A Unique Jungle Adventure
There is a place in South America where you can feed wild monkeys by hand, challenge jungle river rapids, see flocks of wild parrots, and zip-line over a tropical rain forest. This special and unspoiled place is Manu National
Park in southeast Peru. Getting there isn’t easy and the activities can be challenging, but the payoff is a unique and memorable jungle adventure.
An excursion to Manu National Park can be an outing by itself, or an ideal add-on to a trip to Machu Picchu, the Galapagos Islands, Buenos Aires, or Rio. Most tours to the park begin in Cuzco or Puerto Maldonado, Peru.
Reputable airlines and comfortable, modern aircraft serve both cities.
We signed up for a four-day jungle adventure to Manu in advance, through a travel agent, but tours are available “on the spot,” too. There are several tour companies that organize and lead trips to Manu. To find one, check with your travel agent or search “Manu National Park Peru” on the Internet.
The Road from Cuzco to Manu
It doesn’t look far on a map from Cuzco to Manu National Park, but it took more than 10 hours, bumping along on a rocky dirt road. We left Cuzco early in the morning in a specialized overland vehicle, which had a cab and
separate passenger unit, similar in size and style to a small school bus. There wasn’t room inside for our luggage, so it went on top along with food, water and supplies. There were 15 of us – two guides, a driver, a cook (all from Peru), and 11 adventure-seekers from Europe, Canada, and the U.S.A.
After leaving Cuzco, we ascended the Andes Mountains, stopping for a break in one of the highest villages in Peru (13,000 feet), then descended to the Spanish colonial village of Paucartambo. As evening approached we entered a
cloud forest near the entrance to Manu National Park. The temperature dropped, the vegetation became lush and exotic, and a light, steady rain began to fall.
That night we stayed in an open-air lodge just inside the park’s entrance. It was rustic, but comfortable, with private rooms, clean detached bathrooms, running water, and flush toilets. Dinner consisted of soup, rice, and vegetables. We slept under mosquito netting – falling asleep to the sounds of the jungle.
About Manu National Park
Manu National Park is located on the eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains about half-way between Cuzco and Puerto Maldonado. It was established as a national park in 1973, declared a Biosphere Reserve in 1977, and named a World Natural Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987.
The park is huge (3.7 million acres), and includes a range of altitudes, from 1,200 feet at the mouth of the Manu River to over 13,000 feet in the cloud forest. It is home to a variety of animals and also more than 20,000 kinds of plants, 1,200 butterfly species, and 1,000 different birds. Monkeys are plentiful, jaguars are frequently sighted, and the park has rare creatures such as giant otters and primitive birds. It also includes indigenous tribes of people, some of whom have never made contact with the outside world.
Cock-of-the-Rock Mating Dance
The next morning we got up early to see the Cock-of-the-Rock (Rupicola peruviana) birds perform their mating dance. Each morning as many as several dozen of these parrot-sized birds perform an elaborate mating dance. The vibrant reddish orange males display their crest, showing off and posturing for the females. The females, fewer in number, watch, then choose the most suitable males. When selections have been made the pairs go off together and the rest fly off to look for food.
Farther down the road we spotted a family of capuchin monkeys who came down a tree for a look at us. One had a baby clinging to its back. After some coaxing, a couple of the braver ones ate bananas and passion fruit from our hands.
Biking and Rafting
After breakfast, we rode mountain bikes through the jungle on a park road. This incredibly tranquil ride took us through lush vegetation, including ferns with man-sized leaves. Thousands of butterflies floated around us, some iridescent blue and as large as our hands.
We stopped at a coca plantation, where our guide explained it is legal to grow coca in Peru. Coca grows on small shrubs (3-4 feet tall). Ripe leaves are picked, dried in the sun, then ground up and chewed or brewed into coca
tea, which helps alleviate altitude sickness.
The bike ride ended 20 miles later at the banks of the Kosnipata River. We helped our guides carry two large rubber rafts to the water, climbed aboard, and floated down the river. There were enough rapids to get our adrenaline
flowing, and the splashing water was invigorating. At the end, we jumped into the river for a cool, refreshing swim.
Covered motorboats were waiting to take us to Erika Lodge, our home for the next two nights. We cleaned up, had drinks under an outdoor canopy, and were treated to a jungle rainstorm with fantastic thunder and lightning.
For dinner our cook, Luc, prepared a local meal of rice, chicken, saffron and eggs steamed and served in banana leaves. When we opened the banana leaves, we inhaled a wonderful, pungent steam. It was a perfect
feast after an exhilarating day!
Into the Jungle – Exploring and Zip-Lining
The next morning we put on high-topped rubber boots and headed into the jungle. Our guide pointed out medicinal plants and exotic trees, including “century plants.” These tall, thin trees are filled with poisonous ants, which stream out to attack anything that threatens their nest. The natives reportedly punished thieves and other miscreants by lashing them to these trees then pounding on the trunk with machetes.
We reached a series of zip lines (also called traverse lines), which had been strung above the jungle trees. Zip lining is a relatively new sport, and this is the only one in Peru and one of just three in South America. The zip line consisted of a series of cables (similar to ski lifts, but without the chairs), which had been strung across the jungle just above the treetops. At the end of each cable a platform had been built onto a tree. The objective is to glide down the cable, going fast enough to get to the next platform but not so fast that you run into the tree at the end.
We climbed up to the first platform (about 10 feet off the ground), and were fitted with harnesses around our waists and thighs and a metal handle. The harnesses and metal handle were attached to the cable. There were four cables, varying from 100 to 400 meters long. Stepping off the first platform was hard, but the thrill and views while sailing above the jungle were awesome! At the last platform, we repelled to the jungle floor and made our way back to the lodge.
The Magical Lake
That afternoon we took a covered motorboat down the river, then hiked down a narrow trail into the jungle. We walked past a banana plantation to a clearing with a small lake in a green valley, surrounded by trees. There were several small islands in the lake covered by soft, green grass. Birds floated over the lake, calling out as they glided past. The mountains reflected on the edges of the lake.
Our guides used long poles to float us across the lake on log rafts. They pointed out several large primitive birds called hoatzins, which are found only in the rainforests of the Amazon. These strange-looking birds have a
crest of feathers that stands straight up on the top of their heads and blood red eyes encircled by bright blue skin. They also have a very eerie call, which sounds more like a heavy smoker’s wheezing than a birdcall.
The setting sun reflected in the water and birds sang as we floated back across the lake. It was a magical scene, and we tried to take in every detail.
That evening, as we lay under our mosquito nets listening to the sounds of the jungle, we realized the uniqueness of this part of the world, and how fortunate we were to experience it.
We got up early the next morning to see the parrots. We rode down the river on a covered motorboat, then walked to the high riverbanks of Calipa. Thousands of parrots were already there, eating from the clay bank. Nutrients in the clay help them digest seeds, which are the mainstay of their diets. There were several species of parrots – some with blue heads and bright green bodies, others with green heads. They travel in flocks, and a few “scouts” circled above, watching for predators. After a few minutes they flew off – with considerable screeching – to search for food.
A motorboat took us down the river to meet our bus, which would take us back to Cuzco. Near the bus an elementary school was in session. Two members of our group, who teach children in their home countries, went in to see the
school. With the teacher’s urging, they led the students in a very enthusiastic and noisy recital of the alphabet, followed by laughter and applause. They came out smiling from ear to ear . They were thrilled to have connected with children in this remote corner of Peru.
The ride back to Cuzco was long, slow, and beautiful. The views of the Andes were inspiring, and stops in small mountain villages gave us opportunities to shop at Peru’s bargain handicraft markets. We arrived late at night, tired but excited. This was truly a fantastic part of a very rugged, and beautiful country!
A Rewarding Adventure
Manu National Park is a remarkable and unspoiled part of Peru. It’s not easy to get to, but well worth the effort. A four-day trip provides a rewarding adventure you won’t soon forget.