Cuzco sits high in a valley on the eastern edge of the Andes mountains in central-southern Peru. Despite the fact that we are only a few hundred miles from the Pacific Ocean, rain falling here flows eventually into the Amazon River and the Atlantic Ocean. Indeed, a large percentage of the South American continent feeds the Amazon and this area is known as the Amazon Basin. Most of this land is tropical rainforest and you can see this area (dark green) on the map below.
As you can see, all of eastern Peru is part of this rainforest. And, although we tend to think of the Amazon River as a Brazilian river, its origin is actually in the Andes of northern Peru.
Grace and Michael and I got our first hint of the proximity of the Amazon Rainforest on our trip to Machu Picchu. The train from Cuzco followed alongside the Urubamba River, one of the Amazon’s headwaters. In the 60 miles between here and Machu Picchu, we descended from nearly 11,000 feet to under 7,000 feet in elevation. By the time we got to Agua Caliente (at the foot of Machu Picchu mountain) the weather was noticeably warmer and the vegetation had taken on a tropical look, with occasional ferns and banana trees.
When I decided to make Peru the destination for my South American volunteer experience it was partly because I wanted to see Machu Picchu. To see Machu Picchu I learned you must come to Cuzco, one of the largest cities in Peru and one that has its own interesting architecture, history and things to see. Only when I was learning more about Cuzco, did I realize that Peru also has a jungle. I discovered that, from Cuzco, one can easily visit the nearby Manu National Park. This park protects a large area of rainforest in the Peruvian Amazon basin and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park is divided into three distinct areas (see map below.) The public area (green on map) is open to all who pay the entrance fee at the gate. A second area, known as the cultural zone (orange on map) is home to some native peoples that have had little or no contact with the outside world and cannot be visited. The final area (yellow on map), is known as the Reserve Zone,and can be visited only by joining one of the tour companies that have registered with the government.
The Reserve Zone comprises almost the entire drainage area of the Manu River and is accessible only by traveling up the river from its mouth at the Madre de Dios (Mother of God) River. Only a handful of companies are authorized by the government to bring tourists into the Reserve Zone which keeps the total tourists per year down to about 3,000. A limited number of primitive lodges have been built alongside the Manu River to host these tours. All tourists entering the zone must stop and register at the ranger’s station and they must stop again to “sign out” when leaving. I read somewhere that stays in the zone are limited to three days and that’s exactly how long we were there. Electricity is provided only a couple of hours a night by diesel-powered generators and everything (food, gas, bed linens, etc) must be brought in by boat. Likewise, all trash must be carried out when you leave as everyone is very conscientious about keeping the area pristine and unspoiled.
I chose the seven-day tour offered by a company called Pantiacolla for my rainforest experience, a decision that proved to be a good one as I was happy with almost all aspects of the trip. Of the seven days, two were spent getting to the Reserve Zone entrance, three in the Reserve Zone, and one watching the beautiful Macaws at a special clay lick several hours downstream from Manu. All of these days were full of interesting sights and new discoveries. The final (seventh) day was much less memorable as we left the lodge near the Macaw clay lick at 5:30AM and traveled all day, arriving back in Cuzco about 7:30PM. I think no one enjoyed that long travel day but I know I was happy to be able to get back to the land of electricity, hot water, and internet access :-).
Day 1: Cuzco to the Cloud Forest
On the first day, I was picked up at my hostel at 5:30am in an SUV which was already jam-packed with supplies and three Pantiacolla staff members (driver, cook, and guide.) It was an absolutely frigid fall morning in Cuzco and it felt strange to know I would be in a tropical rainforest within hours. After stopping at another hotel to pick up two more tour members we headed out of Cuzco on the still-dark morning streets. As it turned out, we were the only three who had signed up for this particular seven-day tour. (Our group would expand to 8 the very next day when we joined another Pantiacolla group who had left two days before us.) During that first day, I got to know and like fellow tour members Eden and Miko, a Phoenix couple who are avid bird-watchers and experienced nature trekkers/travelers/photographers. I also enjoyed our tour guide Nicholas, who was very helpful and knowledgeable.
For a half-hour or so, we traveled south on the main highway to Puno, stopping at Oropesa, a small town known for its bread.
Here, many ladies stood alongside the busy road with bags of bread as cars stopped to make their purchases. Our cook got out and followed one of them into her small store, returning with a large plastic bag of bread.
Nicholas handed me a large roll and, knowing it would be several more hours before we stopped for breakfast, I enjoyed it immediately.
Soon after Oropesa, we turned off the main road and started climbing out of the Cuzco valley. The road became less crowded, less paved and more scenic. We stopped briefly to view an interesting stone cemetery left by members of the ancient Lupaca culture.
About 8:30, we stopped to have breakfast at a tiny restaurant in the village of Paucartambo. After breakfast we strolled through the town, enjoying the colorfully dressed locals and popping into the ancient church.
Leaving Paucartambo, we traveled on eastward, occasionally passing through other small villages. By late morning we had started our descent out of the Andes and into the Amazon Rainforest. The road took us to the entrance gate at the southernmost tip of Manu National Park. Nicholas spent a few moments describing where we were and taking us up a short trail to where we could get a view of the larger area. When we returned to the car, rather than taking the road that led into the park, we followed the road which parallels the eastern edge of the park, as we were headed north to the Reserve Zone. The narrow, mountainside road slowly snaked its way down toward the Amazon Rainforest, passing beautiful waterfalls and we noticed the vegetation became ever more tropical looking. Soon, we had entered the area known as the cloud forest. Here, the clouds that produce so much rain on the eastern flank of the Andes often hang low to the ground, bathing the forest canopy in moisture and creating a unique eco-system.
At various points, we got out of the car and strolled along the road to enjoy the lovely scenery and the spectacular birds that live in the area. Unfortunately, I had left my binoculars in my “night bag” (a suitcase stored in the rear of the car or boat and not accessible during the day.) I quickly discovered that capturing the birds using the zoom on my camera was extremely difficult. Still, I did get a few photos and I enjoyed my first outing as a bird-watcher. Eden and Miko are very experienced birdwatchers and gave me a lot of good hints and a few peeks through their excellent binoculars.
Of the many beautiful birds in the cloud forest, the most famous is Peru’s national bird, the Cock-of-the-Rock. We caught only a glimpse of this bird late in the afternoon.
Just after dusk, we arrived at our cloud forest accomodations for the evening, the Posada San Pedro Lodge. At an altitude of 5,000 feet, we had already dropped 6,000 feet since leaving Cuzco. As we arrived, we were excited to hear a monkey rustling in the trees just overhead. Nicholas shined a flashlight into the trees and said he thought it was a brown capuchin monkey. I never saw it but was still thrilled to know we were now in monkey country.
After settling in to our dark but comfortable (and mosquito-proof) cabin rooms, we got cleaned up and had a delicious dinner in the screened-in dining hall. We were in bed by 8:00PM and slept well inside our mosquito nets. Wanting another chance to see the beautiful Cock-of-the-Rock, we had agreed to meet early (5:00AM) the next morning and walk back to the prime viewing area before breakfast.
It was an exciting and interesting day and highlights are shown in the video below.
Video: From Cuzco to the Cloud Forest (click on photo)
Cloud Forest to the Amazon Rainforest
Early the next morning, in total darkness, we walked back down the road in hopes of catching a glimpse of the Cock-of-the-Rock. Unfortunately, it started raining as we arrived at the viewing area. Nicholas said the rain would spoil the chances to see the birds so we headed back to the lodge. As we returned the rain was stopping and we were greeted with the most spectacular rainbow I’ve ever seen.
We packed up our belongings (including bed sheets, provided by Pantiacolla and carried from lodge to lodge throughout the week), enjoyed a delicious breakfast, watched some beautiful hummingbirds
The road hugged the hillsides as we wound our way out of the mountains and, within a little more than an hour, we had left the cloud forest behind and were in the Amazon rainforest proper. The land was now flat and the road straightened out. This area looked a bit like central Florida, with cattle grazing in pastures containing palm trees and small, low-income homes along the road. Nicholas said most people here were farmers, raising bananas, or coca leaves.
Around 11:00am we entered the small town Pilcopata.
As we entered, Nicholas pointed out the large tarp laying along the edge of the road containing drying coca leaves. Peru is one of the world’s largest producers of coca leaves. Coca tea can be enjoyed at almost any Peruvian restaurant and dried coca leaves are also sold to tourists as an antidote to altitude sickness. I had tried them (just place the folded leaves between your cheek and gum) when I arrived in Huaraz (10,000 feet.) I’m not sure they helped me but many people swear by them for this purpose. Of course, the leaves are also the main ingredient in the production of cocaine. Nicholas said that police regularly patrol the route we had just taken, in order to ensure that the leaves are not used by the illegal cocaine industry. Of course, I have no way of knowing how stringent or successful this policing is but, given the large profits to be made in the black market, I suspect many end up in the black market.
After leaving Pilcopata we stopped at a private farm where a local man showed us his collection of miniature orchids.He was a very nice man whose son was a biologist in graduate school in the US. One of them had discovered a new species of orchid and was being offered the chance to name it. The orchids were beautiful but most memorable to me were the many oropendula birds flying about the area and the owner’s demonstration of how kids use the Heliconia flowers to make a parrot’s beak.
A short distance from the orchid farm, we arrived in Atalaya, a small city on the Upper Mother of God River (Rio Alto Madre de Dios.) This was the end of our road trip: from here until the final day of the tour, we would travel only by river. At this point we were down to about 2,000 feet above sea level. Now the air was warm and moist and would remain so over the coming days. We quickly grabbed our belongings from the SUV, were fitted with large rubber boots to help us negotiate muddy trails, said goodbye to Nicholas and our driver, and boarded our new transport, a long, canoe-shaped river boat, equipped with a sun-shielding canopy and a powerful outboard motor.