Manu National Park, nature's treasure trove!

Trip Start May 01, 2010
Trip End Apr 30, 2011

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Where I stayed
Paitit Lodge

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Friday, August 20, 2010

I first heard of Manu National Park and its wildlife riches some years ago and it has been on my wish list of places to go ever since so despite the early 5am start, I was feeling excited on the first morning of our 4 day Manu tour. We were expecting that there would be other people on our tour (a maximum of 10) and were delighted to find that it was just the two of us along with our guide, Eladea and driver, Pasquale.

We have done some amazing journeys on our travels so far but the long drive from Cuzco to Manu tops them for the way the scenery changes so dramatically. We started by ascending into the mountains, passing fields of maize and potatoes and bare, dusty brown expanses (it's dry season at the moment). We paused at a small Andean village for a breakfast of quinoa juice and cake (we didn't fancy the broth with unidentified bones bobbing about in it!) before continuing on to the chullpas of Ninamarca, pre-Inca tombs set on top of a hill, and then the small and attractive riverside town of Paucartambo. After a few more hours we reached the entrance to Manu National Park at an altitude of around 4000 metres. At a viewpoint we could see the endless river valleys of Manu stretching out before us, slowly making their way down to the Amazon.

Covering almost 20,000km (about the size of Wales), and encompassing a range of altitudes and habitat types as it descends from the eastern slopes of the Andes into the lowland jungles of the Amazon basin, Manu National Park is regarded as one of the most biologically diverse places on earth. Eighty percent of the park is off-limits to most people. A few indigenous groups live here as they have for generations and avoid contact with outsiders. The only other people allowed in this part of the park are a handful of wildlife scientists conducting research. Its remoteness and inaccessibility means that this is one of the few places in the world that is carefully protected. It makes us very happy to know that huge remote areas like this still exist.

The next part of our journey was fantastic as we followed the dirt road down from the upper montane cloudforest into lower cloudforest watching as the plant species changed and the small stunted trees grew bigger and bigger. We alternated driving with walking, which gave us a closer view of the many birds that continually flitted about from tree to tree. We were lucky to spot a golden headed quetzal, and cock-of-the-rock as well as brightly coloured flycatchers, jays and tanagers. We also got very close to a troop of brown capuchin monkeys who were knocking on bamboo to see if it contained water. Back in the minivan, we continued down into the lowlands. This particular part of the park is in the cultural zone where there are small settlements and small-scale agriculture, including coca production. By evening we reached our lodge for the night in Pilcopata, the end of the public bus route and contact with the outside world (there are no phones beyond Pilcopata). Amazingly we bumped into a couple on holiday who live a few miles from our old house in Knaphill! It's a small world!

The next day we continued on, as before alternating driving with walking as Eladea pointed out plants, birds and insects to us including a large stick insect that was virtually impossible to see camouflaged against its leafy background. We also stopped at the house of a local family to see their small coca plantation, and fruit and vegetable garden. The old woman who lived there had two pet macaws and a baby wild pig which she was feeding a bottle of milk. From here we descended further to the tiny village of Atalaya, located on the beautiful Rio Alto Madre de Dios which winds its way down through rainforest clad hills. We boarded a small boat and travelled a short distance downstream to Paititi Lodge, our home for the next two nights. After a refreshing dip in the river we went for a hike up to the top of the hill behind the lodge. It was a strenuous two hour climb up through the forest and we were a bit disappointed by the fact that a haze created by farmers burning their fields meant we couldn't see much from the top. By the time we reached the bottom again it was dark, and green and orange fire-flies were beginning their nightly patrols for food and mates. We scoured the vegetation with our torches to see if we could spot any nighttime creatures and managed to find a rather scary looking tarantula. Before dinner we went hunting for caimans along the riverbank and did manage to spot a small one from the reflection of its eyes in our torchlight. The highlight of the evening was the discovery of a set of fresh jaguar tracks, probably less than an hour old!

It was another early start the next day as we set off by boat downstream to the parrot clay lick, a cliff of exposed sand where parrots and macaws come to eat the minerals which probably helps their bodies deal with toxins in their diet. Unfortunately for some reason, possibly a nearby bird of prey, the parrots wouldn't settle on the cliffs so we couldn't get a good view of them although we did see large flocks flying back and forth. We were also very lucky to see a whole family of capybaras, the world's largest rodent, on the riverbank. Later that morning, we went for another walk to a large ceiba tree and spotted a toucanet which we have possibly identified as a yellow-eared toucanet although we are not sure (maybe a new species?!!). After another yummy lunch and a few hours rest we went to a beautiful oxbow lake where we floated about in rafts in the warm glow of the late afternoon sun, spotting numerous birds including the strange and primitive looking hoatzin as well as oropendulas, red-capped cardinals, chacalacas and many others whose names I forget. We also saw a couple of dusky titi monkeys.

We left Manu on our fourth and final day with heavy hearts. It is a special and wonderful place that contains an unparalleled richness of life. During our four days there we barely scratched the surface. This has defintely been one of our highlights so far and maybe one day in the future we will come back to explore further the wonders of this magical place.

Notes for travellers

Manu tour taken with Expediciones Vilca (Cost $350pp) Plateros 359 in Cuzco. Highly recommend this company as the guides were very knowledgeable and professional and the driver was excellent. The guide's enthusiasm and energy for the trip was amazing. The food was also very tasty. The company also offers much longer trips into the reserved zone of Manu.
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