Visiting the Peruvian Jungle, Part 2 of 2

Late in the morning of the second day of the tour, we arrived in Atalaya (see map below.) My tour-mates Eden and Miko (see Eden’s blog here) and I said goodbye to the Pantiacolla guide team that, over the previous 36 hours, had driven us out of Cuzco in the high Andes, down through the cloud forest and to this small rainforest town on the banks of the Alto Madre de Dios (Upper Mother of God) river. From this point until the final day of the tour we would travel exclusively by riverboat.

Our Route from Cuzco to Manu Reserve Area (click to enlarge)

As I pored over the hundreds of photos and videos I had taken in the rainforest, I struggled to figure out how to best use them to describe my experience in this blog. I finally opted for a highlights approach rather than a chronological telling. I have created seven short videos, each focusing on a particular aspect of the trip and I will structure my narrative around them. Before I present the highlights videos, however, let me give you a quick overview of our route and schedule.

Our Itinerary

The primary destination for the tour was a primitive lodge called Camp Sacha Vaca on the Manu River in the heart of the Manu Reserve. From Atalaya, it took a little over a day by boat to reach Camp Sacha Vaca. Two hours out of Atalaya we stopped at the Pantiacolla Lodge for lunch, where we joined another Pantiacolla tour group. From that point our group expanded to eight tourists and four Pantiacolla staff: our guide (Jose), a cook (Orlando), the boat captain and his first-mate.

Manu Reserve Ranger's Station

After lunch, we traveled all the way to Boca Manu, near the mouth of the Manu River. We spent the night at a nearby riverside lodge called the Yine Lodge. The next morning, we turned up the Manu River, stopping at the Manu Reserve Rangers’ station to sign in, and arrived at Camp Sacha Vaca by mid-afternoon. We spent three days (two nights) at Camp Sacha Vaca, exploring the forest area and visiting the giant otters at nearby Lake Salvador. When we left there, we headed back down to the mouth of the Manu River (stopping again at the ranger’s station to sign out) and then several hours farther on the Madre de Dios river to the Tambo Blanquillo Lodge. We stayed there two nights in order to visit the nearby “clay licks” frequented by the beautiful macaws. The final day of the tour was a long one: we departed at 6:00AM and traveled by boat, taxi, and bus in order to arrive back in Cuzco by about 7:30PM.

Highlight: Traveling on the River

As we moved our belongings from the SUV into the waiting riverboat at Atalaya, I noticed water was being bailed from a similar-looking boat next to ours. Not really knowing what to expect from a jungle cruise, I was a bit leery about how primitive or difficult (or safe?) this part of the journey might be. Over the next five days, however, I grew to trust and even enjoy this form of transport that is, by far, the easiest and most comfortable way to get around the jungle.

In the video below, you’ll get an idea of what it was like to travel by boat along the rainforest rivers. In general, it was delightful, as the seats were comfortable (at least for the first 2 or 3 hours :-)) and the breeze created by the boat’s movement kept us cool and mosquito-free. Our canopy shielded us from the hot, mid-day sun and there was usually something interesting to see. Even when there wasn’t a lot to see, the possibility of seeing a jaguar lounging on the riverbank kept me awake with anticipation. I enjoyed the view from the front seat even though there was an occasional slight spray created by the boat’s bow. You’ll notice the spare outboard motor and the large gas cans (50-gallon steel barrel and 25-gallon plastic can) at the front of the boat. These were not usually a problem but I didn’t enjoy being so close to them when they were filled. For this, we stopped at a riverside gas station (sort of) where gas was siphoned from riverside tanks through a 200-foot hose. There was no nozzle and the mate stopped the flow of gas by crimping the hose!

Some days we traveled for over five hours on the river. After that long in the boat my enthusiasm for watching for river-side wildlife waned a bit and some of our backsides (mine) became sore from sitting so long. The constant drone of the outboard motor even led some of us to doze a bit. On long travel days we enjoyed lunches on the boat. Orlando put together plates of food (cold chicken, vegetables, fruits, cookies) in the rear of the boat and they were passed forward to everyone. I noticed the boat slowed while we were eating and turned to see the boat captain had done this so he could enjoy his own lunch. I was amazed at how good the meals were even in these difficult logistical circumstances. Furthermore, throughout the tour special meals were provided for two of the guests who had gluten-free and other dietary restrictions.

You’ll notice in the video that the river is often full of fallen trees. To avoid damage to our boat’s propeller, the boat captain frequently decelerated as we passed through areas where underwater obstacles seemed especially hazardous. Severe river bank erosion is the norm in Amazonian rivers as the heavy and powerful currents of the rainy season carve away the outside bends in the river, washing away tons of soil and taking riverside trees with them. At Boca Manu, we noticed the foundation of a home had been undermined. When I asked Jose about it he said that 8 meters of Boca Manu riverbank had disappeared during the rainy season that had just ended.

Getting on and off the boat was an adventure because there was usually no dock. Instead, as we came alongside a very muddy bank, the first mate would jump into the water, tie up the boat and then help us de-board using a narrow plank we carried in the boat. Normally, this got us past the worst of the mud but, on at least one occasion, one or more of us sank deep into the muck and it was difficult to get out without losing one’s balance… or boot!

We were very lucky that it didn’t rain too often during the week: the riverbanks and trails were muddy enough without fresh rain. It did rain for over an hour at one point while we were on the river and this was quite an adventure. The canopy stopped part of the rain but my position in front of the boat had little protection as the boat’s movement carried the rain right into my face. After getting a little video of us preparing for the rain, I put on my poncho, moved my camera to my lap and tightened the drawstrings around the opening for my face. The first-mate provided a tarp for each row of seats and I covered my legs and lap with mine, holding each side down to keep the wind from blowing it away. After a while, I realized my shirt was getting wet from all the rain that was hitting my face and trickling down so I put on my baseball cap and re-tightened the drawstrings around the cap’s bill. Then, by keeping my head lowered, I could channel the rain from my cap’s bill onto the tarp on my lap. Happily, I kept my camera and my legs dry throughout. At first, it was kind of fun but, after an hour or so, I had had enough!

Video: Traveling on the River (click on photo)


Highlight: Viewing Wildlife Along the River

It turns out that the river is one of the best places to see jungle wildlife. For example, we were told the chances of viewing a jaguar sunning itself on the riverbank (we never did :-() were about 50% while the chances of seeing one in the forest were probably less than 1%. Manu is a great place for birdwatchers and we saw many beautiful, interesting birds along the river. One of my favorite sights was the clay lick we passed where hundreds of squawking blue-headed parrots nibbled at the riverbank clay that serves as an important digestive aid. At one point, we saw a capybara, running up the bank and disappearing into the forest. These rodents, which are the size of a large dog, have become more difficult to see along the river so I was pleased we were lucky enough to spot one. Jose said the capybara probably had just swum across the river. Interestingly, Jose said many animals can swim across the river, including jaguars and monkeys. We also saw several caimans along the river, mostly the smaller “white” variety although the larger and more aggressive black caimans were surely around.

Video: Viewing Wildlife Along the River (click on photo)


Highlight: Walking Through the Jungle

At Camp Sacha Vaca and at several other places along the Manu and Madre de Dios rivers we often followed Jose on hikes through the jungle. He led our single-file procession using his machete to clear the way when necessary. These hikes occurred both during the day and after dark (although we never ventured far from our living quarters at night) and we saw a wide variety of the flora and fauna that make the jungle such a fascinating place. Jose has been a tour guide for over ten years and is a font of knowledge about the trees, plants, insects and animals that live there.

Our daylight hikes gave us the chance to see the tropical foliage up close. Some trees/shrubs have protective spikes all over their trunks: a most interesting sight but a hazard to anyone who passes too near them. Most impressive were the beautiful large trees with massive buttress roots. Apparently, because the rainforest soil is deficient in nutrients, many trees’ roots are very shallow. The buttress roots of such trees as the kapok (called the Ceiba tree by locals), ficus, and other fig trees provide them a stability that their shallow roots do not.

We learned there are many hazards to avoid and one cannot simply walk through the woods as we might do here at home. On our first night hike, as we stopped to admire some interesting spider or frog found in a tree, someone noticed ants crawling on my pants legs. Jose told us they were “fire ants” as someone else said “My God, they’re all over him!” I tried not to panic while Jose and my fellow hikers worked to brush them off of me. Luckily, I had tucked my pants legs into my socks because my socks were covered with ants attempting (unsuccessfully) to bite me. Later in the trip, I did get a single fire ant bite on my finger and it felt a lot like a bee sting: I certainly wouldn’t want to get many of those at the same time. Jose used the incident to reinforce the message that we must always be careful of where we walk and what we touch. He pointed out another, larger ant, the bullet ant, which has a much more painful bite. These are about an inch long and should definitely be avoided.

We often came across groups of monkeys in the trees above. Sometimes, you could see them but, more often, you could only hear them as the heavy foliage obscured their movements. Another enjoyable sight was a long (~50 meters) line of leaf-cutter ants carrying pieces of leaves bigger than themselves back to their nest. These leaves are not eaten by the ants but used by the colony to cultivate a fungus which is fed to the ant larvae. In effect, these sophisticated little creatures are farmers!

Perhaps my favorite part of the rainforest was the sound. The day-and-night cacophony of insect, bird, and monkey sounds was delightful to the ear and, on several occasions, I lagged behind my fellow hikers just to enjoy it.

Video: Walking Through the Jungle (click on photo)


Highlight: The Monkeys of Manu

Like many people, I’m fascinated by monkeys, with their human-like behaviors and spiderman-like athletic abilities. Manu’s thirteen different species of monkeys make it a great place to monkey-watch. We saw monkeys along the river as we cruised, in the forest during our hikes, and even in the trees above the huts where we slept. Over the week, our group saw ten or eleven of the thirteen species (although I think I only saw about seven). In the forest, it’s pretty easy to find the monkeys as they noisily jump from branch to branch and leftovers from their canopy-level meals hit the forest floor. But, it’s a little harder to get a clear view of them as they often move quickly and the tree-top foliage hides them. I got very few good photos or videos but had a little better luck watching them with my binoculars. If I had to do it over again, I would probably spend more time with the binoculars and less with the camera.

The monkey species we saw most commonly were squirrel monkeys, spider monkeys, brown capuchins and red howlers. I’ve included photos of all the thirteen species in the video below. Jose said that, over the many years he has guided groups through Manu, he has seen every species except the Goeldi monkey. Another that is rarely seen is the pygmy marmoset: a miniscule primate that lives high in the canopy. For me, the most exciting sighting was of an Emperor Tamarin monkey. Their long, white handle-bar moustaches make these monkeys very distinct. I remembered having seen them in documentaries but was surprised to see how small they are: weighing only 10 to 14 ounces at maturity.

At one point in the video, you’ll see three spider monkeys looking down on us from their high tree-top position. Jose said spider monkeys always seem very curious about tour groups, often stopping whatever they’re doing to watch us pass.

As I mentioned earlier, one of the things I liked best about the jungle were the sounds. One sound, however, which I recorded early one morning at Camp Sacha Vaca, was downright eerie. The howl of a howler monkey is more like a growl. Its deep resonance gives the impression it must be coming from a very large animal. In a book I just finished, “The Last Days of the Incas” which chronicles the Spanish destruction of the Inca Empire, the author describes the effect this sound had on Spanish soldiers who were pursuing the Incas into the jungle… “The men sweated under the armor and cotton clothes while, in the distance, sounds they had never before heard welled up – deep, lion-like roars that to the Spaniards sounded like the guardians of hell screaming…”

Video: The Monkeys of Manu (click on photo)

Zoos and wildlife documentaries have spoiled us. Seeing the monkeys in the wild is definitely more exciting but I came home with a desire to see more of them. I found some excellent short videos on YouTube: if you’re interested in seeing more just click on the species of interest in the table below.


Highlight: The Giant Otters of Lake Salvador

Within walking distance of Camp Sacha Vaca is a large oxbow lake called Lake Salvador. This crescent-shaped body of water was once a stretch of the Manu River but, over hundreds/thousands of years of erosion and rainy-season flooding it has been cut off from the main flow of the river. (If you’re interested, an animation of how an oxbow lake is formed is shown on this website – click ‘play’ button multiple times to see the full animation.) Teeming with fish, caiman and water birds, the lake is most famous for its resident family of giant otters. These otters are an endangered species because of habitat loss and because there was a lucrative and legal market for their pelts/furs as recently as the 1960s. Growing as large as eight feet long and weighing 70 pounds they are the largest freshwater otter in the world. They are also intelligent and social, living in cohesive and cooperative family groups of between three and eight members. Lake Salvador’s family has been the subject of ongoing observation by a BBC team so we know more about them than we might otherwise. The breeding pair, Diablo and Sofia, had a brood of six not long ago, one of the largest broods known to have ever occurred. When we visited, we only saw about 5 or 6 otters together at any one time so it seemed that at least a couple had been taken by predators. The hundreds of black caimans that live on the lake are the main threat but anaconda snakes may also prey on the otters.

We walked to the lake in late afternoon of our first day at Camp Sacha Vaca. We boarded a large wooden catamaran that serves as a floating observation platform and Jose and the first-mate quietly paddled us out onto the lake. We didn’t have much luck that evening, although the peaceful environment and the interesting birds and monkeys along the shore made it worth our efforts. As it got dark, Jose demonstrated how many caimans live on the lake by shining his powerful flashlight along the edge of the water where we saw many pairs of red luminous eyes staring back at us. We went back the next morning in hopes of seeing the otters and were lucky to catch quite a bit of activity. For video highlights of our two visits to the lake, click on the photo below. You can also view a wonderful BBC-produced video about the otters of Lake Salvador online here.

Video: The Giant Otters of Lake Salvador


Highlight: Observation Platform in a Giant Kapok Tree

On our last full day in the jungle, we enjoyed a hike through an area near our Tambo Blanqillo lodge. The highlight of this hike was climbing to the top of a 50-meter tower in order to walk out onto a wooden observation platform high in the branches of a giant Kapok tree. After a fairly arduous climb, we enjoyed seeing the Manu area from a perspective not previously seen. Although the views were spectacular, I didn’t stay very long because I just couldn’t get past the idea that the tower and platform were built by men and I had no idea how structurally sound they might be. Perhaps I am just developing a fear of heights as I age but, in any case, I came back down shortly after taking a few photos/videos. I was at the base of the tree for at least 20 minutes as everyone else enjoyed the treetop views. My temptation to explore the forest area below the tower was squelched by the memory of the fire ants crawling all over me. Without Jose leading me, who knows what kind of trouble I could have gotten myself into :-).

Video: Visiting Giant Kapok Tree (click on photo)


Highlight: Macaw Clay Lick

On the sixth day of the tour we arose early (as usual) in order to visit the Tambo Blanquillo clay lick. A clay lick is a place, often on a river bank, where birds and other jungle animals come to eat the dirt/clay. We had already seen one of these along the Manu River where hundreds of blue-headed parrots swarmed along the river bank to peck at the clay. Blanquillo Clay Lick is special because it attracts a large contingent of macaws, one of the most colorful members of the New World Parrot family.

For years, the generally accepted explanation for why the birds ingest this clay has been to neutralize the toxicity of some of the fruits and seeds they eat. More recently, researchers at the Tambopata Macaw Project have been making the case that it is the sodium (salt) content of the clay that the parrots are after. Whatever the reason, the behavior brings large numbers of birds to these locations, creating an important social environment for the birds and a wonderful viewing opportunity for us.

Macaws on Clay Lick

The Blanquillo clay lick consists of about 100 meters of exposed riverbank along a spur of the Madre de Dios River. A large observation platform/blind, that can support up to 90 people, has been erected about 50 meters across from the clay lick, providing a wonderful place to view/photograph the birds. Viewing seats face a counter that serves as a platform for your camera and table for your breakfast: our cook brought along crepes, coffee, tea, fruits, etc. and it seemed a bit decadent to enjoy such comfort in such a remote location (but I enjoyed it anyway :-)).

Guests are asked to arrive at the blind early so that our coming and going doesn’t scare the birds away. We had an early (5:30am) breakfast and then took a ten-minute boat ride and twenty-minute hike to reach the platform by about 6:30am. We were hoping for good weather because we were told the activity comes to a halt during rain. It turned out to be an overcast day but without rain so we were very lucky.

When we reached the blind, the clay banks still awaited the arrival of the birds and we enjoyed our crepes and coffee while scanning the trees and jungle behind the river for signs of life. A few monkeys in the trees and a small caiman in the river provided early viewing excitement. Soon, a few macaws arrived and lighted on the fronds of large palm trees above the clay lick. An occasional squawk came from the macaws but none seemed ready to attack the clay lick. Slowly, more and more macaws arrived and settled in the trees: squawks became more common but still none seemed inclined to go after the clay. I asked Jose about why they seemed hesitant and he explained that the clay was only one reason they congregate here: it is also an important social environment for the birds as families and brooding pairs come together and new pairs are formed in this social setting.

What makes macaws distinguishable as a subset of the parrot family is their relatively bare faces (covered with tiny feathers), beautiful rings of color around their eyes, and their long, graceful tails. They are generally larger than many parrots but there are smaller macaws too. All have a powerful beak that is capable of breaking open very hard nuts. They are also very intelligent, typically mate for life, and are threatened both by the disappearance of their habitat and the illegal pet industry trade.

As the morning progressed, more and more birds arrived. Most were red-and-green macaws but there were a few scarlet macaws. A couple of hawks circling high above had the birds on edge. Once or twice a hawk soared near the tree tops and the macaws flew away, squawking loudly. Slowly, they returned to the area. A couple of hours after we arrived, the first brave macaw descended to nibble at the clay, hanging from a dangling branch. Over time, more and more macaws joined in the clay dining, their beautiful plumage providing a striking contrast to the light brown clay wall and their loud squawking reaching a crescendo. I took many minutes of video and lots of still photos. It was one of the times I wished I had had a telephoto lens because the range was just beyond the optical zoom capability of my Canon Powershot S3. Despite the limitations of my camera however, I did get some great footage and the time spent watching these macaws is something I’ll never forget.

Video: Visiting the Macaw Clay Lick

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