I have had some outstanding experiences as I've travelled but one of the most amazing was the seven days I spent in Peru's Manu National Park with Amazon Wildlife Perú (AWP), an outstanding eco-tour company owned by William Huamani Choquepuma and his amazing wife, Carmen DaVila Salas. All the employees, guides, lodge staff and cooks are family or community members who are committed to rainforest preservation and supporting the local and native communities who live and make a living within the jungle. AWP used 3 lodges on my trip: the Rainforest and Bonanza Lodges, co-owned by AWP, and Casa Matsiguenka Lodge. All provide off-grid comfortable bungalow-style rooms. The Matsiguenka Lodge is managed by local indigenous people and creates important income for the native people. Throughout the tour, it was obvious how dedicated William and his team are to a message of support and conservation. Every detail of the expeditions support the lives of the local people and preserve the jungle environment. William considers land stewardship and environmental education of the locals to be an important part of his mission.
Our group included two English-speaking naturalist guides: owner William Huamani Choquepuma and Moises LLaqui. All AWP's guides have grown up in Manu and have worked and trained in research projects while living in the rainforest. They are experts at spotting wildlife, recognizing birds and mammals by sound and sight. Their skills quickly located wildlife while I was still squinting at branches and leaves. I found AWP while exploring TripAdvisor. I had never seen so many 5 star reviews! Every query sent through email or website was responded to promptly and very thoroughly by Carmen. I was so charmed with the service, I decided to book the 6D-5N Manu Biosphere Reserve tour as my big Splurge of the trip. They had a tour leaving the morning after my day in Machu Picchu. It was perfect timing... and wow, what a week that turned out to be!
Day 1: I was the first guest to be picked up at my hostel at 4:30 am. We picked up other guests and headed out of Cusco in two comfortable vehicles. We made a stop at Paucartambo for breakfast and enjoyed a brief walk around the town. Besides myself, the group included an impossibly gorgeous Canadian couple (since married and the parents of an impossibly gorgeous child), a Belgian family of 5 adults, a Swiss mother and teenage daughter team, a charming young French couple, and a Romanian couple who spoke little English. We had 2 tour guides, William and Moises, 2 chefs, and a driver.
We arrived on the outskirts of Manu National Park. We would be travelling around the grey buffer zone and then up the Manu River during our adventure. Much of the park is protected. There are areas where it is strictly forbidden to enter. These are the areas where the bush people live or are particularly ecologically sensitive.
We entered the area in the cloud forest zone. This area is fairly high in elevation, so the clouds cling to the trees. We began our drive down into the river valley.
There are many small waterfalls draining the water from higher up in the Andes. We would drive for a bit and then walk for a bit, looking for wildlife. Moises and William could spot birds and animals in this vast, thick jungle and would patiently explain where and what each was and how carefully balanced this environment was.
There were bromeliads on most of the trees. Sometimes there were scores of them on a single branch. There were lots of flowers, some were parasitic (like orchids), others were complimentary to a host tree, and some just grew on their own.
We stopped along the road for our first camp lunch. We were fed extremely well, in the most challenging circumstances. Two of us on the tour had some special food challenges and all accommodations were made. I was very impressed. By the end of the trip I was in awe. These cooks are amazing.
As we were stopped, William was constantly scanning the trees looking for wildlife. I was thrilled to see the beautiful Peruvian Cock of the Rock (or Tunki in Quechuan). This is the national bird and would only be seen in the cloud forest.
As we drove along towards our lodge for the first night, we made many stops to take short walks along the road, always spotting some wildlife along the way.
I was thrilled when we spotted our first monkeys. I struggled to follow where Moises was pointing but once I spotted movement in the trees I was delighted to recognize a family of Great Woolly monkeys. These monkeys were much bigger than I had imagined. I began to realize that if wildlife tours were going to be a part of my travel, I was going to need a bigger camera lens. I was very grateful for the scope carried by the guides, that allowed us clear views of more distant creatures.
Eventually, we arrived at the Rainforest Lodge, where we would spend our first night in the Cloud Forest. The wooden lodge is surrounded guest bungalows and a row of communal restrooms. The beds are comfortable and are surrounded by mosquito netting. At this point in the park, there is no electrical grid or telecommunication services. Showers are ambient temperature. Some solar power is available for recharging cameras and some lighting. It had been a very long day. As I was lying in bed cocooned by mosquito netting, listening to the sounds of the jungle, it was slightly mind-blowing to realizing that I had been at Machu Picchu the day before and now here I was in the Amazon jungle. It was a total "I love my life" moment.
On the second day, we had breakfast in the pre-dawn mist. We were driving to Atalaya to pick up a boat which would be our transportation for the rest of our journey into the jungle. We were reminded to be well covered with insect repellant. The mosquitos seemed to be put off but the sun flies are vicious little buggers. They bite, leaving a welt and bruises. After the first day, we learned to apply repellant ALL over... as we most often used the “bush toilet”. Several of us were scratching our butts by the end of the day.
This little town was very close to the Rainforest Lodge. We stopped briefly so the chef could pick up some bread and supplies. We were back on the road in no time.
On our way, we also stopped at a coca plantation. The coca plant is very important to Peruvian culture. It is used for tea, for all sorts of flavouring, and ceremonial purposes. The people who live in the highest elevations keep a constant supply for chewing. The tea is considered essential for many tourists in their quest to overcome altitude sickness.
And yes, it can be turned into cocaine and crack. Due to tremendous international pressure, coca farming and selling is strictly regulated by the Peruvian government. Legal coca leaves must be sold only to government agents.
Unfortunately, the government price is very low which tempts some farmers to sell on the black market for much more. Most coca farmers are extremely poor and they work sunup to sundown on their crops. Apparently, the women are better pickers than the men, so they are the only ones allowed to pick the leaves. The family that owned this plot was working while we visited.
We made a brief stop at the viewpoint, Mirador Atalaya. We were able to look down and see the little town where we would board our boats and we could see the Madras de Dios River, a tributary of the Amazon River stretched out in front of us. I was beyond excited.
The village of Atalaya is on the Madre de Dios River, the last community before heading downriver deeper into the jungle. It was here that we unloaded our van and got set up in the boat where we would spend the majority of our days for the next week. There are several little stores to buy some last minutes snacks, beers, or crafts.
Once settled in the boat, we passed some small settlements as we motored downriver. These are all in the “buffer zone” around the reserve. The people were living there when the park was created, so they were given their land.
We were also able to see where huge trucks full of bananas were driven onto the banks of the river. Farmers bring their bananas down the river where the fruit is loaded onto boats for easier transport to market.
A welcome stop along the way was at a natural hot spring. Locals have developed the site to include changing rooms and a cool water aqueduct. Several women also offered crafts for sale at the site. We luxuriated in the warmth. I really do love a good hot spring soak.
After the hot spring, we returned to the boat to continue our journey. It was already very hot, so we were looking forward to being back on the water. We made periodic stops to use the bush toilet or to float quietly while watching wildlife along the water's edge. The entire time we were scanning the trees and river banks, the cooks in the back were furiously chopping, peeling, washing, and prepping two snacks, and lunch, which were eaten on board as we travelled on the river. There were many, many wildlife sightings including Red Howler monkeys, and many birds... including a Great Blue Heron. I always find my Herons.
We arrived at Bonanza lodge. In the rainy season it is a short walk from the river bank to the lodge but in the dry season, it took us about 15-20 minutes to walk in from the river's edge. Bonanza Lodge is in a beautiful setting. It is surrounded by papaya, banana, and coconut trees. The plants attract hummingbirds and butterflies. We dropped our stuff in our bungalows and headed out for a jungle walk that included a climb up a 20m viewing platform which gave us some excellent views of the lower canopy.
On returning, night was falling and we spotted tapir tracks on our way back to the lodge and were amazed as Moises tracked and caught a little white caiman with his hands. I was very impressed. Life in the rainforest works on daylight. We were in our beds fairly soon after our evening walk so that we would be ready for an early start in the morning.
We continued to move deeper into the jungle. The mist was pretty heavy in the mornings but the sun soon burned it off. It was the middle of July: the dry season and the water levels were low. The river system is very dynamic. The huge amounts of rainfall causes trees to topple into the river where they get stuck on the river bed and begin to collect other debris and mud. These can turn into river islands, which change the course of the river every year and form new channels.
As we moved into the protected area, we were required to check in at the ranger station before heading to our final lodge. It was a brief stop but all of us made sure we bought some shirts with proceeds going to the park. I chose one with a picture of a jaguar. I knew my chances of seeing a jaguar would be slim, so I wanted to make sure I saw at least one!
I can’t say enough about the cooks on our trip. We had hot meals prepared and served on the boat. They were always plentiful portions of incredibly tasty food, including salads and desserts. While we were snapping away with our cameras these guys were chopping and prepping.
Close to our lodge, we stopped at a lake, Cocha Salvadore, hoping to see some river otters. It was a lovely, calm lake. As soon as we left the river boat and no longer had the breeze, the heat and humidity became oppressive. We clambered aboard a catamaran raft, rowed by Moises. There is a colony of river otters that live here. These are not the cute little otters we see at the Vancouver Aquarium, charming us with their hand-holding cuteness. No, these beasties are much bigger and more aggressive than sea otters. They were making a helluva racket. We watched them hunt a fairly large caiman who was stupid enough to enter their territory. The caiman got away, bleeding.
The lake was calm but it was scorching hot without a breeze. We tried to stick to the shade. At one point, the other Canadians and I quickly identified the stench of a skunk. Except, it wasn't a skunk. It's this quite beautiful bird called the Hoatsin or stink bird. The indigenous peoples sometimes collect the eggs for food, and the adults are occasionally hunted, but in general this is rare.
Our home for the next couple of nights was Casa Matsiquenka. Reuben, the leader of the local Matsiquenka people who run the lodge, demonstrated the hunting arrows and challenged us to try to shoot some papayas. He showed us the technique.... And then I gave it a try. It was very hard to hold and balance those long spears. My spear went nowhere near the papaya! Afterwards, some in our group felt energetic enough to play a game of football. The Peruvians easily won against the tourists.
The following day started off back at the lake where we had visited the river otters the day before. We were heading back upriver to Bonanza Lodge. Again, we saw (and smelled) the stink birds. A toucan flew over. It started to rain, so we headed back to the boat. It was a miserable ride. We were cold and soaked through to the skin, but the animals liked it.
This tapir was looking for a place to cross the river.
This huge black caiman only had 3 legs... we called him Tripod. William explained that it was likely lost when he was young because of the healing. Young caiman are very susceptible to piranha until they develop their thick skin.
Because of the torrential rain, I was busy trying to hide under my rain poncho and keep myself and (more importantly) my camera dry. The amount of rain that fell was truly remarkable.
Finally we arrived at Bonanza Lodge. The plan was to sleep in the camouflage tower near the tapir salt lick. The idea of sleeping outdoors in the rain did not appeal to me and I was stiff from the cold, so I decided to stay behind. Most of our group made the same choice. Kudos to our intrepid and determined members who slept out.
On our final day in the jungle, Juan and Chef Moises prepared a cake. We were very impressed. It was a better day on the river as we headed back to Ayatala and into the van for our return to the Rainforest Lodge for a final night before our return to Cusco. This was undoubtably the best tour I have ever taken. From my initial inquiries to the final drop off, everything was very professionally handled. I learned so much about the Jungle, it's people, and the wildlife. I cannot praise the staff at Amazon Wildlife Peru highly enough. If you are planning on heading to Peru, I urge you to include a Amazon adventure with William and his team.
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