It's been about 7 hours since we got back to our hostel in Cuzco from trekking the Inca Trail (see "Inca Trial to Machu Picchu"). It would be glorious to get to sleep in. To rest. But we don't have that luxury. We've booked a 4 day expedition in Manu National Park with Manu Explorers (http://www.manuexplorers.com/
). We probably should have put aside a day of rest between the two tours, but we have limited vacation days and need to get as much done as possible. It's Sunday November 19th, 2012. This will be our second week in Peru. Richie is not coming with us to Manu though, as he has to fly back home to spend Thanksgiving with his family. Mason, Cory, Sarah, and I are "thankful" for the US having two holidays this week so we only have to take off three days of work, so we are staying to explore the jungle.
I've done as much research as I could to get ready for the jungle. I've never been to a real jungle before. A rain forest in Washington State (yes there is one on the Olympic peninsula), but no jungle. I've got the most potent bug spray
I can find. We've all been vaccinated for Yellow Fever, as well as multiple other things. I've got light long sleeved clothes to cover as much skin as possible. Even with the vaccinations I still don't want mosquito bites. I've got no plans for jaguars though. I hope to see one from the comfort of a boat or car. Getting mauled by a jaguar in the jungle is not how I want to go.
Our guide, Carlos, picks us up right on time, just about 5:30 AM. By now we are used to getting up at this crazy hour. And when you're in bed by 8 PM it's really not that bad. We are doing the 4 day / 3 night Machuhuasi tour. At $420 per person it's the best deal we could find for exploring the jungle (price has since gone up to $520 per person). Once again, all our meals are included, as well as a stay in a jungle lodge each night. In addition to Carlos and the four of us we have a driver and a cook. We load into the van and we're off to Manu National Park. We'll be dropping almost 10,000 feet
in elevation as we descend into the jungle. It's gonna be hot.
We have a twelve hour ride ahead of us, including all the stops. We don't have far to go, but the jungle doesn't exactly have the best roads, so it's going to be a slow moving ride. Our first stop is for breakfast in a small town not too far outside of Cuzco. We go inside a restaurant, but our cook prepares breakfast for us, not the restaurant. We get an interesting breakfast of cold cut meat sandwiches. The food on this tour isn't starting out so well. I go to use the restroom, which is outside in the back. I have to walk through the kitchen to get to it, on my way passing a bucket of freshly killed and skinned chickens, with a few live chickens strolling around it, waiting for their turn. Apparently Peru's heath code is not quite as stringent as ours.
After breakfast we are back on the road. We start winding through the mountains and see the remnants of some rockslides. There was a big storm yesterday and a lot of the road has been destroyed. Huge boulders are in
the road. We wait multiple times for bulldozers to clear the road before we can pass. I figure this is probably a fairly common occurrence on these mountain roads. No big deal.
After about an hour of adventurous driving we stop at Ninamarka, a pre-Inca site of tomb ruins in the mountains. The stones are tan in color and form tiny cylindrical structures that resemble wells. But they are actually tombs. Carlos teaches us a little bit about the history and beliefs behind the tombs. We don't spend too long here, however, as we have a long day ahead of us. Our next stop is in the town of Paucartambo, a small mountain town overlooking a gorgeous valley. We explore the streets a bit and even try some crazy Peruvian fruit from a street vendor. I wander inside a general store to use the bathroom when I see carcasses hanging from the ceiling. At first they look like dogs. Not that I've ever seen a dog skinned and hung from the ceiling, but I'm in rural Peru, and things are different here. I enlist Mason and Cory to view the carcass and tell me what they see. They don't
think it's a dog and their best guess is a sheep. I still say dog. We explore the little town on foot with Carlos before heading back to the van, never really finding out what the dead animal was.
At this point we're still pretty high in the mountains. But that all changes when we enter Manu National Park. We stop for a few minutes at the park entrance to check out this little obelisk that protrudes into the sky and the view to the cloud forest below. But they view is something we are all too familiar with: fog. Endless fog. The jungle is down there somewhere, but we can't see it. Carlos explains that it's pretty much always like this in the cloud forest. I guess that's why they call it the "cloud" forest.
Back in the van, this is where it gets crazy. The road through Manu National Park is unpaved and not wide enough for two cars to pass each other. There are multiple pull-offs on the side of the road for when you encounter another vehicle. Our van basically takes up the whole road. In addition to all this, the road is as
windy as a road can be, switchbacks everywhere. And as you look out the window while you wind the switchbacks you're greeted by the view of a sheer drop to the valley below. One mistake from our driver and we're all dead. I think about the Cadillac commercial where they go drive the most dangerous roads in the world. I wonder how this one didn't make the cut.
Luckily for us, our driver is a beast. This is his job, and he is damn good at it. If I was driving we all would have fallen off the cliff to our deaths a long time ago. He hugs turns like they're not even there, muscles over floods in the road. The dude can drive. After descending a couple of thousand feet we break for lunch and to look for wildlife. Lunch is a Peruvian chicken and rice dish, a big step up from our mediocre breakfast. Carlos has given each of us a pair of high-powered binoculars to look for animals with. He also carries a telescope, which he uses to find birds seemingly miles off in the distance.
We walk around a bit not seeing much except
lush green rain forest and some small birds. Carlos spots an eagle in the bush somewhere but I don't see it. I don't have that Peruvian bird-eye. We wander down into a little bird observatory and see the bright red feathers of the Peruvian national bird, the Andean cock-of-the-rock. Yes, that is literally the name of the bird (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cock-of-the-rock
). It's a crazy little thing that looks like a bird version of Coneheads. We're just about to head back to the van when Carlos spots some monkeys. There's a whole group of them! They are little guys called capuchin monkeys. They swing all nimbily-bimbily from tree to tree. I want to take one home with me. But alas they are too quick for me and they elude my capture. Well, maybe I didn't really try to capture one of them but it would be cool to have a little capuchin monkey pet.
We make a few more quick stops as the road continues to wind us down closer to sea level, spotting some squirrel monkeys and more birds. Around 5:00 we roll into Pilcopata, a small run-down town in the jungle. Our lodge is just outside the town, but Mason,
Cory, and I decide to take a little trip into town to get some beer and water for the night. As we walk into town we are greeted by shaggy wild dogs, chickens, and children playing on motorbikes. We hear a voice over a loud speaker and realize that there is a soccer match going on at the soccer field, the only patch of grass we can see in the town. It's a dreary place, not anywhere I'd like to be after sunset. We buy some beers from a girl who runs a little shop and head back to the lodge where I inform Sarah that she was right, she definitely does not want to go check out Pilcopata.
Dinner is served and Carlos tells us stories about past expeditions in the jungle. There are a number of primitive tribes living in the boundaries of Manu National Park. In fact, most of the park is closed off to the public so they don't encounter these tribes, who typically do not like strangers. Carlos tells us of the time he was boating down the Madre de Dios River close to the Brazil border when his boat was attacked by tribesmen.
Arrows were shot at the boat and he had to take cover under the seats. Apparently once a year, usually in the winter (our summer in the US) some members of some tribes head down to the Madre de Dios to collect water. They can be very dangerous for tourists and locals alike to encounter. I really hope we don't run into any of these dudes. I wasn't planning on arrow to the chest from indigenous warrior being the way I went out either. More info on tribes: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mashco-Piro_people
Our lodge actually has electricity, but no air conditioning, and being how we're in the middle of the jungle it's muggy as hell. And I want to get some good rest tonight. For the first time since before the Inca Trail I get to sleep in. And by "in" I mean till after 6 AM. Breakfast will be served at 7:30. I cannot wait to sleep in.
Up at 7, it still feels way too early. I sleep till about noon on weekends, but this past weekend I have not had that luxury. By now my pack smells terrible. I changed out my dirty Inca Trail clothing for fresh
clean clothes yesterday but it didn't do much to freshen up the backpack. I try to ignore the odor and pack up so we can get on the road after breakfast. While we're eating a little toucan flies into our room and perches himself on a wooden roof joist. I've never seen a wild toucan before, but I ate Fruit Loops as a kid, so this is pretty cool. The toucan hangs out with us for a few minutes before flying off. There is a macaw on the lodge grounds but he seems to be a pet. I also see pineapples growing in the ground and I'm surprised by the fact that only one pineapple grows per plant. Who knew?
There are a lot of firsts in the jungle. But I am probably most excited to see my first sloth. I've always been fascinated by sloths. I mean how can they be so damn slow? It's amazing they're not extinct. Yet I've never seen one even in a zoo. That changes when we roll up to this kid's house who keeps some wildlife in his yard. They're not exactly wild, but he feeds them and takes care of them,
so even while they are free to leave, they stay. I'd stay at your house if you kept giving me food too.
The sloth is a creepy little bastard. His eyes seem to stare straight into my soul. He crawls across the ground like he's trying to seduce me. Maybe he is, I don't know. He'll probably haunt my nightmares for sometime. In addition to the sloth, there is a spider monkey ("I'ma come at you like a spider monkey!"), a squirrel monkey, who poses for a photoshoot with us, and a capybara, the world's largest rodent. The capybara is really ugly, but friendly. I feel kind of bad that he's so ugly since he comes up to me and brushes against my legs just looking for attention. But I want to play with the squirrel monkey, so move over ugly capybara. We tip the boy with the animals for letting us see them and we are on our way. The van ride is almost over. When we get to Atalaya we will be heading down the river by boat.
Atalaya is a tiny village on the Madre de Dios River. Here we pick up some rubber boots
and have our last chance to buy water and snacks. Or in Mason's case, beer. It's 5:00 somewhere, right? There's not a whole lot of exploring to do in Atalaya. I'd say no more than 100 people live here, and the economy seems to be based solely on jungle tourism. We feed a few Soles into that economy as Carlos and our new boat captain prepare the boat. I'm about to leave the little general store when I see the biggest beetle I've ever seen in my life. The thing is over 2 inches long laying dead on its back. This is the first of many mutant bugs I'll see in the jungle.
The boat ride down the river is pleasant. It's so hot and humid - the wind blowing into our faces while we power down the river feels amazing, a welcome relief from the moisture we feel on our skin. We head up river for a little to take in the scenery then turn around and travel about 20 minutes to our lodge. This is where we will spend the next two nights, in the heart of the jungle. The lodge is primitive. There are 10 rooms,
no electricity, and only cold running water, which is fine with me because in this kind of humidity all I want is a cold shower. The beds are fitted with mosquito nets. Yup, this is the jungle alright. We'll have to tuck the nets under our mattresses as we go to bed to keep the bugs out. A woman lives in the main house and runs the lodge. She lives off the land, off the grid. It's all she knows.
After we get settled in we go for the first of what will be many jungle hikes. Carlos knows these jungle trails like the back of his hand and leads us on some slippery paths through thick brush and ant covered trails. We are wearing our rubber boots, as the trail is quite muddy. We try to be quiet, so as not to startle any animals that might be around. In these parts you can find monkeys, jaguars, otters, sloths, spectacled bears, and my favorite rodent the capybara, to name a few. Not to mention thousands of fish, birds, and amphibians. But on this first hike all we see are insects and a few birds. The ant colonies on
the trail are monstrous. I've never seen so many ants in my life. And they're all carrying their pieces of leaves. One big assembly line. I try not to kill them as we trek on, reaching the lodge in time for a late lunch.
After lunch we head back to the boat. We are going to a location on the other side of the river where we will trek to a small lake. The boat drops us off on a rocky shore and we stumble off, following Carlos into the bush. The trail is quite wide here, so we don't have to worry about not seeing snakes popping out in front of us. We hear a slither and the leaves shuffle around Carlos' feet. "Coral snake," he says. "Deadliest snake in the world." What a nice comforting thought. "Don't worry, they can't bit through your boots," Carlos assures us. This makes me feel a bit better about the killer snakes at our feet.
We reach the lake and there is a man yielding a machete who welcomes Carlos. He rents out rafts to float the lake. We load into the raft and go out searching for birds, fish,
and caiman, the South American relative to the alligator. The first bird we see is a prehistoric bird called a Hoatzin. There are a ton of these guys and they make a really annoying noise. We see a couple of other birds, including a kingfisher, but no caimans or reptiles. We float around on the raft for about an hour just taking in the beautiful day. We leave the lake and make a roundabout walk through some additional trails. We see some huge spiders have joined us on the hike. Carlos explains to us that we don't want to get bit by these spiders, as they are pretty deadly. Add it to the list.
In the jungle just about everything can kill you. If it's not the indigenous tribesmen, it's the parasites in the water. If it's not a jaguar it's a snake. If it's not a spider it's the bullet ants. Don't even get me started on the mutant bullet ants. Danger lurks around every corner, literally. You have to watch where you're going at all time. If you're not careful you could make a deadly mistake. It adds to the thrill of trekking in the jungle. If
you're careful, you'll be fine. Unless a jaguar attacks you then you're screwed. But chances of that are slim to none. In all of Carlos' times taking tourists out into the jungle he has only seen a jaguar once. But you have to be weary of every step you take, even if you have the protective boots on.
As we get back to the shore we discover that our boat is not there to pick us up. There's no cell phones out here so Carlos can't just call the boat driver and tell him to come pick us up. But that's okay, Carlos knows what to do. By now it's starting to get dark. The sun has set and it's cloudy so our light is fading fast. We follow Carlos as he weaves through some bushes on what definitely does not look like a path. We are walking along the shore, but it feels like we are deep in the bush. If there are any more coral snakes around, they're probably gonna be around here. Carlos is whacking branches away with his knife as we try to keep up with him along the riverbank. Sarah is falling behind, not
moving as fast on the shaky ground. She doesn't look too happy about this shortcut.
We finally reach a rocky beach as the last bit of daylight fades away. Across the river I can make out the boat. The river is about 200 meters wide or so, with a pretty fast current. No swimming across this river, you'd get swept away. Luckily when Carlos shines his flashlight across the river we receive a response from our boat driver, who fires up the boat and comes to pick us up. I'm relieved that we're not stranded on a riverbed in the jungle for the night.
After an excellent dinner we stay up and share stories by candlelight. Mason finishes off the last of his warm Cusquenas (they aren't really any worse warm) and we head to our mosquito net beds. It's muggy as hell, but I manage to fall asleep and not wake up in a warm sweat, which happens sometimes with no air conditioning. We're up at around 7 AM again for breakfast.
For the morning trek we hop into the boat and head down river a few miles where we're dropped off and left to explore.
Carlos leads us along a questionable trail the weaves through the bush. Multiple times we come across an inpassable trail and Carlos has to use his knife to cut through branches to clear the way. A big storm hit the night before so a lot of branches have been thrown around. On top of that, the entire trail is wet mud, making me thankful for our rubber boots. We see insects abound, but no animals. All the monkeys must be hiding somewhere.
We wander around and eventually end up at what looks to be another small lodge. But Carlos says it used be a research base and no one stays here anymore. Except Felipe, another local who lives off the land. Felipe looks like he could benefit from a trip to the dentist. Or the eye doctor. Or pretty much anyone that knows anything about general heath and well being. But he's living, and seems in good spirits. He and Carlos have a conversation in Spanish so none of us have any idea what they're saying. Maybe it's for the best.
Back at the lodge we have some time to rest before lunch. I find a massive scorpion
and there's no doubt in my mind that it could easily kill me. I could also easily kill it, but I choose to let it live under the mutual assumption that we won't kill each other. Hopefully he understands. I wander over to the main house where the woman who runs the lodge lives. There is a tree with a green spherical fruit hanging from it. It's not a lime though. I don't know what it is but I see a bunch lying on the ground so I pick one up and take it back to ask Carlos what it is. "It's an orange" he says. "But it's green," I respond. "Eat it." I cut the sketchy green orange up with my knife and try it. And what do you know, it's an orange. A green frikin' orange. Only in the jungle!
A large German tour group arrives to share the lodge with us. The night before it was just us and all the other rooms were vacant. Now the place is full with about 10 Germans. Germans are everywhere. I can't think of a place I've been in the US or world without German tourists. Americans could learn
a thing or two from the Germans!
Our afternoon trek is uneventful for the most part, but we do see a tapir high in a tree. He stops in his tracks to stare at us. We stare right back at him. It's on. After a few minutes we give up and bow in defeat to the tapir staring competition champion. We were hoping he would move, maybe jump down the tree and come hang with us, but it wasn't meant to be. I find a giant vine hanging from a tree high above and decide to swing on it. It looks strong enough. I'm a structural engineer I'll be fine. It supports my weight and I swing across the path actually getting pretty high. For a brief moment I feel like Tarzan. It's the highlight of the afternoon for me.
Back at the lodge we share the outdoor dinner patio with the Germans. The leader of the group lived in the US for a few years so we talk to her for a while, ask them how their day was. They claim to have seen a caiman in the water. Lucky them, we struck out, other than that
Was almost as big as a giant seqouia
damn tapir. But all hope is not lost, as tonight we are going on a night walk, and most animals come out at night. Carlos reminds us of the time he saw the jaguar. It was at night, its eyes glowing in the darkness staring straight at him before running off. Maybe we'll see a jaguar tonight.
The night walk is creepy to say the least. We all have flashlights but they only project so far. We're not seeing any animals, but the bugs are everywhere. Mutant bugs. These things are massive. And they're loud too. If you think the bugs where you live are annoying try taking a walk in the jungle at night. We spend about 45 minutes hiking through the night before giving up and returning to the lodge. No jaguars. And with that we head to bed on our last night in the jungle.
We are up at the crack of dawn the next day so we can head over to a clay lick that a bunch of macaws hang out at in the morning. We take the boat down river and park on a rocky little island in the river. Carlos sets up
his telescope and we wait for the parrots to appear. And sure enough a few minutes later we see them swarming above. They fly right over us, maybe about 20 of them, and land on a tree above the clay lick. Apparently sunrise is prime clay licking time for these guys. But they are staying in the tree. Something is not right about this morning for them. Carlos says that the conditions might not be right for clay licking this morning. Some more macaws fly in and hang out on the trees. We never get a close look at them and we turn up river to head off, leaving the parrots behind.
Back at Atalaya, we tip our boat driver and load up back in the van. Our driver has been visiting his wife and children, who live in the jungle, the past two days. Now he has to drive our American asses back to Cuzco. I feel a bit bad, but I'm sure as hell not driving that van. He's a pro. The ride back to Cuzco is as treacherous as the ride three days earlier, the only difference that we're going uphill now. We stop a couple
of times for some monkeys that our driver notices. How he manages to drive on these crazy roads and spot monkeys in the trees above at the same time is beyond me. Like I said, he's a pro.
We arrive back in Cuzco around 5 in the evening, dead tired from a long day on the road. We thank the driver for keeping us alive and give him a generous tip. We say goodbye to Carlos and thank him for a great tour. We didn't see as many animals as we hoped, but he can't control that. At least I got to see that creepy little sloth. We're back at the hostel finally done with our tours of Peru. We have one more full day in Cuzco before we go our separate ways. The hostel has a laundry service that we are all thankful for (it's the day before Thanksgiving) and we send our nasty clothes off to get washed. We hit up Paddy's pub again. We try some other bars too but nothing much is going on. It's been a long week of getting up at the crack of dawn so I am excited to get to bed
On our way back to Cuzco from the jungle
and sleep in, for real this time. It's going to be glorious.
Thanksgiving day. An American holiday. They couldn't care less in Peru, but I plan on getting myself a good meal. First thing first though, we have to figure out how Sarah is going to get out of Peru. If you remember from "The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu" Sarah's passport was stolen. Mason and Cory wander off to get massages as Sarah and I head for the police station to see if anyone has reported finding a passport or phone or wallet. But when we get there we are told he have to go to the tourist police, a separate branch on the other side of town. By the time we get near the tourist police station I am pretty thirsty. Time for my favorite new drink: Inca Cola. It's yellow and looks like mountain dew but tastes like candy. It's kind of addicting. Mason doesn't like it but I can't stop drinking it.
After my refreshing Inca Cola we reach the tourist police, who to our surprise, barely speak any English. Kind of makes me wonder why they work for the tourist
police if they
Coy (Guinea Pig)
A traditional Peruvian delicacy
can't speak English. After twenty minutes of Sarah trying to explain her situation in broken Spanish someone finally arrives who speaks some English. Unfortunately he can't help her. Nothing has been reported missing. He says to go to the immigration office and see if they can help. So we walk over to the immigration office on the main drag in Cuzco. After a while of waiting we finally end up in someone's office who speaks good English. But as expected by now, he can't do anything for us either. He says to take the police report and her paper copy of her passport to the airport tomorrow and see if she can get on a flight to Lima. From there she'll have to take a taxi to the US embassy and hopefully get things sorted out in one day or be stuck in Lima all weekend with no money. I've given her about $200 USD in case she gets stuck, enough to stay in a hostel, but Sarah's not too keen on hostels right now. Hopefully she'll get to the embassy without any problems.
After our long ordeal walking around Cuzco we all meet up at the San Pedro Market to buy some gifts for family and friends. If you need some gifts for people and happen to be in Peru, buy them there. Everything is dirt cheap. I buy a hand knitted alpaca wool baby sweater and beanie for my pregnant friend for like $5 USD. I find an Inca Cola shirt for myself for about the same price. I love this market!
Thanksgiving dinner is at Kusikuy (http://www.tripadvisor.com/Restaurant_Review-g294314-d1629819-Reviews-Kusikuy-Cusco_Cusco_Region.html
). We are here because I want the traditional Peruvian delicacy known as coy. Or you might know it as guinea pig. I had a guinea pig growing up, but that doesn't keep me from wanting to try one for dinner. Sarah refuses to eat guinea pig but I order one. Mason and Cory decide to split one. It takes an hour to prepare, and to Mason and Cory this means time for one more massage. They head off to feed their insatiable lust for cheap massages while Sarah and I split a bottle of wine waiting for my guinea pig Thanksgiving dinner.
The waiter brings out the pig all cooked and still whole so I can have a photo shoot with it. This might sound disturbing but I was excited about my dinner. After that he takes it back to the kitchen and chops is up for me. Mason and Cory miss their photo shoot opportunity. I dig into the guinea pig like I've never eaten before. There's not a whole lot of meat on this little guy. It's good, tastes more like chicken than pork, but I'm done with it fairly quickly. Luckily they have also provided a stuffed pepper and potatoes as part of the meal. The stuffed pepper is really good actually. In the end I was glad I tried the guinea pig, but at $25 USD, by far the most expensive meal you'll ever get in Peru, I'd probably skip it next time. Mason and Cory, who split the meal, leave still hungry.
We wander around the city a for a while trying to find a place with American football on to no avail. Texas ends up losing to TCU anyways so I'm not too mad I didn't see it. Once again there's not a whole lot going on in terms of nightlife and we end up hanging out at the hostel bar, where a live band is playing. As much as I want to stay out and get crazy on my last night in Peru, I'm exhausted from the last two weeks, and I just want to get some sleep. My trip still isn't over. Tomorrow I head to Panama, where a friend from graduate school lives. One more weekend before heading back to real life (see "Weekend in Panama").
My overall review of my jungle adventure is a positive one. It was really cool to be in the jungle living without electricity and modern conveniences. I am definitely glad I did it. That being said, I don't think I would do another jungle tour, except maybe in Africa somewhere. It's something you do once just to say that you did it and see what it's like. The conditions are uncomfortable for the most part, so you have to know what you're getting yourself into before you go. If you need to check your email every day you're not going to like the jungle. But if you're okay with spending a few days off the grid in a humid dense rain forest, you might enjoy the unique experience of the jungle. Outside of the bugs and animals trying to kill you, it's actually a peaceful experience. Do you research first and make sure you get a good company. I would recommend Manu Explorers. Their guides grew up in the jungle and know what they're talking about. If you get Carlos tell him we said hey!
PS Sarah did manage to get back the United States. They let her on a plane to Cuzco that Friday morning and she was able to get over to the US embassy and get a temporary passport the same day. After getting stuck in the airport in Lima Friday night she made it back to Las Vegas on Saturday.
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