Published: August 25th 2010August 16th 2010
We arrive into Cuzco at the ungodly hour of 4.30am after having very little sleep. We try to get some sleep in a hostel which, it is discovered a couple of hours later, accommodates a large party of school children so we immediately move into another hostel called Frankenstein - a wonderfully quirky place with a great German host together with his golden retriever, iguana and piranhas! Cuzco is a beautiful city; much more than I was expecting. However, what it beautifies in a physical sense, it lacks from a social perspective as it is overwhelmingly a tourist trap and we bemaon the endless targeting from Peruvians which is far worse than we ever experienced in Bolivia. Peru is apparently a great place to view the Amazon as it supposedly has more control of the virgin areas and most tourists assume Brazil as the best destination thereby saturating the lodges and worsening the environment they are there to see. However, two or three days is not enough as this only captures the inner ´touristy´margins of the rainforest and so book onto an 8 day trip which accesses the Manu Nacional Parque Reserve. We are fortunate to visit such an area as only 6 companies are allowed into the area. This results in approximately 1600 people visiting the 257,000ha site per year i.e. around 5 people per day.
However, before we reach the depths of the jungle, our journey again takes us over yet more unmade dirt tracks with more precipitous drops into revines before we arrive at the funeral towers of Ninamarca. These small towers appear like kilns dotted around the hillside and now appear to function as hideouts for playing children. The lack of protection is unfortaunte as some of the towers are over 1000 years old and were damaged when the Spanish arrive to loot the towers of the treasures which were buried (or rather contained) with their deceased. We then head to the Cloud Forest; named for obvious reasons and which marks the beginning of the jungle. Its climate is also favourable to many flowers, orchids and colourful birdlife including the strange looking ´Cock of the Rock´ with its distinctive ´extended´ head and vibrant red colour. Our first night is in basic lodging in the small village of Pilcapata, marking the beginning of the end of any luxuries for the next eight days! However, we still appear to have more than the locals whose children pass their time by playing football (anywhere) or watching a Hollywood pirated blockbuster on an outdoor TV (Spiderman 2 was the film of the day).
We then catch what will be our next form of transport for the next 6 days - a shallow river boat, locally made and perhaps something that you might associate with South East Asia. We head along the Alto Madre de Dios River which, whilst cold, still retains the scenery of a rainforest along its banks. Our driver, a local lad, negotiates the river well, which is shallow owing to the dry season and which contains many submerged trees that had fallen during the height of the rain season. Civilisation still exists along these immediate stretches of the river and it is interesting to note indegenous people washing their clothes and curiosly observing us from a distance. Aside from their facial features which retain an Indian look, their clothed appearance has unfortauntely taken on a Western appearance, although I guess this is for suntional reasons rather than fashion!
Sadly, the banks of the river are also the scene of transporting logged wood from the forest; we are told that it is illegal in these parts. However, the risk, we are told, lies with the truck drivers who pay for the wood and risk being caught with the illegal wood once they hit more urbanised areas. It seems to me that this does not resolve the source of the problem, although I´m not privy to the logistics ands finances of monitoring illegal forest activities, it remains a disheartening sight.
We stop off at Boca Manu for supplies (being the last frontier of elecricity supply) before heading to Blanquillo, the scene of the famous Macaw Clay Lick. However, that follows the next day; this evening we head out on an evening walk through the forest. This is quite a peaceful walk (for those that aren´t afraid of the dark or clausteraphobic!) and we see many interesting wildlife and vegetation through the narrow focus of our torchlights. My heart takes a few beats when a huge moth we were admiring decided to take off right at my face! No harm done though. The highlight for me is observing a lake and noting the eyes of Caimans looking at us from the lake edges and the dense collection of stars above which cannot be admired from the more urbanised areas which suffer light pollution.
The following day, we arise before sunrise and negotiate the mist arising from the river, which captures some errie still scenes. We have to be at the Macaw Clay Lick before 5.30am to avoid disturbing the birds, which arrive in their hundreds. The scene is almost like a planned performance for our benefit; the noise and flights are astounding, particularly when startled and take flight in mass (greater numbers offer better chances of not being caught). It later becomes apparent that they are startled by a roadside hawk who seems to be playing a game - never attacking just positioning himself so that he is in sight and noting the organised chaos he is causing. Almost like clockwork, Macaws begin to arrive at 8am and the parrots disperse; it seems there is some sort of agreement between the two around scheduled feeding times. The birds feed at the Clay Lick because of the need the clay to neuatralise the acids which they have eaten from berries. Whilst less in numbers, the Macaws are as impressive, mainly owing to the greater stature which is best admired when they are flying (its quite romantic that they pair off and nearly always fly together, sometimes with one off spring). After waiting quietly for nearly two hours - including sight of four brave Macaws ganging up to fend off a large hawk - we see the Macaws on the Clay Lick, which, we are told, is very fortunate as it is uncommon to have sight of both the parrots and Macaws on the Cly Lick on the same day.
We head into the Reserve the following day (bringing a 75 year old hitchiker with us!) and sign ourselves in the ranger station, which contains the lagest network of cobwebs I´ve ever seen. An Isaeli Biologist in our group captures an insect which he throws into a cobweb and then watch with both admiration and horror of the spiders clinical disposal of the insect, first by injecting venom and then wrapping into a cocoon, all in a matter of a minute.
The vegetation alongisde the banks of te Reserve is thicker and greater in size, free from the intrusion of man. Along the way we see lots of birdlife, Caiman and turtles. Upon arrival at our basic campsite, we head for a trek into the jungle and come across a mightly impressive tree (we are told it is a ´Zapota´ and around 400 years old), which is the biggest I´ve ever seen. We also see many monkeys (mainly Common Squirrel and Brown Capuchin monkeys) and see with astonishment - during our night walk along the river - how one of our guides, Carlos, attempts to catch soem Caiman with his bare hands. He says he can gauge the size of the Caiman from its eyes shining back at him from his torch. Whilst he wades into the shallows of the river, we count 7 pairs of eyes watching and encircling him! Our other guide states that a large Caiman will attack; fortunately, the Caiman choose to only observe.
Over the next days we trek to the Otorontgo and Salvador Lakes, which are most famous for their dwindling giant otters (we are fortunate to see families in both and the latter only has one family!) We also observe Red Howler Monkeys, jumping piranhas, an amblypigid (commonly known as a whip spider and a quite horrific alien-like creature although I was fortunate to have a fat spider brushed off me which had crawled from within the bananas at the back of the boat!), Common Sqirrel Monkeys, White Fronted Capuchin Monkeys, Woolly Monkey, a Capybara, Bullet Ants and many other types of animals and insects. We are also informed of the many different types of vegetation but which unfortunately I could not recall the many names. One highlight, however, is that we hear the natural falling of a tree in the night which startled me as I thought it was fireworks!
On return to Cuzco, I immediately head on a 2 day tour of Machu Picchu (as my flight to Iquitos was on the third day). I wanted to do it independantly but time and tiredness won me over in favour of an organised tour. We first had a very long drive - again aside precipitous cliffs - passing the historic site of Ollantaytambo and the towns of Alora Malaga, Santa Maria and Santa Teresa before arriving at Hidroelectrica. From here we trek along a railway line to Agua Calientes which is the springboard to Machu Picchu. The trek lasts 2 hours and fortunately I bring my torch as we arrive in the dark! We are then advised that we must begin queuing for bus tickets at 4am to ensure entry with the first 400 to the top of Huyana Picchu which overlooks Macchu Picchu. I decide against it as I want to spend the small amount of time we have walking the ruins but still have to be at the buses at 5am! The chaotic scene at the buses symbolises the tourism pressures being placed upon the historic site; there are reports that the sight is falling by 1cm a month and its only a matter of time before a disastrous collapse occurs. This chaos transports itself to the entrance to the site where people elbow each other for space. I eventually meet our guide and he manouuvres us to a clearing in the site for introductions. He immediately has to order a US tourist from climbing the ruins and apologies for telling him off, to which I politely advise that there is no need to apologise to such ignorant people.
As a brief history, Machu Picchu was built in the 15th century and abandoned around 1536 to aid the war against the Spanish who never discovered Machu Picchu. This dubious honour goes to Hiram Bingham in 1911 (despite records existing of many farmers and settlers here as far back as 1900). Above all, Machu Picchu represents the pure expression of the most powerful race in the Americas - still clean of contact with a conquering civilisation - and contains some exceptional building techniques (including earthquake mitigation!) at such a forbidding location and was evidentally a very organised place. The spectacular landscape circling the fortress supplies an essential backdrop, inspiring dreamers to wander its ruins for the sake of it. However, the quality of Machu Picchu isnt being appreciated as it should; control is required to keep in check those who are less informed or ignorant of the sites importance and who probably struggle to differentiate it from a theme park.
I then flew to Iquitos (via Lima); it is apparently the largest city in the world innaccessible by road. The attractions are few and far between. Given my appearance as a ´gringo´, I´m forever being targeted by tour touts "hey, Americano!" The tours don´t offer anything exciting and none appear to have any ethnic values at all so I don´t bother. I decide to head out for a game of golf though at Amazon Golf course. Whilst I was worried that the course was formerly rainforest, it had previously been cleared and used as a cattle ranch which had since moved on so my concience was reltively clear. The course has even been in time magazine (http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,2009417,00.html?xid=rss-topstories) and you are brandished with a machete for your round "because of the animals!" All in all, an enjoyable and surreal experience.
I then begin my boat travels down the Amazon by joining a 12 hour boat to the tri border region of Peru (Santa Maria), Columbia (Leticia) and Brazil (Tabatinga). This tri-broder area is very fluid as the boundaries appear to fluctuate according to the height of the rivers. Arrival into Santa Maria requires us to negotiate very informal bridges (i.e. planks of wood across drying rivers) and a 30 minute walk into a local village where I have my passport stamped and then negotiate my way back via spongy wetlands. I then catch a local boat across the main river to Tabatinga and hop on the back of a motortaxi (i.e. me and my two bags on the back of a moped) to a money changer. I exchange my Pervian Soles into Brazilian Reais and ask the money lender of any decent hotels - she points next door but am soon advised by the receptionist that I am in Columbia! I later discover Leticia and Tabatinga are unique as there is no formal border crossing. The following day, I have my exit stamped at the Policia Federal and then I head east into Brazil which is where my next blog will begin.