Piranhas, Caimans, and Jaguars, oh my . . . Manu National Park

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South America » Peru
July 14th 2014
Published: August 2nd 2014
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After visiting Peru for my first international trip twelve years ago I felt it was time to come back and visit the jungle that I had really wanted to see the first time. After a little research I decided on going to Manu rather than Iquitos or Tambopata (near Puerto Maldonado). Manu is divided into three zones, only two of which are accessible by tourists. The natural zone that makes up 80% of the Park is left to indigenous people, park authorities, and researchers. The reserve zone is within the park boundaries and is accessible by tourists with approved companies. The cultural zone is the area around the park where you will still see villages and is open to more tourist companies. I made sure to take a tour that was long enough to get into the reserve zone because this is where you have a greater chance of seeing more wildlife particularly big cats.

So, my journey was for 6 nights and 7 days with six others including two female teachers from Scotland, two female teachers from Canada, and a couple from Austria. The company was Bonanza, a Peruvian family-owned business, with sons who grew up in the jungle acting as guides. Our guide Boris was quite a character and very knowledgeable, something like a jungle version of Crocodile Dundee (as described by one of our fellow Austrian tourists). However, I couldn’t recommend the company itself due to what I would consider poor business practices and poor communication. Bonanza has a lodge just outside the reserve zone where Boris and his brothers grew up so they are obviously very familiar with the territory.

We left Cusco very early the first morning. I was told 4am and the others in the group 5am so I got some additional time in the chilly main plaza in the wee (as the Scottish women in our group would say) morning hours. The tour started with a few hours of driving in the morning going down through the mountains and eventually into the cloud forests. We stopped for a breakfast in the small town of Paucartambo and then carried on to the entrance of Manu National Park. The drive this day is scenic particularly after you wake up after an early morning snooze in the van. Inside the park we stopped numerous times in the cloud forest for wildlife or bird sightings and also included a couple short walks. Here we were able to see a cock of the rock, the national bird of Peru. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get a very good picture of this very colorful and strange looking bird. We were also able to watch a very entertaining group of woolly monkeys in the trees from a distance on the road. That night we stayed at Paradise Lodge and saw our last electrical outlets until the last night of the trip.

The next morning we drove to the little village of Atalaya and got on the boat that was to be our home for much of the trip. I stocked up on a couple bars of Sublime chocolate (and glad I did) in Atalaya before heading out. We began our travels up the Rio Alto Madre de Dios to Aguas Calientes where we stopped at a natural hot springs and took a dip for about an hour. Most of the day was spent just traveling up the river until we stopped at a small village to grab a few more snacks and then head over to the Hummingbird Lodge where we stayed for the night. At the lodge there were a number of tiny hummingbirds buzzing around the flowers. We did a night walk behind the lodge that night but didn’t see much. We were supposed to stay at the Bonanza Lodge that night but got the first of multiple bumps to another lodge due to numbers of people staying there. This day also was one of many where we didn’t get to do things listed on the advertised itinerary including two visits to a clay lick, an overnight stay on an wildlife observation platform, and a visit to an indigenous community.

The third day we got up and on the Manu River by 5:30am. Shortly after turning onto the Manu River we stopped to register at the ranger station. That morning at 8:20am we saw the first of two jaguars on the shore. It quickly scrambled up the embankment after seeing us and disappeared into the foliage. Then approximately three hours later Boris spotted another jaguar on the side of the river laying on a large mound of downed trees. The jaguar sat for a couple minutes and then got up and leisurely walked behind the mound and out of sight. Needless to say we were all very excited in the boat! Later that day I saw tapir tracks during a shore bathroom break and then on a second break heard what was likely a tapir crashing through the vegetation very near me (and making for a fast bathroom break). Given that we didn’t end up going to the clay lick or staying in the animal observation tower overnight that is as close as I came to seeing a tapir on this trip. That night we stayed at Matsiguenka Lodge inside the Reserve. After arriving we set off across the shore and went on a walk behind a deserted lodge. The trail led us to squirrel, woolly, and brown capuchin monkeys running around high in the trees.

Day 4 also started early as we left for a hike behind the lodge by 6am. Boris and one of the locals that lived at the lodge sought out Brazil nuts and broke them open and shared them with us. We didn’t see much wildlife on the walk with the major exception of seeing a Monk Saki monkey, a strange looking type that Boris had never seen in that area of the jungle. Lunch that day was a hodgepodge of food wrapped in banana leaves after which we left on the boat for Salvador Lake. The Lake was probably the highlight of the trip as we boarded a pontoon boat and watched the sunset and enjoyed seeing nine giant otters chomping away on piranhas. As they ate they made loud and somewhat disturbing noises that I didn’t think would come from otters. We were also able to see hoatzin birds and macaws up in the trees around the lake. After dark we searched the shores for caiman eyes without much success. However, just as it got dark fishing bats were everywhere swooping down around the water. Later that night I had the joy of finding a wolf spider on my bed in my room. This was the first of three large spiders that made their appearance in my room during the trip.

Day 5 was comprised mostly of taking the boat back down the Manu River and out of the Nature Reserve to the Bonanza Lodge. The day was dominated by gray skies and rain and therefore not much wildlife. We came across a large dead capybara along the way that Boris (in typical Boris style) set upright for other boats to spot as they came through. The major wildlife experience that day came after it got dark with a night walk behind the Lodge. This area was Boris’ old stomping ground as he grew up here and seemed to know where to find every creepy, crawly, and deadly critter. During the hike it would have been nice to have a little more guidance from Boris as to what we were doing, where we were going, what we were looking for, or for a heads up before we almost stepping on poisonous snakes. But, it was certainly memorable as the hike included but was not limited to sightings of tons of bats inside a tree, a scorpion, a scorpion spider, three tarantulas, two fer-de-lance snakes, a coral snake, a walk in a stream where caimans were present, and watching Boris chase a rabbit and a bird with a machete trying to catch dinner. I was shocked at how close Boris actually came to catching the rabbit but later he settled for grabbing two fish (one a dogfish) out of the water with his bare hands and had them prepared for dinner.

On Day 6 we again headed back towards our starting location and skipped the clay lick in favor of going to a lake with floating rafts to watch birds. While the lake was beautiful, I (and others) was really disappointed in not getting to the clay lick. At the lake we floated around for about an hour seeing a number of different birds and also four young capybaras in shore next to the water. That night we stayed at the ‘not so inviting’ Mirador Lodge, the result of again getting bumped from our intended (and better) lodge on the itinerary. That night some of our group helped Boris gather firewood for an after-dinner bonfire out in front of the lodge.

The final day we were back in Cusco by approximately 3pm. On the way through the cloud forest we saw another cock of the rock bird and were also stopped twice by the authorities checking for coca leaves coming out of the jungle. We stopped for a not-so-tasty lunch but with a good view at Lake Huaton just outside of Cusco.

As a whole I really enjoyed seeing the landscape and wildlife of the jungle. I would choose a different tour company if I were to return. I would also recommend a good camera with zoom and low-light performance if possible. I felt underprepared for that. Although others in our group may disagree I thought the accommodations and food left something to be desired. I definitely lost a couple pounds on the trip existing mostly on copious amounts of hot chocolate and hot tea. The chance to see the jaguars and the giant otters certainly made the trip memorable though. We saw numerous caimans on shore along the way and a number of macaws and toucans from a distance flying above or in trees. The mosquitos were not bad and the weather cooperated for the most part with the exception for rain for most of one day. All in all a quite memorable experience!

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