If you mention Amazon to anyone nowadays, they will think of Amazon.com. But growing up, the Amazon was always a conversation about adventure, beautiful rainforests, and medicine. It seemed like the Amazon was something only crazy adventurists could do – trekking through the rainforest for days with no civilization close and almost dying five times. (Kidding! But doesn’t this sound familiar?) Visiting the Amazon was always out of reach until I came across the opportunity to visit Manu National Park, the meeting point of the Amazon Basin and Tropical Andes.
I ventured into the Manu National Park for four days for a glimpse into one of the most diverse ecosystems in the world. The national park is over 4.2 million acres and is one of the largest in Peru. In Manu, there are three zones, the Cultural Zone, the Reserve Zone, and the Core Zone. I explored to the edge of the Cultural Zone with Manu Wildlife Peru. This company brings you the furthest into Manu National Park of any other 3-5 day tour. Manu Wildlife Peru also offers Reserve Zone tours that are between 6-9 days.
The Cultural Zone makes up 5% of the park and contains several small villages. The Reserve Zone makes up 15% of the park and is under special protection as only approved scientific research and ecotourism are allowed. Lastly, the Core Zone accounts for 80% of the park and is strictly for indigenous tribes who continue their traditions away from modern society. This zone only allows entry to scientific researchers with special permits and is off-limits to all others.
We started the day early with a 4:30 AM pick-up from our guides in Cusco. There were only 4 other people on our tour which made for a very personable experience. Day 1 was a long drive but we made several stops along the way. Our first stop was in Paucartambo, a small colonial town, where we were seated for a fresh, homemade breakfast. Tourists regularly miss this town except during the festival of the Virgin of Carmen which attracts people from all over to celebrate from July 15-17 each year. The town celebrates in costume, masks, and traditional song and dance for three days.
Our next stop was Tres Cruces, the entrance of Manu National Park, for panoramic views of the Amazon Basin and the cloud forest. After taking in the sights of treetops and clouds, we continued into the park along a dirt road wide enough for one vehicle. There is only one road to enter and exit the park, and we, unfortunately, were witness to some of the tragedies that can occur in this area of Peru. Because of the narrowness of the road, waterfalls crossing over the paths, and rain causing mudslides, the route has to be driven with caution. However, some truckers put themselves at risk either to arrive at their destination on time or to go untracked at night due to the illegal transportation of cocoa leaves. One trucker could not navigate the road conditions the night prior and drove off the side of the mountain. Roads in Peru are hard to navigate and I never suggest attempting to take these routes on your own.
After navigating through a police checkpoint that searched for cocoa leaves, we found a wider spot on the road to stop and eat lunch. Our amazing guides made a hot lunch for us on the spot and we ate with incredible views of the Amazon. During clean up, we were able to walk further up the road to take in what is normally missed while driving by in a car. We spotted hundreds of butterflies attracted to the minerals found on the dirt roadway, monkeys in the trees, and the roaring sounds of a river cascading through the landscape.
At about 4:00 PM we arrived at the Eco Lodge where we stayed for 1-night. The property contains several cabins with unique plants scattered throughout. While walking the property we spotted the first of the interesting but terrifying bullet ants with the most dangerous sting of any insect in the world. The sting of a bullet ant is said to feel like getting shot, hence the name bullet ant. We saw dozens of bullet ants over the next few days and, thankfully, they didn’t bother us!
The following day we headed out early for another 1.5-hour car ride to the Atalaya port, where we would then take a small motor boat 2.5-hours up the Madre De Dios river to the guide’s village, then transition into a second boat, called a Pekepeke, for an additional 1-hour ride to our treehouse huts.
The river we navigated down for the last hour does not appear on any map, making you truly feel like you are in the middle of nowhere. Arriving at the small dock filled our group with excitement, as we had finally arrived at our destination! The facilities were superb, especially for being in such a remote location. Not only did the treehouse huts have running hot water but electrically, fueled by solar panels. The main lodge where we ate our meals also had access to HughesNet satellite internet so we were able to check in with our family when we arrived.
The next two days consisted of day hikes, night hikes, and even tubing down the river, where we were assured there were no caimans or piranhas in this part of the river! Ha! Our day hikes were filled with monkeys and lively birds while our night hikes consisted of thousands of insects, amphibians, spiders, and what we believe was a wild pig we accidentally startled.
On one night hike, we came across tailless whip scorpions, also known as amblypygi, that looked like they came right out of a Harry Potter book. After we spotted one in the dark, our guide was quick to point out the several others hanging out near our feet. Did we sleep that night? Not at all! A quick Google search of these guys will tell you they grow to be approximately 8 inches across. Google has obviously not seen these arachnids in the Amazon! These giants tailless whip scorpions were at least 12 inches across.
Each night we returned to our treehouse to an echo of high-pitched barks that would fill the air, which we quickly found out were bamboo rats. We were constantly surrounded by animals we never knew existed. Rain fell only at night and thunder rippled through the trees. The complete darkness of night and the lack of civilization nearby made each sound so much more intense.
Our guide, Bidel, was quick to point out the different plants and their medicinal uses along with the animals that called the rainforest home. Bidel grew up in the village a short hike away from our treehouse huts and learned to live off the land and with the animals. Surprisingly, Bidel’s village speaks Spanish whereas tribes nearby speak Matsiguenga. We were fortunate enough to meet one Machiguenga-speaking tribe that consisted of an older man and woman, most likely in her early 20s, who I thought was his daughter. I was wrong – she was his wife! Although the man did not know his age, we estimated at least 65.
This tribe survives on fishing and hunting monkeys and Guinea pigs with bow and arrow. The couple lives in a small hut, with a dirt floor kitchen and bowls made from coconuts. They make their own moonshine, known as Masato de Yuca, out of yuca roots. This drink has strong cultural ties – it is a sacred drink that dates back at least a thousand years, before the rise of the Inca Empire.
When they need staples such as rice, they take their only mode of transportation, a small boat, 3.5 hours to the port of Atalaya. The Machiguenga culture was a polygamous society up until recent years when it became frowned upon. The man we met previously had two wives but with the change in cultural views, now only has one.
Our last morning was supposed to be visiting parrot and macaw clay lick, where hundreds of birds fly to a cliff along the river each morning to eat the clay, known as geophagy, the intentional consumption of soil. There are two hypotheses on why the birds eat clay – one being that clay is a natural detox and allows the birds to eat toxic plants. The clay binds to the toxins and keeps them out of the bird’s bloodstream. The other hypothesis is that clay contains vital minerals that the bird’s diet lacks. Unfortunately, with the overnight rain, the birds skipped their morning routine. But we replaced the morning event with another exciting animal spotting hike before we hopped in the Pekepeke to start our return back to Cusco.
A multi-day trip to Manu National Park is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for those wanting to dive right into Peru’s distinct landscapes and ecosystems. You will be up close to several animals and insects and learn more about the different tribal cultures in Manu. The guides at Manu Wildlife Peru are absolutely fantastic. You will get exactly what you put into the trip – so come prepared with an open mind, lots of questions, and no fear of insects!
In 2022, the Manu Jungle 4-Day Tour cost $480 per person and includes everything from transportation, food/water, lodging, mosquito nets, and even waterproof boots for hikes. You will need to bring a good mosquito repellent with you for hikes!
To learn more about the tour or if you’re ready to reserve, you can use the contact form found on Manu Wildlife Peru’s website here. I cannot recommend this tour enough!
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