Starting our journey to Peru’s Manu Wildlife Reserve, we boarded a tiny plane at the Cuzco airport. We watched the dramatic descent from Cuzco’s 3000 meter altitude, to the steamy jungle below, at just a few hundred meters altitude. Near Cuzco, the landscape was dotted with the occasional Inca ruin. Topography changed and unfolded before our eyes; craggy mountains gave way to vegetation, which grew thicker as the land got flatter.
Finally, it was just a green, fuzzy, impenetrable mass of vegetation. That’s when, looking out the front window, we glimpsed the tiny landing strip, carved into the jungle.
After a smooth landing, we were enveloped by warmth and humidity; new sensations after weeks on the Altiplano. The thatched roof hut set the record for the most spartan airport we’d seen, and I felt a little reticence just setting off into this random jungle. But meeting our guide, Jose Antonio, inspired some confidence.
Along with Jim and Patty, fellow explorers from Connecticut, we took a long boat upstream to the camp. The strangely gothic forms of clinging vines enveloping dead trees lined the river, and water birds fished on the shore.
The Inka Natura camp itself was quite luxurious, for being isolated in the middle of a dense jungle. Private standalone bungalows were sealed against insects with wire mesh, and had hot showers. I would recommend the place. Apparently, documentary crews stay in these quarters for filming, as they’re so close to the action, yet comfortable. Resting in bed, you can hear the car-crash clang of the macaw’s calls. They like to nest near camp, as they feel safe there.
I’d provisioned with a bar of chocolate the size of my head.
Meals at the camp were tasty and healthy. We tried some new Peruvian delicacies there, like causa, a delicious dish that looked like a roll cake, but was made of mashed potatoes with filling (in this case tuna).
All in all, staying at Manu a few days helped me feel a little better, as I was pretty upset after Saffron’s passing. It was warm and full of life.
Our photos of this amazing adventure are not so amazing though. We realized we´ll need to take something much better than a point and shoot camera on subsequent wildlife trips. So, there are no mammals, some blurry bird shots, and a lot of insects here.
On several walks with Juan Antonio, we saw multiple species of birds, plants and some mammals. Manu Wildlife Reserve is supposed to be just about the most biodiverse place in the world. A total of five species of monkeys crossed our path, including Red Howlers; Black Spiders; Saddle-back Tamarins; and Brown, and White Faced Capuchins. At one point, two peccaries crossed our paths — peccaries are small, smelly jungle pigs. Several species of toucan squawked above, and we saw and heard at least two types of woodpecker, well, pecking. There were many hummingbirds as well.
Many types of insect nests were on view.
One giant tree, forty minutes or so away from camp, had a lookout platform on top, 25 meters high. We climbed a rickety metal spiral staircase, to reach the platform’s view of the forest canopy. A birder from a separate group was up there with us, and we all saw a few interesting birds, including some kind of fly-catcher thing. I guess I will never be a real birder. Sweat bees (yes, apparently there are sting-less bees that eat sweat) began swarming around us, for obvious reasons, and we left.
Early one morning, we boated to an oxbow lake, where a family of giant otters sometimes hunts. Oxbow lakes are created when a river changes course a little, leaving a depression where water still gathers. We glided silently on a primitive catamaran — two wooden rowboats with a platform on top, pushed by two oarsmen.
Many hoatzin squawked from shore; they’re big primitive birds that evolved long ago. To me, they look like a phoenix should, or something out of Greek mythology with big metallic feathers. The photo, of course, doesn´t do them justice. Blue lizard scales line their eyes, and they sound like they’re breathing fire. But when hoatzin move, they’re incredibly clumsy. The only reason more predators don’t eat them is that their meat tastes rancid, thanks to their primitive digestive system. A lucky break.
There were also many other water birds, as well as hawks, vultures, etc. Seeing a screamer reminded us of those we’d seen in the Ibera Wetlands, in Argentina.
We spied a few caimans.
A splashing in the distance was the otter family. As we passed, they "telescoped," bobbing their heads out of the water, and turning toward us. This was our cue to back off, as the otters were a bit distressed. We watched from a distance, with our binoculars. It was a family of five, some of them about two meters long. They were thin and incredibly flexible. Sometimes one would catch a fish, hold it in a paw, and crunch it down loudly in about two minutes. My friend Dan asked if their "giantness" detracted from their cuteness. Only, I suppose, in the fact that they have giant sets of teeth, like a big orangutan might, and that they make very strange calls, like a cat-baby hybrid yelling alien words at you (I don’t know whether other otters share these characteristics). We were very lucky to have seen them, as they’re endangered from over-hunting.
Sand flies nibbled us as the sun got hotter, and we pushed back to the dock.
Another day, on another oxbow lake, we saw a single otter, who’s looking for a mate. And the otter family played in the distance.
Beside the second oxbow lake was another ancient tree with a canopy lookout even higher than the first one — 35 meters.
From the top, we could see a capybara bathing in the distance. Though they were easy to find in Carlos Pellegrini, Argentina, capybaras are a rare sight at Manu.
While swaying in the top of the tree, we contemplated the unsettling fact that none of the trees in the forest have roots deeper than several feet. It seemed a wonder that this giant hadn’t toppled. It had fin-like roots, like this much smaller specimen.
Many experiences at Manu really reminded me of a nature documentary, which makes sense. One such time was during an evening walk, when Jose took us to tarantula’s nest. He gently poked a stick into the nest to roust the spider.
She finally came out to chase out the stick, and was definitely the size of a small hand. We saw several other species of large and/or deadly spiders at Manu as well.
The forest was alive with insects everywhere we turned, including many species of giant ants. Army ants are especially interesting, in that they are considered a top predator in the forest. Nothing messes with them. Army ants don’t have permanent nests, rather, they create bivouacs out of live ants from the group, and go on systematic raids for food. There are actually species of birds who have evolved to follow the army ant raids, and feast on any insects fleeing the swarm. In fact, birds of multiple species flock together to do so, and are called "mixed feeding flocks." Birders seem especially keen on these flocks.
The highlight of our bird experience was the parrot and macaw clay-lick. Early one morning, we boated and hiked to a short cliff of red clay, which was a shore of the river. Waiting for birds, we at our breakfast, hidden in a large blind. Squawking green parrots flew around in the trees above the clay-lick, before deciding it was safe to descend. They clung to the wall, eating small pieces of clay from it. Clay is an important part of jungle animals’ diets, as it helps them digest. Clay-licks are also social areas, "bird discos," as Jose called them.
After the parrots had their fill, macaws cautiously descended from the trees. While at Manu, we saw several types of macaws; the ones at the clay-lick were red and green. It was incredible to see so many macaws on the lick — about eighty. They mate for life, and were there in family groups, sometimes nuzzling each other. It was also a surprise to see how gracefully they flew. Wonderful and smart birds.
That night, there was a serious thunderstorm, with wind and water blowing through the mesh of our shelter, and loud thunder.
Our next clay-lick experience was less successful, probably because of the thunderstorm and a full moon. Before dusk, we hiked forty minutes to the tapir clay-lick. The blind was extensive — a raised shelter with many mattresses protected with mosquito nets, above the clay-lick. We ate a little chicken and rice for dinner. Lounging on mattresses, in complete darkness, we quietly awaited the shy mule-sized creatures. Snorts, squawks and rattles pierced the night, while Jose shone a red light around the clay-lick. Tapirs cannot see red light. It was very peaceful.
After waiting several hours, we finally gave up on seeing the tapirs that night. While Jose glimpsed one or two in the trees, they just didn’t feel safe enough to come out.
On the hike back, we heard some monkeys, and saw several brightly colored species of frogs.