Situated 10,800 feet above sea level on the heels of the Andes Mountains, Cusco is the oldest continuously inhabited city in the Americas, and the gateway to Peru’s hidden jewel—the Manu Rain Forest.
At 5:30 a.m. sharp a caravan driver plucks me from my room and I take the last remaining seat with the diverse bunch who will be my companions for the next seven days. A 30-minute drive takes us to a lot where we board a 22-passenger Russian bus and meet our guide, Darwin.
Immediately I know we are in good hands. He’s the classic wilderness sort: shoulder-length hair, just the right amount of wear and wrinkles on his face, faded jeans torn at the knee and a plain black t-shirt.
The fire engine-red leviathan rumbles, rocks, and rolls down the dirt road, passing several small villages. Village residents have a smile and a wave for us as we make our way up the steady incline on the eastern slope of the Andes.
We reach the highest point of the drive, and the 12,800-foot (3,901 meters) elevation affords a view of 20,000-foot (6,096 meters) peaks rising to meet the clouds.
We begin the descent on an increasingly bumpy road that eventually meanders its way into Manu’s sister forest, the Manu Cloud Forest. It is so named because of its higher elevation, cooler temperatures and increased moisture.
Lush greenery adorns every slope, hilltop, tree and shrub. It’s here that we spend our first night, on communal cots atop a roofed platform lulled to sleep by a vigorously flowing cloud forest river.
The early morning breakfast ends with the grumbling engine of the red Russian beast. We climb aboard and embark on the final leg of our road trip. Along the way we make the imperative stop to glimpse the cock-of-the-rock. That’s the name of the flamboyant bird that attracts visitors from around the globe to witness its ostentatious mating dance.
“Watch what the males do to get some love,” Darwin says. As if on cue, one of the bright red-orange chested males begins to bop side to side, wings flickering, in an attemp to attract the girls.
After the dazzling display of avian testosterone, we continue our descent to the road’s end. We board a 16-foot motorized canoe and glide up the Alto Madre de Dios River.
Soon, the Manu Rain Forest surrounds us, and its beauty and ambiance is pure magic. The river is flanked by richly colored trees and many more of Manu’s 15,000 plant species. This tropical treasure also boasts 1,000 species of birds and 200 mammal species.
Tucked away in Peru’s southeast corner, Manu’s 7,200 square miles (18,648 square kilometers) is said to be the most biologically diverse ecosystem on Earth. It is this biodiversity that prompted UNESCO to declare Manu a World Heritage Site in 1987.
It soon becomes clear that we are traveling through Manu’s cultural zone, a large slice of rain forest that was set aside for human settlement. With only 3,000 visitors to Manu each year, the locals interrupt their daily chores to catch glances at passing tourists.
Hours later, we reach our tented campsite deep in the rain forest’s reserved zone. This uninhabited pristine swath of forest is a non-hunting zone where the wildlife is unafraid of humans.
We take only enough time to choose our sleeping quarters. A comfortable bed encased in fine mesh is a welcome site. A pathway leads to communal flush toilets, showers, and sinks with mirrors.
But my whiskers are allowed to grow a little longer because the remainder of the day is reserved for a walk through the jungle to Lake Salvador.
Darwin brings the group to a stop midway and calls for a huddle. “See the fallen trees here? Trees in the rain forest live only about 100 years so most likely this big tree knocked the smaller trees down when it fell, leaving a gap in the canopy. The sun can now reach the forest floor and new trees and plants will grow.”
Lake Salvador is a gorgeous oxbow lake, home to the sleek and powerful giant otter, monkeys and an array of bird species. We quietly float on a large catamaran as the otters constantly periscope to investigate the gawking two-legged creatures.
They approach closely and sometimes circle the wooden raft, chirping, squealing and barking. The 70-pound streamlined mammals are every bit as playful and curious as dolphins.
What we have not yet seen are Manu’s most reclusive residents. And we never will. The Yora, Kugapakori and Mashco Piro Indians live a sheltered life in the national park, some of whom have yet to make contact with the outside world. These crafty survivalists subsist on the rich bounty of natural resources.
On our third day we cruise up the Manu River and come across an inspiring site. Our boat driver spots the object of my desire, the real reason I’ve come here.
A handsomely marked jaguar rests atop a high river bank. The exquisite cat eyes us briefly, with head held high like a true forest dignitary. There’s utter silence in the canoe; it’s broken only by the sound of camera shutters.
Five minutes later we’re off, and once again the cool breeze from the moving boat fends off the sultry air. Birds of various size, color and temperament flicker about, dive and soar overhead. A flock of brilliantly colored macaws in the wild is a sight to behold.
With hair thicker and more lustrous than a cover girl’s, red howler monkeys make their presence known with raspy roars as they greet the dawn. Caiman bask on sun-drenched beaches, while capybaras do their best to avoid those reptilian jaws.
In only a five-and-a-half day span, this emerald oasis rewards me with three jaguar sightings, countless macaws and other birds, large and small monkeys, otters, caimen, capybara, and sloths.
As the 20-passenger aircraft hoists me up into the humid air and above the rain forest canopy to make its way back to Cusco, I close my eyes to daydream. I think of all that I’ve seen and where I’ve been.
I think of the nights spent in a tent on a beach in one of the most remote places on our planet. I think of how nature must sometimes remind us that it is her state of well being upon which our own survival depends.
If You Go
Manu Nature Tours
Eric Plante is an avid nature and travel photographer with an unrelenting passion to see the world. To see more of his images visit www.photographerinthewild.com.