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Friday, July 8, 2011

Craziest road trip of my life! Cusco to Manu – the west Andes to the East. Hugging mountains, over landslides, streams, waterfalls; through moss & fern-lined tunnels. Couldn’t look half the time and said a prayer the other half. The Austrian couple sitting in front of me remarkably chill – strange to be the nervous one! Have a new appreciation for the U.S. road system. It was like the Disney theme park rides Indiana Jones and the Animal Kingdom safari, combined, for 12 hours.

To a kid from New England, the jungle is about as exotic as it gets. Sure, I know green forests and wetlands and bugs. But the idea of a place that is always hot, and humid, and filled with parrots and monkeys and giant palms and vast rivers – that, I had to see for myself.

During our trip planning, we discovered that there is a huge national park in Peru called Manu Biosphere Reserve, relatively close to Cusco, but all the tours to go into the park seemed very expensive – starting at $550 / person for the most basic tours. We put the idea on hold. After hiking the Inca Trail, my desire to see what was on the other side of the Andes got stronger and stronger… and knowing myself, I knew I’d regret not heading to the jungle if I didn’t check it out before we left Peru. I did some internet research, asked around in Cusco, and found a great-sounding tour for the bargain price of $280 for 4 days, 3 nights in the jungle. Seth opted to stick around in the city (nature walks through hot forests looking at birds really aren’t his thing) and so very early on a Friday morning, I headed out with Amazon Trails Peru for my jungle adventure.

I didn’t understand the geography of it all until I was in it, so here’s the brief overview: The Andes, the longest continental mountain range in the world, run like a spine down Peru. The western Andes are typically dryer and more arid; the eastern Andes get moisture from the Atlantic Ocean, and are much wetter and lush. The origins of the Amazon river basin start in the Andes, where streams flow into rivers which join up with other rivers and after hundreds of miles eventually meet up with the Amazon and drain into the Atlantic. Because of this, the eastern side of the Andes is considered part of the Amazon rainforest system. What’s cool about the rainforest in Peru is that because it starts in the mountains, there are many diverse ecosystems at each different altitude – starting with cloud forests, the elfein forests, then the start of the rainforest at about 300 meters, then the lowland jungle. Manu Park encompasses all these ecosystems. Another great byproduct of this is that because there’s still some altitude in parts of the park, it’s not excruciatingly hot or humid.

Manu is divided into 3 parts: the “Cultural Zone,” where there are villages, tourist lodges, and fairly few restrictions on businesses or tourism, the “Reserve Zone,” where there are more protections on what can be built and who can visit, and a huge “Impenetrable Zone,” where no one is allowed to venture. In this zone are two uncontacted native tribes, meaning, they haven’t been contacted by us – the outside world – so no one, not even scientists, are allowed in. Because of this, Manu is one of the most protected rainforests in the world, in addition to being one of the most diverse. And because of this, even in the Cultural Zone, a visitor can see lots and lots of animals in a short visit.

There are 2 ways to get to Manu: via a very long, very bumpy dirt road, or via a very old airplane flight from Cusco to a tiny airstrip in Manu. (Would you rather…?) For financial reasons I took the first method. My guide, Abraham, picked me up in a passenger van at 5am in the morning. Also on our tour: a driver, a couple from Austria, and two British girls (traveling separately).

Some sights from the road:



The tombs of Ninamarka, the royal tombs of a pre-Incan tribe. The royals were buried in these tombs, seated in a fetal position. Beautiful place to be laid for eternity. The bodies have long since been raided, relocated, taken who knows where. It’s sad they don’t get to rest there any longer.



The town of Paucartambo, the capital of the jungle region. Abraham told us some tales of the villages in this area. They have a carnival every year, a huge dance contest, among the villages. The winning village gets to have a party with the girls from the losing village. As a result of this, there are many kids referred to as “carnival babies.” That’s what this statue is about:

Paucartambo sculpture

Another tale of the region: there is one village where all disputes are settled on Christmas day through fights. Everyone gathers in a stadium, and if anyone has a problem with someone else, they can call them down to the floor for a fight. Men, women, even children. A referee decides when the fight is over, and who won. When it’s done, it’s done, and everyone drinks together and celebrates. Someone asked them, why do you fight on Christmas? “Because we want to be happy on Christmas – so we have to settle everything!”

After Paucartambo, back up and over another mountain pass. I thought we’d be crossing the Andes once. Nope – it felt like we went up and down over 4 valleys and ridges. Here we hit the entrance to the park, had a simple lunch brought from Cusco. And here, the cloud forest began.

The Cloud Forest Begins

Manu entrance

Down the mountain; somewhere along the dirt road, we stopped. Abraham led us to an unmarked path with a door. Through the door, a viewing platform, and from the platform, in the trees, were many specimens of the national bird of Peru, the Cock of the Rock, a bright orange bird who does a little dance and call to attract females. All year long they do this, and they love this spot, so you’re pretty much guaranteed to see them.

Behind the door...

Through the telescope: Cock of the Rock

orange flashes in the jungle = cock of the rock

And then, saw my first monkey in the wild! Another guide tipped Abraham off that there was one in the vicinity. It didn’t take him long to find it with his telescope. It was pretty far away, across the valley and up in the trees, but here it is – a woolly monkey.

Woolly Monkey!

We headed down, down, down some more and then through a tiny village along a dirt road (we left the paved road behind 8 hours ago near Cusco). The van pulled into an unmarked dirt driveway (I was quickly learning why it would be pointless to try to explore this region without a guide) and there we were at our home for the night: the Bamboo House Lodge. This was a fairly new place, and very cute: several little bamboo lodges, up on stilts, with nice bathrooms and comfy beds. I shared one of the cabins with the 2 gals from England. Under the mosquito net, it was very cozy, and I loved the view in the morning.

Bamboo House Lodge

After dinner (somewhere along the road we picked up our chef, who stayed with us for the rest of the tour), Abraham took us on a night forest walk through trails behind the lodges. Walking slowly, we all joined in spotting creatures with our flashlights: giant ants, spiders, crickets, termites, moths. It was crazy how many things we could easily find. Mostly spiders. The craziest was when someone thought they saw an animal’s eyes reflecting back in the light, and Abraham said nope, those are spider eyes. Suddenly all I could see everywhere were spider eyes.

Night Walk Critters

The rest of my jungle adventure to come soon – with crazy prehistoric birds, river swims and swinging from vines!

One Comment leave one →
  1. Shephard permalink
    Friday, July 8, 2011 4:44 pm

    AHHH! Spider photos!! You need a warning! lol

    I love the Wooly Monkeys.
    I’m impressed but not surprised you had your solitary rainforest adventure, Kristen! And the whole idea of uncontacted peoples is fascinating. My mind immediately went to wondering about undiscovered birds and animals as well.

    Fun. Except the spider photos.
    ~Shephard 🙂

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