The Manu National Biosphere Reserve is a 2 million hectare park located in the Amazon basin of Peru. A large percentage of the park is protected and inaccessible to visitors but the areas that are accessible provide arguably the best wildlife viewing possibilities in Peru and the chance to experience primary rainforest.
Access to Manu from Cusco is improving but is still limited. Some operators offer flights from Cusco to two different “airports” at Boca Manu and Salvacion which are no more than a cleared strip of grass and a thatched hut. Most visitors travel by vehicle and boat into Manu from Cusco, which is how I made this journey recently. The road from Cusco is slow, windy, and bumpy and during certain parts of the year is washed out from the heavy rains (December – April). Yet to travel by vehicle from the high Andes to the cloud forest to the Amazon basin, dropping a few hundred feet in elevation at every turn, allowed my travel mates and me to appreciate the incredible climactic diversity that exists within the borders of Peru and was well worth the long drive.
Our first stop was the Cock of the Rock Lodge located in the cloud forest and in the “cultural zone” of the Manu Reserve. In this area there are several lodges and a local population which mostly makes its living from banana and coca farming. We arrived after dark to the lodge and awoke the next morning before dawn to quietly take our places in the blind suspended in the trees (an area for viewing birds where we can see them but they can’t see us). The Cock of the Rock is Peru’s national bird and the males are known for their active courtship dance. We saw many males that morning but no females. Unlike the male birds we did not leave disappointed because we were able to appreciate the males’ brilliant orange-red plumage as they fluttered on branches just a few feet from us.
We continued our journey deeper into Manu and boarded a boat for 7 hours up the Alto Madre de Dios River, eventually turning on the Manu River and finally arriving at the Romero Lodge. Romero is one of a few lodges located in the reserved zone of Manu where visitors are only allowed to enter with certified operators and permits. The lodge has the fanciest bathrooms you’re likely to encounter in the rainforest and screened windows, but the rooms are basic with thatched walls that do not go all the way up to the ceiling, creating an open area at the top of the guest house that makes it easy to hear your neighbors. Our time at Romero was spent by taking early morning and night walks into the surrounding rainforest and taking dusk cruises out on the river. We spotted night monkeys during the day, many species of tropical birds including macaws and toucans, spiders of all shapes and sizes, brown howler monkeys, capybara, and tamarins. The wildlife of the Amazon is well suited to its environment making it hard to spot with the untrained eye, so a good guide, patience, and several days are required for the chance to experience those special sightings of well-camouflaged animals.
After Romero we journeyed back down the river to the Manu Learning Center which was a personal highlight of the trip. The Center hosts graduate and PhD students who are conducting research in the rainforest and also welcomes volunteers and tourists. During our welcome speech, the director showed us a 10 foot long Bushmaster snake skin, and then produced a 5 foot long, young Rainbow boa constrictor who was snapping at anyone brave enough to hold him and the most brightly colored tree frog I have ever seen. The director also showed us photographs taken by the infrared, motion-detector cameras that were strung up on the trees and jungle paths just outside of the lodge. We saw photos of jaguars, tapirs, anteaters, and a puma mother holding tails with her cub. The photos revealed the immense jungle life that we knew was present and located just a few feet from where we were sleeping, but is sometimes very hard to see. We later strapped on wellington boots and headlamps and trudged into a murky swamp in the dark looking for tree frogs. The Manu Learning Center is a comfortable but rustic option. The buildings have wide open windows without screens or glass, creating very little separation between you and the jungle, and guests use shared bathrooms.
Manu is certainly a more adventurous option than visiting a lodge in the more accessible Puerto Maldonado region (as featured in our sample itinerary of Machu Picchu and the Amazon), but if you are looking for a chance to encounter a pristine part of the Amazon, it can’t be beat in Peru.