Travel Tips

Peru’s Wilder Side: Go Beyond Machu Picchu to the Manu Biosphere

Peru 2 SLR 210_cropThe mystical ruins of Machu Picchu are not the last undiscovered treasure in Peru. Lynn Langway reports from the Manu Biosphere Preserve, an unspoiled wilderness in the Southeastern Amazon basin that neither the Incas nor the Spanish ever conquered—and most travelers still miss.

The red howler monkeys had barely finished roaring at the dawn when our dugout canoe beached on the shore of the Madre de Dios River. Trooping silently along the jungle trail behind our guide we listened to the rising cacophony of cackles, whistles, and squawks. And then, climbing the stairs to a treetop pavilion, we witnessed the singular spectacle that had lured us to this remote place: brilliant red-and- green macaws by the score, swooping into view from every side, their wings flashing azure. Soon they were joined on the branches by a rainbow of parrots, all preening and squabbling and scanning for predators on the clay bank below.

By 7 a.m., the bravest began to descend to the dry riverbank: big macaws first, followed by dozens of small blue-headed parrots, who crammed into a crevice like commuters on a rush-hour train. By 7:30, my husband and I were enjoying breakfast with more than 200 magnificent birds. (We had the whole wheat toast and elderberry preserves; they had the mineral-packed clay—a natural antidote to toxins in their food.)

An hour later, the birds had flown. But we never ran out of fascinating wildlife to watch in this natural wonderland of 7,300 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey. UNESCO declared Manu a World Heritage Site in 1987, proclaiming that its biological diversity “exceeds that of any other place on earth.” In this varied terrain—ranging from Andean lakes to highland cloud forests to lowland jungle—you can find up to 1,000 species of birds, more than 1,300 butterflies, and 200 exotic mammals—including 13 species of monkeys.

But you will not see crowds; tourism officials estimate that only about 6,000 people visit in a year. The Peruvian government restricts access to the national park and surrounding preserves, reserving some sections for native tribes or scientific researchers, and requiring that tourists come with a licensed tour operator and guide (Map).

Manu is also tricky to reach. Although it lies only 53 miles northeast of Cusco as the macaw flies, there’s currently no local air service or direct roads; the trip by van and boat can take 7 hours or more

If you’d be happy to admire the rain forest from a distance, then a luxury boat trip along the Northern Amazon might be the way for you to go (see “Exploring Machu Picchu and Peruvian Amazon cruises.”) But if, like us, you seek the closest possible encounter with the sights and sounds of the jungle, then Manu is an ideal destination. With advice from the ecotourism experts at Tropical Nature Travel, we decided to go in September, during the South American spring, a dry season when wildlife is plentiful. We opted for a 6-day, 5-night BioTrip operated by InkaNatura, a leading outfitter; the list price, $1685 per person, included all meals, transport and guides; a 4 day package starts at $1385.

Our adventures began on the first day, as our van traveled down from Cusco, elevation 11,150 feet, to the Cock-of-the-Rock Lodge in the cloud forest. The scenic road was rugged, but our engaging guide, naturalist Fiorella Caleni, came up with enough intriguing stops to make the hours race by. With our four fellow travelers, we hiked up to eerie pre-Inca stone tombs and across alpine meadows where tiny flowers bloomed yellow and purple—with matching butterflies. We met three little girls herding alpaca, saw majestic eagles and hawks, and picnicked on crisp fried chicken and quinoa salad. (The return journey, by boat and cab to a commercial flight from Puerto Maldonado was shorter, but much less entertaining.)

During the trip, we stayed in three of InkaNatura’s eco-lodges, which contribute profits to Peru Verde, a national conservation group. All were clean and comfortable; think scout camp with hot showers (sometimes shared), cold drinks and tasty, healthy food. None had swimming pools or air conditioning, and two lacked electricity. But each had its charms. At Cock-of-the-Rock, named for Peru’s colorful national bird, the comical creatures with the tomato-red hoods hooted and danced right next door in their favorite stomping grounds. At the Amazonia Lodge, a former tea plantation, we gazed out at the hummingbirds from the gracious verandah and guzzled glasses of fresh-squeezed lemonade.

We spent three nights at our favorite spot, the Manu Wildlife Center, where the surroundings were downright chic: 22 thatched cottages perched in well-groomed gardens, each with artfully-draped mosquito netting and a stylish blue-tiled bathroom. At dusk, we’d gather in the soaring main hall built of driftwood mahogany and cedar, where the bartender wore a miner’s headlamp. We mingled with guests of all ages from Brazil, England, Germany, and various parts of the U.S., swapping photos and stories by candlelight (the lodge turns the generator on for about two hours before lunch and dinner, to power up cameras, laptops–and cocktail blenders, of course.) Occasionally Vanessa, a young tapir who was raised by humans, would lumber out of the jungle, seeking admiration and apple slices.

Our most memorable moments occurred just after sunrise, before the heat of the day clamped down (midday temperatures hit the 90’s while we were there, falling to the mid-70s at night.) On our last foray, the boatman poled our catamaran into Colcha Blanca, an oxbow lake formed by shifting river flows, taking us deep into another world.

Strange birds we’d never seen before struck up a jungle symphony: the punk-crested hoatzins panting loudly, the horned screamers barking like seals, the toucans squawking. Suddenly, the surface of the water was broken by seven sleek figures, undulating in unison like synchronized swimmers. With a gasp, we realized they were a family of giant otters, endangered mammals up to 6 feet long with ferocious teeth and fierce, ursine faces.

For about 10 intense minutes, we watched them snatch and devour red-bellied piranha from the lake. Then, just as the otters swam out of sight, along came a carnival of monkeys—-40 or so bright-faced squirrel monkeys, brown capuchins, shaggy red howlers—- capering and crashing through the tree branches overhead. It was raining monkeys; Steven Spielberg couldn’t have come up with a more fitting finale.

 What do you think about Lynn’s wildlife adventures? Tell Lynn and Peter about your exotic explorations in the comment section below.

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Text and Photos by Lynn Langway for Lynn Langway is an award-winning editor, writer and journalism teacher. Visit Lynn on the Web at