Peru’s Hidden Jewel, The Manu Rainforest
Article and Images by Eric Plante
With 15,000 species of plants, 1,000 species of birds and 200 mammal species, the Manu Rainforest holds the distinction of being the most biologically diverse place on Earth. And with such a rich bounty of lush greenery combined with amazing wildlife viewing opportunities, it is no surprise that UNESCO declared Manu a World Heritage Site in 1987. Flocks of exquisitely colored macaws are a sight to behold. The handsomely marked jaguar navigates the dense tropical jungle. And Manu is one of the premiere spots in the world to see this fantastic feline in the wild. What a magical sight it is! 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. The ever-curious and playful giant otter inhabits the secluded oxbow lakes. Caiman bask on sun-drenched beaches, while the world’s largest rodent, the capybara, does its best to avoid those reptilian jaws. Sloths cling to trees and capuchin and spider monkeys leap from branch to branch with supreme athleticism. What you will not see, however, are Manu’s most reclusive residents. Tucked away in Peru’s southeast corner, this 4.4 million acre tropical treasure harbors the Yora, Kogapacori, and Mashco Piro Indians, some of whom have yet to make contact with the outside world.
LanChile flies to Cusco, Peru, with a layover in Lima. Continental and American Airlines offer connecting flights—which require a change of plane—to Lima. From Lima, Lan Peru flies direct to Cusco. The time to venture into Manu is April through November; torrential rains and flooding January to April leaves the rain forest to its wild creatures. June through September is the driest and warmest period.
The only way to experience the Manu Rainforest is with a licensed tour operator; and that is quite all right, because the only way to travel through Manu is by motorized canoe. Hold on to your hat! It’s an adventure like no other. But first you must make the journey from Cusco, the gateway to Manu. The choices are roundtrip by light aircraft, roundtrip by bus (to and from the rain forest boundary), or a combination of the two. I recommend going in by bus and out by plane. The 14 hour bus ride—split into a day and a half—takes you to a peak elevation of 12,800 feet on the heels of the Andes Mountains. The road descends as you make your way to the emerald green Manu Cloud Forest, where you’ll have a chance to photograph the flamboyant cock-of-the-rock. Yep, that’s the name of the bird that draws visitors from around the globe to witness its ostentatious mating dance. Other avian subjects are the quetzal, toucanet, tanager, flycatcher, and many more. At the rainforest’s boundary you will leave the bus behind, board a 16 foot motorized canoe, glide up the Alto Madre de Dios River.
One of many tributaries of the Alto Madre de Dios River
The Manu Rainforest is composed of three parts: the cultural zone, the reserved zone, and the national park. The cultural zone is set aside for human settlement and contains many bird species, caiman, and small monkeys. The national park is for researchers, production companies, and individuals who have obtained a special permit. The reserved zone is for tourism; but with only 3,000 visitors to Manu each year, you will see very few people.
There are several tour operators offering trips to Manu, and each boasts various itinerary choices. Once your tour is booked Manu accommodations, meals, and transportation (Cusco to Manu and back) are taken care of in one fell swoop. Pantiacolla Tours offers a popular seven day trip, in by bus and out by plane—five and nine day tours are offered as well; I recommend the seven or nine day tour. Manu Expeditions offers a six day tour, in by bus and out by plane. Manu Nature Tours puts on a five day journey, in by bus and out by plane. Other itineraries are available.
I suggest that you pack these four pieces of photographic equipment: a zoom lens in the 28–105 mm range, a 300 mm or longer telephoto, and two camera bodies. If your lenses have an image stabilizer, that’s even better—much of the wildlife is spotted from the canoe, and the boat does its share of swaying side-to-side. Your boat driver will slow to an idle when something exiting is spotted, but only for a few minutes, and you are always coming upon varied scenes that require different focal lengths at a moment’s notice. That’s why it’s best to have a wide to mid-range zoom lens on one body, and a telephoto on the other. A tripod is useless in the boat (no space or level surface) but can be used during the short walks in the rainforest and the cloud forest. Most tours include two catamaran excursions on Lake Otorongo and Lake Salvador, two of Manu’s thirteen gorgeous oxbow lakes. Photo opportunities abound as you quietly float on the wooden raft and come virtually eye to eye with ten foot caiman, giant otters, hoatzins and other birds, and spider and howler monkeys.