So we just finished up our first big vacation in Peru, a seven day trip into the reserve zone of Manu National Park, the least disturbed rainforest in the world. We went with a company called Pantiacolla and would highly recommend them to anyone interested in seeing the jungle. We left our house the afternoon of the 1st and got back the morning of the 12th. There was a lot of travel time packed in there (by foot, car, bus, boat, train and plane), but we got to see a lot. The total number of identified animals that we saw came to around 80, including 8 species of parrots, 6 species of monkeys, 4 species of vultures, 4 species of woodpeckers, 2 species of caiman, and a jaguar. Here’s a rough itinerary of our trip and the pictures that are worth 303,000 words:
We took a night bus from Huaraz to Lima, getting in around 5:30.
From the bus station, we grabbed a cab to the airport, and after spending less than 15 minutes to get from check-in, through security, to the boarding gate found ourselves with an excessive amount of time to wait around. The flight was only an hour and twenty minutes, and by mid-day we’d already arrived in Cuzco. A short cab ride later, and we found ourselves with the majority of the afternoon free to do nothing but draw out money to pay the tour company and explore the city. Well, drawing out money between our two Peruvian accounts and our American account ended up taking the better part of the afternoon due to cash limits and foreign flags, and we still didn’t have enough. We even had my mom running to the bank back in Urbana to try to sort everything out. Thankfully we had scheduled an extra day in there so any travel delays wouldn’t prevent us from making our tour on the 4th, so we were able to pull everything out we needed the next day and even took advantage of that extra time to book a day trip to Machu Picchu. We also ate at a restaurant called Greens that night. They have their own organic garden, and have everything on the menu labeled by percent organic. This is a place that in the States would have cost a small fortune, but with Peruvian prices it was maybe only slightly more expensive than a meal at Olive Garden. It was without a doubt the best meal we’ve eaten while in Peru and would make a serious running for best we’ve ever had.
We were picked up around 4:30 in the morning, and an hour and a half in van to the train station, an hour and a half in train to Aguas Calientes, and a half hour in bus later, we got our first view of our first wonder of the world. To be honest, I was expecting to be underwhelmed, but I was pleasantly surprised at just how wonderful this wonder was. Also, while we were there, we ate the 8th and 9th wonders of the world: the chocolate chip cookies they sell there. We would go back just for the cookies. They really are that good. We got back to our hostel around 6:30, drew out the rest of the money for Pantiacolla and ate a small dinner.
The first day of the tour is primarily travel, starting at around 5 in the morning. However, this isn’t so bad, as it includes driving through the mountains of Cuzco and descending into the cloud forest (the entrance to the cultural zone of Manu National Park). Along the way, we stopped frequently to see various animals and even got to see a group of eight or so Cocks of the Rock, the national bird of Peru. The lodge we ended the day at was basically a small collection of screened in huts with a few beds, but there were hot showers, so we definitely had not made it into the really jungly jungle just yet.
We left the lodge at about 5 the next morning and travelled a couple hours in van before getting to the Madre de Dios River, where we began the first of many, many hours in boat over the following six days. Along the way, we picked up people who were on the 9 day tour, and stopped in a few interesting spots before arriving at our lodge just outside the reserve zone – very similar to the last one but no hot showers. All along the river, any time there was an animal, we’d stop and take pictures; or if the situation allowed, pulled onto a beach and set up the telescope as well. You’ll notice some of the pictures are significantly better than others. Those were either taken with our camera through the telescope or taken by our guide with his camera and our memory card. We also stopped at a tree that has aerial roots that drop down from the branches; the end effect is that a single tree looks like a huge forest of smaller trees. Around the trunk, the roots are so dense, you can’t get past them. The guide called it an “Avatar Tree,” as it resembled the trees in the movie.
From 5 until noonish we travelled in boat from the lodge outside of the reserve zone to the one inside. However, as before, we stopped frequently to see animals and other interesting sites along the way, so it didn’t feel like just travelling. That afternoon, we did some of our first actual hikes, first to a lake in which we spotted animals and, once it got dark, searched out some caiman (cousins to alligators and crocodiles). We hiked back in the dark, searching for eyes that reflected back our the light from our flashlights and got to see a bunch of spiders, as well as a poison dart frog, the most poisonous land animal on the planet. One of the other people on the tour saw a snake hanging out in a tree, took a picture of it and ran, unsure of the potential danger he might have been in. Turns out it was a viper, the most venomous of all the snakes found within the park.
We once again got up very early, this time to hike to a lake to see the giant otters that live there. (This is the same lake where they shot the footage for Planet Earth, and our very own guide was the one who for six months helped BBC with the footage.) There was a baby otter, so we couldn’t get very close (if mothers get stressed, they stop producing milk, and the babies die), but after we got back to the dock, the otters followed us, and we got to see them really close up as they ate the fish they had just caught. We also saw monkeys, parrots, and other animals while on the lake but the otters were definitely the highlight. In the afternoon, we went to the lodge owned by the government where they sell goods made by local inhabitants and teach about their customs. As it so happens, both the captain and the boat hand are of that (thoroughly modernized) tribe, and they were able to fill in the blanks about the uses of the arrows and spears that were on display. We then hiked back to our lodge from there, seeing various plants and animals along the way.
This morning we travelled out of the reserve zone to get to a posh touristy lodge at which we’d be staying for the remaining two nights. At the suggestion of the chef, we left especially early to increase our chances of seeing animals along the river. It paid off. We saw a jaguar casually strolling along the beach. After a brief rest in the early afternoon, we headed out to an observation point built 140 feet high, on top of the first branches of a massive Ceiba tree. We had previously on the tour seen the largest known Ceiba tree in the world, but this one was still not small in comparison. We climbed a tower to get onto the platform and then spent the remainder of the evening spotting animals and waiting for the sunset. We hiked back in the dark, keeping an eye out for animals, and boated back to our camp. After dinner, we saw an injured baby tapir just hanging out on the grounds. A lady who worked there said it comes and visits every now and then.
We got up especially early once again so we could beat the other tourists to the Macaw Claylick, the attraction around which the lodge was built. Various animals in the rainforest eat clay for a variety of theorized reasons, probably to offset the acidity of their diet or to supplement it with more minerals. This particular claylick is frequented by several species of birds, especially red and green macaws (just think parrot, and the first image that pops into your head will be this one). Around fifty or sixty gather every morning to eat clay or just to socialize with the other birds. We took an excessive amount of photos while at the claylick and with difficulty narrowed it down to 10 or so to show you all. We also have a video taken by our guide with our camera through his telescope of a toucan attacking a tree full of nests, eventually grabbing a baby bird and eating it. Menda afterward was left with a deep desire for Fruit Loops. In the afternoon we headed to a lake at which we saw some more giant otters, kept our eyes peeled for sloths (to no avail), and saw a bunch more birds.
Thirteen hours of travel: three hours in boat, one hour in car, 15 minutes in boat, then the remainder in car. The car broke down briefly, and as we were hanging out in a small town waiting for it to be fixed Menda reminded me it was her birthday. Whoops. To be fair, I don’t think I’d fully awaken yet, having been up since 4 and dozing on and off throughout the preceding hours. I bought her chocolate cake to make up for it. During those 13 hours we got more of an opportunity to talk with the other five people who made up our group. There was an Australian couple in their thirties, a Dutch couple in their fifties, and a Swiss woman in her forties. We got back to Cuzco about six and we went out to celebrate Menda’s birthday properly. We shopped around for a good restaurant, but most everything was so... Peruvian. We like Peruvian food, but that’s what we eat at home, so we ended up going back to Greens. The second time around was just as good, and though it’s perhaps a little lame that in our brief time in Cuzco we ate at the same place twice, it was, after all, Menda’s birthday, and that’s what she wanted. And I gotta say, after eating, I didn’t care one bit that we didn’t branch out. That food was incredible.
We finally got the opportunity to explore Cuzco a bit. Although entering the cathedrals was not permitted at that hour (they were either closed or in the middle of a service), we walked around and took pictures of as many of them as we could. We also stopped by the local market to buy some of the famed bread of Cuzco and a manta (brightly colored blanket used to carry babies, groceries, and to keep warm) as gifts for our family. Then we grabbed a cab to the airport (from check-in to boarding gate must have been under five minutes this time), we flew into Lima, went to Miraflores and spent the rest of our day just enjoying ourselves. We got falafel, went to a chocolate museum – where we somehow walked away with a bag of chocolate tea, mango chocolate jam, and a bar of dark chocolate weighing in at over a pound, and met up with our host brother (who is currently working in Lima). He saw us off at the bus station, and we began the final leg of our travels.
Throughout the whole vacation, everything had been on time, well organized, professional, and incredibly satisfactory. It’s funny that it took coming back to Huaraz for something to screw up. The bus never pulled into the terminal; it just stopped on the street outside because they couldn’t easily back in and expected us to figure out on our own that we were supposed to get out and grab our luggage from beneath the bus. Not to mention it was 5:30 in the morning and we might easily have slept through the whole thing anyway. Well, we finally figured out something was up, stopped the bus on the highway, got out, grabbed a cab to our bus stop, and made it home by around 6:15. Our host family was really excited to see us. Ma ran to the door to greet us and promptly offered to wash our dirty clothes from the trip. We politely declined, ate some fried egg sandwiches, and then we slept.