otters. We had the good fortune to see them twice, late in the afternoon and then again early in the morning. In the morning, we saw the whole group doing its morning fishing. One otter got a fish so gigantic it needed help killing and eating it. The otter took the fish over to a bramble of branches and used the branches to help it crush and eat the fish. We heard the echo of bones cracking over the water. This was all happening about 50 feet away from us. Sometimes the otters would swim up to our super still boat and frolic and play just a few feet in front of us. They were marvelous creatures.
Our second day we also visited Cocha Otorongo, on the other side of the river. Hiking to and from the lakes was mesmerizing. There was always something new to point out and to see. Rivelino was an encyclopedia of knowledge. I would simply point to a bird or a plant and he would rattle off the common name and the latin classification name. He would stop mid-sentence, turn his ear in a certain direction and say things like, “Spider monkeys, walk this way.” Then he’d whip out his scope and point it in just the right direction so we could all see one sitting in a tree top. A highlight was watching different kinds of monkeys swing from the branches above us. We even got good at listening for the movement of branches above. Charlie was an excellent spotter of wildlife. We often walked in silence, taking care not to inadvertently scare any wildlife off. Everything around us was green and brown, a deep and lush landscape with micro-communities gathered on each passing branch, leaf, or piece of rotting wood. And then every now and then a pop of color would catch my eye, like when I came across this scene of bright pink flowers littering the jungle floor.
I really can’t do justice to the two days at Casa Machiguenga, but a few more photos will help.
Friday & Saturday, June 29 & 30
I could have stayed deep within the park for another week. It is hard to describe how peaceful the stillness of the jungle made me feel. Despite the cacophony of sounds that were ever present, it felt quiet and tranquil. Alas, we had to return. Our last morning at Casa Machiguenga we departed in a thick mist that cast an ethereal curtain over the jungle. It burned off quickly once the sun came up. The bonus for me about leaving was that it meant more rosy fingered dawns (as Homer would say), and long stretches on the boat, watching for wildlife. I swear I could sit on that boat with the wind in my face all day long. Immune from mosquitos and shielded from the burning sun, there was no else I’d rather be. We stopped at another lake on the way. More hiking, more bird watching, and more monkey sightings. More caimans, more turtles, more capybaras. Still no jaguar, but I suppose we all need a reason to return. We made one last stop at the ranger station on the way out and reconnected with the Madre de Dios River. Our big treat was stopping in Boca Manu village and drinking cold sodas before returning to the Hummingbird Lodge.
Once at Hummingbird Lodge, we shredded the Huito fruit, mixed it with warm water and painted ourselves with the liquid. Rivelino told us our skin would turn blue, with increasing intensity over three days and then start to fade after about a week. Carmen and Charlie LOVED this. Maybe a little too much. That night Jeff and the kids went out with Rivelino tarantula hunting again. The saw the big mama along with a poison dart frog and other creepy crawlies. I stayed safe under my mosquito netting. When we awoke that last morning our children were blue. Not to mention un-showered and a bit stinky, but who am I to judge.
Going UP river on the Alto Madre de Dios meant another long day. We passed a boat filled with some friends who happened to be going into Manu just as we were leaving. We had a river bank rendezvous and compared dyed skin patterns. We also handed off our extra engine in case they needed it.
We wished them jaguar spotting luck and a few hours later we saw Atalaya appear in the distance. We said goodbye to the boatmen and reunited with our land transport for the 2 hour drive over the muddy, uneven road back to Bambu Lodge. A cold shower never felt so good.
I’m including a map of the areas we visited. The thing I think is crazy is that we felt like we were DEEP in the jungle. But if you look at the map, we were only in the yellow colored Reserve Zone. The entire green zone is only for research. No tourists are allowed in. Definitely gives some perspective.
I’m sure it will be years before I go back, if I go back. Until then I will dream about seeing my elusive jaguar, and hope our kids loved the experience enough to bring their kids one day.