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Manu – The Journey

September 22, 2012

After returning to Cusco from Ollantaytambo we headed into town for our pre-trip meeting.  A few days earlier we had arranged an 8 day trip to the Manu Reserved Zone with the tour company, ‘Manu Ecological Adventures’.

When we got to the briefing we realised that there were only two other people in our group, 2 Germans called Ulf and Sven.  Our guide was a personable Peruvian guy from Cusco named Juan Carlos, who spoke very good English.

We quickly discovered that the USD 650 per head (for cash) that we’d paid was something of a bargain as the others had paid USD100 more per person, having gone through a third party booking agent. This was significantly less than the other companies that we visited, the most expensive of which was USD 1200.  Some of the comments on Trip Advisor were not overly complimentary of Manu Ecological Adventures so we were slightly concerned (the area reviews were most critical of was the transport).

We were told that we would be picked up at our campground at 6.30am the next morning. Actually the pick up was early at 6.15am and we were very pleased to see that the car was a new Hyundai 9 seater mini-van.

This comfortably seated all of us (4 tourists, a guide, a driver and the cook) with room for our luggage inside and a whole pile of food for the week on the roof. The aim on Day 1 was to get to a lodge in the cloudforest which was 8 or so hours drive.

After 40 minutes we stopped for breakfast at the town of Pisac and found a really good café on the main plaza called The Blue Llama which served delicious Hot Chocolate.   A well as it’s ruins, Pisac is famous for its Sunday market, which was just setting up for the day.

Then it was back in the car for another hour before we had a very quick stop at the highest point of the trip with a view of the highest mountain in the region, Ausangate. Another 2 hours down the road we stopped at the town of Paucartambo to stretch our legs, visit the shops and do a bit of sight-seeing.

Paucartambo is a small but important town, famous for the riotous annual party that is the Fiesta de la Virgen de Carmen. At this festival a cast of characters representing different groups of people from Peru are employed and there are statues of these in the central square.  There is also a beautiful old colonial bridge which was apparently built to ensure the safe supply of Coca leaves to the King of Spain after one rather large delivery was lost down the river!

Our next stop in the journey was at the entrance to Manu Park which is at the top of a pass leading down into the jungle. We stopped here for lunch and a view of the unusually cloud-free Cloudforest. This is the beginning of the Cultural Zone of Manu where people live and hunting and fishing is allowed. The Reserved zone where we were headed is a protected area of rain forest with no inhabitants.  There is a third Zone, the protected zone, where tourists are not allowed and this is by far the largest part of the park, populated by uncontacted natives.

Another two hours of driving and we were within shouting distance of our cloudforest lodge so Juan Carlos decided that we should get out and walk in order to see what wildlife was around.

We walked for around two hours and saw several species of birds. The most surprising of which were three Quetzals in the open just at the side of the road. Wow !

Just before reaching the lodge we stopped off at a Hide next to a Cock of the Rock Lek. I was not expecting much as the last time we visited a Lek in Ecuador we barely saw anything.   However this time there were around 15 male Cocks in full mating fury which was amazing.

The lodge was just around the corner, and although rustic, was perfectly acceptable. The rooms had mosquito nets and it was surprisingly and comfortably cool overnight. The lodge was called Orquideas de San Pedro and was at 1349m.

The next morning we kicked off with a walk along the cloudforest road to spot birds. We saw Orropendulus next to their hanging nests and also a Crested Eagle and Roadside hawk.

After 1.5 hours the car picked us up and we continued to head down the road stopping off at the town of Patria to buy some freshly baked bread. In Patria there were big bags of coca leaves for sale, much cheaper than in the mountains as the police search trucks on the road to Cusco. Transporting large quantites is illegal but the only punishment is confiscation.

Our destination was Pilcapata where we would white water raft the rest of the way.

When we arrived there was no sign of the Rafting guide so Juan Carlos seemingly picked 4 youths of the street who agreed to raft with us. After blowing up the raft where we all had to take turns pumping we launched into the river. The water was relatively calm (Grade 2 with one Grade 3 rapid) and we progressed down the Koshnipata River which grew in size when it joined the Alto Madre de Dios river.

We reached a large rock protruding into the river. The “guides” climbed out and showed us that you could jump of the top (about 6m) and I couldn’t resist giving it a go. The water definitely cooled me down.

The end of our rafting experience was the port town of Atalaya which is the end of the road. Here we boarded a powered canoe for a 30 minute trip down to our residence for the night, Erika Lodge (489m). Erika Lodge is the final destination of those doing the shorter 4 day trip.

As soon as we arrived at Erika Lodge we were marched pretty quickly (due to fading light) through the jungle for our second adventure activity of the day, zip-lining and rapelling through the forest, both of which were good fun and felt very safe.

Erika lodge was a little more comfortable that the Cloudforest Lodge with a lovely shaded hammock area overlooking the river.  Though there were one or two more insects around to share the bathrooms with as we came closer to the jungle!

Our journey was by no means finished and the next day we boarded the Canoe again (which was surprisingly comfortable) and headed down the river.  You can also spot quite a lot of wildlife from the river so despite being in the canoe all day the journey was actually OK.  We stopped briefly at the village of Diamonte so the cook could have 10 minutes with her family and then turned off the Alto Madre de Dios River, where we had been heading downstream, and onto the Manu River, where we had to move upstream.

We were now entering the Reserved area and the landscape changed with the Rainforest becoming much thicker, the water warmer and more birds and animals appearing.

We saw a Capybara wallowing in mud by the river, caiman, an otter and some Red Howler monkeys from the boat as well as countless birds.

As night was falling we should have arrived at the Manu lodge but the river was very low as it hadn’t rained for over a week meaning that we had to go very slowly.  There were also a lot of dead trees in the river where the river had changed its course and so it became increasingly difficult to navigate as the light faded.  The two boatmen did a fantastic job of getting us to our destination safely and calmly.

We eventually arrived at the Sajino Safari Campsite in the Manu Reserved Zone at around 8.30pm after 13 hours on the river.

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