Journey to Manu National Park, Peru
Updated: Nov 5, 2019
Turns out watching hummingbirds squabble over feeders is a nice distraction while recovering from an unpleasant stomach bug – we were thoroughly entertained while comfortably accommodated at the Sachatamia Lodge near Mindo, Ecuador, for two nights. Then the journey to Manu National Park, Peru, began. We flew Quito to Lima, with one night near the airport, then Lima to Cusco.
At 3,400 m above sea level, Cusco has amazing mountain views and narrow winding cobbled paths. Our first job for our 2 days in Cusco was to find an influenza vaccine. Such tasks ordinarily fall off my priority list, but are a requirement to visit the Cocha Cashu Biological Station (or, Estacion Biologica Cocha Cashu, EBCC) within Manu NP. There are uncontacted people nearby the Biological Station, so the vaccine is to prevent visitors from bringing disease to the uncontacted people. We navigated through Cusco on foot, becoming concerned that we first passed the city morgue, then more than ten funeral homes on the way. Was this the kind of clinic we wanted to visit? But when we finally found the clinic a helpful nurse ushered me into a small room, and along with a bunch of crying babies I received my vaccine with minimal fuss. The rest of our time in Cusco we devoted to making up for the calories I’d lost with my stomach bug (alpaca skewers, ceviche, BBQ chicken, quinoa soup, pisco sour, etc); stocking up on supplies (what else do we need for 6 weeks in the forest??) and exploring town.
Thursday 30th August we found our way to the EBCC head office in Cusco, where we met ornithologists Mariamercedes Antezana Aponte (or Maria for short, from Agrarian National University, Peru) and Seo Parra (from San Francisco State University), and loaded up the minivan.
The 8 hour journey from Cusco to Atalaya took us up over two ranges of the Andes and down a 3000 m descent into the wet tropical lowlands to almost sea level – but over 500 km inland. The road was so narrow and so windy (thank god for Kwells motion sickness pills, my saviour), with near-vertical cliffs either side, that passing oncoming traffic was heart-stoppingly terrifying, especially the trucks! Locals crowded around the spot where a car had recently gone over the cliff and rolled down a hundred metres. Our driver, Oscar, crossed himself and informed us that he was an excellent driver, so not to worry. Further on, we found plenty of crosses on the side of the road for others not so fortunate. I had to resist looking over the side. We wound through the grassy paramo for a few hours, and descended into cloud forest. The mountains were so steep and the forest thick and intact – we had entered Manu National Park. Our driver pointed out a brilliant male Cock-of-the-Rock beside the road – and then another one further on at a creek crossing. Wow! We found a group stopped, blocking the road, watching a troupe of woolly monkeys. Definitely worth blocking the road for! Seo and Eric chewed coca leaves on the drive, but Eric couldn’t decide whether it was returning to a ‘sensible’ elevation, or the coca leaves, that rendered his mind sharper than it had been for the previous week. We made it to Atalaya on dusk, and were joined by a group of Peruvian students who were making their way to EBCC at the same time as us. We saw sand-coloured nighthawks flying up and down the river hawking insects, and were entertained by the russet-tailed oropendolas nesting in the trees beside the river.
The next day, Maria, Seo, Eric and I, and the boat crew, loaded up a boat with our gear and the supplies we’d brought with us from Cusco, and set off at 8 am. The river Alto Madre de Dios flowed fast and was up to 400 m wide. We saw herons: fasciated tiger-herons, rufescent tiger-herons, lots of cocoi herons, plus snowy and great egrets. We saw scarlet macaws screeching overhead, white-winged swallows darting off the exposed ends of logs, and brief glimpse of purplish jay and spinx’s guan. Seo asked the boat driver to stop at some thermal hot springs, and I was impressed to see that here in the middle of the forest there was a little set up with bamboo-constructed changing rooms and rocky walls to the springs. We wandered through the forest for a bit first, where we found paradise tanagers and saddle-backed tamarins. Continuing along the river, Maria mentioned “I’ve never seen a king vulture”, which must have summoned them in, and we got great views of king vultures circling above the riparian trees. By mid-afternoon we made it to the small village of Boca Manu, near the junction of Alto Madre de Dios and Manu River. We were ushered to the clinic for our mandatory health checks for entering the Biological Station: influenza vaccine? Height, weight, temperature, any symptoms?? Some members of our group were given additional tests for HIV and syphilis … but not all of us … were they the dodgy looking ones?? Much speculation ensued while we enjoyed a cold drink watching the sunset across the river.
We were warned that the boat journey from Boca Manu to our destination of the EBCC could take up to 12 hours, so the following day we loaded up to set off the Manu River by 6 am. While the rivers looked superficially similar (to my untrained eyes), we began to see different birds: black skimmers! Amazing views of the black skimmers on the sandy beaches, as well as yellow-billed and strong-billed terns catching fish in the river. Just before 8 am we reached the National Park office, so we pulled in for the permit check and a friendly introductory video. Multiple groups of horned screamers (crazy bird, crazy name!) waddled up the beaches, and we began to see river turtles and the first caiman (Caiman crocodilus) for the trip. We saw a flock of wood storks circling above, with a king vulture trying to blend in. It was a long boat trip, and I had been unhelpfully kept awake by roosters through the night (really, not a fan). Despite the views, I began to drift off, only to be woken by a startling thud as we hit the sand. Having our Australian-style fondness for bare feet, Eric and I were ready to hop over the side to help push the boat to deeper water. But the water got deep pretty quickly and Eric was in to his waist before he made it back over the side – lucky it was a warm day! The others drifted off but I woke them when we passed Orinoco geese. We pulled in to the sandy beach of Cocha Cashu by mid-afternoon, jumping over the side of the boat and burning our bare feet. Immediately we were smashed by sand flies, so grabbed some bags and headed into the forest. 60 m in and we were greeted by a troupe of spider monkeys. A happy omen! We were welcomed by the station manager but struggled to hear the official tour of the station with Ameiva ameiva skittering around. We’ve been here for 5 days now, and I see Eric occasionally when he comes in for a few hours sleep and occasionally a meal (and I quote: “I need photographs of Ceratophrys cornuta more than I need dinner!”). The internet here is by booking only and is slooooow, so it’s hard to be online, but I will blog soon about the cool critters we’ve seen (birds, monkeys, lizards, 5 species of snake and I’ve lost count of the frogs …). In the meantime I will enjoy being disconnected for awhile!
The article above has been kindly provided with permission by Dr. April Reside, Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the Centre for Biodiversity and Conservation Science at the University of Queensland. Please check out her blog Conservation on the Fly for more fascinating entries: