23 August 2011

Manu jungle: day one

At my briefing the tour guide, Abraham (Huaman of Amazon Trails Peru -- highly recommended!), reassuringly said he carries anti-venom, but then less reassuringly asked whether I had travel insurance in case I need to be helicoptered out! He also warned me to be sure to shake my clothes and shoes before I put them on in case of scorpions! And I had to buy a flashlight as we would be going out at night looking for caiman. So, there was a chance I was going to be bitten, stung and eaten!

We left Cusco early on Sunday morning – and I do mean early: my pickup was at 5am! – and headed southeast past Oropesa, where I work, then turned inland to start climbing up and over the huge hills that are everywhere in the Andean foothills. The road was steep and narrow, with a sheer drop of several hundred metres at one side, but for this first part of the journey it was at least tarmaced. Later the roads would turn to gravel, dirt and mud, with frequent huge potholes. These were what the Cambodians call ‘dancing roads’; I think Peruvians just think they’re normal.

Breakfast was a cold omelette, sweet bread and tea at 6.30 in a sleepy little town that was just waking up for its busy weekly market. A couple of hours later we visited the interesting pre-Inca tombs of Ninamarca, commonly known as Chullpas. These were the tombs of the aristocrats of the Lupaca people, who lived about a thousand years ago, mummified their dead and then entombed them in a seated foetal position. From there we continued on to Paucartambo, a picturesque Spanish colonial town, where we stretched our legs with a short walk around the village square and into the ornately decorated church. 

More winding roads followed as we wound our way up to the Acjanacu pass, which marks the beginning of the Cultural Zone of Manu Biosphere Reserve. Manu National Park, located in southeastern Peru, is one of the largest parks in South America. Manu protects over 4.5 million acres (2 million hectares) of territory rich in flora and fauna species in a variety of habitats, including the high Andes, cloud forests, and lowland tropical rain forests. In 1977 UNESCO designated Manu a biosphere reserve because it contains the world’s best example of biodiversity in protected areas of rain forest and cloud forest.

Misty mountains above the cloud forest
As Manu has remained intact and untouched by civilization, it is possible to observe a variety of animals in their natural habitats, including giant otters, black caiman, the majestic jaguar, the strange spectacled bear, the tapir, the ocelot, 13 species of primates, and an estimated one thousand species of birds including seven species of Macaws. Manu also contains 10% of the world’s vascular plant species, including several species of figs and palms, as well as countless species of medicinal plants which scientists are currently cataloguing.

Every hour or so we would leave the van and walk for a kilometer or so, looking for birds, animals, etc. It was fun, and a great relief from the bumpy travelling, and we saw many interesting creatures – luckily the one snake we encountered – a coral snake – was dead! We enjoyed a delicious picnic lunch by the roadside, thanks to our wonderful cook Isidor.

In Manu a thick cloak of clouds provides perpetual humidity and makes an ideal habitat for epiphytic plants such as bromeliads. This varied and fascinating world is also home to the Cock of the Rock, Peru’s national bird, which we stopped to observe mid afternoon. The male birds are a vibrant reddish orange and come together for an exhibition of a ritual mating dance. They display their crest, showing off and posturing for the females. The females, fewer in number, watch to select the most suitable males.

We continued down the narrow road for another two hours or so, between waterfalls and canyons toward the town of Pilcopata. A highlight was a troop of brown capuchin monkeys Abraham spotted by the roadside, which came over to eat the bananas and apples we threw them – very entertaining and photogenic! Abraham proved to be an expert bird and animal spotter, partly due to his 20-year’s experience and living up to his surname of Huaman, which means hawk! We also saw a woolly monkey asleep in a tall tree on the other side of the river.

We finally arrived at the Bambu Lodge, our accommodation for the night, just as the sun was setting. After another delicious meal, we ventured out with our flashlights on a night walk. There were lots of creepy crawlies: huge spiders, grasshoppers and crickets, cockroaches, and a big fat toadthe stuff of nightmares though, in fact, I slept very well in my cute little hut.

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