We were picked up and around 5 am (after returning the night before at midnight!) for our trip to Manu by our guide, Juan. We all basically passed out for the first couple hours out of Cusco, except when we made a stop at the bread village to pick up our bread (yummmmmm…). We stopped for breakfast at t a small roadside town where Claire and Laurie had rice, tomatoes, and fried eggs, and Josh and Jeff had Caldo (a steamy bowl of lamb soup). A few hours in, we went for a quick hike among these cylinder shaped pre-Inca tombs built into the side of the mountain. We drove among the beautiful mountainous landscape through the Valley of the Incas. We also stopped at a few towns along the way and saw some nice things like the town center with all the sculptures representing different facets of the local culture. Our guide was a bit sick so we also spent an hour getting him medicine (he wanted us to come along because he told us that things got done much quicker when “Gringos were around.”).
We soon entered the cloud forest where the clouds were all on our level, just sitting on the thick greenery. We then started descending in altitude from 3300meters (Cuzco) down to nearly sea level where the jungle started. At the burial ground though we were at 4800 meters, which was the highest altitude we reached the whole trip. Stopping at the “cloud forest” where foggy clouds swept across the sky and tree line, we had lunch after going for a short walk in the jungle. After lunch, we kept walking and our driver and cook drove ahead of us to where we would meet them. Our destination was to see the Cock of the Rock, a very colorful bird who performs a daily mating ritual with a loud call. We were in luck, the birds were there performing!! AND monkeys were also nearby! We spent awhile watching the birds and listening to their calls and then walked down to see the Capuchin Monkeys. Our guide said we could feed the monkeys, and we followed his lead as he put pieces of banana (and Oreos?!) on branches that the monkeys could easily reach. We also tried to throw some pieces of banana to the monkeys, but we only connected a few times and the other times, the monkeys either dropped it or watched it sail past them in what seemed like slow-motion.
After awhile, we continued on and walked on a gravel road spotting birds and flora that we had never seen before. Juan spotted a wild tomato and picked a few for us to try. They were tasty, but very tart. Juan was very good at answering a lot of our questions about the flora and fauna. Jeff also proved himself to be a very good bird spotter with his own binoculars. Every time Juan saw something that was exciting, he looked like a little kid getting a new bike for Christmas. His enthusiasm was extremely contagious and we were soon getting really excited over birds, plants, and flowers.
Eventually, we met our driver and cook (we had a cook!) and hopped in the van for the last hour or so of driving to get to our first night’s destination: Pilcopata, a small town on the edge of the jungle. We had a nice dinner, opened a bottle of wine that we shared with the driver and guide in the middle of the jungle town. I took a necessary frigid shower and we took a short walk through the town with Juan before crashing after a very long day. We all got pretty bitten up in that town. Laurie and Jeff both also woke up in the morning realizing that they were sharing a bed with an army of ants, but neither let it bring down their jungle excitement.
We woke up earlyish, had a good breakfast and got to walking back into the jungle. The day was scorching hot and we had to walk somewhere around 10km’s to get to the next town where we would catch a boat to get to the lodge where we’d be spending the next two nights. Laurie thought she was getting burnt; so being a Mensch and all, I gave her my shirt for the hike. Again, we walked through the jungle, luckily there was a dirt road and we didn’t have to trek through the bush. We saw all kinds of birds and flowers and views that were invigorating. We stopped at this one spot that was a man’s private house. He grew many types of orchids, some so small, we needed a magnifying glass to see. They were truly amazing! He also had cocoa leaves, and poinsettias. Juan showed us how to use poinsettia sap to treat our bug bites. I’m still figuring out a way to market that! However, the heat was sweltering and we were all tired by the time we reached our next destination. Again, our cook made us an amazing lunch of fried rice and other goodies.
We got to our lodge, and set out for our first hike into the jungle across the river. There, we saw so many types of unbelievable birds. It was raining pretty hard, so Juan gave us large banana leaves to use as an umbrella. We also had a chance to take out these river boats using a large stick to maneuver it. We were all amazed by Juan’s ears and eyes when it came to finding beautiful birds. He certainly is well adapted to Jungle life and loves it like his home. After that hike, we made it to our Jungle Lodge, which was basic but still nice, fully equipped with mosquito nets and cold showers. We settled in for the evening. After dinner, we took a night walk that I didn’t really want to go on, but I didn’t want to miss out on either. Claire stayed behind and we set out in our rain boots and flashlights. We went and didn’t see much except a few enormous spiders and our favorite: jaguar tracks. I don’t know how Juan spotted these small tracks in the light of the waning full moon, but he did and we followed the tracks for a bit but didn’t see anything other than the deer tracks that the jaguar was likely following. After Juan was convinced the light of the full moon was too bright to see anything really fun, we started back to the lodge and all crashed from the long, hot day of walking.
The next day we got up early to see the Macaw’s feeding on the clay lick and this was a short but interesting show. The Macaws followed a very orchestrated process of eating in the morning. Most ate while a few "sentries," in Juan's words, watched for predators; they rotated in and out of those positions. Juan also told us that they share information about their surroundings, like where fruit is and other information like that, as well as looking for mates. The clay lick also provided an essential nutrient for neutralizing some of the things they eat during the day. He also told us that Macaws are one of the only species that are truly monogamous: if their mate dies, they don’t look for another one. It really was quite a scene: seeing the rhythm of one or two Macaws flying onto the lick and one or two of them flying away at the same time.
After watching the Macaws for only about 20 minutes, we went back for breakfast and got ready for a hike up a nearby mountain. We didn’t think much of the hike as we had been doing lots of walking and hiking on this trip, but man, this hike kicked our butts. Going up, Laurie got a bit cranky and coming down, we started to fall apart! We were all wearing these rain boots which were good for the mud, but awful support for hiking up and down mountains. Both my knees were busting up; Laurie fell and strained her shoulder; the ground was muddy and slippery (leading to Laurie’s fall); Juan told us not to fall in certain places because of “Army Ants” who have a venom as poisonous as Cobras; the mosquitoes and flies were attacking us (apparently, they like our sweat for the sodium...all these fun things we learned from Juan); the heat was stifling; in short, we were struggling. Somehow Jeff, found the energy to scale a tree and do his best monkey impersonation (See the video posted). Laurie was covered in mud from multiple falls. Me, I just needed to get back to the lodge and shower. Looking back, it was a great hike and we saw some really cool stuff. We heard howler monkeys, which sound like ghosts! It's a real spooky kind of noise. Laurie loved seeing the carpenter ants, carrying huge leaves they cut down, walking in line and carrying other ants riding the leaves who watch out to protect them from predators! We did finally make it back and had a great lunch. After that, we pretty much hung around for a while and went to the other side of the river to make a fire for that night, where we would hang out when it got dark. We created a ceremony for Pachamama with Juan where we all gave thanks to her for all of the beauty we shared in Manu. During the bonfire, Juan taught us how to fire dance and Jeff gave fire spinning a whirl. He decided to stop when he was covered in gasoline. It was a beautiful night as we watched the huge fire diminish, listening to the Amazon rush by.
In the morning, we started on our long way back to Cuzco where we would spend one of our last two nights on this long exciting adventure. We were sad to leave Juan and the Amazon and would have loved to go deeper into the jungle. But our time on this trip was ending and we had to get to Lima in a day or so for our flght home.