Andes to the Amazon: a Journey That is All About the Journey

Posted by on June 6th, 2019

I really enjoy looking back at different trips I’ve planned for Vaya travelers. It’s amazing to see how some destinations have changed over the years, while others have remained largely untouched. For me, an incredible way to experience a place that has had minimal outside influence is on an overland trip to the Amazon. This part of the world is accessed by driving up over the Andes and then taking a boat down the Madre de Dios River into the Amazon basin.

On the river
On the river

The journey from the Andes to the Amazon invokes the best of travel for me, combining world renowned birding and wildlife opportunities – and yes, even if you aren’t an ornithologist, you will still appreciate these feathered friends – remote eco-lodges, ever-changing landscapes, and the feeling that comes with being in a truly remote and unique ecosystem.

So, here’s to one of my favorite trips, and a bit of what makes it special:

Traveling from Cusco, going up over the Andes and down into the Amazon Basin, is one of the most epic ways one can visit the Amazon.  The journey is all-encompassing, allowing you to immerse yourself in several different ecosystems as you travel up into the mountains (going up from a starting point of 11,200 feet is saying something!) before descending into the Amazon basin over the next two days. 

Cock of the Rock bird
Cock of the Rock bird

Your drive starts by ascending into the altiplano, a truly rugged and harsh environment. From there, descend into the dense vegetation of the Manu Cloud Forest, an area comprising magnificent waterfalls and steep forested mountains, funneling all the water from the high Andes down into tributaries of the Amazon rainforest below. The dirt road winds its way down from the mountain peaks, passing by small towns where the smartphones have no use and the air remains crisp and clear.  It takes you past rural farms and small coca plantations, the leaves from which make their way into your welcome tea at Cusco’s luxury hotels.

In the late afternoon you’ll arrive to Cock of the Rock Lodge, located just above 5,000 ft and named after Peru’s national bird.  You’re now square in the middle of an immense cloud forest, where water is plentiful and nightly reading is done by candlelight; a far cry from both the desolate grasslands of the Altiplano and the bustle of Cusco.    

Reading by candlelight

In the morning it’s time to continue your journey into the Amazon, but not without a visit by local monkeys as you eat breakfast in the open-air dining room, or before spending time at one of the world’s best blinds for viewing the courting antics of the rare Cock of the Rock bird.

As you descend further into the Amazon basin, you’ll feel the temperatures rise and the landscape change.  By noon you arrive to the small town of Atalaya, where it’s time to trade in the car for a wooden canoe with an outboard motor. (Actually, make that two outboard motors, one in the water and one sitting in the front seat, because you never know!) As you push off and start your boat journey down the Alto Madre de Dios, you get to take in the workings of river life.  As the highway of the jungle, the river is the conduit of trade, bringing goods to various towns up and down the river, dotting the shores in places I never dreamed existed.  Whether it’s a boat full of bananas, a lone fisherman, or a family on the banks, the images will stick with you. It’s an utterly different way of life.

Sighting wildlife on the river

Upon your mid-afternoon arrival to your next lodge, you will be greeted by a number of different bird species, including some extremely photogenic hummingbirds.  Most stays here are for one night, just a stopover, but when I was there, one guest had 2 weeks planned, and each day he awoke invigorated and ready to explore.  That’s how you know somebody enjoys their birds!

On Day 3, as the snaking Madre de Dios carries you into the Amazon, it’s hard to imagine that you’re still technically in transit to your final destination: the Manu Wildlife Center. You have now gone from the high Andes into a lush mountainous cloud forest and are now in the lowlands of the Amazon itself, devoid of major topographical contour and with an incredible expanse of rainforest ahead. You’ll pass by the mouth of the Manu River, which is the pathway to Manu National Park, a protected area covering over 6,600 square miles.  After approximately 6 hours of travel, you’ll arrive to the incredible Manu Wildlife Center, basecamp for the next 3 nights.  Fun fact: Manu contains the highest bird, mammal and plant diversity of any national park in the world.

Capuchin monkey

At the Manu Wildlife Center, I would classify the accommodation level as ‘rustic elegance.’ Each private bungalow has a private en suite bathroom, hot showers, and once again you get to read by the light of a candle. The main lodge serves as the dining hall, bar, lounge, conference room, battery charging station, etc.  It’s essentially command center for your stay, and a great place to chat with fellow travelers as they return to share their different wildlife encounters.

Each stay here is unique, but among the possible highlight sightings are the Emperor Tamarin, spider monkeys, tapirs, macaws, toucans, tanagers, parrots, river otters, and many, many more species than can be named here.  And while wildlife viewing is unpredictable (exactly how it should be in nature!), your experience here will be all-encompassing and transformative. For this trip, it truly is about the journey – the destination just happens to be otherworldly as well.

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