Peru is a magical, amazing country with many hidden gems outside of Macchu Picchu. In fact, the Peruvian Amazon is arguably more fascinating, especially in the lesser explored Manu National Park. Manu is one of the largest protected areas in the world, home to 25,000 rare and endemic species, and recognized by UNESCO as both a World Heritage Site and Biosphere Reserve.
At the time of visiting about a dozen years ago, the only way to travel to Manu was by a rickety, small airplane flown by young members of the Peruvian Air Force. The flight was from Cusco airport, where tourists normally flock to go to Macchu Picchu, to the middle of the Amazon forest. A commercial airline used to fly this route, but it was busted by the U.S. CIA for cocaine trafficking and shut down.
So there we were – my friend Tahki, me and five other daring travelers, including two professional birdwatchers – with our teenage air force pilot in the dusty plane with a manual throttle. I sat next to a crate of bananas, where a large spider looked at me suspiciously.
Sput, sput, clang, clang and away we flew over the Andes Mountains. We could see every crack and crevice of the rugged terrain under the cloud line. The spider clung to a banana for dear life.
After an hour or so, the brown, dry landscape turned into giant broccoli. We were officially in the Amazon, where nothing but trees could be seen. I panicked as our teenage pilot signaled he was landing. There was no airport!
But the pilot indicated otherwise. If a clearing in the forest counts as an airport, then he was right. A thatched roof hut stood lonely on a grass strip with a bright red, green and blue macaw (parrot) tethered to a nearby pole. Thankfully, our landing was uneventful.
We were greeted by the macaw with his own version of “bienvenidos” and a strange, blue, turkey-like bird that hopped several feet in the air. He chased our suitcases as we rolled them across the grass clearing. A guide from our birdwatching lodge met us and navigated us through thick rainforest to the edge of a piranha-infested river. We travelled for two hours in a supped-up canoe with a motor to get to our destination.
“Where is the lodge?” I politely asked as we stopped in what appeared to be the middle of nowhere.
“Just behind those trees,” the guide said, pointing to a little dock where capuchin monkeys were playing.
Our lodge, founded by a British ornithologist, was in the thick of the Amazon with about 10 huts and a common, thatched-roof dining area. There was a rain-collecting tower that streamed water into the huts for running water and flushing toilets. Meals were made by candlelight and drinkable water was transported in large jugs weekly by boat.
The Amazon is about as humid as humid can get. Our huts, with little but screens as walls, allowed us to fully experience the hot, moist climate. Our sheets smelled like mildew in spite of attempts by staff to wash them. So we resorted to placing little bars of soap on our pillows to mask the odor for sleeping.
This little discomfort was well worth the experience. Each day brought an adventure as we discovered plants and animals that we had never seen before or even imagined. The cure for cancer is surely in Manu somewhere with its 40,000 plant species, including “walking trees” with external roots that physically move about 10 feet each year in the direction of the sun. This rainforest also features pink dolphins, giant otters, the giant anteater and armadillo, Brazilian tapir, marsh deer, a variety of sloths, neon blue and owl eye butterflies, 14 species of monkeys and 1,000 types of birds, including a clay wall with hundreds of colorful macaws like a massive Jackson Pollock painting. There are also elusive cats, including the Peruvian jaguar, ocelot and nocturnal puma. A capuchin monkey troop on the grounds of our lodge became our de facto pets for four days.
The puma is one of the three sacred Incan symbols of Peru, representing the earth (the condor symbolizes the sky and the snake the underground). He is hardly ever seen because he prefers nightlife. It’s possible a puma saw us one evening when we hiked with headlamps through the forest to sleep on a mosquito net-covered platform to observe a giant anteater. While that effort was a bust, dreams of what could be lurking in the dark sufficed. Without a guide, you would get lost in the Amazon within 100 feet. That’s how dense the forest is with plants of every shape and size.
Our last morning of wildlife observation was at the crack of dawn. We were cruising in the supped-up canoe when our guide whispered excitedly “It’s a puma! It’s a puma!” He practically fell out of the boat as he had never actually seen one in all of his years guiding in the Amazon.
There by the river’s edge was the elusive cat. I scrambled to get my camera and took a photo before I could even focus. Good thing as that puma dove back into the forest within seconds of spotting us. Only fuzzy ears in my photo prove his existence. But that sacred symbol – and Manu National Park – is in my heart forever. Sometimes facts are greater than fiction.